The National Academy of Dance (1967-1987) | University of Illinois Archives
The National Academy of Dance (and later, the National Academy of Arts) was a residential conservatory of dance and music that operated in Urbana-Champaign, Illinois from 1972-1978 and again from 1982-1987. The Academy was the brainchild of University of Illinois English Professor Dr. Gilbert D. Wright. Although he was not a regular connoisseur of dance, Wright was inspired by a Royal Ballet School performance that he saw during a 1966 research trip to London, when he returned to the university he decided to develop a similar residential ballet conservatory in Illinois.
Wright began laying the groundwork for the National Academy of Dance in 1969 when he formed Illinois Foundation for the Dance and became a board member for the American Ballet Theater. In 1971, the Foundation launched an Extension Division to provide ballet training, soliciting teachers from current and retired faculty at the University of Illinois. Despite his initial plans to locate the school in the Chicago metropolitan area, the Academy ultimately opened in Urbana-Champaign, which was experiencing a cultural explosion during the late 1960s and early 1970s. At this time there were few institutions in America that provided quality ballet training for young dancers, and the new Urbana-Champaign residential dance academy generated great interest across the country. During the Academy's first auditions in the spring of 1972, nearly 250 students auditioned for entry into the school from major cities around the nation.
With a total of 63 students, the National Academy of Dance opened in the fall of 1972, functioning as a charter school that offered academic courses and a high school degree through the University of Illinois High School. In 1974, after two years of high enrollment, the Academy expanded by adding a music program to its curriculum. As a result the school changed its name to The National Academy of Arts (NAA) with the two performance disciplines designated within the school as the National Academy of Music (NAM) and National Academy of Dance (NAD). In addition to offering high school degrees with specializations in music and dance, the Academy later considered offering humanities degrees for students focusing on technical theater and production but this new academic concentration was never implemented.
In 1975, a company of student dancers formed an apprentice semi-professional dance company called the National Academy Ballet. A year later the company evolved into a professional company and changed its name to the National Ballet of Illinois (NBI) - a move that was considered by some Academy faculty and supporters to be controversial. Also beginning with the 1975-1976 school year NAA also offered a purely academic-only program as part of its curriculum for non-NAD and NAM students who enrolled in Academy.
After student enrollement peaked in 1977, funding problems for both the Academy and its professional company became a serious issue which eventually forced the closure of the school in 1978. As a result five properties owned by the Academy were sold at auction to cover its debt, and the Academy eventually was able to reopen in 1982. However, after five more years of shrinking student enrollment and growing financial commitments the Academy was closed again in 1987.
During the height of its activity, the National Academy of Arts maintained several buildings in the Urbana-Champaign area including their central facility, the Inman Hotel in downtown Champaign. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, 230 students graduated from the Academy and found careers in such venues as Broadway, at the River North Dance Theatre, the Ballet Tucson, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, and the Minnesota Symphony Orchestra. A reunion of past graduates of the Academy took place in Champaign, Illinois on July 17th and 18th, 2015.