Dance majors who supplement their degree with somatics certifications leave college with a built-in job.
For many dance parents, the idea of their sons and daughters majoring in dance is worrisome. They know their dancers are talented, but they also know that a dance career can be less than lucrative. They want reassurance that their children will be able to support themselves—at least until they get their big break.
A dancer’s senior year can be stressful. Not only is she juggling academics and dance, she’s also traveling to college auditions. “I was a little overwhelmed,” says Michaela Harrington, now a University of Arizona freshman double-majoring in dance and neuroscience. To help, her mother, Babette Belter, took on much of the college-trip planning. “My mom was a superwoman,” says Harrington.
With good advice from veteran parents and dancers, the senior year doesn’t have to be a pressure cooker. Here’s how your students can have a productive and (relatively) stress-free college audition tour.
How many schools should a dancer apply to?
Four or five is ideal; six is likely the maximum. “With five schools, I felt I had a good chance of getting into at least one,” says Harrington. One should be a safety school—a program a dancer feels confident she’ll get into.
What’s better, an on-campus audition or a satellite one?
On-site auditions have clear advantages. “You can look at the campus and the facilities, and you meet more faculty members than if you audition off campus,” says Nelly van Bommel of The Conservatory of Dance at Purchase College, SUNY. But sometimes it’s just not possible to attend an audition at the university. In fact, of the five schools Kate Gow auditioned for, her one satellite audition was The Boston Conservatory, where she now studies. It wasn’t until she later visited the campus, however, that she knew it was her top choice. “After watching a rehearsal and seeing how family-like it is here, there was no question,” she says.
How can a dancer keep so many different audition requirements straight?
“There’s nothing worse for us than to receive an essay or a photo that is not really meant for our school,” says van Bommel. But it’s a common mistake. Each program has different audition requirements: dress codes, technique classes, essays, photos, resumés, solos, interviews—so organization is key. Harrington and Belter created a spreadsheet outlining program details, audition elements and packing lists. “We tried to be as prepared as we could, because there are always going to be surprises,” says Belter.
Although a black leotard and tights were appropriate for most auditions, Gow brought other options: “I packed a change of clothes, just to ease my fears: black tights, a colored leotard, extra pink tights.”
How much time should be allotted for travel?
For long trips, avoid traveling on the day of the audition. Even for an afternoon audition, arriving the night before ensures that flight delays won’t be a problem and offers extra time to explore the campus or city. If a dancer must travel the day-of, plan to arrive at least two or three hours early to avoid any unnecessary stress.
What’s the best timeline for multiple auditions?
“If a student has the opportunity to audition early in the year, they should,” says van Bommel. Not only are adjudicators still fresh, they also have more spots to fill (though van Bommel notes that they’ll sometimes make room for students who are a perfect fit, even if they’ve filled their quota).
Spreading out auditions over the year can also make it easier on a dancer and her family. Many schools offer fall auditions, which are ideal for top-choice schools, because dancers will learn early on whether they’re in. Harrington set up her calendar with fall dates, though she did postpone one until the spring due to a minor injury—and her early planning allowed her that flexibility. One of Gow’s priorities was to never travel more than two weekends in a row. “It really helped in keeping my sanity,” she says.
To organize a tour itinerary, set up a calendar that includes school exam dates, performances and any other potentially stressful weeks. Then, schedule auditions around those, starting with top-choice schools.
Should dancers apply Early Decision?
Applying Early Decision means that if a student is accepted, she’s required to turn down all other schools, regardless of scholarship offers. If there’s a school that the dancer is dying to attend, regardless of cost, go for it. Many dancers (Harrington and Gow included) keep their options open until they’ve received all scholarship offers.
What’s the best way to help a dancer through the process?
“I think it just comes to super-meticulous advance planning, and trying to be as calm as possible to help keep them calm,” says Belter. “When we’re missing two days of school one week, and she has this exam and that exam, and she’s bringing homework on trips, I felt like my job was to not be stressed out. We’d find something fun to do to make good memories on the trips.” DT
Ashley Rivers is a Boston-based arts writer.
