Kat Richter is a freelance writer and professor of both dance and cultural anthropology. She holds an MA in dance anthropology and is also Artistic Director of The Lady Hoofers Tap Ensemble, Philadelphia's premiere all-female tap company. Her work has appeared in Glamour, Museum and Skirt and she has presented research at the annual meetings of the Congress of Research in Dance, the Society of Dance History Scholars and the Society for Ethnomusicology.
Today's college-bound dancers face a dizzying array of choices. How can you as a teacher help your students make the best decision? To narrow down options, it helps to reflect on their personal strengths and interests. Would they benefit from an emphasis on teaching? Do they have a desire to explore how dance can cross over into other topics? Hope for an opportunity to study abroad? Perhaps a dancer isn't ready financially (or in terms of maturity) to commit to a four-year program, but what if their circumstances change?
Every dancer is different, and when they find the right college dance program, it can feel as if it were designed especially for them. Here, for example, are five that cater to specific groups of students. They all provide intense technical training intended to produce well-rounded, employable dancers—and each offers a unique focus you may not have known existed.
When Kelly Berick began teaching high school students at Ohio's Firestone Community Learning Center within Akron Public Schools 21 years ago, she was newly engaged, newly licensed to teach K–12 dance and thrilled to land what she considered the perfect job. Her enthusiasm quickly soured, however, when after two weeks of teaching she called a local studio to introduce herself. "The owner told me her students didn't like me, didn't like what I was doing and were going to quit my program," she says. Her class of seven became a class of three.
Terms like "proprioceptive" and "vestibular input" don't often come up in the dance studio. But for Rhythm Works Integrative Dance (RWID) founder Tricia Gomez, they were the "magic words" that convinced a reluctant school principal to give dance a try.
Gomez's hip hop–based curriculum fuses rhythm and dance for students with learning differences. Launch Preschool in Torrance, California, serves children or adults who have autism or other disabilities. Their partnership is one of many that Gomez has built since the program's implementation in 2015. In some cases RWID is delivered in schools that cater to disabled students, such as Launch, but in others, it's used in programs where these students are mainstreamed.
Fifth-graders in lower ManhattanMeghan Grupposo never planned on becoming a teaching artist. She graduated from Juilliard in 2000 and went on to dance and choreograph for the Chamber Music Society at Lincoln Center. But a stress fracture from her senior year of high school kept coming back. “I needed to find another avenue to live my passion," she says.
Fortunately, her Juilliard ballroom instructors, Pierre Dulaine and Yvonne Marceau, were holding auditions for teaching artists. “I was mortified at the thought of having to speak in front of people," Grupposo says—a severe challenge for any would-be educator—but she got the job with Dancing Classrooms and now teaches 16 ballroom dance classes per week to public-school students across New York City. Like all successful educators, she had to learn that classroom settings require a very different skill set from the traditional dance studio.
1. Engaging students who didn't choose to dance
The key to success, says Miki Ohlsen, artistic director of Island Moving Company, is understanding that students in public-school dance programs aren't self-selecting. “In a studio, they want to be there," she says. “But in our outreach programs, we have to find ways to engage each and every student, some who don't want to dance, maybe haven't had breakfast or don't have warm clothing."
Her company does this by making its curriculum directly relevant. “We talk about what gives us our motivations: poetry, news articles or the world around us. Then we build a dance just like we would build text, using verbs or action words to tell a story."
Middle school ballroom partnersRodney Lopez, a teaching artist with Dancing Classrooms who now serves as its executive director, urges his educators to remember that mastering technique is not the goal. “You have to impart more than technical skill. You have to be a coach, a facilitator, a source of inspiration and a joyful mentor. Technical mastery will happen along the way, but it's not the point."
So, when Grupposo encounters reluctant male students, she might refer to Victor Cruz's dance moves in the end zone. Then, she helps them to see that learning to dance is a transferable skill. “We talk about the pivot turn, for example. How else will you use it? In basketball."
