4 ways to make sure you’re making the right match

Don’t these Hartt School dancers seem content? Looks like they did their college research!

Choosing a boyfriend or girlfriend and choosing a college aren’t that different: Both require making a (hopefully) long-lasting decision based on a prediction about your future together. And if you haven’t put in the time getting to know your significant other—er, college—that prediction could be way off. Stephen Pier, who directs The Hartt School’s dance division at the University of Hartford, has watched it happen. “A dancer auditioned for us but decided to go to another school. It had a big name, but she hadn’t researched it all that well,” he says. “A year later, she was back at our audition, having wasted a precious year in a place that didn’t fit.”

Rather than jumping into a four-year relationship, DT suggests students do things the old-fashioned way: Take dance programs on a few “dates” to see what a future together might look like. We’ve got four ways students can see if a dance program is the one of their dreams. Check out our sidebar, too, for some practical date-planning tips.

1. Visit the campus. The best way to see whether a school is for you is just that—go see it! “The fit with a dance program is such a personal thing,” says Pier. “You’re not going to experience that through glossy advertisements and reputations.” Visiting a campus lets a student see the unedited version of what the program is like and speak with current students to get their opinions.

Students should plan their visits to take advantage of as much campus life as possible. Amy Kim at the University of California at Irvine advises calling a week in advance, so the dance office can arrange a tour with a peer adviser and a meeting with an arts counselor. Ask to sit in on technique classes to see the quality of instruction. Pier suggests planning a visit to coincide with a performance. “See what all the classes lead up to,” he says. Find out what you’ll be seeing: Is it student choreography, work set by guest artists or faculty pieces?

2. Talk to alumni. Graduates from the past five years are a great source of information. (Most schools will take a student’s contact details and have an alum initiate the exchange.) “Recent alumni have more perspective than current students,” says Neil Greenberg of Eugene Lang College, The New School for Liberal Arts. “They can look back and see what they think of their experience, now that they’re out in the world.” Recent grads are also more helpul than older alumni, who might not be aware of significant changes. “Because of our recent curriculum revision,” he says, “a student who attended more than five years ago would have had a very different experience than one going today.”

3. Go to college fairs. “Fairs can be massive, and there are often a lot of people clamoring for attention,” says Pier, “but they’re really worth it. I’ve had a lot of people wind up coming to our school who wouldn’t have known about it, had they not gone to a college fair.” Do your research beforehand, and be ready to ask specific questions. “If someone is just window-shopping, it doesn’t give me a sense of their seriousness and commitment to their own career and dreams,” says Pier.

4. Take an intensive. Summer or winter intensives can be a great way to check out a college program, but with a few caveats. Students should research who will be teaching and what techniques the intensive will cover, and determine whether it matches the school’s typical curriculum. (Do this by checking the college’s website—it should list course requirements.) “Summer is often a time for colleges to give their own students a chance to experience new instructors and disciplines,” says Greenberg, “so you’ll want to check whether a school’s hosted program reflects its year-round curriculum.” Kim advises students to look into programs like UC Irvine’s Summer Academy. The program gives students a real sense of what it’s like to be a UCI dance major, because for one week they live like one: sleeping on campus, taking college-level classes from faculty and MFA students and potentially earning college credit for attending. DT

Julie Schechter is a dancer and New York City–based freelance writer.

Your Dating Arsenal

Need some ideas on how to plan your next dance program date? The list below isn’t comprehensive by any means, but it’s a great place to start.

Go on a blind date Consult the University of Hartford’s performance calendar, and then e-mail harttadm@hartford.edu to arrange an information session, get tickets to a show and even schedule private lessons with faculty members.

At The New School in New York City, students can attend one-day events in February and March where they mingle with dance program representatives, get a guided tour of campus, attend a placement audition and take class with faculty. See newschool.edu/admissions.

What’s your eHarmony compatibility? The Hartt School’s Stephen Pier recommends asking alumni five questions:

• What are the school’s performance opportunities?

• How did this school prepare you to approach a lifelong career in dance?  

• What kind of support did the school offer after you graduated?

• How engaged did you feel the faculty were with each student in the program?  

• How strongly would you recommend this program to someone like me?

Speed-date like a pro Check out dance fairs like Dancewave’s 2015 Dancing Through College and Beyond: October 18 at the 92nd Street Y in NYC, 9 am.

Connect with faculty from more than 35 college dance departments, sit in on panel discussions, take class and see a performance. Enroll this summer by e-mailing dancingthroughcollege@dancewave.org.