Money-Saving Travel Tips
• If driving, consider staying in a hotel just outside of the city for at least one night. Rates in a small town can be half as much as those in a destination city.
• Start building up air miles early with an airline-affiliated credit card.
• Pack favorite, nourishing breakfasts and snacks.
• Research a program exhaustively (watch YouTube Videos; try to catch a live-stream performance) to be positive it’s a contender before investing in a trip.
Photo courtesy of Purchase College
Over the past five years, pre-college summer intensives—a chance for high-schoolers to live out their college dance aspirations a few years early—have blossomed. “As students begin to conjure in their minds what a BFA experience might be like, this is a way for them and their parents to live out that imagined possibility,” says Donna Faye Burchfield, who directs the school of dance at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. The students’ time on campus introduces them to the dance styles they would study and the personality of that particular dance curriculum. “It’s also about students wanting to see if dance is what they want to do with their lives,” Burchfield adds.
For any student on the fence about a dance degree or looking to give a specific program a test run, there are several different kinds of pre-college intensives to try.
Putting the “Intense” in “Intensive”
Although these programs are called “summer intensives,” they are very different from an intensive you’d find at a local dance studio or ballet school. In a college setting, “intensive” essentially means that the program will simulate a conservatory BFA experience, with technique work (usually in ballet, modern and/or contemporary), dance-based academic study and composition and improvisation courses.
In particular, the improvisation and composition courses help dancers find the first hints of a unique voice in their work. According to Barbara Bashaw, who directs Rutgers University’s summer intensive, students may initially feel intimidated by these courses but emerge confident—and prepared for the improvisation portion of college auditions. “For some students, it opens up a whole area of dance that they didn’t realize existed,” she says.
As part of dance-based academic workshops, such as dance history, nutrition and conditioning, students begin to think—and talk—about dance in a new way. “They learn about how technical training connects with history, pedagogy, choreography, the world, and they start to build a bigger vision of what the field of dance is,” she says.
Building relationships with other dancers and mentors is often at the center of these programs. At Rutgers, which offers both five-day and two-week intensives, each high school student is matched with a graduate student who coaches them in class and has one-on-one college and career discussions.
In some cases, students may earn college credit for these courses. At the University of the Arts, students earn three dance elective credits for the three-week program, transferable to most colleges to meet dance, arts or physical education requirements.
Hot Town, Summer in the City
Some programs reach beyond the college experience to introduce students to the “real world” of dance in all its myriad forms, from company life to community outreach.
Barnard College’s Dance in the City program inducts high school juniors and seniors into New York City’s dance scene. This program gives students 10 days to explore dance locations, meet working artists and discuss current dance and cultural issues in a course called “The World of Dance: From Theory to Practice.” “We look at, how do other issues going on in the world take form in movement?” says program creator Sydnie Mosley. Students spend time in the studio, in morning technique class and an afternoon academic course, during which they translate the day’s studies into movement. “I wanted to show the different things you can do professionally with dance that’s not just being on the stage,” says Mosley. “I wanted to give students a taste of what it’s like to be a dancer in New York, right now.”
Boston University’s REACH Summer Apprenticeship Program gives dancers the chance to create and tour work. The five-week program, which offers partial and full scholarships, attracts students from diverse backgrounds—studio-trained dancers as well as those proficient in one particular style, like hip hop. Participants spend time on BU’s campus and get a feel for the discipline and hard work needed to perform academically and artistically at the college level.
“We get such a cross-section of dancers,” says Micki Taylor-Pinney, program coordinator. For the first three weeks, students take daily technique classes—often in genres new to them, like traditional Haitian, Chinese dance or krumping—and work with faculty to put together a 45-minute show (of both repertory and original material, created by the students). The final two weeks are devoted to touring the new piece throughout the Greater Boston community.
The main requirement is that students be willing to try everything. “It’s great for our teens to see the role that dance can play in their own lives—and to put it in a larger context,” says Taylor-Pinney. “They’re going out and realizing that this is much bigger than their own dance worlds.” DT
Ashley Rivers is a writer and dancer in Boston.
