If Your Students Think College Is Too Easy, Here's How They Can Deal

It's fairly common to get to college and find that you aren't being challenged. Photo by Carlos Funn, courtesy University of Michigan

It's not uncommon for students to arrive at college and find that it isn't as hard as they thought it would be. Maybe they aren't placed in the correct level. Maybe it's an attitude problem. Maybe teachers are reviewing basics before diving into more advanced material. And maybe the program truly isn't challenging enough.

But how can dancers making the adjustment to college sort through all these possibilities? Open communication with faculty members can be key to figuring out what's really at work.

Why It Happens

Your Program Is Going Back to Basics

The first year of college is often about going through foundational material. Here, University of Michigan students. Photo by Peter Smith, courtesy U Michigan

One reason some students might not feel challenged when they arrive at college is because many programs use the first year as an opportunity to go through foundational material. "Students wonder why they're breaking steps down all over again, not realizing that teachers are rebuilding their technique and clearing their bad habits," says Jessica Fogel, chair of University of Michigan's dance program. "Dancers feel like they're losing momentum when really they're reestablishing themselves on firmer ground."

You're Learning a New Style

Starting from scratch with a new style may feel deceptively easy. Here, Meredith College students, Courtesy Meredith Marketing

The same can be true of learning a new style: "In modern class, when we're lying on the floor doing leg swings, it can feel easy, like we're not dancing," says Carol Finley, director of Meredith College's dance department. "But that's missing the deeper point of what's happening in the hip joint, or at the points of contact with the floor."

You Aren't Getting Corrections

Not getting corrections may make you think you've mastered the material. Here, Meredith College students, Courtesy Meredith Marketing

Finley says that sometimes professors don't give as many corrections at the beginning of the semester, which could lead students to believe that they're mastering the material, when really they just aren't getting any feedback yet.

Your Program Is Actually Not Hard Enough

Melanie Holt says your peers can be an important factor if you're considering transferring. Photo by John Campbell, courtesy Holt

It may be the case that you need to transfer to a harder program, but be sure to give your school a chance before you do. Wait until you have an opportunity to perform at your school, suggests Finley. She says students often find their place in a program after experiencing the challenge and fulfillment of their first performance. Recent University of Michigan graduate Melanie Holt says that your peers can be a key factor, too: "If the people around you aren't as driven as you, it's time to look elsewhere."

What You Can Do About It

Talk to A Professor

Talk to a professor about why you're not feeling challenged. Photo via Stocksnap

This should be your first step. Your teachers can give you ideas of what you should be working on or how to make your classes harder.

Take Initiative

Melanie Holt sought out opportunities beyond the classroom to push herself. Photo by Kirk Donaldson, courtesy Holt.

"I don't think it's the job of your dance classes to give you everything you need to be a successful dancer," says Holt. She sought out additional training in the musical theater department when she wasn't feeling pushed, and got involved in extracurricular projects like photo shoots.

Tune In to Your Body

Taking somatics can help make your technique classes more rewarding. Photo via Stocksnap

Finley suggests taking somatics so that no matter the level of the technique class, you can investigate what's happening in your body and work on your alignment.

Reach Outside Your Comfort Zone

Challenge yourself by trying new things. Photo by Peter Smith, courtesy U Michigan

"Do the things that you're least comfortable with," says Fogel. "Try to develop versatility and range."

Find a Mentor

U Michigan students can talk through their experiences with their assigned mentor. Photo by Kirk Donaldson, courtesy U Michigan

At University of Michigan, every incoming student is paired with a mentor in the class above them. Talking to an older student about your experience can bring helpful perspective.

Make Sure Your Program Will Challenge You In the First Place

Attend a technique class before choosing a school. Photo by Sarah Walker

Before committing to a school, sit in or participate in a technique class, attend a show, peruse the course catalogue and research faculty and alumni. Do your homework to make sure the program will be hard enough for you.

Music
Mary Malleney, courtesy Osato

In most classes, dancers are encouraged to count the music, and dance with it—emphasizing accents and letting the rhythm of a song guide them.

But Marissa Osato likes to give her students an unexpected challenge: to resist hitting the beats.

In her contemporary class at EDGE Performing Arts Center in Los Angeles (which is now closed, until they find a new space), she would often play heavy trap music. She'd encourage her students to find the contrast by moving in slow, fluid, circular patterns, daring them to explore the unobvious interpretation of the steady rhythms.


"I like to give dancers a phrase of music and choreography and have them reinterpret it," she says, "to be thinkers and creators and not just replicators."

Osato learned this approach—avoiding the natural temptation of the music always being the leader—while earning her MFA in choreography at California Institute of the Arts. "When I was collaborating with a composer for my thesis, he mentioned, 'You always count in eights. Why?'"

