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

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