For more college-based summer dance experiences:
American Musical and Dramatic Academy amda.edu/high-school-summer-program
Barnard College barnard.edu/precollege
Boston Conservatory bostonconservatory.edu/summer-dance
Boston University bu.edu/fitrec/recreation/dance-program/reach-summer-apprenticeship-program
Columbia College Chicago colum.edu/academics/special-programs
DeSales University desales.edu/home/academics/divisions-departments/division-of-performing-arts/youth-programs
Drexel University drexel.edu/westphal/about/summerHighschoolProgram
The Juilliard School juilliard.edu/youth-adult-programs/summer-programs
Marymount Manhattan College mmm.edu/depart
Point Park University pointpark.edu/BusinessandCommunity/CommunityClasses
Rutgers University masongross.rutgers.edu/extension/summer-programs
University of California, Los Angeles summer.ucla.edu/institutes
University of Michigan music.umich.edu/special_programs/youth/mpulse/sdi.htm
University of North Carolina School of the Arts uncsa.edu/summersession/dance.htm
University of the Arts uarts.edu/academics/pre-college-programs
Photo by Jaqlin Medlock, courtesy of Rutgers University
Professional dancer Ida Saki heads back to school this fall.
When title-winning comp kid Ida Saki chose college over a professional career, some cautioned her that she would lose valuable career momentum. But Saki knew she’d made the right decision. Then, after two years as a dance major at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet—her dream company—offered her a contract. Though she had to put her degree on hold, she became a member of Cedar Lake for three years, until the company folded this past summer. Now, Saki has again surprised those keeping tabs on her career: This fall, she returns to NYU to finish her degree.
When I was graduating from high school, a lot of people told me not to go to college—that I should audition for companies right away. But I’ve always been really into academics, and I enjoy being in a classroom environment. I didn’t know what I wanted. Then Pam Pietro, a modern teacher at NYU, came to my performing arts high school to hold college auditions, and I fell in love with her class. That was when I decided to attend NYU, a decision I’ve never regretted.
There’s a sense of mentorship that you get in college that you don’t necessarily get if you’re just taking class around the city. Teachers at studios in New York have their own lives and careers, and if you’re lucky, they become a mentor. But when you’re at a university, that’s the teachers’ job. They’re thinking about you at night, trying to help you grow. You get a personal connection with the teachers that’s difficult to get anywhere else. And there’s a steady curriculum, and you just get to know the people who you’re dancing with so well. The people I danced with here at NYU became some of my closest friends in the city.
From Comp Queen to College Kid
As someone who grew up going to competitions, I definitely felt a shift in college from my high school training, but I never felt that I was missing anything. Because I was living in the city, if I got into a funk and thought, “I just need to get into a hip-hop or lyrical class and let go,” I could go to Peridance or Steps on Broadway or Broadway Dance Center. Because I was in NYC, I was doing a lot of side gigs. That’s how I got my connection with Cedar Lake.
Cedar Lake was a unique company because they really wanted to see the individual. And that’s what they ask for at NYU—cultivating the individual and your own uniqueness. I wasn’t used to that in my training in high school. High school was stricter—I wanted to do everything just like the choreographer. Dancing at NYU was the first moment that I actually let go of that and got to experience things, rather than trying to be something else.
It was a very difficult decision to leave college. Cedar Lake had always been my dream company, but I only had one more year of school left. I got advice from a ton of people, including teachers from NYU. Although some rooted for school, most of them reminded me that I could always go back to NYU, and who knew when the next contract opening would be? I was ultimately happy with my decision, and I’m very lucky to have received the best of both worlds. After two years of college, I came to Cedar Lake with a more mature approach, rather than a hyperperfectionist ideal. Now, I feel like I’m a step ahead in my career because of those years.
Why She Went Back
When Cedar Lake closed down, there was the question of what everyone was going to do next. I’ve always been a bit of a nerd—I need to constantly be learning something. And when I left NYU, I knew I wanted to finish at some point, after all the time and money I put into the program. It was just a matter of time and scheduling. So when the opportunity presented itself, it wasn’t even a question. Of course!
