Marks of Merit

How three schools grade students

Brett Sjoblom and Kaelie Mann, students at The Boston Conservatory, where grades can be affected by jury evaluation

College can be a stressful transition for any freshman, but maybe more so for dancers, who have to adjust not only to dorm life and lecture halls, but to new techniques under the pressure of a GPA. Suddenly, achievements aren’t measured by nailing a triple pirouette or landing the lead in Don Quixote. Degree completion depends on letter grades assigned to movement you’ve practiced freely for years. But can the percentage of 32 fouettés completed or the thesis of a composition piece be evaluated so distinctly?

The short answer is both yes and no. It’s understood that for undergraduate and graduate dance degrees to exist, standards must be placed on technique, commitment and artistry. When a dancer enters college, all of a sudden there is right and wrong, excellent and unsatisfactory, when executing movement, creating dances and performing.

“College students are in a culture where all their classes have grades,” says George de la Peña, chair of the dance department at University of Iowa, where BA and BFA students receive letter grades for all courses. Grading allows the students to track their development, fueling a work ethic in the studio to ensure they give their best. “There’s a consistency of what grades mean, putting it in a language they understand,” he says. “Gosh, when I was at the School of American Ballet, I wish we had a bit of that to give ourselves perspective.”

There isn’t one ideal way to determine a dancer’s academic worth, and approaches certainly aren’t cookie-cutter. “What is an A in ballet at one school compared to an A in ballet at another?” asks Cathy Young, director of the dance division at The Boston Conservatory, where, like U of Iowa, dancers are given letter grades for all courses, even Pilates. Discrepancies even come up within the same department. Although there are usually general rubrics based on variables including technique, artistry and attendance, it doesn’t mean teachers throughout one program will grade consistently.

In ballet, de la Peña says he looks for students to have command of their bodies and an understanding of the French vocabulary. He admits, though, that finding the line that lies between dancers’ technical gifts and their diligence is the most difficult part of grading. “It’s complex because our mission is not only to teach them technique, but also to make them lifelong appreciators of the practice,” he says. Most college programs don’t train only performance-focused dancers, but also those looking to work in the general dance field. Does the degree of a student’s turnout matter if she is working to become a choreographer, a dance historian or an arts administrator?

Regardless, performance is a large component of any BA/BFA degree, which means rehearsals and stage time are graded at many programs. The Boston Conservatory holds semester juries where students perform a ballet and a modern solo for evaluation by all faculty members, who give verbal and written feedback. Graded categories include execution, musicality/phrasing, stage presence, interpretation, focus, use of space, dynamics and individual voice. Jury scores impact ballet and modern technique grades, and if students fail (meaning at least two-thirds of the faculty doesn’t pass them), technique class scores are lowered one-third of a letter grade.

What usually causes a student to fall below a passing mark is poor attendance, which programs take seriously, since studio courses don’t often involve additional homework. “If we want them to be successful as professional performers, the number-one rule is to show up,” says Young. “It doesn’t matter if you’re tired or you’ve had a hard day.”

Some worry that grading stifles creativity. Cherylyn Lavagnino, chair of the dance department at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, finds the school’s pass/fail system of studio courses helps create an open, supportive and professional atmosphere. Students are only failed in technique, somatics, composition or improvisation if they do not meet attendance requirements. “Artistic endeavors are very individual, and I think this system allows students to really develop their own voices, which grading may discourage,” she says.

Tisch professors mark progress quarterly with written evaluations, and at the end of every year, each student has a mandatory private meeting with faculty members. “Sometimes you make work that isn’t the very best, and you need room to have that experimentation,” says Lavagnino. “It’s about the process rather than the goal of ‘success.’” But so little pressure can work against some dancers’ development: Just because a student is physically present doesn’t mean they’re actively working to their fullest potential.

No matter how a school grades, professors are looking to develop curious students who improve as dancers from start to finish. “It’s not like we’re saying ‘All sophomores must be able to do this step.’ The number-one thing is investigation—to take responsibility of their own learning and development,” says Young. “The students are really measured against themselves.” And so while students across the country continue toward perfecting their technique, it’s actually their journeys that are weighted the heaviest. DT

 

Photo by Eric Antoniou, courtesy of The Boston Conservatory

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