Early Exit

Should your students consider a three-year college plan? 

Beginning in fall 2015, select Boston Conservatory students will be able to graduate in three years. Here, BoCo students rehearse with choreographer Dwight Rhoden during his spring 2014 residency.

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.

Meng, now a member of
Colorado Ballet’s Studio Company

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

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.

Keep reading... Show less
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.

Keep reading... Show less
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."

Get Dance Business Weekly in your inbox

Sign Up Used in accordance with our Privacy Policy.