There was that fear of, “Am I taking a step back by going back to school?” But I had already made the decision to go back one day, and the break was probably the best thing that’s ever happened to me. I took that time to experience dance and figure out what I want in my career—I want to keep performing, and, ultimately, I’d like to teach at a university. Going back to school made me realize how much I enjoy the school environment. I’m coming into the year with a new approach and a completely different perspective—and more appreciation for my classes, teachers and the incredible environment they create. DT
Ashley Rivers is a Boston-based arts writer.
Photos by Sharen Bradford, courtesy of Saki
A dance science degree prepares students for advanced study in dance medicine.
When Andrea Alvarez graduated from high school, it seemed impossible for her to choose a college major. She’d grown up a ballet dancer but didn’t consider a dance degree. “I was going on the misconception that you can’t make a career out of dance,” she says. But once she arrived at Texas A&M as a general studies major, she found herself most often in the dance building. Texas A&M was then developing its dance science program, and Alvarez eventually realized this was where she belonged—taking science classes but applying everything to dance. In 2013, she became the school’s first student to graduate with a bachelor of science in kinesiology with a focus in dance science.
More than 20 dance science programs now exist throughout the country. Graduates go on to become physical therapists, dance therapists, orthopedic surgeons, nutritionists, athletic trainers for dance companies and even dance teachers and performers. Here, we answer five questions your students might have about this degree option.
What is a dance science degree?
It involves collaboration between a school’s dance and science departments, preparing students to enter graduate study and/or certification programs in physical therapy, dance therapy, dance science, Pilates or even medical school.
Schools label these degrees differently: At Texas A&M, it’s a BS in kinesiology with a concentration in dance science; at Elon University in North Carolina, it’s a BS in dance science; and at Goucher College in Maryland, students choose between a BA in dance with a focus on science (more dancing) and a BA in biological sciences with a concentration in dance science (more science).
Who gets this degree?
Though these programs draw dancers who want careers in dance medicine, they also attract dancers who want performance opportunities and intense academic study. These dancers may aspire to dance professionally, but they also want to prepare for a post-dance career.
“It kind of satisfies the parents—most of them have a knee-jerk reaction when their son or daughter wants to major in dance,” says Lauren Kearns, dance science coordinator at Elon. Andrew Vaca, dance chair at California State University, Long Beach, agrees: “Sometimes I get a sense that the only reason they’re allowing their child to audition for the program is because we have a dance science option.”
But students should know what they’re in for. Dance science majors generally take more theory and science classes each semester than dance majors, and if they want to perform, their schedules will be even tighter—students need a sense of independence and a certain level of academic achievement, says Vaca. “They are probably doing 5 to 10 more hours of homework every week than their friends who are BFA students,” he says.
Will I get to dance?
Absolutely—but the amount of dancing depends as much on the student’s choice as it does on the curriculum. “The reality is that students in the dance science option are probably not going to be able to take as many dance classes per semester as a BFA student,” says Vaca. “Some dance science majors are in technique class and a show every semester—and some struggle. I think it comes down to whether they have jobs off campus, and whether their schedules are freed up to be on campus all day and all night.”
Between technique class, rehearsals and choreographing her own work, Alvarez found herself dancing three to six hours a day. “It feels like I got a BFA and a BS all in one,” she says.
What kind of classes will I take?
At some schools, the first two years look like that of any other dance major’s—technique, nutrition and wellness, composition, dance history—along with a couple of extra science courses, like advanced biology and exercise science. These classes take place in the science department (with nondancers). Students also spend time in the dance studio studying Pilates and taking dance theory or kinesiology courses tailored to dance science majors.
Hands-on experience comes through class projects, assisting faculty members with research and interning with physical therapists or Pilates studios. “The opportunity to do research was one of the things that made me realize this was something I could do in the future,” says Alvarez, who participated in a study on the effectiveness of Pilates on abdominal endurance.
At Goucher, students get the chance to put their own dance science theories to the test. “If someone is interested in how to improve rotation, we would work with them to build a case study—and then to test that case study, going through the whole medical process,” says Amanda Thom Woodson, dance chair.
What happens after?
