Higher Ed

OSU professor emeritus Vicki Blaine works with dance students (L to R) Sarah Gibbons, Katie Stehura, Vicki DeRenzo and Katy Gilmore

Last spring, dance major Annie Flaherty auditioned a piece for the Studio Dance II concert at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC). Flaherty, then a sophomore, was one of 22 student-choreographers vying for a spot on the program—and her piece wasn’t selected. But that didn’t keep her from presenting her work. “I thought about how other artists weren’t stopped by less-than-positive feedback,” Flaherty says. With help from other students and encouragement from Jan Erkert, the dance department head, Flaherty produced her own, informal showcase.

 

It’s no surprise Flaherty felt compelled to take charge. UIUC’s dance department encourages “student agency,” a concept that allows students to play a more active role in shaping their educational experiences. At Ohio State University, the dance department employs a “contract curriculum,” which fosters a similar environment. No matter the name, these programs help students develop the inquisitive mindset, decision-making skills and maturity they need to succeed as dance professionals.

 

At UIUC, student agency is part of broad curriculum goals called the Five Domains of Knowing, which Dance at Illinois (the UIUC dance department) began implementing in the fall of 2009. These domains—context, reflection, inquiry, synthesis and agency—increase the academic and professional expectations placed on students.

 

During their first two years at UIUC, students follow a structured curriculum; they are given more freedom as they progress in the program. This increased independence enhances a student’s ability to make choices about the direction of her own research and career. The department’s curriculum petition system, for example, lets more advanced students tailor their courses to fit their interests. Students must write a detailed explanation justifying proposed curricular changes. A student interested in lighting design might petition to take a lighting course in the theater department. Had the student taken a production course in the dance department, she would have received an overview of many topics, only grazing the surface of lighting design.

 

Dance at Illinois juniors and seniors can also select their technique class levels. “We wanted to get rid of the ‘I’m a good dancer/I’m a bad dancer’ mindset that surrounded level placement,” Erkert says, “and focus instead on helping students assess where they would work and learn best.”

 

In the dance department at Ohio State University, the contract curriculum plan offers similar freedoms. During their first two years, OSU dance students take a foundation curriculum, which emphasizes breadth and encourages exploration. Beginning the spring semester of their sophomore year and continuing throughout the rest of their collegiate careers, students participate in advising colloquiums with a group of peers and faculty. The colloquiums, which meet three or four times each semester, act as a sounding board for students to develop plans for future coursework. “There is some framework,” says Susan Van Pelt Petry, the dance department chair at OSU. “But it is pretty wide open overall.”

 

OSU’s undergraduates can take two courses outside of the dance department that count toward their dance major. Students choose these courses in their colloquiums and create written proposals explaining why the courses are relevant to their specific interests. In the fall of their junior year, the students’ plans are written as contracts and signed by both the students and their advisors.

 

The contract curriculum was introduced in 2006 after a faculty retreat sparked a conversation about flexibility in OSU’s BFA program. “Someone can be a choreographer, performer and a dance writer all at once,” Van Pelt Petry says, “and we as a collegiate dance program should allow space for all of those things to develop.”

 

While it might seem like giving students more control would lighten the load for faculty, OSU faculty have found it’s actually more demanding. “We have students being entrepreneurial, but independent research projects take more faculty time and production support,” Van Pelt Petry says. “But the faculty who get involved say it is very rewarding.”

 

At UIUC, too, the dance community is reaping the rewards of increased student involvement. Having proven a high level of maturity in their level placement choices, the student body was deemed ready to take on additional responsibilities.

 

Starting in 2010, students seeking departmental funds for independent projects must prepare grant proposals. (In prior years, there was no application process for departmental awards; support was based solely on merit and scholarship.) The 2010 redesign was an effort to level the playing field, but it hasn’t quite hit the mark. “Though we had a high number of proposals in 2010, many students were denied funding due to poor writing skills,” Erkert says. “Now we know that we need to do more work during the year to help students learn to write grants.”

 

It’s an ongoing process of refinement and readjustment, which helps faculty provide the skills that will allow each student to flourish. “It offers so many more options for students to create their own futures,” Flaherty says. “No one is doing the exact same thing professionally, but they are all successful.” DT

 

Alyssa Schoeneman earned a BFA in dance from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where she is currently pursuing an MS in news-editorial journalism.

