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5 Questions to Ask When Deciding Between a Conservatory or Liberal Arts College

Students at UNCSA in Twyla Tharp's Sweet Fields. Photo by Rosalie O'Connor, courtesy of UNCSA

Where do you want to live?

Though this question might seem unrelated to the issue, Katie Glasner, chair of Barnard College's dance department, believes it's actually a crucial one. "A liberal arts institution in an urban area is going to offer more possibilities outside of the university setting, potentially, than a rural setting," she says. "And then there are the students who are really not comfortable in a metropolitan area and want a smaller area." If high schoolers are waffling over the type of dance program but have firm feelings about urban versus rural, geographical setting could be a definitive way to settle the matter.


How much do you want to dance?

"One of the things that makes UNCSA unique is that much of our training is through performance," says Susan Jaffe, dean of dance at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts conservatory. The ballet and contemporary majors, she says, offer students an experience similar to being a part of a second company. "You go out in the world, and you're working almost as hard as you would in a company." To put it another way, a former student phrased it like this in her exit interview: "'This school separates the men from the mice,'" says Jaffe.

A liberal arts dance degree, on the other hand, most likely requires fewer credit hours of physical practice—though it may offer just as many performance opportunities as a conservatory, and even give majors more chances to choreograph their own works.

Who do you want to take class from?

At New World School of the Arts, a conservatory in Miami, dancers have the chance to learn the repertory of choreographers like Paul Taylor, Merce Cunningham and Ohad Naharin, says faculty member Jeffrey Smith. Students can also opt to participate in intensives every other month to learn masterworks.

At UNCSA, contemporary students work with artists like Douglas Dunn, Aszure Barton and Larry Keigwin. Ballet students learn works like Symphonic Variations and Concerto Barocco.

That's not to say that liberal arts dance programs don't bring in guest artists of the same caliber—quite the opposite. Recent Barnard visiting artists include David Dorfman and, with Dylan Crossman, Jamie Scott. What's important for prospective students to note is whether a school has a particular bent in its selection of guest artists, as well as how much interaction dance majors have with visiting dancemakers, since college projects can lead to professional work.

Do you want to double-major?

A double major is virtually impossible at a conservatory, but it's easily accommodated and often even encouraged at a liberal arts school. "I've been in the situation many times where a student comes in and says, 'I'm going to be a dance major.' And then they take a comparative literature class and are completely swooning over writers," says Glasner. "That opens them up to exciting possibilities that are not as prevalent in the conservatory." Most Barnard dance majors, she says, wind up double-majoring. Many second majors are easy to correlate to dance—dance and English, dance and theater—but Glasner says there are also surprises: dance and neuroscience, dance and biology, dance and ethnomusicology. Within a liberal arts college, she says, "those four years offer the possibility of shape-shifting."

What are your career goals?

Because a conservatory seeks to prepare dance majors for full-time performance and choreographic work, both Jaffe and Smith advise that this undergraduate path is better suited to those who want a rigorous physical practice and plan to dance professionally. "There's no reason to commit yourself to four years if you think that afterward you want to be a doctor," says Smith. If students predict they'll want to work within the dance field, postgraduation, but are more flexible about the role—administration, teaching, management, performance—a liberal arts degree makes more sense.

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