After graduation, it’s up to the student to decide what path to take. Dance science majors may go straight to the workforce (as Pilates or yoga teachers—many programs include certification) or enter physical therapy school or graduate school. Some pursue performing careers with plans to enter PT or medical school later. Woodson notes that dance science students have an advantage when applying to med school: “The student who is most successful in applying is not the one with a very narrow focus, but the one who has many passions and interests.” DT
Ashley Rivers is a writer and dancer in Boston.
Where to Study Dance Science
• California State University, Long Beach
• California State University, Northridge
• Case Western Reserve University, OH
• Elon University, NC
• Florida State University in Tallahassee
• George Mason University, VA
• Goucher College, MD
• Hope College, MI
• Indiana University Bloomington
• Ohio University in Athens
• Shenandoah University in Winchester, VA
• State University of New York at Brockport
• University of Oregon in Eugene
• University of South Florida in Tampa
• University of Utah in Salt Lake City
• University of Wyoming in Laramie
• Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond
Source: International Association for Dance Medicine & Science
Photo by Igor Kraguljac, courtesy of Alvarez
Just what, exactly, IS the faculty looking for?
Serious high school dancers are all too familiar with the drive to nail that extra pirouette, to thwack their legs just a little bit higher. But when it’s time to audition for a college dance program, sky-high extensions and picture-perfect fouetté turns won’t be enough. Students need to impress faculty on all fronts: technique class, improvisation, solos and interviews.
So what, exactly, are faculty members looking for in an audition? Essentially, they want mature, committed dancers whose goals align with that program’s unique focus and who will be generous, productive members of the community. Here, we address what students should focus on in each portion of an audition to best communicate those qualities.
The Audition Analysis
Most auditions begin with a technique class, often in ballet, modern and, occasionally, jazz. This is a dancer’s chance to demonstrate clean lines and correct form, but it’s also a place to show how they interact within a dance community. “I look for someone who is aware of others in the room,” says David Dorfman, department chair at Connecticut College. “It immediately shows us that they have a sense of community and want to stretch beyond themselves.”
Michael Vernon, program chair at Indiana University’s ballet program, says he can learn a lot about a dancer in just one class. “What I look for in a dancer is that they have the potential, in my opinion, to become a professional ballet dancer,” he says. This includes technique, of course, but another important element is demeanor. “There is a certain confidence that comes from a well-trained dancer—even if they don’t feel confident,” he says. “They look as though nothing phases them. People who aren’t as well-trained might look at the person next to them to see if they’re doing the right step.”
Audition adjudicators want to see that a dancer is mature as an artist, too. Vernon, Dorfman and Southern Methodist University dance chair Patty Harrington Delaney all note that musicality is one of the most important qualities to indicate mature artistry. In addition, Dorfman says that he looks for modern dancers with “a groundedness and an ability to use spiral and twist,” as well as a sense of presence and clear transitions. Delaney looks for jazz dancers with rhythm and the ability to pick up stylistic elements.
QUICK TIP apply corrections Adjudicators want students who will apply corrections quickly so that they can continue to grow in the program, says Vernon. Dancers should show faculty up front that they will be star students.
Some schools will request that students perform a solo, often one to one and a half minutes in length, in a style of the dancer’s choosing. At SMU, this portion of the audition follows an initial cut, after students take ballet class and perform modern and jazz combinations. Solo presentations may be open, for all applicants to watch, or closed, with only faculty present.
Though the solo is a chance to showcase a dancer’s best qualities, Delaney advises against trying to impress the faculty with every trick in a student’s arsenal. “If somebody pulls off a beautiful triple pirouette, I’ll note it,” she says, “but tricks are not what we’re looking for. It’s not that we don’t respect them, but having a lot of tricks is not necessary.”
It might sound like a given, but dancers should rehearse adequately so that they can go beyond steps and technique to demonstrate personality, emotion and artistic maturity. “We look for how they bring their passionate side through,” adds Delaney.
If a school holds interviews for potential students, this may happen before the solos (while standing before adjudicators) or separately with just one faculty member. “We ask about their relationship with dance and what they would bring to our community,” says Delaney. “It gives them a chance to talk about their art.”
