5 Reasons to Recommend Community College

Why a two-year program can be a good option

Valencia College dance majors get plenty of opportunities to perform.

Sometimes you know early on that a student isn’t cut out for a four-year college or conservatory experience. Maybe she struggles to balance dance class with academics, or always needs a little more one-on-one time with you to master tricky choreography. Maybe the cost of a four-year institution isn’t possible for her or her family. Ericka Brown, who didn’t study dance until she was 16, needed a program to help her develop a stronger technical foundation and give her time to adjust to adulthood. Her high school dance teacher suggested her own alma mater: Riverside City College, in Riverside, California, only 30 minutes away from Brown’s hometown.

At a community college—typically a two-year, nonresidential program—students can earn an associate’s degree or a vocational certificate. Got a student in mind who you think might be a good fit for community college? Here are five reasons it could be a gentler (and less costly) transition to collegiate life—without sacrificing all the opportunities of a four-year degree program.

Smaller class size Community colleges typically have lower student-teacher ratios than their four-year counterparts, ensuring that no dancer gets lost in the shuffle. “I do better in a smaller class environment,” says Taylor Mancil, a first-year student at Florida School of the Arts, a community college branch of St. Johns River State College in Palatka, FL. In order to keep class size small, FloArts only accepts around 10 dancers each year.

“We get a lot of individual attention from our professors,” says Mancil. “It sounds cheesy, but it really feels like a family, the way my studio did.” This close-knit environment allows the faculty to keep closer tabs on students. For example, if FloArts students have work commitments, faculty members will tailor their rehearsal schedules accordingly, ensuring they don’t stretch themselves too thin.

Quality training Community college students spend just as much time in the studio as freshmen and sophomores at four-year schools. At FloArts, Mancil takes class five days a week: ballet, modern, jazz, choreography and improvisation. One Friday a month, she attends a rotating workshop, with West African dance and conditioning among the master classes available. In the afternoons and evenings, she’s in rehearsal, learning choreography for the school’s end-of-semester show. “If our students are planning to go out and work professionally,” says faculty member Mary Ward, “we need to get them prepared.”

Professional exposure is an important part of two-year programs, too. Recent guest artists at Valencia College in Orlando, Florida, include Pilobolus, the Limón Dance Company and Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Valencia alumni have appeared on Broadway and with companies like Atlanta Ballet and Cirque du Soleil. Department chair Suzanne Salapa says students should expect a challenging, stimulating experience. “We used to hear, ‘Oh, I’ll just go to Valencia’ from future students,” she says. “But you don’t ‘just go’ here. When they arrive, it’s a lot harder than they anticipated.”

Reasonable price tag Earning a two-year degree is significantly less expensive than attending a public or private university. At Valencia, for instance, one credit hour for an in-state student is $103.06; at FloArts, it’s $108. In contrast, the average rate for public four-year universities in Florida is $205 (in-state tuition) or $696 (out of state); at a private university, it’s $599. “Not everybody has the financial ability coming out of high school for their families to send them to a four-year university,” says Salapa.

Transfer Options Many community college dance students move on to a four-year college after graduation. To ease this transition, some schools develop relationships with in-state four-year institutions that allow students to preview the dance department and interact with faculty. Valencia, for instance, partners with the University of Florida and Daytona State College for student choreography showcases. “Our job is really to create pathways, and we do that with our concerts,” says Salapa. “We’ve had students go on to Florida State University, New World School of the Arts, Boston Conservatory, CalArts.”

Students who want a guaranteed transfer enter into what’s called an articulation agreement with the four-year institution of their choice. The agreement, which is binding, outlines which courses taken (and grades earned) at the community college will transfer over to the university, making the switch easier—and preventing students from unexpectedly having to repeat classes. Not all community colleges have such systems in place, however, and students must sometimes take additional courses at a four-year college to make up for credits that didn’t transfer.

Career alternatives Community colleges often provide their students with chances to explore a number of dance-related careers during their stay. Pilates certification is offered at Riverside, for instance. Because many Valencia students hope to open dance studios, their program is designed to give them practical experience. Every summer, the dance department runs a four-week intensive for local high school students. At FloArts, Ward introduces viable career options by bringing in guest lecturers. This year’s roster included a dance journalist.

No matter where she ends up after graduation, Brown feels confident in her choice to attend Riverside. “Whenever I go into a professional setting or take class somewhere, I’m able to adapt and handle myself in a responsible manner,” she says. “And I know that comes from RCC and the experiences and opportunities I’ve gotten here.” DT

Julie Schechter is a dancer and New York City–based freelance writer.

Photo courtesy of Valencia College

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Alwin Courcy, courtesy Ballet des Amériques

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"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."

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Studio Owners
Courtesy Tonawanda Dance Arts

If you're considering starting a summer program this year, you're likely not alone. Summer camp and class options are a tried-and-true method for paying your overhead costs past June—and, done well, could be a vehicle for making up for lost 2020 profits.