2. Staying centered as an educator
“The work of a teaching artist is incredibly rewarding, but it's not easy," says Lopez. “You have to put in the personal work so you can bring your best self to the classroom and bring the best out in these kids."
Grupposo refers to this as becoming “triggerless." “If they push, we're not gonna push back," she says. “Nothing the students say is wrong."
While a dance teacher working in a studio environment might reprimand students for making too much noise, Grupposo works to maintain a positive environment throughout her entire class. She thanks her students for being quiet, even when they're being loud, and asks them to face front by saying, “I need all your beautiful faces toward me. You look amazing!" Her classes emphasize respect and teamwork, reinforcing Dulaine's Dancing Classrooms principles of compassion, humor and joy.
A similar philosophy informs the work of teaching artists at National Dance Institute. Although founded by famous New York City Ballet dancer Jacques d'Amboise, the organization doesn't teach ballet per se. “We believe that every child deserves to dance, and that every child can dance," says Emily Meisner, director of professional development.
Math students in Rhode Island
3. Using gender-neutral language
Language plays a huge role in student engagement. This can be tricky when teaching a form like ballroom, which has a long history of strict gender roles. Dancing Classrooms tries to ensure that classrooms have a relatively even split between males and females. But Grupposo calls them “apples" and “oranges," or “inner circle" and “outer circle" dancers.
“We did some Title IX work to see how we could gender neutralize," she says. “Some of the schools ask for it outright. And even though we use the terms 'ladies' and 'gentlemen,' our students get to decide where they fit on that scale."
One child, for example, had recently come out as transgender. He insisted that he was a boy and wanted to be referred to as such. Grupposo was happy to honor this request.
4. Empowering all students to succeed
At NDI, Meisner encourages her trainees to be larger than life in their movements. “If you want the dancer to do 100 percent, you have to do 150 percent. What a child sees is as important as what you tell them."
Island Moving Company leads a residency at Claiborne Pell Elementary School in Newport, Rhode Island.In a typical NDI class, students change their orientation at regular intervals. The lack of “front" and “back" reinforces the philosophy that every child can dance, because there's no way to hide “less talented" dancers in the back row. It also keeps children engaged. “They never know when they're suddenly going to be at the front. They don't get to hide, and they don't get to follow."
At Dancing Classrooms, Gruposso uses a variety of classroom management techniques including call-and-response (she claps a rhythm, and the students play it back), physical shapes and gestures.
“Schools are structured in such a way that people with certain kinds of talent move to the top," Lopez explains. “If you don't fit into that mode of logical intelligence—if you have kinesthetic or artistic intelligence instead—or if you're labeled as 'special needs,' you're going to be tracked for a less ideal experience."
The magic of teaching artistry, he says, “is when you get to see the class clown or the kid who never does well on tests show up, experience success and be proud of themselves. It never gets old." DT
Kat Richter is a freelance writer and professor of both cultural anthropology and dance. She lives in Philadelphia.
Photo by Matthew Murphy; courtesy of Dancing Classrooms; by Kim Fuller, courtesy of Island Moving Co.; photo by Jen Carter, courtesy of Island Moving Company
Beatrice Capote: working artist, teacher, MFA candidateIn today's dance world, it's nearly impossible to get a teaching position at the university level if you don't have an MFA. But when you've spent years as a choreographer or performer building an audience for your work or honing your craft, the thought of returning to school may seem like a pipe dream. Yet, thanks to a number of new low-residency MFA programs that balance on-campus intensives with distance learning, many dance professionals and teaching artists are doing just that.
Whether your ultimate goal is to teach in academia or to strengthen your practice as an artist—or both—a low-residency master's program offers the opportunity to further your career without having to uproot it. Here are three educators who made it work.
Lecturer at University of California, Berkeley
Hollins University, two-year program
Though Amara Tabor-Smith was already an appointed lecturer at UC Berkeley when she enrolled at Hollins, she wanted to expand her options. Like many dance professionals, she lacked an undergraduate degree. “I wanted to increase my potential," she says, “but going to school full-time wasn't an option."
