Applying for a college dance program can feel like a guessing game. Should you highlight all your competition titles and awards? How important are your academic grades? And how should you act in the audition? Here's advice from admissions officers from some of the top dance programs in the country about how to make your application stronger.
The Mills Repertory Dance Company
Mills College’s dance major is here to stay. In October, the dance department received the shocking news that its administration planned to phase out the dance major. After a month and a half of intense campaigning by the faculty, students, alumni and the greater dance community, the decision to keep the major was finalized in early December.
With the decision to retain the major comes some changes. “Students will be able to obtain a dance major with fewer total requirements and will have more flexibility in designing their major,” says dance department head Sheldon Smith. “We are also working with other departments to make sure that students who want to double major have a clear pathway to do that.”
Aside from the program requirements, there will be a gradual shift in the dance majors’ scope of study. “Faculty, students and alums have expressed interest in making sure that our students have access to the broadest range of what dance is in the 21st century,” says Smith. “Some of our courses will better reflect our ongoing interest in shifting away from focused attention on modern dance, toward courses that allow students to engage in a full breadth of movement forms.”
Smith and the other faculty have big plans for the future of the department. “The changes to the dance major are just the first steps toward a larger change in the entire department,” he says. “We anticipate for instance, that by fall of 2017 we will become the Department of Dance, Theater and Interdisciplinary Performance, with a new major in interdisciplinary performance.”
Photo by Shinichi Iova-Koga
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
A professional dancer brings West Virginia its very first dance major.
Yoav Kaddar is practically a one-man department machine.As director of the dance program at West Virginia University, with only one other recently hired faculty member to share the load, his day might include working on a grant, scheduling the next guest artist or overseeing the three divisions of his summer dance academy, all while running in and out of the office to teach modern classes throughout the day.
This fall, he welcomes the first crop of dance majors to the school—a sweet reward for Kaddar, who in just three years has transformed a dance minor into the first bachelor of arts dance degree in the state. Though dance has long had a rich history at WVU (its first recreational ensemble was established in 1928), only recently has interest in the department exploded. Enrollment for its dance minor has consistently hovered around 80 students.
Originally from Israel, where he studied folk dance, Kaddar got his BFA from Juilliard. After performing with the Limón Dance Company, Pilobolus, Jacob’s Pillow’s Men Dancers and Paul Taylor Dance Company, he returned to school for his MFA and then a PhD in education administration and policy studies. What initially attracted him to WVU was the opportunity to build a BA degree program from scratch. “I knew I wanted to go into administration,” he says, “because I wanted to be able to make changes in education and root for the dance world.”
Kaddar’s work has helped the department develop a dance honor society, a student association and a National Dance Education Organization chapter. Students have three opportunities to perform each year, including a program called Masterworks, in which a renowned company sets work on participating dancers. (Taylor and Jump Rhythm Jazz Project were its first companies.) He also created a weeklong summer program, WVU Summer Dance Academy, with divisions for youngsters, teenagers and teachers. Funding for the Academy, which had nearly 50 participants last summer, was generated entirely by Kaddar.
In the future, Kaddar hopes to start minors in both dance education and dance science. “We have strong sports medicine and human performance programs here at WVU,” he says. “I like to cook with what I have. Why not expand on the connections that already exist?” In fact, crossovers with the dance department keep popping up everywhere. In spring 2014, the program will enroll its first football player, something Kaddar admits he’d love to encourage more of with a dance-for-athletes class. “I’ve been like a kid in a candy store—I’ve had a hard time figuring out what to tackle first,” he says. “Even doing simple things, like ordering a sign for the door that reads ‘Dance Program,’ elicited cheers from the students. They finally feel like they belong somewhere.” DT
Photos courtesy of WVU
When a parent says “no” to dance in college
When Robert Battle was a high school student at New World School of the Arts in Miami, his mother was concerned about the lack of stability a dance degree could bring him. Little did she know that his time at The Juilliard School would propel him into a career most only dream of—seven years with Parsons Dance Company, eight leading his own troupe, Battleworks Dance Company, and now two as artistic director of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. “Luckily, his mom listened to what we had to say,” says Daniel Lewis, former dean of the dance division at New World, where each year, he addressed the concerned parents of dance degree hopefuls.
