Utah Valley University offers students a rare opportunity.
Utah might as well be named the nation’s ballroom state. The region has a strong ballroom presence in many K–12 classrooms, has top training studios and is home to many of the nation’s competitions, along with their titleholders. But there’s something else stirring the state’s ballroom fire: Utah Valley University (UVU) is the only place in the country where undergraduate students can actually major in ballroom dance.
Senior Emily Darby starts her school day at 6:40 am, training and rehearsing until, at times, 10 pm. “In ballroom, there’s no golden road set, because it doesn’t have the presence that ballet and modern dance have,” she says. “It’s not enough to just love it. You have to work hard, have a sense of adventure and be willing to take risks.”
That’s exactly how UVU ballroom artist in residence Scott Asbell felt when he began writing the Movement Studies—Ballroom bachelor of science degree over 12 years ago. He battled the school for seven years before it approved the curriculum in 2006. “Ballet and modern dance were very smart to get involved in the academic world early on,” says Asbell. “Ballroom had been missing an academic rigor that will give it permanence and growth.”
Asbell credits Utah’s interest in ballroom to the state’s highly active Mormon culture, beginning with Brigham Young, a Latter-day Saints movement leader and settler. “When he brought the Mormon pioneers across the U.S., dancing was a big part of their lifestyle to keep them entertained,” he says. “Ballroom is something that allowed, and still allows, couples to date and enjoy an activity together.” (Young eventually founded neighboring UVU competitor Brigham Young University, which offers a dance BA with a ballroom concentration.)
The UVU department of dance currently has 205 students—29 being ballroom majors. All students enter the department as pre-majors and after one year of core credits in various techniques and lectures, they audition for matriculation into specific programs. They are evaluated by faculty based on schoolwork, letter of intent and the skill level of the dance routines they present during review. Most ballroom majors are dancers from the region. Asbell explains that often, in the area of formation team dancing, prospective students from other parts of the country aren’t up to the level of ballroom technique that locals have been trained in.
Once a ballroom major, students are thrown into techniques of all dance disciplines, and seminars that reach beyond a basic dance education, including several liberal arts and science classes, courses in Laban and “current dance issues,” as well as ballroom-specific credits in pedagogy, marketing and costume design. A foundation in science and body education courses validates the bachelor of science status. (Many dance BA and BFA programs have a lighter academic course load and mirror a conservatory approach.) This was the only way the department was able to receive degree approval years back. “It was quite a controversy whether it should even be a degree,” says department chair Nichole Ortega. “The pioneers who put this program together were ahead of the curve.”
Majors and nonmajors can audition for the university’s four ballroom dance teams: bronze, silver, gold and touring. Gold and touring are competitive, and all teams perform in two department concerts a year. Participating dancers receive credit for these additional 14-hour rehearsal weeks, and students on any team are required to complete a minimum of three hours in technique class per week (though Asbell says that most push for six).
The teams give students several additional opportunities to edge their way into the international ballroom scene. Several students filmed work on High School Musical while at the program, and most recently, one team competed on “Dancing with the Stars” College Dance Championship and took home the Mirrorball Trophy. Most years, the touring troupe travels to England to participate in the Blackpool Dance Festival, one of the world’s most prestigious ballroom dance competitions. UVU has placed first in the amateur formation division four times.
Asbell plans to begin working on a formal study-abroad program in England, so students can spend up to eight weeks in the summer working with leading professionals in the country that founded many of ballroom’s styles. This program will culminate with the students participating in the Blackpool competition.
And it seems that UVU ballroom grads are achieving their goals. For those interested in pursuing graduate school, the program’s diverse training sets them up for an MFA in a more classical dance genre. Students who want to pursue medical school can use the BS aspect of the degree to their advantage because it qualifies as a premed foundation. Though graduates could continue to a professional competitive career, Asbell says most are interested in feeding back into the ballroom community: teaching at or opening up local studios, and directing competitive or recreational teams at other colleges.
Ortega says that ballroom majors are at the top of their class just as often as other students in the dance department: “These kids push themselves more than the average student because they want to be taken seriously.” Darby agrees. “I can’t focus on the fact that the dance community is not really accepting of ballroom,” she says. “Ballroom has the groundedness of modern, the isolations of jazz, the lines of ballet and so much partnering. I’m hoping that dancers will see this as a possibility to explore new territory.” DT
Photo: The UVU Tour Team dances an American-style waltz, by Steve Lundquist, courtesy of Utah Valley University