Hollins offers three MFA tracks, including an on-campus program. The most competitive of its low-residency programs is a two-summer track, which allows mid-career artists to earn up to 12 credits for previous work and takes two years to complete. For less-experienced professionals, there's a three-summer option. Hollins worked with Tabor-Smith—who had danced with and served as associate director of Urban Bush Women before founding her own company—to tailor a program to suit her needs, given her professional experience. Hollins, unlike most programs, doesn't require a BA or BFA; nevertheless, she worried about her ability to keep up. Her cohort's close-knit environment, however, helped her overcome her fears. “We were able to support each other," she says.
One unique opportunity for Hollins students is the chance to study abroad in Frankfurt, Germany, in multiple three-week segments and complete a two-day retreat in New York City (in addition to spending five weeks in residence at the Roanoke, Virginia, campus). Coursework places an emphasis on dance history and contemporary trends from a global perspective and includes mentored studio practice and creative writing (personal narrative, poetry) to inspire and inform dancemaking.
Public high school teacher
George Washington University, 18-month program
Dana Tai Soon Burgess, dirctor of GWU's low-residency MFA in Washington, DC, wants to leverage students' skills, connections and experience to get them where they want to be in 3, 5 or 10 years. For graduate Heather Pultz, that included her background in education (teaching at a DC magnet school, School Without Walls) and an interest in foreign travel.
The program focuses on choreography and begins with an eight-week residency at GWU. Students then complete two semesters of supervised distance education, using the virtual learning environment Blackboard, chatrooms and Skype. They upload private files of their work through Vimeo or YouTube to connect with faculty mentors across the country and graduate with performance portfolios and personal websites.
Pultz leveraged the international connections she made at GWU to teach and choreograph in Florence over the summer. Next, she's hoping to bring her School Without Walls kids to Bali, via a partnership with the Indonesian Embassy in DC, so they can learn Javanese and Balinese dance. “The MFA behind my name is opening doors," says Pultz.
Professional dancer; freelance dance teacher
Montclair State University, two-year program
Beatrice Capote wasn't sure how she'd be able to balance her performing and teaching gigs with Montclair's MFA program. But she wanted to further her career as an educator and work on her solo choreographic practice, a blend of contemporary and Afro-Cuban dance.
Montclair's new program is only a 25-minute commute from NYC, which allows Capote to juggle her teaching gigs in the city with her studies in New Jersey. Not that it's easy—she wakes up at 5 or 6 am to complete her writing assignments before teaching her own classes. The sacrifice is worth it, she says.
Students spend four weeks on campus for each of two summers and complete three independent projects that encourage them to delve deeper into a subject of expertise or branch out into something new. Coursework ranges from Laban Movement Analysis to embodied anatomy and improvisation. Pedagogy is also required, since most students are used to teaching master classes instead of semester-long courses. Faculty members help students figure out how to make that transition and structure a college class over the course of the program's two years.
Being exposed to so many new ideas at once can feel overwhelming, but Capote knows it's ultimately a good thing. “It's about allowing yourself to not know exactly what you're doing," she says. “Our professors say, 'We want you to get lost and then come back up.'" DT
Kat Richter is a professor of cultural anthropology and dance. She lives in Philadelphia.
Photo by Russell Haydn, courtesy of Capote
VCU grad David Claypoole, aloft, now dances with Fort Wayne Ballet—which he credits to his professional experience with Richmond Ballet while in college.
Upon graduating from the Baltimore School for the Arts, dancer Courtney Celeste Spears was faced with a difficult decision: Should she head to college for a dance degree, or enroll in a pre-professional training program to get inside access to a company? Thanks to Fordham University’s partnership with The Ailey School in New York City, she managed to do both—and began apprenticing with Ailey II while still a junior. Dual-enrollment programs like this one can offer students the best of both worlds, but only if they know how to navigate them.
