Teachers & Role Models

To Major in Dance or Not to Major in Dance? (Hint: The Answer Is Always to Major)

Photo by Tim Trumble, courtesy of Arizona State University

Many parents discourage their teenagers from majoring in dance because of fear that their child will become a struggling artist in an unforgiving city, only to end their career in injury. But a dance degree can lead to other corners of the profession, such as marketing, physical therapy and arts administration. "Parents always say their children need something to fall back on," says Daniel Lewis, former dean of the dance division at New World School of the Arts. "They only see the stage time, applause and flowers. But there's choreographing, teaching, PR—the careers are endless."

Others are more concerned with disappointment. "Your daughter doesn't have to be a major ballerina with ABT to be successful," says Lewis. "If she wants to be a dancer, she'll find the work. There's a certain amount of training you have to achieve before you even get accepted into a good college, so if you have the talent, and the drive, you can make it."

As mentors, teachers can be monumentally influential on students' college decision processes. Read on to hear from three dance majors who feel grateful they chose this path—and share their words with your students!


Jenelle Figgins

BFA, Purchase College, State University of New York

Currently: dancer with Aspen Santa Fe Ballet

Everyone takes one year of improvisation and three years of choreography. The seniors exhibit their work in shows they put on. It's incredibly stressful, but you acquire tools you can use as a professional, like creativity and strength under pressure. Choreography is a necessary skill as a company member, because you learn to organize your mind and be efficient.

Purchase's motto is "Think wide open." We were exposed to great choreographers; I worked with [contemporary choreographer] Sidra Bell at school and then was invited to perform with her professionally during my junior year. I'm not just a modern or ballet dancer, and I attribute that directly to my training at Purchase. Being comfortable spending one hour in pointe shoes and the next one barefoot is what allowed me to do my work at Dance Theatre of Harlem.


Ansley Davis

BFA, University of Southern Mississippi, Hattiesburg, Mississippi

Currently: ensemble member and part-time teacher with the Chicago Danztheatre Ensemble and working in childcare

When Ansley Davis moved to Chicago last year, she knew she wanted a side job that was fun and paid well—so she took a position as a nanny. "For me, it's so different from dancing but so similar," she says. Taking care of a child involves performing and in-the-moment creativity, says Davis. She draws inspiration from a dance pedagogy course she took in college, which focused on the developmental physical and mental abilities of children of different ages. "Even if I'm not dancing at that moment, everything I did in college is showing through," she says.

Her dance-degree takeaway? Time management and organization, thanks to juggling classes, rehearsals and an active social life on campus. "I learned how to make sure all aspects of my life are in order, even when navigating a new transportation system and a new city," she says. "And when I'm nannying, I'm making sure all aspects of [her charge's] life are on track, in coordination with what her parents want for her."

Novak, right, in Paul Taylor's Arabesque. Photo by Paul B. Goode, courtesy of Paul Taylor Dance Company.

Michael Novak

BA, Columbia University, New York, NY

Currently: dancer with Paul Taylor Dance Company

The dance major was great because of the dance criticism and theory classes. I loved the academic approach to the dance industry.

Most of my dance friends were double majors. There was a real sense of being in charge of your own life. The dance department was very modern-focused, so I helped start the Columbia Ballet Collaborative so younger dance majors could learn from the city's professional dancers.

My dance history classes were phenomenal. I spent a lot of time at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, watching videos and doing research for term papers.

My liberal arts education has helped me immensely since I joined Paul Taylor. Board members and patrons are very educated about art, and it really helps to be able to converse with them about the history of the field and where it's going.

Dance Buzz
PC Break the Floor

Two competition routines are equal in technical proficiency, artistry and choreography. One consists of all girls, the other includes a boy. Guess which takes home first prize?

If you guessed the one with the boy, you may be privy to an unspoken and much-debated phenomenon in the competition dance world: The Boy Factor. According to The Boy Factor, a competitive piece is more likely to win if there's a boy in it.

"If it's all technically equal and one group is all girls and the other group has a boy, the one with the boy will win," says Rysa Childress, owner of All Star Studios in Forest Hills, New York. "Boy soloists are sometimes scored higher than more technically proficient girls because if a boy has good stage presence, we let him slide," says an anonymous competition judge. "And most of the feedback will be for the boy."



The Boy Factor doesn't just have to do with competition scores: It's how we treat boys throughout their dance education. "We idolize the boys," says Ashley Harnish, a teacher at a competition studio. "We build entire dances around one boy, and we teach them that we need them more than we need the girls."

On the surface, The Boy Factor is flagrant sexism. But what's really behind the phenomenon? "So often, young male dancers are bullied because our culture says that dance is for girls," says a second national competition adjudicator. "This stigma pushes some judges to reward boys by scoring them higher than their female competitors." The Boy Factor also stems from a simple fact: There are far more girls than boys in the dance world.

"Judges see boys as valuable commodities," says Marissa Jean, a staff member at Broadway Dance Center's new building for children and teens and a teacher at several competition studios. "To encourage their career in dance, judges will throw a little extra their way. It could be placing them in the top ten or giving them a special award. They nurture them a bit more than the girls."



But by trying to retain more male talent, are we suggesting to girls that they are less valuable to the dance world than boys? "There's so much about this getting into these kids' psyches," says Childress. "Like, 'Oh the boy will beat me no matter what.' How do we teach self-worth knowing that you're going up against a boy, so what's the point?"

The Boy Factor is a product of and a contributor to the culture that sends the few men in dance up the glass escalator: "Many boys growing up in the dance world are not told the word 'no' often, so they tend to climb the professional ranks more quickly than the women," says Jean. We often bemoan the absence of female leadership in dance, but the damage is already done if we've taught young women that their gender determines their value to our community.

So what can be done about The Boy Factor? First, we could change how we encourage boys to continue dancing. Instead of empowering young men by devaluing young women, we could work as a community to dispel the culture of toxic masculinity that discourages boys from pursuing dance in the first place.

But it also falls in the hands of judges and teachers. "We need to increase awareness," says the second adjudicator. "A lot of us judges don't realize what we are promoting and the messages we send through our scoring and awards. If enough of us band together, I think we can make a difference so that this part of our field is less toxic."

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In order to keep us all inspired to stretch our toes until they are drool-worthy, DT compiled a list of five dancers whose feet we have a very real crush on. Honestly, these guys should get their toes insured! Truly, they are perfect.

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