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December grad ready to embark on new career
in nursing after decades of dancing
Jan. 17, 2014
For some, the transition from dancing on Broadway to nursing might seem hard to contemplate. For Dante Sciarra, who graduated from the Community College of Rhode Island with an associate degree in Nursing in December, it was more fluid. In fact, on some level, it might have even been expected.
“I have two sisters who are inspirations for me,” said Sciarra, who comes from a family of eight. “They are both alumni of CCRI’s nursing program and have been working in the field for more than 30 years. But how I got started with dancing was that my sister Becky was taking dance when she was 13 and I was 11, and she didn’t like it at all. So she ended up quitting, and I wound up taking her place.”
From the time that Sciarra stepped into his sister’s shoes and started dancing, he was hooked. His family was fully supportive of his passion, and he continued to take classes as well as trips into New York City during the summer with his instructor and classmates, where they would meet with professional choreographers and see Broadway shows. When he graduated from high school in 1982, he took a brief detour at CCRI to begin coursework for his associate degree in Fine Arts, but it wasn’t long before he found himself back in front of the bright lights in the big city, pounding the pavement and going to open calls, spinning toward his big break.
“At the time, the higher education path just wasn’t for me,” Sciarra recalled. “I don’t regret in any way shape or form the way I’ve taken my path, though.”
After two years of working various jobs and auditioning, Sciarra moved back to Rhode Island, where he worked for nine summers in productions at Theatre By the Sea in Matunuck. There, in the old barn, Sciarra said he “learned so much and made so many connections that are now big names in New York … Tony Award winners. I’m very fortunate to call them my friends and acquaintances,” he said.
As time went on, Sciarra was hitting his stride, spending his 20s teaching at local studios and colleges as well as treading the local boards. His next break came when he landed a role in “Pajama Game” at the Goodspeed Opera House in Connecticut, dancing Bob Fosse’s legendary “Steam Heat” number in the ensemble. While at Goodspeed, Sciarra then auditioned for and snagged a part in “Sunset Boulevard” back in New York. At 32, he was ready to move back to the city, and worked tirelessly as the only male swing for the entire male company – an understudy with nine roles to cover for 10 months.
Sciarra’s Broadway debut was not far behind; he landed a role in the first national tour of “Chicago” at an open call in 1996. “Getting a part in an open call is like winning the lottery,” said Sciarra, who added that he felt humbled by the experience of getting to work with so many high-caliber professionals who were still so approachable.
After a few years of working on Broadway, Sciarra started to think of his next steps. With any performance art, particularly dancing, he said, there is ultimately an expiration date: The body becomes tired, priorities change and living without the security of benefits and a regular paycheck can take a toll, even on a successful dancer and teacher like Sciarra. He knew that his next transition wasn’t too far away, and he began to zero in on what would become his next passion and second career: nursing.
“Nursing has been in the back of my mind forever,” he said, and he found the opportunity to write his next chapter when he moved back to Rhode Island to help care for his ailing mother in 2008. At 43, he was continuing to teach dance on the faculty of area colleges such as Brown and URI, as well as Dean College in Franklin, Mass., while taking his general education requirements at CCRI.
“I needed to keep the dancing outlet open for my soul,” he said. “The only thing I don’t miss is that desperation in looking for your next job. Everyone should live like that while they’re young enough to still do it, but I always tell my students they have to have a plan B. That’s why I am a huge advocate for education.”
Although the road to realizing his plan B was at times scary for Sciarra, he said that, once again, he relied on the unflagging support of his family and friends, as well as his partner, to keep him going. After passing the rigorous standards for admission, Sciarra began the Nursing program, where he said he was heartened and helped by some “top notch faculty.”
“Unlike a lot of other schools, there’s not a lot of handholding. You have to be very independent and very driven,” he said of the two-year program. “But the faculty here is wonderful.”
Although juggling his course schedule, his dance teaching obligations and his work as a CNA at Rhode Island Hospital could be challenging, Sciarra said that his desire to change people’s lives in whatever way he can kept him grounded and thriving in the profession.
“One of my favorite things to do as a performer was to make people laugh,” he said, “to bring a person joy. And with nursing, it’s exactly the same thing – giving joy and care. To be able to give someone hope and to communicate with them on that intimate level … it’s amazing how fulfilling it is for me.”
After graduating and putting in more time in the field, Sciarra said that he potentially wants to be a hospice nurse, specializing in end-of-life care for patients and their families. He recalled his mother, whom he held (and helped) in her passing moments with his two sisters, the inspiration for his nursing career.
“It was one of the most beautiful experiences I’ve ever had,” he said, recalling the bittersweet feeling of watching his mother leave this life, finally reaching peace at the end of her illness. “I’ve been fortunate enough to see that aura in the room, the change in energy. It’s an oddly beautiful feeling, knowing you were there to help assist the patients in letting go.”
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