Q&A with Dave Jensen, Summer Residence Director

We know your job is crazy, so how would you describe it in the “30-second elevator pitch”? 

My stock description is “I run the dorm for PNB’s 5-week summer intensive program for about 200 teenage advanced ballet students from all over the world.” 

Okay, now give us a bit more detail: What exactly do you do?? 

I’m in charge of the planning, hiring, training, and day-to-day operations of the summer residence program – basically all aspects of student life except when they’re in the studio. As the national Audition Tour gets underway in January, I get started with recruiting counselors for our team of counselors, which is 12 to 15 people, depending on student numbers, initiating contract negotiations with Seattle Pacific University, and reserving our fleet of leased school buses and vans. In February and March, I’m interviewing counselor candidates, making hiring decisions, and beginning to plan the summer activities that require early reservations: chartering a boat from Argosy Cruises; Seattle Storm, Mariners, and Sounders games; shows at the Paramount, 5th Avenue, Moore, and Seattle Rep; our annual Wild Waves trip; and the DJ for our Dorm Dance. 

And how did you get this job? 

In 1995, I was in my first career in retail management and treated myself to a summer off before starting a new position. I found myself very bored after a couple of weeks, and my good friend Kermit Helsel, who was the longtime PNB Summer Dorm chef, offered to hire me as a kitchen helper so we could hang out together. I renewed my food handler’s permit and started the next day, just a few days after the program started. Then things took a life-changing turn when the Residence Director came to me and said, “Kermit said you’d be a great person to talk to about this; one of my counselors has mono and has to quit. Would you be interested in helping to chaperone some of our student activities in the evenings and on weekends?” I’d never worked with pre-teens or teens, but I said sure, I’d be happy to help. And to my surprise, I loved working with kids, which led to my re-thinking my retail management career, coming back for the next summer as a dorm counselor, going back to graduate school for a Master in Teaching, and then becoming a high-school and then a middle-school teacher. And along the way, after my second summer as a counselor, I was promoted to Residence Director. 

Tell us about your staff! (A lot of them are former dancers or students, right?) 

Yes, almost all of them are dancers – either former professionals or students, or professional dancers or dance teachers on their summer layoff. And for the last 15 years or so, many of them have been our own former PNB Summer Dorm students. 

How many birthday cakes do the students go through every summer?  

Generally, three sheet cakes per week, or 15 over the course of the summer. 

Without divulging names, what are a few of the more, oh, how shall we say…interesting stories you’ve collected over your years as Residence Director? 

There are so many over 27 years, but probably my favorite was the mom who called me in an absolute rage, demanding an explanation and an apology (and threatening to have my job) because I had allowed her daughter to make an appointment at a local hair salon and cut her waist-length hair to shoulder-length. When I offered my opinion that it was her daughter’s hair and she should definitely be allowed to cut it if she wanted to, Mom responded through angry tears, “IT’S MY HAIR TOO!” The daughter, by the way, was almost 16. 

Driving the dorm van to Tacoma to pick up a group of students who got on the wrong bus to come back from downtown was also memorable, as was the student who caused a panic by claiming his case of food poisoning could only have come from the campus dining hall, but later admitted he’d bought something from a food cart and lied because his parents, having paid PNB for room and board, had forbidden him to spend any of his money on food. I’ll also never forget the mom of a 12-year-old (whose daughter, years later, came back as a counselor), who was absolutely horrified by the fact that one of our two laundry rooms was co-ed.

Oh, and speaking of laundry, there was the boy who called the staff line from the studio and asked a counselor to bring his dance belt because he’d forgotten it. “Sure, where is it?” “Oh, it’s on the floor by my bed, inside my tights from yesterday.” And of course, there was the student who called the day after the program ended and wanted me to mail her the box of Cheer powdered laundry detergent she forgot to pack and could NOT understand why I tried to talk her out of spending $30 to ship a box of detergent she could buy for $5 at home. 

Best part of the job? 

The thank-yous, hugs, and cards from students at the end of Summer Course, telling me and my staff how much fun they had. 

Worst part of the job? 

Once every couple of years, a student makes a very poor choice such as stealing, drinking, or using drugs and is expelled from the program, which is just tremendously sad for everyone involved. Also, on the last night of Summer Course every year the students stay up all night enjoying one last night with their friends prior to our airport shuttles starting at 3:30 a.m., so we have to stay up with them. All-nighters do not get any easier with age. 

What did you do last year during the “no-dorm-stupid-pandemic” summer? 

I made a long list of home-improvement tasks and did exactly none of them. Instead, I connected with a pop-up charity called Helping Hands in Washington, delivering donated food and household goods to folks who couldn’t get out because of COVID. I discovered a need for volunteers to do longer drives, so I put almost 10,000 miles on my old Volvo making multiple trips as far north as Bellingham, south to Kelso and Goldendale, and east to Spokane. 

Do you have to get a special license to drive those big buses? 

For our 15-passenger vans, no, but for our 65- and 84-passenger buses you need a class B commercial driver’s license with passenger and air brake endorsements. Fortunately, I drove a school bus part-time during my first few quarters of graduate school, so I still had the necessary authorization. 

What are you currently reading for fun (not school)? 

After some great discussions about favorite authors with a couple of this summer’s counselors, I’m re-reading a collection of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short stories. 

What’s your favorite diner in Seattle (and vicinity)? 

I live in Bellevue and am a very loyal patron of Li’l Jon’s. It’s close to Tillicum Middle School, where I teach, and I often get breakfast there before (or dinner after) going to school on a weekend to write lesson plans and grade. In Seattle, I love the 5-Spot and was sad to see that it’s still in pandemic limbo. I really hope it re-opens. 

Favorite ballet? 

Hands-down favorite, Serenade. I also love most of the traditional story ballets in the PNB repertory, but I enjoy many of our newer works, too. I am REALLY looking forward to seeing Plot Point again because it made a huge impression on me when I saw the premiere. 

Favorite dorm-themed movie? 

Animal House. (Yes, I was a fraternity man.) 

Favorite dance-themed movie? 

It’s a tie between Billy Elliott and A Chorus Line. 

And is there a dance movie you cannot stand to watch one more time, but the dorm kids love it, so…you do? 

Center Stage. Fortunately, I usually have some paperwork to do so I don’t have to sit through it again. 

BONUS QUESTION: Cats or Dogs? 

I love both, but since I’m single, work long hours during the school year, and have this summer job requiring me to live in the dorm for six weeks, a dog would be impossible for me. So, I currently have a cat (and several terrific cat-sitters). 

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