Oldest College Dance Program in the U.S. in Jeopardy

The 2015 dance majors gather onstage for a curtain call after their senior concert.

On Monday, October 19, the Mills College Dance Department in Oakland, CA received the unexpected news that administration plans to phase out the undergraduate dance major. As part of a plan for numerous revisions to existing programs, the dance major and a few other programs would be eliminated, while a handful of new degree programs would be introduced. The undergraduate minor and graduate dance program will be retained.

The news comes as a shock to the dance community. As the oldest continuously running dance program in the United States, Mills has graduated some legendary, award-winning choreographers, including Trisha Brown ('58) and Molissa Fenley ('75). (Editor's note: the writer is an alum, MFA '14.)

Despite all dance classes being full, the data is largely based on the number of declared majors, says dance department head Sheldon Smith. (There are currently nine dance majors.) “It’s all data-driven. It’s based on a consultant’s report that the dance department and a few other departments don’t contribute as much financially to the college as everyone else,” he says.

But to look solely at numbers misrepresents the value of the program. “These proposed cuts have absolutely nothing to do with the quality of what we do," Smith says. "We’re doing better work than we’ve ever done before. Our students are extraordinary, and we’re going even deeper into shaping ourselves to reflect what a world-class 21st-century dance and theater department can look like. We’re thinking deeply about what prospective students really want.”

Undergraduate dance students perform in the 2015 senior concert.

There is also a concern that without the undergrad major, enrollment in the graduate program would suffer. Heather Stockton, an alumna who earned her BA from Mills in 2013 and stayed to earn her master's in 2015, shared her experience. “I chose to stay because I felt like I wasn’t finished yet," she says. "There were so many resources available to me, and it was a safe space for women to express themselves. The faculty pushed the undergrads to be at the same level as the grad students, so I was working just as hard as an undergrad as I did as a grad student. I felt respected and challenged. At Mills, every voice was valuable.”

By December, a final decision will be made. Smith is concerned the proposed action would not only hurt dance at Mills but affect the school's overall reputation as a liberal arts college. He and the other faculty are currently in conversation with the provost to develop creative alternatives. And last week, students created a petition titled “Save Mills Dance Major” on change.org. As of today, there are more than 3,100 signatures.

To sign the petition, click here.

Photos by Shinichi Iova-Koga; video by Shinichi Iova-Koga and Heather Stockton

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