5 Pros Who Chose Non-Dance Majors in College—and How It Helped Their Careers

New York Theatre Ballet's Alexis Branagan studied English at Princeton. (photo by Richard Termine, courtesy New York Theatre Ballet)

College-bound dancers sometimes feel as though a dance degree is the only path to professional success. But while majoring in dance can be a great option, it's certainly not the only one. College should be a time of self-discovery, which often means exploring a variety of academic interests. We spoke with five artists who chose college majors completely outside the dance world—without sacrificing their postgrad careers.

Ephrat Asherie, Artistic Director of Ephrat Asherie Dance; BA in Italian from Barnard College

Photo by Matthew Murphy, courtesy Asherie

Ephrat Asherie chose not to major in dance because she knew dance would be a part of her life regardless. Her love of languages, along with fond memories of her childhood in Italy, inspired her to major in Italian at Barnard College. "I wanted to reconnect with that part of my life," she says.

Since Barnard is in NYC, Asherie had plenty of dance class options. "I took some classes in the dance department, but I mainly trained in the city," she says. She also spent a year abroad in Italy studying literature and linguistics, which helped her speed through many of the requirements for her Italian major.

Seeing Rennie Harris' hip-hop opus Rome and Jewels after her sophomore year of college marked a turning point. "I grew up dancing hip hop, but when I saw this piece, I knew I had to get into breaking," she says. "In that moment, I decided I wanted to graduate early and get to dancing as soon as possible."

Asherie ended up earning her Italian degree in three and a half years, after which she began her career as a dancer and choreographer immersed in the breaking and underground dance community. As founder and artistic director of Ephrat Asherie Dance in NYC, Asherie has found that her knowledge of language helps deepen her understanding of various hip-hop styles. "I've always been drawn to finding ways to communicate with people," she says. "Learning someone else's language helps you connect with them on a different level. Different languages have different modalities, and I try to look at different forms of dance in a similar way. House dance, breaking, hip hop—they're all qualitatively different modes of human expression."


Technique
Nan Melville, courtesy Genn

Not so long ago, it seemed that ballet dancers were always encouraged to pull up away from the floor. Ideas evolved, and more recently it has become common to hear teachers saying "Push down to go up," and variations on that concept.

Charla Genn, a New York City–based coach and dance rehabilitation specialist who teaches company class for Dance Theatre of Harlem, American Ballet Theatre and Ballet Hispánico, says that this causes its own problems.

"Often when we tell dancers to go down, they physically push down, or think they have to plié more," she says. These are misconceptions that keep dancers from, among other things, jumping to their full potential.

To help dancers learn to efficiently use what she calls "Mother Marley," Genn has developed these clever techniques and teaching tools.

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Teachers Trending
Alwin Courcy, courtesy Ballet des Amériques

Carole Alexis has been enduring the life-altering after-effects of COVID-19 since April 2020. For months on end, the Ballet des Amériques director struggled with fevers, tingling, dizziness and fatigue. Strange bruising showed up on her skin, along with the return of her (long dormant) asthma, plus word loss and stuttering.

"For three days I would experience relief from the fever—then, boom—it would come back worse than before," Alexis says. "I would go into a room and not know why I was there." Despite the remission of some symptoms, the fatigue and other debilitating side effects have endured to this day. Alexis is part of a tens-of-thousands-member club nobody wants to be part of—she is a COVID-19 long-hauler.

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Teachers Trending

Annika Abel Photography, courtesy Griffith

When the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis last May catalyzed nationwide protests against systemic racism, the tap community resumed longstanding conversations about teaching a Black art form in the era of Black Lives Matter. As these dialogues unfolded on social media, veteran Dorrance Dance member Karida Griffith commented infrequently, finding it difficult to participate in a meaningful way.

"I had a hard time watching people have these conversations without historical context and knowledge," says Griffith, who now resides in her hometown of Portland, Oregon, after many years in New York City. "It was clear that there was so much information missing."

For example, she observed people discussing tap while demonstrating ignorance about Black culture. Or, posts that tried to impose upon tap the history or aesthetics of European dance forms.

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