Higher Ed: Low-Residency Degree Programs Offer Working Artists Flexibility

Beatrice Capote: working artist, teacher, MFA candidateIn today's dance world, it's nearly impossible to get a teaching position at the university level if you don't have an MFA. But when you've spent years as a choreographer or performer building an audience for your work or honing your craft, the thought of returning to school may seem like a pipe dream. Yet, thanks to a number of new low-residency MFA programs that balance on-campus intensives with distance learning, many dance professionals and teaching artists are doing just that.

Whether your ultimate goal is to teach in academia or to strengthen your practice as an artist—or both—a low-residency master's program offers the opportunity to further your career without having to uproot it. Here are three educators who made it work.

Amara Tabor-Smith

Lecturer at University of California, Berkeley

Hollins University, two-year program

Though Amara Tabor-Smith was already an appointed lecturer at UC Berkeley when she enrolled at Hollins, she wanted to expand her options. Like many dance professionals, she lacked an undergraduate degree. “I wanted to increase my potential," she says, “but going to school full-time wasn't an option."

Hollins offers three MFA tracks, including an on-campus program. The most competitive of its low-residency programs is a two-summer track, which allows mid-career artists to earn up to 12 credits for previous work and takes two years to complete. For less-experienced professionals, there's a three-summer option. Hollins worked with Tabor-Smith—who had danced with and served as associate director of Urban Bush Women before founding her own company—to tailor a program to suit her needs, given her professional experience. Hollins, unlike most programs, doesn't require a BA or BFA; nevertheless, she worried about her ability to keep up. Her cohort's close-knit environment, however, helped her overcome her fears. “We were able to support each other," she says.

One unique opportunity for Hollins students is the chance to study abroad in Frankfurt, Germany, in multiple three-week segments and complete a two-day retreat in New York City (in addition to spending five weeks in residence at the Roanoke, Virginia, campus). Coursework places an emphasis on dance history and contemporary trends from a global perspective and includes mentored studio practice and creative writing (personal narrative, poetry) to inspire and inform dancemaking.

Heather Pultz

Public high school teacher

George Washington University, 18-month program

Dana Tai Soon Burgess, dirctor of GWU's low-residency MFA in Washington, DC, wants to leverage students' skills, connections and experience to get them where they want to be in 3, 5 or 10 years. For graduate Heather Pultz, that included her background in education (teaching at a DC magnet school, School Without Walls) and an interest in foreign travel.

The program focuses on choreography and begins with an eight-week residency at GWU. Students then complete two semesters of supervised distance education, using the virtual learning environment Blackboard, chatrooms and Skype. They upload private files of their work through Vimeo or YouTube to connect with faculty mentors across the country and graduate with performance portfolios and personal websites.

Pultz leveraged the international connections she made at GWU to teach and choreograph in Florence over the summer. Next, she's hoping to bring her School Without Walls kids to Bali, via a partnership with the Indonesian Embassy in DC, so they can learn Javanese and Balinese dance. “The MFA behind my name is opening doors," says Pultz.

Beatrice Capote

Professional dancer; freelance dance teacher

Montclair State University, two-year program

Beatrice Capote wasn't sure how she'd be able to balance her performing and teaching gigs with Montclair's MFA program. But she wanted to further her career as an educator and work on her solo choreographic practice, a blend of contemporary and Afro-Cuban dance.

Montclair's new program is only a 25-minute commute from NYC, which allows Capote to juggle her teaching gigs in the city with her studies in New Jersey. Not that it's easy—she wakes up at 5 or 6 am to complete her writing assignments before teaching her own classes. The sacrifice is worth it, she says.

Students spend four weeks on campus for each of two summers and complete three independent projects that encourage them to delve deeper into a subject of expertise or branch out into something new. Coursework ranges from Laban Movement Analysis to embodied anatomy and improvisation. Pedagogy is also required, since most students are used to teaching master classes instead of semester-long courses. Faculty members help students figure out how to make that transition and structure a college class over the course of the program's two years.

Being exposed to so many new ideas at once can feel overwhelming, but Capote knows it's ultimately a good thing. “It's about allowing yourself to not know exactly what you're doing," she says. “Our professors say, 'We want you to get lost and then come back up.'" DT

Kat Richter is a professor of cultural anthropology and dance. She lives in Philadelphia.

Photo by Russell Haydn, courtesy of Capote

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