After high school, Melissa Meng’s parents and teachers encouraged her to pursue a college degree, but the aspiring ballerina wasn’t convinced that giving up four of her precious professional dancing years was the best choice. Then, at her audition for Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music, she heard that a BFA in ballet could be completed in only three years; that made all the difference. “I realized I could get all the benefits of college, but still have time to do an unpaid traineeship or apprenticeship afterward,” says Meng, who graduated in May and is now a member of Colorado Ballet’s Studio Company. “After three years, I knew I was ready to be part of the professional world, and I’m so glad I had this option.”
This year, 12 out of 14 graduating dancers at IU chose this three-year plan, even though it’s not one that the school necessarily advocates. While there are clear perks to an accelerated degree, not all students are cut out for this nontraditional path. The long hours, lack of summer breaks and sacrifice of many quintessential college experiences are not in the best interest of all dancers. For the right student, however, a three-year degree could be a chance to get a head start on her career—and the key to saving up to an entire year’s worth of tuition.
Starting Full-Speed Ahead
But how is cramming a full education into three years even possible? Surprisingly, the day-to-day schedules of those on a three-year track are generally not very different from those staying for four years. Instead, students will often add semesters during the summer, and, as in Meng’s case, they may test out of many required courses with advanced placement credits from high school.
New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts makes a three-year degree (including two summers) the rule instead of the exception for its BFA students. “We do this for several reasons, and one is to get them out earlier so they can start working,” says Cherylyn Lavagnino, former co-chair of Tisch’s department of dance. (For more on Lavagnino’s recent career change, see page 68.) Though NYU’s format replaces a fourth year’s tuition with two summers’ worth, “this configuration is less expensive,” she says, taking into consideration the lower cost of summer tuition per unit and New York’s high living expenses. “Also, to be a professional dancer, you have to get used to the idea of training and being in shape all the time,” says Lavagnino. “Because of our program’s continuity during the summer, it instills that sense of professional practice.”
Tisch graduate Claire Westby says her accelerated degree laid the perfect groundwork for an intensely busy professional life. “I packed a lot into a short amount of time, with days that were longer than other college students’—often from 8:30 am to 10 pm,” says Westby, who now balances a full-time schedule as a member of Liz Gerring Dance with several other dance projects, including performing with Cherylyn Lavagnino Dance and running her own group, RedCurrant Collective. “I definitely see how my time in school prepared me for my rigorous schedule now.”
A Perfect Partnership
Though Tisch’s three-year format is rare, more and more schools are beginning to take on similar models. The Boston Conservatory, for example, is one of the latest universities to get on board—but only for specific students. Starting in fall 2015, accepted students from nearby boarding high school Walnut Hill School for the Arts will be able to complete college credits during their junior and senior years in high school in exchange for getting a BFA in only three years. Cathy Young, director of the Dance Division at The Boston Conservatory, explains that the program is only possible because of the conservatory’s unique relationship with Walnut Hill. “Our two schools share some faculty and have a close philosophical alignment, and the assumption is that these students are coming in not only at a certain technical level, but also with a lot of information from applied coursework,” she says. “Since they’ve already spent years in an intensive performing arts environment, they can be prepared for the field one year sooner. Plus there’s a huge economic benefit; they save about $50,000 in tuition.”
Walnut Hill students in this program will be on a different track from the rest of their class—unlike their four-year counterparts, they won’t choose a specialized area of dance to focus on—but Young promises that they will be completely integrated with other students, especially for their freshman and sophomore years.
Look Before You Leap
Young stresses that while the new program will offer plenty of perks, The Boston Conservatory still realizes that a three-year degree is not necessarily the best option for every student. “The higher education experience isn’t just about training and studying—it’s really about self-discovery and growing up,” she says. “For many students, that fourth year is critical—it’s when all the pieces come together. So a student who’s a good fit for this program has to be emotionally mature.”
IU ballet department chair Michael Vernon agrees that only certain students are cut out for an accelerated path, and though he never forbids a student from choosing it, he has encouraged dancers to weigh the pros and cons. “They have to be very technically concrete,” he says. “Sometimes I strongly feel that another year will help them impress at auditions. Not to mention the extra confidence that a year of performing in a college setting instills.” Vernon also warns that an intensive three-year plan with few breaks can be taxing because of the condensed workload—and he’s seen overwork injuries seriously delay some dancers’ plans.
Overall, students who have the most trouble finishing early are those who don’t plan ahead. Vernon says he’s seen many dancers think they’re prepared to graduate, only to realize they still have a few credits to go. “We’ve had dancers have to give up jobs because they didn’t plan well enough,” he says. “Graduating in three years requires really having all your ducks in a row.”
Dancers must also be willing to sacrifice some opportunities that come during the fourth year of a college dance education, such as performing with guest choreographers. They may also have to give up on classic “college” activities, such as joining extracurricular clubs or studying abroad, in order to fit in all necessary requirements. “There were definitely sacrifices,” says Westby. “For example, I didn’t get to come home after a long day at school and relax or go out every night. Instead, I had maybe half an hour at home before going back to school for rehearsals. But for me, the benefits outweighed any negatives. After my third year, I was really ready to be done and be dancing professionally.”
Meng agrees. “If dancers are going to college for the college experience, this may not be for them,” she says. “But if their main goal is to dance professionally, a three-year mind-set could be exactly what they need.” DT
Rachel Zar is a frequent contributor to Dance Teacher.
Photo by Scott Erb, courtesy of The Boston Conservatory; photo by Maximillian Tortoriello, courtesy of Meng