Don't Get It Twisted: Dance Is An Intellectual Pursuit

How many times have you been questioned for not pursuing something "more serious"? Photo by Nadim Merrikh/Unsplash

People have a tendency to think of dance as purely physical and not intellectual. But when we separate movement from intellect, we are limit what dance can do for the world.

It's not hard to see that dance is thought of as less than other so-called "intellectual pursuits." How many dancers have been told they should pursue something "more serious"? How many college dance departments don't receive funding on par with theater or music departments, much less science departments?


Perhaps that's because dance only leaves behind traces. The words and decisions that go into making dances have a hard time being accounted for, and choreographic notes and videos cannot fully capture a dance work. Dance depends on the presence of the body. Unfortunately, it's difficult to explain to non-dancers how corporal movement is a means of thinking and engaging with complex ideas. That's why it's so important that dancers can talk or write about their work, translating the corporal knowledge into language.

When we acknowledge that our bodies think, move, translate, react—often in conjunction with linguistic thought or prior to it—we can use dance as a tool.

Dance Can Share Our Stories Across Borders & Generations

Sharing dance shares stories from generation to generation. Photo by Joy Real/Unsplash

As dancers, we know that more than just emotions and physical training go into dancing. Cultural knowledge gets passed on through music and dance, particularly for cultures with strong oral traditions. The gestures, stories and symbolisms, passed from generation to generation, and across borders, help us connect and understand our own and others' histories.

Movement Creates Empathy in The Audience

A change in movement can affect our minds. Photo of a Dance Theatre of Harlem rehearsal by Quinn Wharton

Research has also shown that when we change our posture, we can change our state of mind, and gestures and movements influence our emotions. And that affects not only the dancer. Dance has a unique power to communicate through a process known as kinesthetic empathy. Recent discoveries in neuroscience prove that we can empathize, and even experience (through what have been termed "mirror neurons"), the movements we see someone else doing. Dance oversteps the need for language as a mediator.

Linguistic Intelligence Has Its Place in Dance, Too

Bill T. Jones has long used text to deepen his dance work. Photo by Liza Voll, courtesy BTJ/AZDC

That's not to say that language isn't part of dance. Choreographers craft dancers' intentions and movements with words, images and metaphors. Even in improvisation, a director dictates a score, and dancers translate the imagery into corporal form.

When choreographers layer dance and words, it engages the audience in new ways. As Bill T. Jones explains, "You see one thing and you hear another thing, and then the audience puts together what they mean."

Dance Can Help Us Better Understand Our World

Ananya Chatterjea's Shyamali was created as a tribute to women who've stood up to oppression. Photo via ananyadancetheatre.org

Many choreographers use dance to shed light on today's most pressing topics. Some use dance in conjunction with social activism, like Ananya Dance Theatre's Ananya Chatterjea, who recently created Shyamali as a tribute to women across the world who have stood up against oppression. Others explore the nuances of science: Michelle Dorrance's Myelination, for example, translates the biological process of a myelin sheath forming around a nerve into tap dance. Not to mention artists who use their dance practice as research, focusing on the process of dance making to explore a question or subject.

The Mind-Body Connection Is a Powerful Coping Tool

Movement can help us better cope with traumatic experiences. Photo via marylhurst.edu

In dance therapy, movement functions as a critical tool in understanding and coping with traumatic experiences. It relies on the fact that movement communicates, acknowledging the crucial mind-body connection.

Through Dance, We Can Embody a Brighter Future

Théogène Niwenshuti shared the healing powers of dance after the Rwandan genocide. Photo via Facebook.

On a community level, dance has been successfully used in reconciliation processes in previously divided or war-torn countries, such as Rwanda, Australia, South Africa and Colombia. We relate to others not just with language, but with gestures and physical contact.

Through dance, we can imagine new futures or ways of interacting with the world—in performance we can become anyone (or anything), which can be more than an escape, but a way of pushing beyond the status quo and finding new ways of moving through the world.

Dancers Connect Multiple Parts of Ourselves

Dance uses the connections between the cerebral, physical and emotional parts of ourselves to delve into our humanity. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

Dance intertwines the cerebral, physical and emotional; science tries to unravel the connections between these. Dance uses these inherent connections to delve deeper into our humanity, and create new ways of reflecting on the world. In that way, dance is a crucial tool in intellectual pursuits.

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.

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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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Studio Owners
Courtesy Tonawanda Dance Arts

If you're considering starting a summer program this year, you're likely not alone. Summer camp and class options are a tried-and-true method for paying your overhead costs past June—and, done well, could be a vehicle for making up for lost 2020 profits.

