College Application Advice from Dance Program Admissions Officers

University of Southern California-Kaufman School of Dance's 2017 admissions team (Carolyn Diloreto, courtesy Glorya Kaufman School of Dance at University of Southern California)

Applying for a college dance program can feel like a guessing game. Should you highlight all your competition titles and awards? How important are your academic grades? And how should you act in the audition? Here's advice from admissions officers from some of the top dance programs in the country about how to make your application stronger.


Donna Faye Burchfield
Director of the School of Dance at The University of the Arts, Philadelphia, PA

The University of the Arts' Winter Dancer Series, choreographed by faculty member Meredith Rainey (They of Brooklyn, courtesy University of the Arts)

What stands out at an audition?

"We look for dancers who are curious, appear to be independent thinkers, and have an openness about them. They do a great deal of dancing every single day at UArts, so they must also be physically strong and technically proficient."

What stands out on a resumé?

"We're really open in our thinking about the backgrounds of our students. We try to see beyond style and genre by focusing
on how their training choices tell us something about what they'll be like as a student."

What stands out academically?

"While academics are critical, we don't review the student's transcripts until they pass the audition. We place particular emphasis on their performance in the writing, humanities, artistic, and history disciplines. We don't believe that standardized tests are relevant in assessing the appropriateness of a dance applicant."

Sean Curran
Chair of the Dance Department at Tisch School of the Arts at New York University, New York, NY

New York University's Tisch Dance's Second Avenue Dance Company members Ji Hyun Kim, Janae Bonnen, and Carly Lepore rehearsing Trisha Brown's "Set and Reset/Reset" (Travis McGee, courtesy Tisch School o the Arts at New York University)

What stands out at an audition?

"It's not just about what you're capable of doing. We're also trying to figure out if you're trainable. Are you going to be open and receptive to our training? One thing I like to make clear is that we're looking to specifically produce contemporary dancers. Come, be inquisitive, be open, and have questions. Show us how you express your passion and joy."

What stands out in a solo?

"We don't want to see tricks. We don't want to see 32 fouetté turns or round-off back handsprings. We want to see you being yourself and learn more about what dancing means to you. I'm not interested in seeing you do steps; I'm interested in seeing you dance, and there's a difference."

What stands out in an interview?

"The interview is an extremely important part of the audition. Yes, you love to dance, but I want to hear about where you see yourself in the world. I want to see if a student has a political awareness, if they know why they want to dance, and if they have specific dreams in the dance world. I'm looking for applicants who are articulate and can express themselves, and who have questions. I also think it's important that an applicant does some research on the program and knows why they want to come to NYU."

What stands out academically?

"We have to rank the applicants based on how desirable they are. And it's a very difficult process, so we'll look at SAT scores and if it comes down to it, you may be bumped farther down on the list if your scores are lower."

Anne Aubert-Santelli
Director of admissions and student services at the Glorya Kaufman School of Dance at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles, CA

USC Kaufman students in class (Ema Peter, courtesy Glorya Kaufman School of Dance at University of Southern California)

What stands out in an online portfolio?

"When reviewing dance videos, we're looking at technique and artistry—not just mastery but also potential. Solo work shows off the dancer's individuality and is a terrific way to get to know the candidate. Our recommendation is to highlight the strongest sequence, and the first 30 seconds are the most important to make a good first impression. The specific genres don't matter—we encourage candidates to submit work that reflects their unique artistic abilities."

What stands out in a video response?

(A one-minute recorded response to a question prompt is required for USC Kaufman's application.) "We know that the video response is the hardest part of our portfolio for most candidates, but it's important that we see how dancers articulate their opinions verbally. We hope that students find a way to connect with the prompt on a personal level rather than just repeating the content from our website and brochures."

What stands out at an audition?

"We reassure candidates that we don't expect them to master everything. We just ask them to stay engaged, even if something feels awkward. We want to be able to see risk taking and enthusiasm throughout the entire process."

What stands out on a resumé?

"Because we're not looking for any one type of student, we don't necessarily look for varied training, lots of accolades, or specific summer programs. The resumé is helpful in providing context. We also keep in mind the issue of access. We know that not all candidates have the resources, financial or otherwise, to do everything."

Garfield Lemonius
Chair and associate artistic director of the dance department within the Conservatory of Performing Arts at Point Park University, Pittsburgh, PA

Point Park University students during a performance (Jeff Swenson, courtesy Point Park University)
What stands out at an audition?

"We're looking for dancers who are intellectually curious, and who are curious about movement. Dancers who have a lot of training can sometimes have that passion trained out of them. So, we want to see dancers who still show that passion, even if they aren't as skilled as other dancers in the room. Be open and ready to try new things. Messing up is OK. It's the recovery that's important."

What stands out on a resumé?

"We want dancers to be versatile, so we look for dancers who come in with a broad range of experiences."

Susan Jaffe
Dean of the School of Dance at University of North Carolina School of the Arts, Winston-Salem, NC

Gillian Murphy teaching class at University of North Carolina School of the Arts (Peter Mueller, courtesy University of North Carolina School of the Arts)

What stands out at an audition?

"The strongest applicant is able to easily pick up combinations and corrections. Students need to be very proactive and have a great work ethic. For example, if I give someone else a correction, a great student will take that correction on as well. I look for people who can stand in the front of the room and know the combination and the musicality themselves, and not be following others."

What stands out academically?

"Academically, they have to have over a certain GPA for us to be able to accept them, and once they're here they have to maintain a minimum GPA. So, we do place high importance on academics. But we find that, frequently, dancers are also strong academically because they have a great work ethic."

