Helping students make the leap from studio to college dance

Karen Schupp, center, with ASU dance students

For many young dancers, leaving their home studio to enter a college dance program can come as a shock—like diving into a pool and forgetting how to swim. Often, they’re asked to engage with dance in strikingly different ways than they have before. Freshmen dance majors who are accustomed to measuring their success in very specific ways—by their class level at their studio, or by their score from judges at a competition—may suddenly be at a loss in an improvisation class or a modern dance class that asks them to begin lying down in the X position.

As their studio teacher, you’re charged with the task of making that transition from studio to college as smooth as possible—by preparing your students well for the new world of college dance and, consequently, instilling confidence in them. “The more confident the student who steps into our program, the more sense they have of who they are and what they’re capable of,” says Stephan Koplowitz, dean of the dance department at Cal Arts. Here are three challenges a college freshman often faces in a modern-based college dance department—and strategies for you to meet them head-on and start cultivating that confidence.

Talk About It: What Is Dance?

Many freshmen dance majors come to college with a fairly narrow understanding of what dance is. They are usually only familiar with ballet, jazz, tap and contemporary, and they’ve devoted most of their time to preparing for recitals or competitions.

Help your students expand their understanding of dance by “planning a field trip to see a dance show that is not a Western European concert dance performance,” says Karen Schupp, a professor at Arizona State University. An African or classical Indian dance performance can immediately broaden their perceptions.

“Opportunities for students to talk and write about what they’re experiencing and seeing could go a long way toward preparing them for college,” says Schupp. A good way to do this is to encourage your students to deepen their thinking about dance. “If they go to a competition and watch lots of pieces, ask them why a particular dance was outstanding,” she says. “If they respond, ‘The dancer did 32 fouetté turns,’ ask what beyond that made the dance outstanding.” In this way, “students can start to articulate what it is that made them have that visceral response. So they’re practicing finding depth in their experience.”

Shake It Up: What Is Technique?

Another challenge for freshmen dance majors is the introduction of new teaching styles and techniques, often including a somatics-based (or mind-body technique) approach. Their definition of technique must shift to encompass more information about how the body works and what progress means. A goal of a college technique class might be “developing somatic awareness—specifically, how your pelvis relates to gravity,” says Schupp. Though she testifies that somatic approaches to technique are something students come to value, it’s difficult for them to accept that in the first semester. Karen Bradley, a professor at the University of Maryland, College Park, remembers a student returning for her sophomore year and asking, “Are we going to have to lie on the floor and breathe again?” Bradley says she looked at her and said, “Every day, sweetheart, every day.”

Prepare your students by taking occasional breaks from mastering certain technical feats or learning a new routine to offer master classes in different dance forms or styles new to them. Finding teachers from outside the studio—especially those from colleges—to lead classes in Horton, Cunningham, flamenco or Afro-Caribbean will give your dancers a taste of what awaits them in a college program. Try starting your own classes with a focused breathing exercise or even a short meditation, getting students to link breath with movement and focus on their core. Shake up your ballet class with a floor barre, or begin jazz with a Pilates-inspired warm-up.

Open Doors: What Is Choreography? 

A third challenge for new college dancers revolves around dancemaking. According to Koplowitz, when it comes to choreography, there is a big learning curve. “All of a sudden students are put in the position of having to create movement and come up with solutions to movement problems,” he says. “They tend to enter college having just learned a lot of steps.”

Give your students the opportunity to be leaders, whether as choreographers or rehearsal or class assistants. “They’ll leave with some sense of their ability to have a vision and direct other people,” says Koplowitz. “If students don’t understand how movement is made or what the concerns and pressures of a choreographer are, they won’t be sensitive performers and collaborators in college.

Rather than stressing a single-minded focus on comparison or competition with your students, Koplowitz advises giving them a creative problem to solve, allowing them to express themselves and gain confidence. Ask your students to create their own transition between two sections of a routine or even improvise a few eight-counts. “They’ll see that they have their own unique voice,” he says. With that knowledge—and confidence—in hand, your students will be ready to tackle anything that comes their way in college dance. DT

Lea Marshall is a freelance writer and associate chair of Virginia Commonwealth University’s Department of Dance and Choreography.

 Photo by Tim Trumble, courtesy of Arizona State University

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