Willie Brown, Jr., didn’t know much about dance until a dance coordinator at his school, Greenfield Community College (GCC) in Greenfield, Massachusetts, encouraged him to see an African dance performance being presented on campus. Intrigued by what he saw, Brown signed up for a dance class and discovered his passion. He knew he wanted a professional career. His credits transferred seamlessly to the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and, since completing a BFA in 2002, Brown has traveled the country dancing with luminaries like Katherine Dunham, Garth Fagan and Augusto Soledade. “The GCC faculty was so supportive and believed in me so much,” Brown says.
Community colleges offer numerous benefits for dancers who want to use a two-year program as a stepping-stone toward a BA or BFA. The open admissions policy at all community colleges allows students with lower GPAs or less -developed dance skills to catch up academically and artistically before transferring. And students and their families can save thousands of dollars in tuition fees by choosing a community college for the first two years of undergraduate study.
But in considering a community college, it’s important for dance students to know in advance that the school supports the ultimate goal of obtaining a four-year degree. To help students make a smooth transition, dance faculty at many community colleges form close relationships with nearby four-year schools. And many community college dance programs provide personal guidance for students who set their sights on a four-year degree.
This fall, Montgomery County Community College (MCCC) in Blue Bell, Pennsylvania, launched a new associate of arts program in dance. But even before the AA program was approved in May 2010, students at MCCC had transferred successfully into the dance programs at Temple University, Eastern University and Muhlenberg College. “We aim to give students a solid foundation in the courses they would be expected to take in the first two years of a BA dance program,” says Melinda Copel, coordinator of dance at MCCC. In addition to a broad core curriculum, dance majors at MCCC take ballet, modern, dance improvisation and composition. Theory, dance history and anatomy are woven into technique classes, and students study nutrition, conditioning and the fundamentals of music.
The curriculum at GCC, which offers an associate’s degree in liberal arts with a dance option, is designed to transfer to all Massachusetts state schools. GCC makes the process easy with “articulation agreements,” formal agreements between institutions that allow credits from one to be applied toward a specific degree at another.
All of the dance faculty at GCC have taught at or been affiliated with the nearby four-year college dance departments, so they stay abreast of developments that would affect their students. The school also participates in the New England Regional College Dance Conference, where GCC faculty and students meet and interact with faculty and students from four-year programs across New England.
When the time comes to move to the university level, students at community colleges often receive personalized attention. “I try to counsel them as they flesh out what their goals are: go professional, go into teaching, run a studio, work with children,” says Tess Boone, associate professor of dance at Salt Lake Community College (SLCC), which offers a dance program within the performing arts department.
“That helps me steer them toward a particular program.” If a student is interested in a professional career, Boone knows that the University of Utah is probably a good fit and the student should take advantage of SLCC’s technique classes. If teaching is the ultimate goal, Boone might advise the student to check out Weber State University, which offers a dance major, along with a minor in dance teaching.
Like GCC, Anne Arundel Community College (AACC) in Arnold, Maryland, has articulation agreements with all of the state schools. Staff at AACC’s Career and Transfer Resource Center help dance students determine where they’d like to continue their education and design an academic plan that gets them there.
Small Bumps, Big Rewards
Of course, there are challenges to beginning a dance degree at a community college. Students usually live off-campus, often at home, and many work full- or part-time. Because of the time crunch, community college students may find it difficult to squeeze in a daily technique class, which means they have to take the initiative to ensure they are prepared to enter a four-year program. And dancers may experience a “big fish/small pond” syndrome upon transferring. “Some of the larger schools like Temple can be overwhelming,” MCCC’s Copel says.
However, many students achieve success after initiating their dance degrees at the community college level. Kurt Gorrell, a graduate of AACC, transferred to Butler University and has performed in the national tours of Movin’ Out and Contact. And Danell Hathaway flourished in the dance program at SLCC and earned a BFA in dance from the University of Utah, where she is now working toward her master’s degree.
“My students just thrive,” says Lynda Fitzgerald, AACC’s dance director. “The faculty is here to let students know that there’s a big world out there and they have a lot of options.” DT
Fiona Kirk is a freelance journalist based in New York City.
Photo: Montgomery County Community College student Katie Pflueger in Chasing After the Wind, a self-choreographed solo (courtesy of Montgomery County Community College)
Photo courtesy of Montgomery County Community College