A Taste of the Real World

As summer looms, many college dancers are thinking of sun and sand. For some, though, the months of June, July and August present the opportunity to advance their fledgling interests or established passions in dance while receiving college credit. These students can be well served by internships in the dance industry. Here’s what you can do to make their experiences possible and positive.

Sweet Summer Sweat

“The benefits [of internships] are huge,” says Donna Burchfield, director of the dance department at Hollins University, a women’s liberal arts college in Roanoke, Virginia. “Students who have done internships come back with a new sense of confidence and a larger view of the world of dance. They begin to make connections between their work in the studio and how dance survives outside the studio.” This expanded worldview gives them confidence to take more risks. Some also get a dose of reality about running nonprofit organizations. “They begin to see all the support that is needed to sustain the artform,” Burchfield says. “This is always a valuable lesson.”

Bonnie Eckard, interim chair of Arizona State University’s department of dance at Herberger College of Fine Art, agrees that the real-world aspect of internships is especially beneficial. “The university experience is fairly idealistic,” she says. “Students don’t have to constantly worry about where money is coming from. They don’t have to have a community aspect to what they do. An internship helps them understand the world they’re going to be living in once they graduate.”

Eleanor Weisman, director of Allegheny College’s dance studies program, says colleges also benefit by forging a special bond with the dance and local communities through alumni connections. In Allegheny’s case, students from the Meadville, Pennsylvania–based program have found internships in Chicago or New York, says Weisman.

Types of Toil
The possibilities for internships are limitless. They can include administrative work in college dance departments or at professional dance companies, apprenticeships, as well as behind-the-scenes work in summer theater or opportunities to teach young children. Students at Hollins even curated improv festivals; assisted and performed with professional dance companies; presented original work in alternative spaces around the U.S., and created outreach performances and classes.

Internships can also be used to combine multiple interests. Dance therapy and dance medicine are just two fusion possibilities that students can pursue.

The Allegheny dance department has a built-in internship opportunity: The faculty and students run Creating Landscapes, an annual summer camp for elementary, middle and high schools that focuses on interdisciplinary exploration of active learning through the arts and sciences.
The internships students pursue can change their outlook on the artform. For example, a dance education internship can provide a perspective outside of performance. “It’s invaluable for students to work with children and witness and experience aesthetic education activities,” says Weisman. “They see how children learn and they get to participate in the joy of learning. It helps them see the potential that art and the artistic process have for education.”

Looking for Labor
In order to secure an internship for the summer, it’s important to begin the process early. Encourage students to start researching opportunities as soon as the first spring semester begins. Be sure to stay involved and guide them as they consider the options and find a place that will best fit their needs.

Your department likely has contacts, in a variety of dance fields, who may be interested in hosting interns. As an individual, you may not have the right connection to place every interested student in an internship, but pooling your department’s contacts will provide a great starting point.

You may be tempted to take over the internship arrangements, but it’s important to leave the application process to the students. Applying for an internship is good preparation for the real job hunt. Instruct students to send a resumé and cover letter to their chosen organizations. Offer to review their materials. Once they have been accepted for a position, get in touch with the organization to facilitate the internship and help students find a mentor.

Dance departments need to know whom they’re dealing with when sending their students out into the community, so that students aren’t exploited. “There may be a fly-by-night organization that really wants cheap labor,” Eckard explains. “We don’t set up internships with organizations that we don’t know, so a track record is very important. We don’t want students just licking envelopes.”
While watching out for her students, Eckard also makes sure that hosting organizations are not shortchanged. “We’re very careful about sending our very best,” Eckard says. “The worst thing for the university is if the students don’t show up or do a poor job.”

Professional Prepping
Once internship positions are secured, meet to discuss the details. At ASU, faculty advisors and students write up work agreements that spell out how many hours a week students should work and how many credits they can earn. This is also the time when students will need to get written approval from three different sources: the faculty advisor, the organization with which they will be working and the university administration—to determine which organization would be liable in case of injury during the internship. Usually the university takes on that responsibility.

Double Duty

Stay involved throughout your students’ summer experience. In addition to requiring students to keep journals, ASU also asks the advisor to go on site visits, if possible, to help students get the most out of the internship. This supervision lays the groundwork for evaluation.

In most programs, students can earn up to four credits for their internships. The mentor at the site of the internship is asked to do a written evaluation of the student’s work and progress. The faculty advisor then translates that evaluation into a final grade. At ASU, grades are based on conferrals with organization overseers and the students’ journals, which indicate whether the students have kept the commitments made in the work agreement. Some schools require written work from the intern during the summer; others may do site visits or base a grade on a mentor’s observations.

At the Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, a significant paper is required of students who choose to get credit for an internship, says Patricia Mayer, director of dance. An advisor who monitors the internship is also charged with overseeing the written work and assigning a grade. At Boston University, dance program director Micki Taylor-Pinney awards pass-fail grades based on an informal presentation from the student about the summer work, feedback from the student’s mentor and sometimes a video of the student in the work environment.

In the dance industry, as in many other fields, internships are vital building blocks of a college graduate’s resumé. Your expertise and supervision can lead your students to a summer stint at a reputable organization, which can help launch a career by opening doors for them within the dance community. DT

Diane Curtis is a freelance writer based in Mill Valley, CA. She has written on education topics for the San Francisco Chronicle.

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