Finding the Right Fit
Melanie Person, who co-directs The Ailey School, encourages interested applicants to work backward in their decision-making. “What are you trying to accomplish? Obviously if you want a performing career, you want a program that is quite rigorous,” she says. “If you want to dance but don’t necessarily see yourself onstage, you might want a BA.”
While Spears chose Fordham, ballet dancer David Claypoole picked Virginia Commonwealth University because of its partnership with Richmond Ballet. “I had been going to its summer programs and was already entrenched in ballet,” he says, “but I knew I needed that little push to secure my ballet technique and give me access to a more contemporary side.”
He spent most of his first two years taking dance classes at Richmond Ballet and academic classes at VCU, even managing to squeeze in a business minor with course work in marketing and real estate. Upon graduating, he was offered a place with Richmond Ballet II.
While success stories such as these are common at both VCU and Fordham, “it’s important to get the details about the program,” says Judy Jacob, who directs the school at Richmond Ballet. “Are there opportunities for advancement? To perform? Is a trainee program going to help them audition, or is it going to restrict them?”
At Syracuse University in New York state, a majority of the university’s visual and performing arts majors elect to spend the final semester of their senior year in New York City, as part of the university’s Tepper Semester. “Syracuse is known for having an excellent musical theater program,” says program director Lisa Nicholas. “When we designed it, we wanted it to be a pre-professional, conservatory-style program.”
Ailey/Fordham student Courtney Celeste Spears (now with Ailey II) in Christian von Howard’s At This Time, In This Place
The Audition Process
Most dual-enrollment programs, like the Ailey/Fordham one, require separate applications for each participating institution, plus an audition, including a solo. At VCU, the auditions include both improvisation and an interview. Dance chair E. Gaynell Sherrod looks for risk takers—“students who are innovators,” she says—and dancers who have a point of view. “How do they see dance in the larger social cultural perspective?”
When VCU students audition for Richmond Ballet, however, physicality plays a more significant role. Jacob says, it’s all about “beautiful feet, lines, flexibility, technique and physique.”
Though an audition isn’t required for Syracuse BFA students to take part in the Tepper Semester, BA students from Syracuse and other well-established musical theater schools, such as Carnegie Mellon and The Boston Conservatory, are welcome to participate and need to audition. All students must provide letters of recommendation.
A Balancing Act
Of course, finding the right program and gaining admittance is only half the battle. Balancing the artistic and academic demands of a dual enrollment program requires careful planning. “I’d start with 8:30 ballet at Ailey to get it out of the way, then run back to Fordham for traditional academics, then back to Ailey for Horton, then back to Fordham,” says Spears.
Claypoole spent his mornings at VCU and his afternoons at Richmond Ballet, although he was always sure to participate in the university’s Friday afternoon workshops in order to work with visiting artists such as Camille A. Brown, Rennie Harris and Doug Varone.
After a placement class, Syracuse students begin their NYC semester with a week of exploratory classes at Broadway Dance Center. They then choose three classes that they’d like to continue taking, ranging from tap to musical theater, and earn three course credits in return. To supplement this training, students can receive a range of classes, including private voice lessons, classes in advanced performance technique, on- and off-camera coaching, tickets to more than two dozen performances (both on- and off-Broadway) and at least a dozen of what Nicholas terms “cultural field trips.” “We want them to learn not just the business,” she explains, “but what art is being done.”
Ten current members of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater are Ailey/Fordham BFA graduates; other graduates have gone on to dance with Ballet Hispanico, Alonzo King LINES Ballet and Cirque du Soleil. And while it can be difficult to take on a double major in these programs, students at Fordham have earned additional degrees in communications, African American Studies, political science and psychology.
At VCU, dual-enrollment students comprise only a small percentage of the university’s larger dance program, but they swell the ranks at Richmond Ballet. Graduates have completed summer intensives with Urban Bush Women, BalletX and Philadanco, and Claypoole recently signed a contract with Fort Wayne Ballet.