Have a summer fling at the University of California at Irvine’s 2015 Summer Academy in Dance:

June 29–July 17, Monday–Friday,

9 am–5 pm

Ages: 12–22

Cost: $3,600 for overnight students; $1,100 for commuters (scholarships available)

Dance styles: ballet, jazz and modern technique, with master classes in hip hop, contemporary styles, choreography, injury prevention, dance for camera, improvisation and audition preparation. See outreach.arts.uci.edu/dance.

Photo by John Long, courtesy of The Hartt School

Three students who discovered aerial—and how it’s impacting their dance careers

At UNH, students—like Kayla Lennon, pictured here—can perform up to 11 times a year.

Blair Davis hung 60 feet in the air, tethered by a rope and harness to one of the tallest buildings on campus at Washington and Lee University. No, she wasn’t trying a daredevil stunt. She was dancing, catapulting herself off the brick wall to extend her limbs to heights they’d never reached before. Aerial dance—movement that happens in the air on apparatuses like Davis’ rope and harness—is no longer solely for circus performers. It’s everywhere! Colleges, musical theater productions and even traditional “grounded” dance companies are getting in on the act. Here, three students explain how a college dance experience in aerial helped them develop new physical strengths and skills and opened up career pathways.

The Buff Ballerina

Davis didn’t arrive at W&L as an aerialist. She was a ballet student who fell in love with aerial during an intensive four-week course during her sophomore year. “Aerial gave me a new sense of fearlessness and trained me to use my body differently,” she says. “With the rope and harness, you have to engage your core incredibly to keep your body parallel to the ground, and you need to be able to climb up to the top of the fabric before you can do any tricks with silks.” Her physical control, honed from years of ballet, allowed her to quickly develop the necessary core and upper-body strength, but she struggled with not having mirrors for instant feedback. Getting used to a no-mirror zone enhanced her awareness of her body in space: “Aerial really helped develop my proprioception skills,” she says.

Beefing Up Her Resumé

Kayla Lennon discovered the University of New Hampshire’s aerial classes when her hometown dance teacher enrolled and brought the technique back to her studio. Lennon followed in his footsteps. “You can find ways to dance at any university,” she says, “but learning aerial in such a structured way is really rare.” Within its theater/dance BA, UNH offers an aerial class that spans experience levels: All students attend twice a week to work on basic technique, and advanced students come for an additional weekly workshop to learn accelerated movements. (Lennon’s favorite trick? Hanging by her ankles from the trapeze.) Students can perform 11 times a year (in end-of-semester showcases and site-specific or studio performances) and train on almost every apparatus available: silks, hoops, trapeze, Spanish web and nets. Lennon now teaches aerial classes at her home studio during the summer and plans to audition for aerial and dance shows when she graduates this spring. After seeing UNH alumni get cast in the Canadian run of the musical Pippin, which features aerial dance, she’s optimistic about the increased viability aerial skills will give her as a dance professional.

Tangential Tracks

Meghan Critchley wasn’t sure she wanted to major in dance. Discovering aerial changed her mind. “I hadn’t even heard of aerial until college,” she says. The University of Wyoming senior grew up studying ballet and jazz at a studio but fell in love with the freedom of vertical dance. “We’re so used to ‘technique, technique, technique,’” she says. “When I’m in the air, I’m more creative, more focused on new ways that I can move.” Of course, new movement brings new physical challenges. Critchley, who hopes to ultimately pursue physical therapy, says that although aerial decreases pressure on the limbs, certain apparatuses (like the harness) increase pressure on the lower spine. “As more dancers go into this field, figuring out how to keep them healthy will be a new frontier of research,” she says. DT

Julie Schechter is a dancer and New York City–based freelance writer.

Washington and Lee University offers a four-week aerial intensive.

Apparatus Primer

Bungee: two bungee loops suspended from the ceiling for the dancer to harness into

Hoop (also known as lyra): a steel hoop—resembling a hula hoop—hung from the ceiling

Net: crosshatch fabric arranged in a sling shape and hung from the ceiling

Rope and harness: a harness tethered to a vertical point via a rope

Silk: a long strip of fabric suspended from the ceiling at its center point

Spanish web: a rope wrapped in a cotton fabric covering and suspended at one end. At the top, a loop is attached to the rope for the performer to insert an ankle or wrist from which to hang.