 

Photo: OSU professor emeritus Vicki Blaine works with dance students (L to R) Sarah Gibbons, Katie Stehura, Vicki DeRenzo and Katy Gilmore. (by Melissa Bontempo, courtesy of OSU)

Higher Ed

Wayne State University dance major Aaron Smith

Before they finish their freshman year, dance majors at Wayne State University in Detroit are already making post-graduation plans. In a new course called Introduction to Dance Professions, first-year students get acquainted with a myriad of employment options, choose a career and plot an individualized course of study that will give them the knowledge they need to succeed.

 

Not so long ago, holders of dance degrees were thought to have fairly narrow options. Most joined a company, taught or left dance for something more lucrative. But today, possible uses for a dance degree have broadened. And college dance departments are playing an active role in helping students plan their careers and find jobs.

 

Wayne State’s Introduction to Dance Professions course, which is part of the department’s recently redesigned BS degree, introduces students to dance careers in administration and management, production and technology, private studios and commercial dance, dance science and body therapies, dance writing and more. To create the course, which is taught online, associate professor of dance Doug Risner interviewed 40 dance professionals from all areas the class covers, and their responses are part of the required reading. He hopes the interviews will provide his students with insight—and also potential contacts in the working world.

 

In addition to reading Risner’s interview series, students conduct extensive online research into each career area and participate in online forums throughout the semester. By the end of the course, the second-semester freshmen are urged to declare a career path and to shape their subsequent curriculum accordingly, using courses within the dance department and outside it. The plan they create becomes part of their permanent record and is referred to during subsequent sessions with faculty advisors.

 

But is freshman year too soon to expect such an informed decision from students? Risner doesn’t think so. “Preparing graduates for the job search needs to start at the very beginning,” he says. “If they don’t plan early, they’ll run out of time and won’t be able to get all the classes they need.”

 

Wayne State isn’t the only dance department that preps students for post-college life. But when it comes to timing, philosophies differ. At University of the Arts in Philadelphia, as juniors or seniors, BFA students take a course called Introduction to Business of Dance. The class includes exercises in grant writing and fundraising, public relations, marketing and developing a budget, and it also has students conduct a self-evaluation to gain insight into their particular skills and preferences.

 

“I prefer that students take this course during their senior year, because by then, they are more settled about what path their careers are going to take,” says Susan Glazer, professor and director of the UArts School of Dance. “Once students have a sense of where they want to go and how to use their time, it clarifies the steps that they need to take before graduation.”

 

Mikayla Hendry and Nick Caramagno of Wayne State University

The University of the Arts has also launched a mentoring program that matches students with UArts alumni. Juniors apply by submitting a personal statement outlining their career goals and explaining how shadowing a mentor would be useful. A small stipend is paid to the mentor to host (and house) a UArts senior for a few days. The students get a chance to see not only what their mentor’s work life is like, but also how it impacts their personal life. (How much time, for instance, do they spend preparing or answering professional calls and e-mails outside of work hours?) The dance majors document their experience and share it with their fellow students, so even those who don’t participate in the program benefit from it.

 

Wayne State does something similar through its Maggie Allesee Artist-in-Residence Program, in which students network with established professionals. The faculty often brings artist back multiple times a year to foster strong student-artist relationships. Recently, for example, choreographer and Wayne State graduate Sonya Tayeh became a great mentor for students interested in entering commercial dance.

 

Even at The Juilliard School in New York, where graduates might seem guaranteed to succeed, the faculty plays an active role in helping students with post-school plans—though there the focus is on performance careers. In a senior seminar, students create a promotional package with resumé, headshots and a video clip of their dancing. They then conference with dance

faculty members about which companies are most suitable and mail their packages accordingly.

 

Lawrence Rhodes, director of the  dance division, also provides Juilliard students with multiple opportunities to interact with New York choreographers and those passing through on tour. “They are receiving a huge amount of information about what they will do post-graduation,” he says. “We work hard at it.” DT

 

Alyssa Schoeneman is pursuing a BFA in dance at The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She recently completed a communications internship at the American Dance Festival.

 

Photo by Jon Anderson, courtesy of Wayne State University.