Many Tepper Semester students—who are provided with the option of fully furnished apartments in New York during their semester there—never leave the city, because the Tepper Semester’s fast-track exposure has helped them land a role on Broadway before they even graduate. “It’s a fabulous way to get to know people,” says Nicholas. DT
Kat Richter is a writer, dancer and professor of anthropology. She lives in Philadelphia where she is artistic director of the Lady Hoofers Tap Ensemble.
Photo by Sarah Ferguson, courtesy of VCU; by Eduardo Patino, courtesy of Ailey/Fordham BFA program
Muhlenberg students can study aerial acrobatics, history and philosophy of circus arts and perform in the Circus Workshop.
It’s not every day that you see a student dressed as Rosie the Riveter spiraling gracefully toward the stage by way of aerial silks. But thanks to the Muhlenberg Circus Workshop, students at the small liberal arts college in Allentown, Pennsylvania, are taking their dance training to a whole new level—literally.
“We started offering aerial acrobatics courses in 2012,” says Karen Dearborn, chair of dance and faculty advisor to the workshop. “Our curriculum values diversity in physical training, so aerial was a great fit.”
From this beginning came what is now the Muhlenberg Circus Workshop, a multidisciplinary program that provides training, performance opportunities and even academic credit to the college’s growing circus arts community. Aerial class credits can be applied to dance-major concentrations in both performance and choreography, and, while students don’t earn academic credit for performances at Muhlenburg, the performances count toward the school’s co-curriculum and lab requirements. Sixty students auditioned for approximately 20 slots in this year’s production.
Dearborn eventually developed a class on circus history and philosophy to provide the aerial students with an academic grounding, but it was a couple of visionary undergraduates who realized their school was ripe with big-top talent.
New York native Henry Evans trained as a competitive gymnast and came to Muhlenberg to pursue a double major in theater and business. His roommate, Noah Dach, had a friend who wanted some help choreographing a Cyr wheel routine. There was only one problem: They had nowhere to perform.
“Circus is a dangerous artform,” Evans says. “There’s no way around that. But we managed to get some funding to purchase mats and safety equipment.”
Performances initially took place in a dance studio that had been specially equipped for aerial silks, but since founding the Circus Workshop in 2013, they have expanded into Muhlenberg’s theaters. The college hires a professional rigger to ensure the students’ safety, and students receive specialized training that targets the muscle groups required for aerial work.
Henry Evans (on the shoulders of Tommy McCarthy) started the Circus Workshop with roommate Noah Dach.
“We have been able to advance from fixed points to flying the apparatus while the aerialist is performing,” explains Dearborn; this allows the aerialist to be moved up or down. In February, she created a work for eight male students that featured four fixed apparatuses and four that flew. The Circus Workshop’s most recent production, VOD, included a flying apparatus as well, but only the most advanced students are allowed to use it.
“Many of our dancers have found employment after graduation because of their circus skills,” says Dearborn. In addition to two levels of aerial acrobatics and Dearborn’s history and philosophy of circus performance class, students can study commedia dell’arte, puppetry, performing magic and clowning, offered by the theater department. They also have the option of enrolling at the Accademia dell’Arte in Arezzo, Italy, during their junior year to study physical theater.
Acrobatic training has helped dancers in other ways, as well: the development of core and upper-body strength, improved control and balance and better partnering technique overall.
Evans and Dach, now graduates, have started their next venture: Atlas Circus Company, through which they hope to eventually create a center for circus arts in America.
“The fusion of dance and physical theater has been gaining ground in Europe for decades,” says Dearborn. “America is just getting started.” DT
Kat Richter is a writer, dancer and professor of anthropology. She lives in Philadelphia.
Photos by Ken Ek, courtesy of Muhlenberg College
Brie Lowry, a graduate of TCU, now dances with Kentucky Ballet Theatre.