Think of the interview as a chance to demonstrate, in words, the same things a dancer has been attempting to show via movement: maturity, commitment to dance, an understanding of the program’s goals and a glimpse of their personality. Vernon interprets eye contact as a sign of dancers’ maturity. “They have to have a certain awareness of themselves, or it’s going to be hard for them,” he says. “We’re very nurturing, but college is a big change.”
QUICK TIP be seen Constantly standing front and center isn’t a good idea (it shows a lack of community awareness), but “don’t be invisible,” says Dorfman. “It’s really hard to make any impression if you’re in the back for the entire audition.”
The Wild Card
Some auditions include a technique or style that students may not have studied before. At Connecticut College, dancers may take class in West African and/or Afro-Caribbean dance. “We’re looking for potential and someone who wants to learn,” says Dorfman. “It’s about openness and joy, even in uncomfortable situations. We can work on the dancing.”
For some dancers, the modern, jazz or improvisation portions might be the wild card element, if they haven’t studied those styles—and that’s OK. “Our predominant technique is Graham,” says Delaney. “A lot of people have never done Graham before, and we know that. We’re looking for their openness to the direction, their attentiveness and spatial quality.”
In situations like these, dancers should show how well they handle and absorb new material, even when it’s overwhelming. (After all, that’s what students will be doing on a daily basis in college.) “An ideal match for us is someone who has an inner light,” says Dorfman, “who thinks, ‘I might not get this today, but I’m going to try as hard as I can and get a little better each day.’” Delaney agrees: “We’re looking for people who take direction well and are willing to put themselves out there.”
To put students at ease during the improvisation section, Dorfman’s colleague Heidi Henderson often includes a “noodling” exercise, or letting one’s body go like a spaghetti noodle. “Sometimes we can feel silly improvising and worry about how we are being perceived,” he says. “It’s nice to leave it at the door, and think, ‘What is this teacher asking me to do?’ Improvising builds a sense of awareness and gets you a little bit out of yourself. That feeling can serve you well in our department.”
QUICK TIP be yourself Students should show who they are as people and dancers, because that’s what the faculty really wants to see. “Dance is a very honest artform—it’s hard to lie with your body,” says Vernon. “Just be yourself. Don’t try to overimpress. Just show good training.”
Most schools require dance photos, since they’re a helpful tool for discussing dancers a few days after the audition. While these don’t need to be professional shots, it’s important that a dancer’s technique and appearance be in top form in each photo, since they may be studied closely by the faculty. “A photo of a woman on pointe in first arabesque can tell you so much,” says Vernon. “How she holds her back, and especially the arms.” DT
Ashley Rivers is a writer and dancer in Boston.
Photos from top: by Adam Campos, courtesy of Connecticut College; by Paul Phillips, courtesy of SMU
No one knows a student’s potential better than the teacher who works with her every day at the studio. So it can be heartbreaking to see a dancer rejected from a college program. Or worse, to see her accepted into her dream dance program, only to be rejected by the university itself. College applications are a two-part process: A student has to do more than win over the dance faculty—she needs to pass a separate academic screening, too. “When we’re evaluating whether they’re a match for the program, we have to acknowledge that we’re going to lose some very talented students to the university’s high academic standards,” says Ric Rose, dance coordinator at the University of Florida’s School of Theatre and Dance. But with your help, your student can tailor her application to maximize her odds of getting in.
Making the Grade
In the fall, even before a dancer signs up for an audition, she’ll have to fill out an online academic application, including test scores, grades, a resumé, letters of recommendation and a personal essay. At a conservatory like the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, this application will become a part of the dance faculty’s overall view of the individual’s potential; but at a large institution like the University of Florida, the dance department will never see this application.
Each school has its own requirements for minimum GPAs and test scores. Many now allow applicants to self-report their transcripts. (While this may sound like an opportunity to falsify grades, an official transcript will eventually be required, and if the official grades don’t match, the student will not be accepted.)
When it comes to the more subjective parts of an application, like the essay, letters of recommendation and resumé, dancers applying to large institutions should find a way to convey the value of their dance training to a nondance audience. A list of dance awards may mean very little to an academic officer. “Our dance faculty will know what it means, but in admissions, they’re not going to know how prestigious an award is,” says Kevin Austin, UF’s academic advisor for the School of Theatre and Dance. Instead, Austin suggests, write something like: “Only two people in the state of Florida get this award, out of 2,000.”
