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January 7, 2016

Dancer, Singer and Student Polly Baird Receives SUNY Empire’s Richard Porter Leach Fellowship

Polly Baird, Richard Porter Leach Fellowship Recipient 2015-16It took a confluence of opportunity and timing (some might say destiny) before Polly Baird, then 18, joined the ballet chorus of the Broadway hit, “Phantom of the Opera” in 2003. Baird is the daughter of a professional dancer who was able to shepherd her through enrollments at the Professional Children’s School in New York and a spot at the School of American Ballet, where she was one of only 17 girls accepted from 250 who auditioned.

Now enrolled at SUNY Empire State College, Baird is the most recent recipient of the college’s Richard Porter Leach Fellowship, which will cover her tuition and fees and provide up to $200 for books and supplies per term, as long as she remains in good academic standing. She began her college career at Columbia University five years ago, but found her professional schedule just did not fit a traditional higher education setting.

The ability to learn online, face to face and through a combination both at SUNY Empire enables her to work toward degree completion as she advances her career as a professional dancer.

Baird is earning her degree in The Arts.

The Richard Porter Leach Fellowship is awarded to established artists working toward an undergraduate degree at SUNY Empire. To be considered, students must fill out an application, submit essays and professional letters of recommendation and other supporting materials.

Baird traces her interest in dance to seeing a performance of “Cats” on Broadway when she was five years old. She was so entranced that she would apply cat makeup and perform parts of the show for her family.

She went on to dance children’s roles in the American Ballet Company’s productions of The Nutcracker, Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella and other ballets. Although she never imagined that Broadway would be her destination, the opportunity to appear in “Phantom” was offered to Baird three times (her youth, her parents’ reluctance to have her on the road for extended periods of time, as well as some prior commitments, prevented her from accepting a role in the show before). Finally, the circumstances were right for her to accept the role.

She completed high school while performing in the Broadway show. An accomplished singer, she also became the understudy for the primary ballerina role, Meg Giry, who sings a solo during the performance. She later took over that part. Baird also has rounded out her repertoire by studying jazz, tap, Irish step-dancing and acting.

After performing several years on Broadway, Baird went on tour with the “Radio City Spectacular,” as well as the “Phantom” national tour in Toronto. “’Phantom’ has fulfilled my wildest dreams and I am honored to have made a career fulfilling my deepest passions,” she said. She returned to the show as the dance captain –  a management position working closely with the choreographers and dancers to ensure that the choreographer’s vision is translated to stage.

Dance Therapy

After seeing a television program about Angels on a Leash, a nonprofit that brings programs using specially trained human and dog teams to hospitals, hospice and other health-care settings, Baird became inspired to train her own English Cocker Spaniel, Lexie, to become a therapy dog. One of the most powerful experiences she related to the Richard Porter Leach Fellowship Committee was being part of a conversation with a young dying girl from Honduras, whose parents were unable to be with her in the hospital as she neared the end of life. When the young girl, who seemed apathetic, took one look at Lexie, her face lit up. She and Baird spoke of their love for dogs as Lexie relaxed comfortably on the girl’s bed. When a machine began beeping, Baird excused herself to get a doctor. She later learned that she had been part of the young girl’s final moments, which had been so brightened by the presence of her dog.

Since that gut-wrenching experience, Baird knew that she wanted not only to continue her career as a professional dancer, but to integrate four-legged creatures into the mix by establishing a school that combines dance with animal therapy. “It is my dream to one day open a dance school where every child, regardless of physical or mental ability, can be exposed to the freedom of movement. It goes without saying that I will always have dogs roaming the hallways of my dance facility, for it has become undeniably clear to me the great impact these wonderful creatures can have on young ones.”

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