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Dance is her passion, but not her future

North Stonington — Each weekday when school is over, Wheeler High School senior Karyna Fowler quickly leaves and makes the drive to East Lyme.

That's where she will spend as many as several hours dancing with the Eastern Connecticut Ballet, where she is enrolled in the pre-professional program. Then she drives home and does homework. She has studied dance since she was 3 and appeared in many of the ballet company's performances, such as "The Nutcracker" and "Ballerina Swan" at The Garde Arts Center in New London. It's a year-round pursuit that also involves dancing on Saturdays and in the summer.

"People don't know a lot about my out-of-school life and where I go after," she said. "One of my friends told me I'm the busiest person she knows."

After graduation, though, Fowler will not be pursuing a career as a professional dancer, as that would require her to forgo college and join a professional dance company.

Instead, she will be heading off to Bucknell College, to pursue a new passion: a degree in psychology, an interest in part sparked by the struggles she saw fellow students and children having during the virtual learning and isolation of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

While she will minor in dance at Bucknell and received a scholarship to do so, Fowler said dance was never a career she had in mind.

"If a joined a ballet company, I would not get a degree. The career of a professional dancer ends in their 30s. Then you have to get a degree and a career," she said.

"Dance would be such a tough career. There are so few jobs and they are not very high paying," she said. "It's not just my one passion." 

In addition to dance and psychology, she rekindled another passion at Wheeler: art — specifically painting portraits of her friends.

Fowler, 18,  the daughter of Larae and Ken Fowler of North Stonington, said she always enjoyed art as a child and painted murals at home. But her interest in art fizzled as she got involved with dance. That was until she took an Advanced Placement art class at Wheeler as a junior. Now she is president of the school's chapter of the Art Honor Society.

"I like having something tangible at the end," she said of the process of creating a painting. "It's something you make out of nothing." 

It was another AP course, this one in psychology, that she took as a junior that got her interested in the field, specifically behavioral psychology and working with children. She said working at an after-school program with children at St. Michael School in Pawcatuck, which she attended until seventh grade, also got her interested in psychology. 

Lise Reardon, the founder and executive director of Eastern Connecticut Ballet, said the company's program is a rigorous one that  requires a huge commitment.

"Karyna's dancing many, many hours a week and taking a rigorous academic load. We like to call our dancers scholar-artists. They learn very early how to juggle and organize their time. There are no shortcuts," she said. "It's a pretty big sacrifice."

"She has tremendous dedication and her performances are lovely," Reardon added. "And she's made huge progress over the year. We'll miss her."

During the height of the pandemic, Fowler chose to study virtually instead of the hybrid model, in which students attended in-person classes some days and virtually on others. Fowler said the virtual model was best because it fit her dance schedule.

But she said it was hard not seeing her friends, so she returned when the school resumed full in-person classes. 

"I'm sad I missed out on a lot of seeing my friends but this year has been good," she said of the school's return to normalcy. "It's been a good four years here. I'm glad I went to this high school."

j.wojtas@theday.com

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