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

Music
Mary Malleney, courtesy Osato

In most classes, dancers are encouraged to count the music, and dance with it—emphasizing accents and letting the rhythm of a song guide them.

But Marissa Osato likes to give her students an unexpected challenge: to resist hitting the beats.

In her contemporary class at EDGE Performing Arts Center in Los Angeles (which is now closed, until they find a new space), she would often play heavy trap music. She'd encourage her students to find the contrast by moving in slow, fluid, circular patterns, daring them to explore the unobvious interpretation of the steady rhythms.


"I like to give dancers a phrase of music and choreography and have them reinterpret it," she says, "to be thinkers and creators and not just replicators."

Osato learned this approach—avoiding the natural temptation of the music always being the leader—while earning her MFA in choreography at California Institute of the Arts. "When I was collaborating with a composer for my thesis, he mentioned, 'You always count in eights. Why?'"

This forced Osato out of her creative comfort zone. "The choices I made, my use of music, and its correlation to the movement were put under a microscope," she says. "I learned to not always make the music the driving motive of my work," a habit she attributes to her competition studio training as a young dancer.

While an undergraduate at the University of California, Irvine, Osato first encountered modern dance. That discovery, along with her experience dancing in Boogiezone Inc.'s off-campus hip-hop company, BREED, co-founded by Elm Pizarro, inspired her own, blended style, combining modern and hip hop with jazz. While still in college, she began working with fellow UCI student Will Johnston, and co-founded the Boogiezone Contemporary Class with Pizarro, an affordable series of classes that brought top choreographers from Los Angeles to Orange County.

"We were trying to bring the hip-hop and contemporary communities together and keep creating work for our friends," says Osato, who has taught for West Coast Dance Explosion and choreographed for studios across the country.

In 2009, Osato, Johnston and Pizarro launched Entity Contemporary Dance, which she and Johnston direct. The company, now based in Los Angeles, won the 2017 Capezio A.C.E. Awards, and, in 2019, Osato was chosen for two choreographic residencies (Joffrey Ballet's Winning Works and the USC Kaufman New Movement Residency), and became a full-time associate professor of dance at Santa Monica College.

At SMC, Osato challenges her students—and herself—by incorporating a live percussionist, a luxury that's been on pause during the pandemic. She finds that live music brings a heightened sense of awareness to the room. "I didn't realize what I didn't have until I had it," Osato says. "Live music helps dancers embody weight and heaviness, being grounded into the floor." Instead of the music dictating the movement, they're a part of it.

Osato uses the musician as a collaborator who helps stir her creativity, in real time. "I'll say 'Give me something that's airy and ambient,' and the sounds inspire me," says Osato. She loves playing with tension and release dynamics, fall and recovery, and how those can enhance and digress from the sound.

"I can't wait to get back to the studio and have that again," she says.

Osato made Dance Teacher a Spotify playlist with some of her favorite songs for class—and told us about why she loves some of them.

"Get It Together," by India.Arie

"Her voice and lyrics hit my soul and ground me every time. Dream artist. My go-to recorded music in class is soul R&B. There's simplicity about it that I really connect with."

"Turn Your Lights Down Low," by Bob Marley + The Wailers, Lauryn Hill

"A classic. This song embodies that all-encompassing love and gets the whole room groovin'."

"Diamonds," by Johnnyswim

"This song's uplifting energy and drive is infectious! So much vulnerability, honesty and joy in their voices and instrumentation."

"There Will Be Time," by Mumford & Sons, Baaba Maal

"Mumford & Sons' music has always struck a deep chord within me. Their songs are simultaneously stripped-down and complex and feel transcendent."

"With The Love In My Heart," by Jacob Collier, Metropole Orkest, Jules Buckley

"Other than it being insanely energizing and cinematic, I love how challenging the irregular meter is!"

For Parents

Darrell Grand Moultrie teaches at a past Jacob's Pillow summer intensive. Photo Christopher Duggan, courtesy Jacob's Pillow

In the past 10 months, we've grown accustomed to helping our dancers navigate virtual school, classes and performances. And while brighter, more in-person days may be around the corner—or at least on the horizon—parents may be facing yet another hurdle to help our dancers through: virtual summer-intensive auditions.

In 2020, we learned that there are some unique advantages of virtual summer programs: the lack of travel (and therefore the reduced cost) and the increased access to classes led by top artists and teachers among them. And while summer 2021 may end up looking more familiar with in-person intensives, audition season will likely remain remote and over Zoom.

Of course, summer 2021 may not be back to in-person, and that uncertainty can be a hard pill to swallow. Here, Kate Linsley, a mom and academy principal of Nashville Ballet, as well as "J.R." Glover, The Dan & Carole Burack Director of The School at Jacob's Pillow, share their advice for this complicated process.

Keep reading... Show less
Teachers Trending

From left: Anthony Crickmay, Courtesy Dance Theatre of Harlem Archives; Courtesy Ballethnic

It is the urgency of going in a week or two before opening night that Lydia Abarca Mitchell loves most about coaching. But in her role as Ballethnic Dance Company's rehearsal director, she's not just getting the troupe ready for the stage. Abarca Mitchell—no relation to Arthur Mitchell—was Mitchell's first prima ballerina when he founded Dance Theatre of Harlem with Karel Shook; through her coaching, Abarca Mitchell works to pass her mentor's legacy to the next generation.

"She has the same sensibility" as Arthur Mitchell, says Ballethnic co-artistic director Nena Gilreath. "She's very direct, all about the mission and the excellence, but very caring."

Ballethnic is based in East Point, a suburban city bordering Atlanta. In a metropolitan area with a history of racism and where funding is hard-won, it is crucial for the Black-led ballet company to present polished, professional productions. "Ms. Lydia" provides the "hard last eye" before the curtain opens in front of an audience.

Keep reading... Show less

Get Dance Business Weekly in your inbox

Sign Up Used in accordance with our Privacy Policy.