Plus, they might take on extra appeal for your studio families this year. Those struggling financially due to the pandemic will be in search of an affordable local programming option rather than an expensive, out-of-town intensive. And with summer travel still likely in question this spring as July and August plans are being made, your studio's local summer training option remains a safe bet.

The keys to profitable summer programming? Figuring out what type of structure will appeal most to your studio clientele, keeping start-up costs low—and, ideally, converting new summer students into new year-round students.


Find a formula that works for your studio

For Melanie Boniszewski, owner of Tonawanda Dance Arts in upstate New York, the answer to profitable summer programming lies in drop-in classes.

"We're in a cold-weather climate, so summer is actually really hard to attract people—everyone wants to be outside, and no one wants to commit to a full season," she says.

Tonawanda Dance Arts offers a children's program in which every class is à la carte: 30-minute, $15 drop-in classes are offered approximately two times a week in the evenings, over six weeks, for different age groups. And two years ago, she created her Stay Strong All Summer Long program for older students, which offers 12 classes throughout the summer and a four-day summer camp. Students don't know what type of class they're attending until they show up. "If you say you're going to do a hip-hop class, you could get 30 kids, but if you do ballet, it could be only 10," she says. "We tell them to bring all of their shoes and be ready for anything."

Start-up costs are minimal—just payroll and advertising (which she starts in April). For older age groups, Boniszewski focuses on bringing in her studio clientele, rather than marketing externally. In the 1- to 6-year-old age group, though, around 50 percent of summer students tend to be new ones—98 percent of whom she's been able to convert to year-round classes.

A group of elementary school aged- girls stands in around a dance studio. A teacher, a young black man, stands in front of the studio, talking to them

An East County Performing Arts Center summer class from several years ago. Photo courtesy ECPAC

East County Performing Arts Center owner Nina Koch knows that themed, weeklong camps are the way to go for younger dancers, as her Brentwood, California students are on a modified year-round academic school calendar, and parents are usually looking for short-term daycare solutions to fill their abbreviated summer break.

Koch keeps her weekly camps light on dance: "When we do our advertising for Frozen Friends camp, for example, it's: 'Come dance, tumble, play games, craft and have fun!'"

Though Koch treats her campers as studio-year enrollment leads, she acknowledges that these weeklong camps naturally function as a way for families who aren't ready for a long-term commitment to still participate in dance. "Those who aren't enrolled for the full season will be put into a sales nurture campaign," she says. "We do see a lot of campers come to subsequent camps, including our one-day camps that we hold once a month throughout our regular season."

Serve your serious dancers

One dilemma studio owners may face: what to do about your most serious dancers, who may be juggling outside intensives with any summer programming that you offer.

Consider making their participation flexible. For Boniszweski's summer program, competitive dancers must take six of the 12 classes offered over a six-week period, as well as the four-day summer camp, which takes place in mid-August. "This past summer, because of COVID, they paid for six but were able to take all 12 if they wanted," she says. "Lots of people took advantage of that."

For Koch, it didn't make sense to require her intensive dancers to participate in summer programming, partly because she earned more revenue catering to younger students and partly because her older students often made outside summer-training plans. "That's how you build a well-rounded dancer—you want them to go off and get experience from teachers you might not be able to bring in," she says.

Another option: Offering private lessons. Your more serious dancers can take advantage of flexible one-on-one training, and you can charge higher fees for individualized instruction. Consider including a financial incentive to get this kind of programming up and running. "Five years ago, we saw that some kids were asking for private lessons, so we created packages: If you bought five lessons, you'd get one for free—to get people in the door," says Boniszewksi. "After two years, once that program took off, we got rid of the discount. People will sign up for as many as 12 private lessons."

A large group of students stretch in a convention-style space with large windows. They follow a teacher at the front of the room in leaning over their right leg for a hamstring stretch

Koch's summer convention experience several years ago. Photo courtesy East County Performing Arts Center

Bring the (big) opportunities to your students

If you do decide to target older, more serious dancers for your summer programming, you may need to inject some dance glamour to compete with fancier outside intensives.

Bring dancers opportunities they wouldn't have as often during the school year. For Boniszewski, that means offering virtual master classes with big-name teachers, like Misha Gabriel and Briar Nolet. For Koch, it's bringing the full convention experience to her students—and opening it up to the community at large. In past years, she's rented her local community center for a weekend-long in-house convention and brought in professional ballet, jazz, musical theater and contemporary guest teachers.

In 2019, the convention was "nicely profitable" while still an affordable $180 per student, and attracted 120 dancers, a mix of her dancers and dancers from other studios. "It was less expensive than going to a big national convention, because parents didn't have to worry about lodging or travel," Koch says. "We wanted it to be financially attainable for families to experience something like this in our sleepy little town."

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