What stands out on a resumé?

"It doesn't matter where you've trained if you walk in the studio and don't look educated as a dancer. You can't lie in your dancing.
That is the proof."

Technique
Nan Melville, courtesy Genn

Not so long ago, it seemed that ballet dancers were always encouraged to pull up away from the floor. Ideas evolved, and more recently it has become common to hear teachers saying "Push down to go up," and variations on that concept.

Charla Genn, a New York City–based coach and dance rehabilitation specialist who teaches company class for Dance Theatre of Harlem, American Ballet Theatre and Ballet Hispánico, says that this causes its own problems.

"Often when we tell dancers to go down, they physically push down, or think they have to plié more," she says. These are misconceptions that keep dancers from, among other things, jumping to their full potential.

To help dancers learn to efficiently use what she calls "Mother Marley," Genn has developed these clever techniques and teaching tools.

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Teachers Trending
Alwin Courcy, courtesy Ballet des Amériques

Carole Alexis has been enduring the life-altering after-effects of COVID-19 since April 2020. For months on end, the Ballet des Amériques director struggled with fevers, tingling, dizziness and fatigue. Strange bruising showed up on her skin, along with the return of her (long dormant) asthma, plus word loss and stuttering.

"For three days I would experience relief from the fever—then, boom—it would come back worse than before," Alexis says. "I would go into a room and not know why I was there." Despite the remission of some symptoms, the fatigue and other debilitating side effects have endured to this day. Alexis is part of a tens-of-thousands-member club nobody wants to be part of—she is a COVID-19 long-hauler.


The state of Alexis' health changes from day to day, and in true dance-teacher fashion, she works through both the good and the terrible. "I tend to be strong because dance made me that way," she says. "It creates incredibly resilient people." This summer, as New York City began to ease restrictions, she pushed through her exhaustion and took her company to the docks in Long Island City, where they could take class outdoors. "We used natural barres under the beauty of the sky," Alexis says. "Without walls there were no limits, and the dancers were filled with emotion in their sneakers."

These classes led to an outdoor show for the Ballet des Amériques company—equipped with masks and a socially distanced audience. Since Phase 4 reopening in July, her students are back in the studio in Westchester, New York, under strict COVID-19 guidelines. "We're very safe and protective of our students," she says. "We were, long before I got sick. I'm responsible for someone's child."

Alexis says this commitment to follow the rules has stemmed, in part, from the lessons she's learned from ballet. "Dance has given me the spirit of discipline," she says. "Breaking the rules is not being creative, it's being insubordinate. We can all find creativity elsewhere."

Here, Alexis shares how she's helping her students through the pandemic—physically and emotionally—and getting through it herself.

How she counteracts mask fatigue:

"Our dancers can take short breaks during class. They can go outside on the sidewalk to breathe for a moment without their mask before coming back in. I'm very proud of them for adapting."

Her go-to warm-up for teaching:

"I first use a jump rope (also mandatory for my students), and follow with a full-body workout from the 7 Minute Workout app, preceding a barre au sol [floor barre] with injury-prevention exercises and dynamic stretching."

How she helps dancers manage their emotions during this time:

"Dancers come into my office to let go of stress. We talk about their frustration with not hugging their friends, we talk about the election, whatever is on their minds. Sometimes in class we will stop and take 15 minutes to let them talk about how their families are doing and make jokes, then we go back to pliés. The young people are very worried. You can see it in their eyes. We have to give them hope, laughter and work."

Her favorite teaching attire:

"I change my training clothes in accordance with the mood of my body. That said, I love teaching in the Gaynor Minden Women's Microtech warm-up dance pants in all available colors, with long-sleeve leotards. For shoes, I wear the Adult "Boost" dance sneaker in pink or black. Because I have long days of work, I often wear the Repetto Boots d'échauffement for a few exercises to relax my feet."

How she coped during the initial difficult months of her illness:

"I live across from the Empire State Building. It was lit red with the heartbeat of New York, and it put me in the consciousness of others suffering. I saw ambulances, one after another, on their way to the hospital. I broke thinking of all the people losing someone while I looked through my window. I thought about essential workers, all those incredible people. I thought about why dance isn't essential and the work we needed to do to make it such. Then I got a puppy, to focus on another life rather than staying wrapped in my own depression. It lifted my spirit. Thinking about your own problems never gets you through them."

The foods she can't live without:

"I must have seafood and vegetables. It is in my DNA to love such things—my ancestors were always by the ocean."

Recommended viewing:

"I recommend dancers watch as many full-length ballets as possible, and avoid snippets of dance out of context. My ultimate recommendation is the film of La Bayadère by Rudolf Nureyev. The cast includes the most incredible étoiles: Isabelle Guérin, Élisabeth Platel, Laurent Hilaire, Jean-Marie Didière, who were once the students of the revolutionary Claude Bessy."

Her ideal day off:

"I have three: one is to explore a new destination, town, forest or hiking trail; another is a lazy day at home; and the third, an important one that I miss due to the pandemic, is to go to the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, where my soul feels renewed by the sermons and the music."

Teachers Trending

Annika Abel Photography, courtesy Griffith

When the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis last May catalyzed nationwide protests against systemic racism, the tap community resumed longstanding conversations about teaching a Black art form in the era of Black Lives Matter. As these dialogues unfolded on social media, veteran Dorrance Dance member Karida Griffith commented infrequently, finding it difficult to participate in a meaningful way.

"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."

For example, she observed people discussing tap while demonstrating ignorance about Black culture. Or, posts that tried to impose upon tap the history or aesthetics of European dance forms.

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