What to ask to find the right college and dance program

Marc Crousillat, here performing Trisha Brown’s Set and Reset, got his first professional dance gig via a guest artist he’d worked with at the University of the Arts.


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.

Bonus Round

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

    professional connections?

  • Can students intern or apprentice with local companies for credit? —AR

Photo by Emmanuel Joannin, courtesy of Trisha Brown Dance Company

Dance Teachers Trending
Roshe (center) teaching at Steps on Broadway in New York City. Photo by Jacob Hiss, courtesy of Roshe

Although Debbie Roshe's class doesn't demand perfect technique or mastering complicated tricks, her intricate musicality is what really challenges students. "Holding weird counts to obscure music is harder," she says of her Fosse-influenced jazz style, "but it's more interesting."

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by Alternative Balance
Courtesy Alternative Balance

As a dance teacher, you know more than anyone that things can go wrong—students blank on choreography onstage, costumes don't fit and dancers quit the competition team unexpectedly. Why not apply that same mindset to your status as an independent contractor at a studio or as a studio owner?

Insurance is there to give you peace of mind, even when the unexpected happens. (Especially since attorney fees can be expensive, even when you've done nothing wrong as a teacher.) Taking a preemptive approach to your career—insuring yourself—can save you money, time and stress in the long run.

We talked to expert Miriam Ball of Alternative Balance Professional Group about five scenarios in which having insurance would be key.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teachers Trending
Photo by Brian Guilliaux, courtesy of Coudron

Eric Coudron understands firsthand the hurdles competition dancers face when falling in love with ballet. Now the director of ballet at Prodigy Dance and Performing Arts Centre in Frisco, Texas, Coudron trained as a competition dancer when he was growing up. "It's such a structured form of dance that when they come back to it after all of the other styles they are training in, they don't feel at home at the barre," he says.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teachers Trending
Kendra Portier. Photo by Scott Shaw, courtesy of Gibney Dance

As an artist in residence at the University of Maryland in College Park, Kendra Portier is in a unique position. After almost a decade of performing with David Dorfman Dance and three years earning her MFA from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, she's using her two-year gig at UMD (through spring 2020) to "see how teaching in academia really feels," she says. It's also given her the rare opportunity to feel grounded. "I'm going to be here for two years," she says, which offers her the chance to figure out the answers to some hard questions. "What does it mean to not dance for somebody else?" she asks. "What does it mean to take my work more seriously? To realize I really like making work, and figuring out how that can happen in an academic place."

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by Turn It Up Dance Challenge
Courtesy Turn It Up

With back-to-back classes, early-morning stage calls and remembering to pack countless costume accessories, competition and convention weekends can feel like a whirlwind for even the most seasoned of studios. Take the advice of Turn It Up Dance Challenge master teachers Alex Wong and Maud Arnold and president Melissa Burns on how to make the experience feel meaningful and successful for your dancers:

Keep reading... Show less
Dancer Health
Deanna Paolantonio leads a workshop. Photo courtesy of Paolantonio

Deanna Paolantonio had been interested in body positivity long before diabetes ever crossed her mind. As a Zumba and Pilates instructor who had just earned her master's degree in dance studies, she focused her research on the relationship between fitness and body image for women and young girls. Then, at age 25, just as she was accepted into the PhD program at York University in Toronto, she was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes (T1D).

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by The Studio Director

As a studio owner, you're probably pretty used to juggling. Running a business is demanding, with new questions and challenges pulling your attention in a million different directions each day.

But there's a solution that could be saving you time and money (and sanity!). Studio management systems are easy-to-use software programs designed for the particular needs of studio owners, offering tools like billing, enrollment, inventory and emails, all in one place. The right studio management system can help you handle the day-to-day tasks that bog you down as a business owner, leaving you more time for the most important work—like connecting with students and planning creative curriculums for them. Plus, these systems can keep you from spending extra money on hiring multiple specialists or using multiple platforms to meet your administrative needs.

So how do you make sure you're choosing a studio management system that offers the same quality that your studio does? We talked to The Studio Director—whose studio management system provides a whole host of streamlined features—about the must-haves for any system, and the bonuses that make an excellent product stand out:

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Robin Nasatir (center) with Peter Brown and Vicki Gunter. Photo by Christian Peacock

On a sunny Thursday morning in Berkeley, California, Robin Nasatir leads her modern class through a classic seated floor warm-up full of luscious curves and tilts to the soothing grooves of Bobby McFerrin. Though her modern style is rooted in traditional José Limón and Erick Hawkins techniques, the makeup of her class is far from conventional. Her students range in age from 30 all the way to early 80s.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Getty Images

Q: I need advice on proper classroom management for dancers in K–12—I can't get them to focus.

A: Classroom management in a K–12 setting is no different than in a studio. No matter where you teach, I recommend using a positive-reinforcement approach first. As a general rule, what you pay attention to is what you get. When a student acts out, it's generally done in order to gain attention. Rather than giving attention to them for inappropriate behavior, call out other students who are exhibiting the positive behaviors you desire. Name the good actions, and all of your students will quickly learn what it takes to be noticed.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips

For an aspiring professional dancer, an unexpected injury can feel like a death sentence to a career that hasn't even started. The recovery process following an injury can be one of the most grueling and heartbreaking experiences a performer will ever face. In times like these, dance teachers have the power to boost or weaken a dancer's morale.

With that in mind, we've compiled a list of do's and don'ts for talking to a seriously injured dancer.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Getty Images

Q: Last season I had three dancers on my junior team who struggled all year. They've trained with me for years, yet they keep sliding farther behind their classmates. What should I do?

Keep reading... Show less


Get DanceTeacher in your inbox