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Zachary Jeppsen commutes 36 hours a week for his love of dance.

Six days a week, six hours a day, the 17-year-old junior at The Chicago Academy for the Arts travels from his farm outside Whitewater, Wisconsin to the private school on the North Side of Chicago.

The commute begins with a 45-minute drive from Whitewater to a Metra train station in Harvard, Illinois; then a two-hour train ride into Ogilvie Transportation Center Downtown; and finally a 15-minute bus ride with other The Academy students to the school. On Saturdays when there is no Academy bus and Jeppsen is participating in the school’s Repertory Dance Company, he will sometimes walk 30 minutes to and from Ogilvie to the school.

The commute is worth it, Jeppsen said, because The Academy offers an elite dance program and a feeling of belonging like nowhere else.

“I feel so amazing that I get to go to a place like this,” Jeppsen said. “I see the community here, and it’s something I wanted to be a part of.”

Jeppsen has loved dancing since he was 4 years old. He spent almost a decade at The Dance Factory in Delavan, Wisconsin and, as a seventh-grader lived in a Winnipeg, Manitoba dorm room while dancing for the Royal Winnipeg Ballet.

“It’s just something I’ve always done and enjoyed doing,” Jeppsen, who would love to dance for the Joffrey Ballet after graduating from The Academy, said of dancing. “Even before I started taking classes, I would just dance around my house as a kid.”

Jeppsen visited The Academy while in middle school and decided to officially attend the school the summer before freshman year. And he is definitely not alone in terms of student commuters.

Just over half of the The Academy students live in Chicago, with 47 percent coming from the suburbs – and even out of state like Jeppsen. The Academy provides private bus pick-up and drop-off at Ogilvie and Union Station three times a day to accommodate the traveling students, many of whom Jeppsen sees on the train during stops closer to the city in suburban stops like Barrington and Palatine.

Randy Duncan, Chair of the Dance Department at The Academy, described Jeppsen as “a very determined individual and strives to be the best dancer/artist he can possibly be.”

“He realizes that there is no other school in the area which provides the kind of care, sensitivity, coaching and academic excellence that The Academy provides,” said Duncan, whose students frequently attend top-of-the-line arts schools like Juilliard.

The sacrifice comes with a cost. Time with his parents and three older brothers is scarce, and Jeppsen said the commute can take some getting used to. He is only home most days from 10 p.m.-5 a.m. – enough to sleep and maybe see some of his farm’s chickens and goats just before sunrise.

“At first, it was very hard for me to sit on the train for so long,” said Jeppsen, who sleeps, does homework or tries to make friends with the regular train travelers during his hours on the rails. “After a while, though, it just feels normal. And I have time to focus on whatever I’m working on.”

That includes a Jan. 20 Repertory Dance Company Senior-Choreographed Dance Concert at Athenaeum Theatre. The Repertory Dance Company passes down works from class to class to be performed professionally within the community.

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Those shows and other The Academy opportunities make Jeppsen feel at home in a safe place – even as he spends almost an entire work week for most people commuting.

“The Academy is a perfect place for me and others who didn’t fit in at the public schools,” Jeppsen said. “Students come here, and they immediately fit it.”

For more information on The Academy’s Dance Department, visit https://www.chicagoacademyforthearts.org/dance

Photos by Thomas Mohr Photography