Applicants should also list how long they spend each week on dance to ensure that the reviewers understand the consistency, discipline and dedication required—all qualities that they look for. But there’s no need to overpack a resumé with every master class ever taken. Admissions officers won’t be familiar with that kind of experience, and they won’t take the time to read a five-page resumé. The best resumés, says UNCSA admissions officer Clyde Howell, tend to be just one-and-a-half to two pages long.
In the essay, admissions officers want to see maturity—that a candidate understands and is prepared for the challenge of college—and resilience, or how she has overcome obstacles. A dancer’s training is a virtual case study of these qualities, so be sure to make that clear.
Although the dance department at large schools like UF will have no direct communication with the admissions office, there are ways of communicating interest in a student. At UF, the dance faculty awards merit scholarships. “It alerts the admissions office that we are very interested in the student,” says Rose, “and if they are sufficient academically, that usually helps get them into the university.” Still, many great dancers will not get in.
No One’s Everyone’s Watching
For the dance portion of applying to college, applicants may need to submit separate paperwork to the dance faculty. At UNCSA, this means bringing dance photos to the audition and filling out audition forms. At UF, prospective students submit dance-focused letters of recommendation, an essay (which should demonstrate that the student is familiar with the faculty and unique qualities of the program) and a resumé (which may look different from the one sent to the admissions office, since this one is dance-specific).
The audition typically involves one or more classes in ballet and modern or contemporary and may include a prepared solo, improvisation and interview. Over the course of what could be a day-long event, faculty want to see what dancers do best, but they also want to see what happens when they’re outside of their comfort zones. “Improvisation shows us how creatively they can think on their feet,” says Rose.
Adjudication methods vary. At UF, the faculty discusses each dancer’s artistic potential individually, notifying candidates that they have been selected for the dance program before official acceptance comes from the university in February or March. At UNCSA, adjudicators fill out a rubric for each student, which results in a final assessment. The faculty then sends their recommendations to the admissions office, where a second cut is made based on GPA and test score requirements. This short list of candidates will have their full application packages evaluated by admissions and the dance faculty.
At UNCSA, the written application can determine the kind of dance scholarship a student receives (most are talent- and/or need-based). “Some of our scholarships take into consideration a student’s academic performance as well as leadership and service,” says Brenda Daniels, associate dance dean at UNCSA. “You can see it when they have this third element beyond technique and grades: commitment to something greater than themselves.”
Because the process is so thorough, Daniels says that students should feel confident that the dance faculty will get a comprehensive view of them. Dancers won’t be judged solely on any one thing. “We’re looking for potential,” she says. “Just relax and let us see what you can do.” DT
Ashley Rivers is a writer and dancer in Boston.
Photo by Suzanna Mars, courtesy of University of Florida
Moe Renteria knew she wanted to study modern dance in college. What she didn’t know was that “modern” can be very different from program to program. Growing up, she’d studied Horton technique, with its clean, long lines and lateral Ts. So when she walked into her first modern class at Loyola Marymount University, the ooey-gooey contemporary approach felt foreign. “Before, I had thought, ‘Modern is modern,’” she says. “I didn’t really dig as deep as I should have in my research.” Her surprise ended up being a happy one—she embraced the opportunity to study new styles—but it’s something that, in retrospect, she wishes she’d asked about early on.
The college search can be tricky for dancers who only have the time and resources to audition for a handful of programs. Here are key questions high-schoolers should ask to whittle down their lengthy wish lists—and, in the process, realize what’s important to them.
Finding the Dance Department of Your Dreams
What degrees are offered?
At its most basic, the primary difference between a bachelor of fine arts (BFA) and a bachelor of arts (BA) is the time spent in dance-specific courses. Most BFA programs adopt a conservatory approach, with a focus on daily technical development, and enrolled students often aspire to dance professionally. BA programs, on the other hand, require fewer studio credits, with more emphasis on academics; students might be interested in careers in teaching, physical therapy or other dance-related fields.
