Before they finish their freshman year, dance majors at Wayne State University in Detroit are already making post-graduation plans. In a new course called Introduction to Dance Professions, first-year students get acquainted with a myriad of employment options, choose a career and plot an individualized course of study that will give them the knowledge they need to succeed.
Not so long ago, holders of dance degrees were thought to have fairly narrow options. Most joined a company, taught or left dance for something more lucrative. But today, possible uses for a dance degree have broadened. And college dance departments are playing an active role in helping students plan their careers and find jobs.
Wayne State’s Introduction to Dance Professions course, which is part of the department’s recently redesigned BS degree, introduces students to dance careers in administration and management, production and technology, private studios and commercial dance, dance science and body therapies, dance writing and more. To create the course, which is taught online, associate professor of dance Doug Risner interviewed 40 dance professionals from all areas the class covers, and their responses are part of the required reading. He hopes the interviews will provide his students with insight—and also potential contacts in the working world.
In addition to reading Risner’s interview series, students conduct extensive online research into each career area and participate in online forums throughout the semester. By the end of the course, the second-semester freshmen are urged to declare a career path and to shape their subsequent curriculum accordingly, using courses within the dance department and outside it. The plan they create becomes part of their permanent record and is referred to during subsequent sessions with faculty advisors.
But is freshman year too soon to expect such an informed decision from students? Risner doesn’t think so. “Preparing graduates for the job search needs to start at the very beginning,” he says. “If they don’t plan early, they’ll run out of time and won’t be able to get all the classes they need.”
Wayne State isn’t the only dance department that preps students for post-college life. But when it comes to timing, philosophies differ. At University of the Arts in Philadelphia, as juniors or seniors, BFA students take a course called Introduction to Business of Dance. The class includes exercises in grant writing and fundraising, public relations, marketing and developing a budget, and it also has students conduct a self-evaluation to gain insight into their particular skills and preferences.
“I prefer that students take this course during their senior year, because by then, they are more settled about what path their careers are going to take,” says Susan Glazer, professor and director of the UArts School of Dance. “Once students have a sense of where they want to go and how to use their time, it clarifies the steps that they need to take before graduation.”
The University of the Arts has also launched a mentoring program that matches students with UArts alumni. Juniors apply by submitting a personal statement outlining their career goals and explaining how shadowing a mentor would be useful. A small stipend is paid to the mentor to host (and house) a UArts senior for a few days. The students get a chance to see not only what their mentor’s work life is like, but also how it impacts their personal life. (How much time, for instance, do they spend preparing or answering professional calls and e-mails outside of work hours?) The dance majors document their experience and share it with their fellow students, so even those who don’t participate in the program benefit from it.
Wayne State does something similar through its Maggie Allesee Artist-in-Residence Program, in which students network with established professionals. The faculty often brings artist back multiple times a year to foster strong student-artist relationships. Recently, for example, choreographer and Wayne State graduate Sonya Tayeh became a great mentor for students interested in entering commercial dance.
Even at The Juilliard School in New York, where graduates might seem guaranteed to succeed, the faculty plays an active role in helping students with post-school plans—though there the focus is on performance careers. In a senior seminar, students create a promotional package with resumé, headshots and a video clip of their dancing. They then conference with dance
faculty members about which companies are most suitable and mail their packages accordingly.
Lawrence Rhodes, director of the dance division, also provides Juilliard students with multiple opportunities to interact with New York choreographers and those passing through on tour. “They are receiving a huge amount of information about what they will do post-graduation,” he says. “We work hard at it.” DT
Alyssa Schoeneman is pursuing a BFA in dance at The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She recently completed a communications internship at the American Dance Festival.
Photo by Jon Anderson, courtesy of Wayne State University.