The Path of Least Resistance

Three professional dancers share how their degree paths affected their college experiences.

Novak, right, in Paul Taylor’s Arabesque

For those who want to pursue dance in college, it’s a common question: Which degree path is the right one? At first glance, the answer seems straightforward enough: A BFA usually means a heavy load of technique classes; a BA balances dance with academics; and a dance minor lets a student dabble without too large a commitment. But what’s the daily routine of each like? Does a conservatory program rule out extracurriculars? What’s best for the student interested in chemistry and Cunningham?

DT spoke with three professional dancers who pursued college dance in different ways—as a conservatory major, a liberal arts university major and an Ivy League minor. All of them credit their unique college experiences with the success they’ve found in companies. Their firsthand accounts can help your students understand the demands and benefits of each path.

Jenelle Figgins

•Joined Dance Theatre of Harlem in 2012

•Purchase College, State University of New York

•BFA

Every day we had one academic class in the morning, usually taught from an artistic point of view. I had an “ancient literature through theater” class that I loved. Then I was off to the studio for ballet, modern and then an elective, like pointe or Cunningham technique. After technique classes, we had rehearsals. We did The Nutcracker in the fall, and for the spring concert, we worked with professional choreographers. We were also all dancing for each other, so we’d be in student rehearsals until 11 pm. If you had the energy, there were always extracurriculars. I was a big fan of the cheese club.

Everyone takes one year of improvisation and three years of choreography. The seniors exhibit their work in shows they put on. It’s incredibly stressful, but you acquire tools you can use as a professional, like creativity and strength under pressure. Choreography is a necessary skill as a company member, because you learn to organize your mind and be efficient.

Purchase’s motto is “Think wide open.” We were exposed to great choreographers; I worked with [contemporary choreographer] Sidra Bell at school and then was invited to perform with her professionally during my junior year. I’m not just a modern or ballet dancer, and I attribute that directly to my training at Purchase. Being comfortable spending one hour in pointe shoes and the next one barefoot is what has allowed me to do my work at Dance Theatre of Harlem.

Michael Novak

•Joined the Paul Taylor Dance Company in 2010

•Columbia University

•BA

I picked Columbia because I wanted an exceptional liberal arts education. I also wanted to be in New York, a city where I’d have access to everything. The dance major was great because of the dance criticism and theory classes. I loved the academic approach to the dance industry.

Most of my dance friends were double majors. There was a real sense of being in charge of your own life. The dance department was very modern-focused, so I helped start the Columbia Ballet Collaborative so younger dance majors could learn from the city’s professional dancers.

At the beginning of the semester, I had three to four dance technique classes per week, plus rehearsals for student projects or outside choreographers. Some mornings, I would go down to the Taylor school and take class there. Once we got to midterms and finals, though, academics took over. That’s why you’re there, and the load is very intense. On average, we were reading 500–1,000 pages per week. My dance history classes were phenomenal. I spent a lot of time at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, watching videos and doing research for term papers.

My liberal arts education has helped me immensely since I joined Paul Taylor. Board members and patrons are very educated about art, and it really helps to be able to converse with them about the history of the field and where it’s going.

Silas Riener

•Danced with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, 2007–2011; currently dances with Tere O’Connor and choreographs with Rashaun Mitchell

•Princeton University

•Certificate in dance

Princeton didn’t have a dance major, so I pursued a certificate, which is essentially a minor. I had another certificate in creative writing and a major in comparative literature, so I had academic classes every day. I took ballet and modern several times a week and had rehearsals at night. I was also in a singing group and had a job working in the cafeteria four to six hours a week. By senior year, I wasn’t sleeping much.

I discovered dance as a freshman, and my teachers were wonderful mentors. Rebecca Lazier recommended the Cunningham school, where I started taking classes during the summer. The other certificate students were highly trained, and we were a tight-knit group. One student got an MFA with me at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts.

The beauty of Princeton’s dance program is its flexibility. You can take as many or as few technique classes as you want. There are student choreography groups, and the spring concert features professional repertory set on students. I staged a creative thesis my senior year, which was a site-specific show in a rotunda based on my poetry. I’ve taught technique at Princeton the past two springs, and it seems like everybody’s dancing all the time.

My degree helped me find connections between dance and everyone else—people in hard sciences, in politics—and that fuels my work. Rehearsals for r e v e a l [Riener’s piece for the 2013 River To River Festival in NY] took place in an urban space surrounded by financial buildings, and my classes in architecture informed how I approached the site-specific choreography. DT

Julie Schechter is a dancer and author who also writes for The Eighty Twenty, an online health magazine.

 

Photo by Paul B. Goode, courtesy of Paul Taylor Dance Company

Teachers Trending
Alwin Courcy, courtesy Ballet des Amériques

Carole Alexis has been enduring the life-altering after-effects of COVID-19 since April 2020. For months on end, the Ballet des Amériques director struggled with fevers, tingling, dizziness and fatigue. Strange bruising showed up on her skin, along with the return of her (long dormant) asthma, plus word loss and stuttering.

"For three days I would experience relief from the fever—then, boom—it would come back worse than before," Alexis says. "I would go into a room and not know why I was there." Despite the remission of some symptoms, the fatigue and other debilitating side effects have endured to this day. Alexis is part of a tens-of-thousands-member club nobody wants to be part of—she is a COVID-19 long-hauler.

