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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