How-To

Change, both physical and mental, is a given for new dance majors. But some changes are harder to embrace than others. Ask a freshman choreographer to replace Radiohead with a John Cage soundscape, for example, and you’re likely to run into some serious resistance.

Weaning student choreographers off of Top 40 picks and getting them excited about a broad variety of music is a challenge faced by many college faculty members. Some dance programs go so far as to employ musicians to help expand dancers’ musical awareness. The result? A deeper musical knowledge enhances dancers’ creativity.

 

Meet students where they are

 

Arthur Solari, senior dance accompanist at Hofstra University, says that accepting what students already listen to is an important step toward getting them to listen to something new. Once they trust that you are not dismissing their musical tastes out of hand, “students are more open to making an appointment so you can advise them,” Solari says.

Tigger Benford, musician, accompanist and associate professor of dance at Rutgers University, agrees. “I am never going to tell [students] not to like something that they currently like,” he says. “But I am going to work very hard to get them to like things that they currently dislike.”

 

Expand their ability to hear

 

One challenge teachers must overcome is the pervasiveness of music. Most incoming college freshmen hear it constantly—on their iPods, at Starbucks, in stores. But too much of a good thing dulls the ears. Students tend to listen to music to relax or while they “shake it” at the club, says Benford. As a result, they listen passively, letting the sound slide by as a series of undifferentiated audio events rather than distinguishing the relationships between its parts.

 

To activate listening skills, Benford engages students in environmental listening; he has them lie down, indoors or out, and guides them as they listen to ambient noise. Benford uses imagery, asking students to think of how the pupil of an eye dilates and contracts in response to light, and then to imagine that their ears have pupils that can open or close to accommodate different amounts of sound. “The sounds that are easiest to miss are the constant ones,” Benford says. “I always mention the hum of refrigerators, because almost everyone has had the experience of being unaware of the sound until the moment it suddenly turns off.” He says this exercise heightens acoustic sensitivity and a fundamental level of receptivity that is important for all artists to maintain.

 

Free them from musical crutches

 

Young dancemakers tend to be drawn to a piece of music because it holds the meaning and content that they hope their dance will express. So how do you convince a dancer that over-reliance on a song’s emotive content puts the dance in danger of becoming superfluous?

Richard Woodbury, music director and associate chair at Columbia College Chicago, has developed an exercise to help his students see how dance can (and should) be more than a visual depiction of music. Woodbury gives his students CDs containing 10 one-minute songs. The students choreograph to a track of their choosing and perform their solos for one another during class. Directly following an individual’s performance, Woodbury plays a different track from the CD and challenges the student to renegotiate the same movement to the new music. Invariably, he says, his students realize that their second performance is more compelling. Students report that this exercise deepens their dancemaking by demonstrating the power of juxtaposing music and movement.

 

Help them find new sounds

 

Convincing student choreographers to consider a wide array of sound options is one thing, but it can leave them feeling uncertain of where to find new music and how to make a selection. Woodbury works with dancers one-on-one at this stage. “When a student comes to me wanting to create a sound design,” Woodbury says, “we have conversations about what purpose the music is trying to serve.” Once they have identified the intent, Woodbury selects a stack of CDs for the student to investigate.

 

To give students a sense of different styles they might choose from, Benford creates a mix CD and requires students to listen to and journal about what they hear. He chooses pieces that are about four to five minutes in length, not “too bizarre or strange,” but that have enough depth to withstand repeated listening and still reveal new aspects of their character. And he only includes vocals if they’re written in a language other than English.

 

Benford also encourages students to explore a music resource few use these days. “There is something to be gained by going to a record library where there is no financial risk if you don’t like something,” he says. “A lot of kids don’t realize that, despite the seemingly infinite amount of music available on iTunes, there is a lot on vinyl that never made it to CD.”

 

As rewarding as it is for these musicians to share their knowledge, it’s equally gratifying to witness its impact on the dancers. “I have noticed such a difference,” Solari says. And his dance department colleagues agree. “They tell me how differently the dancers are working as their knowledge of music has been raised,” he says. DT

 

Alyssa Schoeneman is pursuing a BFA in dance at The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She recently completed a communications internship at the American Dance Festival.

 

Photo copyright iStockphoto.com

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