In the highly competitive world of ballet, a college degree may seem like a costly detour. Performance careers only last for so long, and ballet is more physically demanding than most. But a ballet degree can provide the personalized instruction, professional networking and repertory exposure necessary to transform students into artistic directors’ dream dancers. We spoke to college graduates and faculty members to uncover the most common misconceptions about ballet degrees—and the truth.
Myth #1: Ballet degrees are for dancers who aren’t good enough to dance professionally.
Busted: Not true! Many of today’s college ballet programs focus on performance and professional preparation. Brie Lowry, who now dances with and serves as executive director for Kentucky Ballet Theatre, earned her BFA in ballet at Texas Christian University—a decision she originally made to appease her parents, who she knew wouldn’t let her skip college.
Andrew Harper, a ballet BFA grad from the University of North Carolina School of the Arts (UNCSA), values the emphasis on improvisation and composition in a college dance program. “I’ve worked with many choreographers who ask their dancers to generate or modify movement phrases and improvise,” says Harper, now a freelance dancer in New York City. “This can be very intimidating for dancers who have always been given specific instruction and steps and haven’t been required to engage their own creative minds.” Elizabeth Gillaspy, dance program director at TCU, agrees. “Today’s dancers are expected to work in collaborative ways—that’s a big part of what can be gained in an educational environment,” she says.
Myth #2: A ballet degree doesn’t translate to the real world of professional ballet.
Busted: Lowry felt prepared for the grueling audition circuit, thanks to her time at TCU. “I felt I could learn choreography better and learn combinations more quickly, because I’d had that really broad university experience,” she says.
Harper was ready for the last-minute pressures of a professional career after college. “I got a lot of the mistakes and nerves out of the way in a more forgiving environment,” he says. “College gave me great—and stressful—performance opportunities, and I learned how to perform under pressure.”
At Butler University in Indiana, the dance program’s performance company, ButlerBallet, regularly produces professional-quality, full-length classics, like Swan Lake, Coppélia and Giselle, complete with live orchestral accompaniment. More modern works, like George Balanchine’s Serenade, Antony Tudor’s Dark Elegies and Nacho Duato’s contemporary ballet piece Por Vos Muero, are also a part of the performance catalog. “Such a vast repertory makes students much more versatile performers and much more valuable to an artistic director,” says Larry Attaway, Butler’s dance department chair.
Myth #3: Ballet training will take a backseat to academics.
Busted: Gillaspy maintains that dance students are adept at time management. After all, she says, “they’ve been juggling intensive studies of dance with homework, school and friends since they were 8 or 9 years old!” An intensive dance schedule—at UNCSA, Harper took daily technique class, plus partnering, contemporary and men’s classes— ensures technique won’t fall by the wayside.
Many schools encourage ballet students to take advantage of nondance academics—some even offer dancers the chance to double-major, for those looking to give themselves a leg up in their postperformance careers. At Butler University, for example, ballet students have completed additional degrees or minors in English, anthropology, peace studies, math and physics.
Myth #4: College ballet students can say good-bye to networking with companies and choreographers.
Busted: Helping students make contacts in the dance world is a priority for ballet degree programs. While in college, Lowry worked as a program administrator with Vermont’s Burklyn Ballet Theatre and as an assistant ballet mistress to American Ballet Theatre’s Franco De Vita.
Harper credits his success as a freelancer entirely to his college years. “I’ve gotten one job from an audition,” he says. “Everything else is friends I made at school, choreographers looking for people and networking.” Plus, most schools also offer resumé help, assistance with setting up auditions and preparing performance materials.
Still torn? “Then keep auditioning,” Gillaspy says. “If you get an opportunity, then you have a decision to make. If you don’t, look for a college program that will help you continue to build your skills. Students get really wound up thinking, ‘I need to make this decision between dancing professionally and pursuing my education.’ And sometimes they just need to keep working toward both those goals simultaneously.” DT
Kat Richter is a freelance writer and professor of anthropology. She lives in Philadelphia.
Photo by Joe Lyman, courtesy of Lowry