But this isn’t the case across the board. That’s why it’s important to ask: What’s the atmosphere like? Does the program have a fast-paced conservatory feel or a low-key, exploratory vibe? What are the daily technique requirements? Does the program place a greater emphasis on technique or choreography?
What’s the median technique level in the program?
Instead of asking this question outright, University of Arizona BFA grad Brittany Churchill recommends observing middle-level classes—don’t just sit in on the advanced classes. Ideally, dancers should choose a program where their own level falls roughly in the middle. This ensures that there’s room to grow.
What styles does the program emphasize?
Modern dance isn’t the only genre with a variety of styles. Ask about ballet and jazz, too. At Loyola, for instance, students study both contemporary and classical ballet. “One semester our pointe variations class will be classical, and one semester it will be contemporary,” says Renteria.
If you find a program that offers the style you’re looking for, ask whether there are multiple levels in that style—this will show how strongly the program is invested in that technique. Finding out what repertoire students perform will also give insight into the training emphasis. (Of course, keep in mind your style preferences may change as you grow in college.) Ask, too, about dance-related academics that will round out your education, like pedagogy, composition, dance history and career workshops.
What are alumni doing?
Rather than focusing on one or two superstars who made it big, look at an overview of alumni. For example: In her search, Churchill noticed that many Point Park alumni headed for Broadway after graduation. Similarly, dancers who attend partnership programs between universities and professional companies—like the Ailey/Fordham BFA program and Alonzo King LINES Ballet BFA program at Dominican University—often go on to join those companies.
Who does the school bring in as guest artists? And what kind of interaction do students have with them?
Asking about guest artists and residencies is important—especially how long guest artists stay at the school and in what capacity they participate. “Ask whether a guest artist would have a semester or yearlong residency, or if they would be there for a week, or a day,” says Churchill. “Are they just teaching choreography or also investing in your technique? Do you really get to know them? If it’s a guest artist you eventually want to work for, it could be life-changing.” Marc Crousillat, a recent University of the Arts graduate, got his first professional job postgraduation from a guest artist he’d worked with in school, Netta Yerushalmy.
How many opportunities do students have to perform and choreograph?
In some programs, dancers wait until their junior and senior years to perform; at others, they can perform as freshmen. Some schools have more dance majors than there is space for in concerts, so many dancers turn to student-run groups for performance opportunities. The chance to choreograph may only be offered to upperclassmen.
The Bigger Picture: College Life
Where’s the college located?
Crousillat knew that he wanted to go to school in a major city—he wanted to be exposed to the wider dance world and work with teachers currently engaged in that scene. Churchill, meanwhile, had gone to high school near New York City and was looking for more of an oasis where she could zero in on dance and college life. (Keep in mind that the weather can influence a student’s experience, too.)
How big is the school?
Is it a large university with 20,000 students and lecture halls or a small campus with 1,500 students? Does the college have an overall arts focus, or is there a wide variety of majors?
For Churchill, “it really came down to the kind of college life I wanted.” She liked the idea of having access to all the perks a large university has to offer. Crousillat, on the other hand, was looking for strong arts-based academics and as much one-on-one learning as possible.
How’s the campus?
For some dancers, dorms may be the last thing they think to check out. But they’re your home base during a big transition—the atmosphere can influence a dancer’s overall happiness and well-being. Finding nutritious food is central to a dancer’s success, too. Dance students may end up in rehearsal during normal cafeteria hours, so make sure that schools offer healthy food options, even after the cafeteria has closed. DT
Ashley Rivers is a writer and dancer in Boston.
Still can’t decide? The answers to these additional questions might help:
- What’s the size of the dance program?
- Are dance majors allowed to have jobs?
- Can dance majors double-major or add a minor?
- What’s a dancer’s daily schedule like? What’s the dance/academics balance?
- Are there injury-prevention classes offered and/or physical therapists available?
- What’s the program’s male-to-female ratio?
- Does the school have any partnerships with dance companies or other
- Can students intern or apprentice with local companies for credit? —AR
Photo by Emmanuel Joannin, courtesy of Trisha Brown Dance Company