Crossing Cultures

“Study abroad.” The phrase immediately conjures up visions of Parisian cafés, tropical jungles, Tuscan hills and the African bush, all of which many students would jump at the chance to see while receiving college credit. If you’re interested in providing your dancers with such opportunities, read on for advice on developing a dance-specific international program at your school—it might be easier than you think. 

Define Your Goals

First, ask yourself a few basic questions that will help you define clear parameters for the program. 

WHAT: Think of how students can examine and expand upon what they already know. A quality study-abroad program should fulfill course or elective requirements in a creative learning environment that is different from a university setting. 

WHO: Consider whether you want to serve only students from your dance program or those from other departments and schools as well. Keep in mind that study-abroad programs require a minimum number of participants to cover expenses, so accepting outside students could aid in getting your program green-lighted.

WHERE: It will be easier to set up a program in a location that you’re already familiar with through travel or research. Scott Putman, an associate professor of dance and choreography at Virginia Commonwealth University, was interested in establishing a program in Rome, Italy, due to his research, but a chance inquiry about studying at the Accademia dell’Arte guided him to Tuscany instead. Last summer, he took six students there to study dance technique, composition and performance for five weeks.

Elizabeth Gillaspy, assistant professor of ballet at Texas Christian University, was drawn to develop her program, a three-week physical theater study in the United Kingdom, by the chance to partner with TCU alum Sarie Mairs Slee, a faculty member at England’s Edge Hill University. The program launched last summer, with students spending two weeks at Edge Hill and one week at Scotland’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

WHEN: Once you settle on the location, determine the length and dates. Research your chosen site’s seasonal weather conditions and calendar of events beforehand to help tailor the program to your needs. Summer, for example, is festival season, so building a program around a dance festival will give you a date range and thematic anchor to work with. 

WHY: Articulate the reasons for developing your study. Create a mission statement, especially if you’ll be seeking grants to cover costs. 

Gillaspy designed her program with an eye toward helping students see firsthand how dance is defined in other countries. “It was a question of trying to find a way for students to really seek and experience something that they wouldn’t have a chance to locally, or maybe even nationally,” Gillaspy says. “We are hoping that this will be the beginning of looking at their own work differently and of crafting and connecting their own work culturally.” 

Get Support from Your School 

Once you’ve outlined your objectives, turn to your university for assistance. Most schools have an on-campus organization that can provide considerable support in putting together a study-abroad program. 

Many schools will also support faculty through internal grants when working on international projects. For example, Gillaspy and her colleague received a Curriculum Development grant from TCU to help cover travel costs for a site visit in 2006, two years before implementing their program. “That helped us do our legwork for developing the course,” she says. 

Establish Outside Partnerships

In addition to school support, be sure to create strong partnerships with organizations based in your destination city, preferably those committed to facilitating international education. When Putman reached out to the Accademia dell’Arte, a U.S.-based organization, it made figuring out the logistics much easier, since it already had a program model with housing. All he had to do was add a dance component.

Through TCU’s connection with Slee, Gillaspy was able to partner with Edge Hill, which provided housing and studio space for the first two weeks. “Having a partner in the place where you want to be makes a big difference. I think that was really key,” she says. 

Outline The Costs

The total cost for an international study program generally includes lodging, administrative fees (which go toward faculty expenses), insurance and special fares for excursions or performance tickets. Tuition will sometimes be added to the overall fee, if the course work is through your home institution. For a program like Putman’s, however, tuition was included in Accademia dell’Arte’s overall fee, making it each student’s responsibility to transfer earned credits to their university. Airfare and other travel expenses are paid for by the participants and not included in the package cost.

Remember that if students can’t afford to go, your program won’t take flight, no matter how great the purpose. Look into financial aid resources available through your school, as well as outside organizations. 

While study-abroad programs don’t come cheap, the experience and lessons learned are priceless. Your goal should be to develop a program that is safe, enjoyable and transformational—one that leaves a lasting impression on your students. Adrian Busby, a TCU modern dance major who attended Gillaspy’s UK program, sums it up best: “Six months after I went, it was still resonating. It’s an experience that’s never-ending even though I’m back, and I really appreciate that.” DT

Lea Marshall is producer/assistant professor at Virginia Commonwealth University’s Department of Dance and Choreography and co-founder of Ground Zero Dance in Richmond, VA.

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