The Great Debate

When a parent says “no” to dance in college

Former New World dean Daniel Lewis has consulted many families on college dance options.

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

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