Many parents are hesitant to allow their child to invest time and money in a dance degree because they believe it offers little in return. It’s why college-bound students sometimes struggle between pursuing their passion and appeasing their families. As mentors, teachers can be monumentally influential on students’ and parents’ college decision processes. But it’s a tricky matter. While educators want to help dancers pursue their goals, they should be sensitive to not overstep parenting boundaries.
Broaching the Conversation
Many teachers initially learn of students’ and parents’ college hopes during yearly conferences or reviews. (Lewis says it’s best to ask students to start thinking about college during sophomore year.) And students sometimes approach teachers privately, asking for advice. Colleen Callahan, who teaches dance at Southwest High School in Minneapolis, says she only brings parents into the conversation “if the kid who comes to me is truly very passionate.”
When approached by a student, Kim Stroud, arts director of Greater Hartford Academy of the Arts in Connecticut, where about half of students go on to study their respective artforms in college, asks both the parents and student to attend a meeting to discuss the family’s options. “One of the skill sets you want to build in your students is self-advocacy,” she says. “This is about their lives, and they need to be a voice at the table.”
Callahan tries to gather background information to help her understand the family’s perspective. “I want to know what the issues are, so I understand where they’re coming from, and then I can decide how to approach the conversation,” she says. “From there, the best way to prepare is to know your stuff and assess the student. Will she thrive at a state school or conservatory? And what professional organizations, programs and city cultures are there to support her? There’s a solution out there for everyone.”
At the beginning of the meeting, Stroud sets a light tone by reminding parents that she only means to help guide the conversation. “Sometimes parents do not take these conversations well. They feel like they’re being talked down to. But I always acknowledge their weight in the conversation and remind them that I’m purely an advisor—this is their decision, and I’m just offering my experience from watching other young people go through this process. You aren’t there to tell them how to raise their child. Education is a very personal family matter.”
Addressing Their Concerns
It’s important to acknowledge the rewards of a dance degree, while also confirming its uncertainties. “Being a dancer isn’t like becoming a doctor. There isn’t med school, an internship, a residency and then a job. There’s no clear path, and that’s partly the difficulty in being successful in this field,” says Stroud.
Many parents discourage their teenagers from majoring in dance because of fear that their child will become a struggling artist in an unforgiving city, only to end their career in injury. But a dance degree can lead to other corners of the profession, such as marketing, physical therapy and arts administration. “Parents always say their children need something to fall back on,” says Lewis. “They only see the stage time, applause and flowers. But there’s choreographing, teaching, PR—the careers are endless.”
Others are more concerned with disappointment. “Your daughter doesn’t have to be a major ballerina with ABT to be successful,” says Lewis. “If she wants to be a dancer, she’ll find the work. There’s a certain amount of training you have to achieve before you even get accepted into a good college, so if you have the talent, and the drive, you can make it.”
But what if after discussion, the parent still doesn’t want their child to pursue dance? “If the parent is still stubborn after one meeting, it’s up to the student to take over the argument at home,” says Lewis. Pressing too much may overstep parent-teacher boundaries. But many parents are willing to meet in the middle by agreeing to a double major or dance minor. And if they refuse to let the student pursue college dance at all, there are clubs and classes for nonmajors, as well as a wealth of opportunity beyond campus, like assisting, teaching or choreographing for a nearby studio or taking open class. “I always say to parents, regardless of whether your child is majoring in dance, make sure there’s a decent dance community nearby,” says Callahan. As a last hope, she urges parents to get more involved in the student’s current dance education. “The more you get them involved,” she says, “the more they have the firsthand experience—the more they get attached.” DT
Photo by Jeffery Salter, courtesy of Daniel Lewis