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Annika Abel Photography, courtesy Griffith

When the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis last May catalyzed nationwide protests against systemic racism, the tap community resumed longstanding conversations about teaching a Black art form in the era of Black Lives Matter. As these dialogues unfolded on social media, veteran Dorrance Dance member Karida Griffith commented infrequently, finding it difficult to participate in a meaningful way.

"I had a hard time watching people have these conversations without historical context and knowledge," says Griffith, who now resides in her hometown of Portland, Oregon, after many years in New York City. "It was clear that there was so much information missing."

For example, she observed people discussing tap while demonstrating ignorance about Black culture. Or, posts that tried to impose upon tap the history or aesthetics of European dance forms.

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Studio Owners
Courtesy Tonawanda Dance Arts

If you're considering starting a summer program this year, you're likely not alone. Summer camp and class options are a tried-and-true method for paying your overhead costs past June—and, done well, could be a vehicle for making up for lost 2020 profits.

Plus, they might take on extra appeal for your studio families this year. Those struggling financially due to the pandemic will be in search of an affordable local programming option rather than an expensive, out-of-town intensive. And with summer travel still likely in question this spring as July and August plans are being made, your studio's local summer training option remains a safe bet.

The keys to profitable summer programming? Figuring out what type of structure will appeal most to your studio clientele, keeping start-up costs low—and, ideally, converting new summer students into new year-round students.


Find a formula that works for your studio

For Melanie Boniszewski, owner of Tonawanda Dance Arts in upstate New York, the answer to profitable summer programming lies in drop-in classes.

"We're in a cold-weather climate, so summer is actually really hard to attract people—everyone wants to be outside, and no one wants to commit to a full season," she says.

Tonawanda Dance Arts offers a children's program in which every class is à la carte: 30-minute, $15 drop-in classes are offered approximately two times a week in the evenings, over six weeks, for different age groups. And two years ago, she created her Stay Strong All Summer Long program for older students, which offers 12 classes throughout the summer and a four-day summer camp. Students don't know what type of class they're attending until they show up. "If you say you're going to do a hip-hop class, you could get 30 kids, but if you do ballet, it could be only 10," she says. "We tell them to bring all of their shoes and be ready for anything."

Start-up costs are minimal—just payroll and advertising (which she starts in April). For older age groups, Boniszewski focuses on bringing in her studio clientele, rather than marketing externally. In the 1- to 6-year-old age group, though, around 50 percent of summer students tend to be new ones—98 percent of whom she's been able to convert to year-round classes.

A group of elementary school aged- girls stands in around a dance studio. A teacher, a young black man, stands in front of the studio, talking to them

An East County Performing Arts Center summer class from several years ago. Photo courtesy ECPAC

East County Performing Arts Center owner Nina Koch knows that themed, weeklong camps are the way to go for younger dancers, as her Brentwood, California students are on a modified year-round academic school calendar, and parents are usually looking for short-term daycare solutions to fill their abbreviated summer break.

Koch keeps her weekly camps light on dance: "When we do our advertising for Frozen Friends camp, for example, it's: 'Come dance, tumble, play games, craft and have fun!'"

Though Koch treats her campers as studio-year enrollment leads, she acknowledges that these weeklong camps naturally function as a way for families who aren't ready for a long-term commitment to still participate in dance. "Those who aren't enrolled for the full season will be put into a sales nurture campaign," she says. "We do see a lot of campers come to subsequent camps, including our one-day camps that we hold once a month throughout our regular season."

Serve your serious dancers

One dilemma studio owners may face: what to do about your most serious dancers, who may be juggling outside intensives with any summer programming that you offer.

Consider making their participation flexible. For Boniszweski's summer program, competitive dancers must take six of the 12 classes offered over a six-week period, as well as the four-day summer camp, which takes place in mid-August. "This past summer, because of COVID, they paid for six but were able to take all 12 if they wanted," she says. "Lots of people took advantage of that."

For Koch, it didn't make sense to require her intensive dancers to participate in summer programming, partly because she earned more revenue catering to younger students and partly because her older students often made outside summer-training plans. "That's how you build a well-rounded dancer—you want them to go off and get experience from teachers you might not be able to bring in," she says.

Another option: Offering private lessons. Your more serious dancers can take advantage of flexible one-on-one training, and you can charge higher fees for individualized instruction. Consider including a financial incentive to get this kind of programming up and running. "Five years ago, we saw that some kids were asking for private lessons, so we created packages: If you bought five lessons, you'd get one for free—to get people in the door," says Boniszewksi. "After two years, once that program took off, we got rid of the discount. People will sign up for as many as 12 private lessons."

A large group of students stretch in a convention-style space with large windows. They follow a teacher at the front of the room in leaning over their right leg for a hamstring stretch

Koch's summer convention experience several years ago. Photo courtesy East County Performing Arts Center

Bring the (big) opportunities to your students

If you do decide to target older, more serious dancers for your summer programming, you may need to inject some dance glamour to compete with fancier outside intensives.

Bring dancers opportunities they wouldn't have as often during the school year. For Boniszewski, that means offering virtual master classes with big-name teachers, like Misha Gabriel and Briar Nolet. For Koch, it's bringing the full convention experience to her students—and opening it up to the community at large. In past years, she's rented her local community center for a weekend-long in-house convention and brought in professional ballet, jazz, musical theater and contemporary guest teachers.

In 2019, the convention was "nicely profitable" while still an affordable $180 per student, and attracted 120 dancers, a mix of her dancers and dancers from other studios. "It was less expensive than going to a big national convention, because parents didn't have to worry about lodging or travel," Koch says. "We wanted it to be financially attainable for families to experience something like this in our sleepy little town."

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