This forced Osato out of her creative comfort zone. "The choices I made, my use of music, and its correlation to the movement were put under a microscope," she says. "I learned to not always make the music the driving motive of my work," a habit she attributes to her competition studio training as a young dancer.

While an undergraduate at the University of California, Irvine, Osato first encountered modern dance. That discovery, along with her experience dancing in Boogiezone Inc.'s off-campus hip-hop company, BREED, co-founded by Elm Pizarro, inspired her own, blended style, combining modern and hip hop with jazz. While still in college, she began working with fellow UCI student Will Johnston, and co-founded the Boogiezone Contemporary Class with Pizarro, an affordable series of classes that brought top choreographers from Los Angeles to Orange County.

"We were trying to bring the hip-hop and contemporary communities together and keep creating work for our friends," says Osato, who has taught for West Coast Dance Explosion and choreographed for studios across the country.

In 2009, Osato, Johnston and Pizarro launched Entity Contemporary Dance, which she and Johnston direct. The company, now based in Los Angeles, won the 2017 Capezio A.C.E. Awards, and, in 2019, Osato was chosen for two choreographic residencies (Joffrey Ballet's Winning Works and the USC Kaufman New Movement Residency), and became a full-time associate professor of dance at Santa Monica College.

At SMC, Osato challenges her students—and herself—by incorporating a live percussionist, a luxury that's been on pause during the pandemic. She finds that live music brings a heightened sense of awareness to the room. "I didn't realize what I didn't have until I had it," Osato says. "Live music helps dancers embody weight and heaviness, being grounded into the floor." Instead of the music dictating the movement, they're a part of it.

Osato uses the musician as a collaborator who helps stir her creativity, in real time. "I'll say 'Give me something that's airy and ambient,' and the sounds inspire me," says Osato. She loves playing with tension and release dynamics, fall and recovery, and how those can enhance and digress from the sound.

"I can't wait to get back to the studio and have that again," she says.

Osato made Dance Teacher a Spotify playlist with some of her favorite songs for class—and told us about why she loves some of them.

"Get It Together," by India.Arie

"Her voice and lyrics hit my soul and ground me every time. Dream artist. My go-to recorded music in class is soul R&B. There's simplicity about it that I really connect with."

"Turn Your Lights Down Low," by Bob Marley + The Wailers, Lauryn Hill

"A classic. This song embodies that all-encompassing love and gets the whole room groovin'."

"Diamonds," by Johnnyswim

"This song's uplifting energy and drive is infectious! So much vulnerability, honesty and joy in their voices and instrumentation."

"There Will Be Time," by Mumford & Sons, Baaba Maal

"Mumford & Sons' music has always struck a deep chord within me. Their songs are simultaneously stripped-down and complex and feel transcendent."

"With The Love In My Heart," by Jacob Collier, Metropole Orkest, Jules Buckley

"Other than it being insanely energizing and cinematic, I love how challenging the irregular meter is!"

For Parents

Darrell Grand Moultrie teaches at a past Jacob's Pillow summer intensive. Photo Christopher Duggan, courtesy Jacob's Pillow

In the past 10 months, we've grown accustomed to helping our dancers navigate virtual school, classes and performances. And while brighter, more in-person days may be around the corner—or at least on the horizon—parents may be facing yet another hurdle to help our dancers through: virtual summer-intensive auditions.

In 2020, we learned that there are some unique advantages of virtual summer programs: the lack of travel (and therefore the reduced cost) and the increased access to classes led by top artists and teachers among them. And while summer 2021 may end up looking more familiar with in-person intensives, audition season will likely remain remote and over Zoom.

Of course, summer 2021 may not be back to in-person, and that uncertainty can be a hard pill to swallow. Here, Kate Linsley, a mom and academy principal of Nashville Ballet, as well as "J.R." Glover, The Dan & Carole Burack Director of The School at Jacob's Pillow, share their advice for this complicated process.

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Teachers Trending

From left: Anthony Crickmay, Courtesy Dance Theatre of Harlem Archives; Courtesy Ballethnic

It is the urgency of going in a week or two before opening night that Lydia Abarca Mitchell loves most about coaching. But in her role as Ballethnic Dance Company's rehearsal director, she's not just getting the troupe ready for the stage. Abarca Mitchell—no relation to Arthur Mitchell—was Mitchell's first prima ballerina when he founded Dance Theatre of Harlem with Karel Shook; through her coaching, Abarca Mitchell works to pass her mentor's legacy to the next generation.

"She has the same sensibility" as Arthur Mitchell, says Ballethnic co-artistic director Nena Gilreath. "She's very direct, all about the mission and the excellence, but very caring."

Ballethnic is based in East Point, a suburban city bordering Atlanta. In a metropolitan area with a history of racism and where funding is hard-won, it is crucial for the Black-led ballet company to present polished, professional productions. "Ms. Lydia" provides the "hard last eye" before the curtain opens in front of an audience.

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