Higher Ed Guide: Two Structures for University Dance Programs

After becoming independent, Hunter College’s dance department saw increased enrollment.

When searching for the right college dance program (either as a student or faculty) your first concern is for quality of learning. You look for a good match in curriculum, degree options and subject emphasis. But how much attention should you pay to management structure? Whether a university dance program is independent or is housed within a broader department can have a huge impact on how it operates and what it can offer students. And the way administrative decisions are made says a lot about how dance is viewed by the college and the surrounding community. Though there’s no one right way for dance to exist within a university, there are reasons to champion both structures. DT asked professors familiar with both to comment.

The Independent Dance Department

When dance is an independent program, it doesn’t compete with other interests (like music or theater) for the use of the department’s budget. For example, at Hunter College in New York City, dance recently separated from music and, as an independent department, manages its own budget. This allowed the administration to focus on acquiring dance-specific resources, such as accompanists for technique classes, and the school has recently put in new sprung floors in two studios. “It allows us to focus on space specifically for dance without having to worry about a single space budget for both music and dance,” says acting provost and vice president for academic affairs Lon Kaufman.

Leadership of a dance program that is part of a larger department may be in the hands of a professor from theater, music or another program. When independent, a dance department will have a dance professor as director.

One challenge, though, is that dance departments may not have their own production staff. When the dance program at The University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg split from theater in 2012, current department chair Stacy Reischman Fletcher found that they would need to arrange for their own lighting and costumes. “Once we split, the hardest thing was production support,” she says. “We now budget for that. But it really is concert to concert. We can’t just assume that the theater person is going to light our works for us.”

For students wanting to immerse themselves fully in dance, an independent dance department might be a supportive choice. “A reason our split worked, and this is not always the case, was that we had no curriculum overlap,” says Fletcher. “Dance majors were not required to take any theater classes, and theater majors were not required to take any dance classes.”

At USM and Hunter, separating from other programs has been overwhelmingly positive. Hunter College has seen an increase in enrollment in dance. Likewise, USM’s dance department is thriving, currently at capacity with about 75 dance majors.

At UNT, the theater students provide lighting and costumes for the dance majors’ thesis concert.

When Dance Is Part of a Greater Whole

Being part of a larger department can be a boost for a dance program. “We have the opportunity to have more impact and presence on campus,” says Miriam Giguere, head of the Department of Performing Arts at Drexel University in Philadelphia, which houses dance, theater and music. “The opportunities are even greater, and there’s more of a sense of collaboration than there is of competition.”

Drexel has two theaters that belong to the whole department. “We’re not competing with theater and music for space,” says Giguere. “We share it because it’s all our space.” Similarly, at the University of North Texas in Denton, dance and theater are one department and share a building and the theater. The department chair is a theater professor, but the faculty works together to create a schedule for using facilities that meets both programs’ needs.

Human resources factor in as well. At Drexel and UNT, the dance programs share a technical director and production staff with their department’s other programs. “The dance majors get a fully produced concert,” says UNT associate professor Mary Lynn Babcock. The theater professors and their students provide costumes and lighting. “In return, the theater design tech students learn about lighting and costuming for dance,” she says.

Depending on the setup of a larger department, administrative channels can present a challenge. Before the split at USM, Fletcher says she had to jump through some extra hoops to accomplish program goals. “Because I was the director of dance within the department, it created an extra layer of confusing bureaucracy. Some things had to be routed through the chair, which was unnecessary, since we didn’t share anything with theater,” she says.

Allocation of resources can also be an issue. Fletcher mentioned scheduling conflicts that prevented dance from being able to use the theater department’s technical director. “It had gotten to the point where we were having to outsource on our own,” she says.

If interacting with other types of majors is important to a student, being part of a joint department is extremely beneficial. At Drexel, collaboration is not only encouraged, the faculty facilitates it. Giguere cites the department’s annual Performance Charrette as an example of Drexel’s multidisciplinary opportunities. For 72 hours, students from different disciplines work together in faculty-supervised teams to create a performance. Dancers and musicians participate, as well as students from other college programs like visual arts and digital media. “This structure allows students to be very creative and entrepreneurial,” says Giguere. “If they come to us with an idea for a project, we don’t have to cross any kind of administrative boundary to make something happen for them.” DT

Photos (from top): by Julie Lemberger, courtesy of Hunter College; by Smith Wilson Photography, courtesy of University of North Texas

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