Getting Dance Down to a Science

A dance science degree prepares students for advanced study in dance medicine.

Andrea Alvarez was Texas A&M’s first dance science graduate.

When Andrea Alvarez graduated from high school, it seemed impossible for her to choose a college major. She’d grown up a ballet dancer but didn’t consider a dance degree. “I was going on the misconception that you can’t make a career out of dance,” she says. But once she arrived at Texas A&M as a general studies major, she found herself most often in the dance building. Texas A&M was then developing its dance science program, and Alvarez eventually realized this was where she belonged—taking science classes but applying everything to dance. In 2013, she became the school’s first student to graduate with a bachelor of science in kinesiology with a focus in dance science.

More than 20 dance science programs now exist throughout the country. Graduates go on to become physical therapists, dance therapists, orthopedic surgeons, nutritionists, athletic trainers for dance companies and even dance teachers and performers. Here, we answer five questions your students might have about this degree option.

What is a dance science degree?

It involves collaboration between a school’s dance and science departments, preparing students to enter graduate study and/or certification programs in physical therapy, dance therapy, dance science, Pilates or even medical school.

Schools label these degrees differently: At Texas A&M, it’s a BS in kinesiology with a concentration in dance science; at Elon University in North Carolina, it’s a BS in dance science; and at Goucher College in Maryland, students choose between a BA in dance with a focus on science (more dancing) and a BA in biological sciences with a concentration in dance science (more science).

Who gets this degree?

Though these programs draw dancers who want careers in dance medicine, they also attract dancers who want performance opportunities and intense academic study. These dancers may aspire to dance professionally, but they also want to prepare for a post-dance career.

“It kind of satisfies the parents—most of them have a knee-jerk reaction when their son or daughter wants to major in dance,” says Lauren Kearns, dance science coordinator at Elon. Andrew Vaca, dance chair at California State University, Long Beach, agrees: “Sometimes I get a sense that the only reason they’re allowing their child to audition for the program is because we have a dance science option.”

But students should know what they’re in for. Dance science majors generally take more theory and science classes each semester than dance majors, and if they want to perform, their schedules will be even tighter—students need a sense of independence and a certain level of academic achievement, says Vaca. “They are probably doing 5 to 10 more hours of homework every week than their friends who are BFA students,” he says.

Will I get to dance?

Absolutely—but the amount of dancing depends as much on the student’s choice as it does on the curriculum. “The reality is that students in the dance science option are probably not going to be able to take as many dance classes per semester as a BFA student,” says Vaca. “Some dance science majors are in technique class and a show every semester—and some struggle. I think it comes down to whether they have jobs off campus, and whether their schedules are freed up to be on campus all day and all night.”

Between technique class, rehearsals and choreographing her own work, Alvarez found herself dancing three to six hours a day. “It feels like I got a BFA and a BS all in one,” she says.

What kind of classes will I take?

At some schools, the first two years look like that of any other dance major’s—technique, nutrition and wellness, composition, dance history—along with a couple of extra science courses, like advanced biology and exercise science. These classes take place in the science department (with nondancers). Students also spend time in the dance studio studying Pilates and taking dance theory or kinesiology courses tailored to dance science majors.

Hands-on experience comes through class projects, assisting faculty members with research and interning with physical therapists or Pilates studios. “The opportunity to do research was one of the things that made me realize this was something I could do in the future,” says Alvarez, who participated in a study on the effectiveness of Pilates on abdominal endurance.

At Goucher, students get the chance to put their own dance science theories to the test. “If someone is interested in how to improve rotation, we would work with them to build a case study—and then to test that case study, going through the whole medical process,” says Amanda Thom Woodson, dance chair.

What happens after?

After graduation, it’s up to the student to decide what path to take. Dance science majors may go straight to the workforce (as Pilates or yoga teachers—many programs include certification) or enter physical therapy school or graduate school. Some pursue performing careers with plans to enter PT or medical school later. Woodson notes that dance science students have an advantage when applying to med school: “The student who is most successful in applying is not the one with a very narrow focus, but the one who has many passions and interests.” DT

Ashley Rivers is a writer and dancer in Boston.

Where to Study Dance Science

• California State University, Long Beach

• California State University, Northridge

• Case Western Reserve University, OH

• Elon University, NC

• Florida State University in Tallahassee

• George Mason University, VA

• Goucher College, MD

• Hope College, MI

• Indiana University Bloomington

• Ohio University in Athens

• Shenandoah University in Winchester, VA

• State University of New York at Brockport

• University of Oregon in Eugene

• University of South Florida in Tampa

• University of Utah in Salt Lake City

• University of Wyoming in Laramie

• Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond

Source: International Association for Dance Medicine & Science

Photo by Igor Kraguljac, courtesy of Alvarez

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