Plus, they might take on extra appeal for your studio families this year. Those struggling financially due to the pandemic will be in search of an affordable local programming option rather than an expensive, out-of-town intensive. And with summer travel still likely in question this spring as July and August plans are being made, your studio's local summer training option remains a safe bet.

The keys to profitable summer programming? Figuring out what type of structure will appeal most to your studio clientele, keeping start-up costs low—and, ideally, converting new summer students into new year-round students.

Find a formula that works for your studio

For Melanie Boniszewski, owner of Tonawanda Dance Arts in upstate New York, the answer to profitable summer programming lies in drop-in classes.

"We're in a cold-weather climate, so summer is actually really hard to attract people—everyone wants to be outside, and no one wants to commit to a full season," she says.

Tonawanda Dance Arts offers a children's program in which every class is à la carte: 30-minute, $15 drop-in classes are offered approximately two times a week in the evenings, over six weeks, for different age groups. And two years ago, she created her Stay Strong All Summer Long program for older students, which offers 12 classes throughout the summer and a four-day summer camp. Students don't know what type of class they're attending until they show up. "If you say you're going to do a hip-hop class, you could get 30 kids, but if you do ballet, it could be only 10," she says. "We tell them to bring all of their shoes and be ready for anything."

Start-up costs are minimal—just payroll and advertising (which she starts in April). For older age groups, Boniszewski focuses on bringing in her studio clientele, rather than marketing externally. In the 1- to 6-year-old age group, though, around 50 percent of summer students tend to be new ones—98 percent of whom she's been able to convert to year-round classes.

A group of elementary school aged- girls stands in around a dance studio. A teacher, a young black man, stands in front of the studio, talking to them

An East County Performing Arts Center summer class from several years ago. Photo courtesy ECPAC

East County Performing Arts Center owner Nina Koch knows that themed, weeklong camps are the way to go for younger dancers, as her Brentwood, California students are on a modified year-round academic school calendar, and parents are usually looking for short-term daycare solutions to fill their abbreviated summer break.

Koch keeps her weekly camps light on dance: "When we do our advertising for Frozen Friends camp, for example, it's: 'Come dance, tumble, play games, craft and have fun!'"

Though Koch treats her campers as studio-year enrollment leads, she acknowledges that these weeklong camps naturally function as a way for families who aren't ready for a long-term commitment to still participate in dance. "Those who aren't enrolled for the full season will be put into a sales nurture campaign," she says. "We do see a lot of campers come to subsequent camps, including our one-day camps that we hold once a month throughout our regular season."

Serve your serious dancers

One dilemma studio owners may face: what to do about your most serious dancers, who may be juggling outside intensives with any summer programming that you offer.

Consider making their participation flexible. For Boniszweski's summer program, competitive dancers must take six of the 12 classes offered over a six-week period, as well as the four-day summer camp, which takes place in mid-August. "This past summer, because of COVID, they paid for six but were able to take all 12 if they wanted," she says. "Lots of people took advantage of that."

For Koch, it didn't make sense to require her intensive dancers to participate in summer programming, partly because she earned more revenue catering to younger students and partly because her older students often made outside summer-training plans. "That's how you build a well-rounded dancer—you want them to go off and get experience from teachers you might not be able to bring in," she says.

Another option: Offering private lessons. Your more serious dancers can take advantage of flexible one-on-one training, and you can charge higher fees for individualized instruction. Consider including a financial incentive to get this kind of programming up and running. "Five years ago, we saw that some kids were asking for private lessons, so we created packages: If you bought five lessons, you'd get one for free—to get people in the door," says Boniszewksi. "After two years, once that program took off, we got rid of the discount. People will sign up for as many as 12 private lessons."

A large group of students stretch in a convention-style space with large windows. They follow a teacher at the front of the room in leaning over their right leg for a hamstring stretch

Koch's summer convention experience several years ago. Photo courtesy East County Performing Arts Center

Bring the (big) opportunities to your students

If you do decide to target older, more serious dancers for your summer programming, you may need to inject some dance glamour to compete with fancier outside intensives.

Bring dancers opportunities they wouldn't have as often during the school year. For Boniszewski, that means offering virtual master classes with big-name teachers, like Misha Gabriel and Briar Nolet. For Koch, it's bringing the full convention experience to her students—and opening it up to the community at large. In past years, she's rented her local community center for a weekend-long in-house convention and brought in professional ballet, jazz, musical theater and contemporary guest teachers.

In 2019, the convention was "nicely profitable" while still an affordable $180 per student, and attracted 120 dancers, a mix of her dancers and dancers from other studios. "It was less expensive than going to a big national convention, because parents didn't have to worry about lodging or travel," Koch says. "We wanted it to be financially attainable for families to experience something like this in our sleepy little town."

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