Trapeze: one or more suspended horizontal bars with vertical lines attaching it to an overhead mount point


Where to Study Aerial Dance

East Tennessee State University

Johnson City, TN

Apparatuses: low-flying trapeze and silks

Facilities: aerial dance studio with eight silks and two low-flying trapeze

Performance opportunities: an aerial dance showcase at the end of each semester and a yearly main-stage dance concert

Degree offered: minor in dance (a major will potentially be implemented in fall 2017)

Aerial classes offered: three levels of aerial dance (beginner, intermediate, advanced)

University of Colorado at Boulder

Boulder, CO

Facilities: studio with rigging for six apparatuses

Apparatuses: low-flying trapeze and fabrics

Performance opportunities: up to six shows a year (concerts and informal showcases)

Degrees offered: BA and BFA with aerial coursework; MFA students can choose an aerial track as a secondary area of interest in their degree

Aerial classes offered: one technique class, though students can also take independent study at the nearby Frequent Fliers School and Company

University of New Hampshire

Durham, NH

Facilities: 22-foot ceilings in the studio; six stations where aerial dancers can work simultaneously

Apparatuses: silks, hoops, Spanish web, nets, trapeze

Performance opportunities: two end-of-semester shows and additional performances for community groups (in the aerial studio) and the student body (outside, on campus buildings)

Degrees offered: BA theater major with a dance option; dance minor

Aerial classes offered: one technique class, offered two days a week for beginners and three days a week for advanced students

University of Wyoming

Laramie, WY

Facilities: studio theater with rigging for 12 dancers

Apparatuses: rope and harness

Performance opportunities: one on-campus concert per year and an aerial show every other summer at Vedauwoo, a nearby wilderness area

Degree offered: BFA in dance performance or dance science

Aerial classes offered: two levels of technique class

Washington and Lee University

Lexington, VA

Facilities: dance studio rigged with six stations, with interchangeable apparatuses

Apparatuses: rope and harness, silks and bungee

Performance opportunities: fall (student-choreographed) and winter (faculty-choreographed) end-of-semester shows and a capstone showcase for the four-week spring aerial intensive

Degree offered: dance minor

Aerial classes offered: semester-long class during winter term and an intensive during spring term


Photo by Talia Pepin, courtesy of Lennon; opposite page: photo by Kevin Remington, courtesy of W&L University

Three graduates explain how double majoring shaped their careers.

Breanna Gribble supports her dance career in NYC with a job in her second major.

When deciding what to major in, Breanna Gribble was determined to hang on to both her passions: dance and geology. As a double major at Southern Methodist University, she just didn’t expect to be hanging on so literally: During the summers of her sophomore and junior years, Gribble performed in Quarryography, a site-specific work by Pilobolus’ Alison Chase—suspended from an excavator in a quarry in Maine while wearing a tutu. “I danced to a steel drum and collected rock samples,” says Gribble. “It was a wonderful fusion.”

While this level of synergy may be difficult to match, double majoring can be a great option for students equally interested in dance and another subject. It’s an intense experience—students should expect heavy course loads and summer semesters—and extracurriculars and social life can get squeezed out of the picture. But double majoring can help dancers find crossovers between the two fields, expand their potential career options and provide a financial safety net to a professional dance career.

Marissa Osato

University of California at Irvine, 2009

Degrees in dance and literary journalism

Former competition kid Marissa Osato only added a dance major to her literary journalism major so the UC Irvine dance department would let her participate in shows. During the year, she regularly enrolled in 20–22 hours each term—4–6 hours more than what most colleges consider full-time status. Plus, she took 8 credit hours during every summer session, balancing choreography classes with journalism seminars. “I tried to avoid spending the whole summer sitting at a desk,” she says.

This left her with no time for interests outside of dance or journalism, but she did choreograph a piece almost every quarter, mount a six-piece show for her thesis and land an internship at Los Angeles magazine after graduation. “I didn’t know which major was going to take off,” she says, “so I went 100 percent in both directions.”

Marissa Osato did double duty in dance and literary journalism.

Today, she relies on her journalism skills as the full-time co-director of Entity Contemporary Dance. Entity recently premiered its first full-length solo show, based on the controversial topic of assisted suicide and set in a courtoom. Osato wrote and choreographed courtroom testimony for dancers to convey through speech and movement.

Nasira Burkholder-Cooley

University of Arizona, 2010

Degrees in dance and nutritional science; minor in chemistry

Heading into college, Nasira Burkholder-Cooley couldn’t see anything but ballet in her future. Her parents persuaded her to pick up another major just in case. So she chose nutritional science. “I figured if I was going to spend my time learning something else, it might as well make me a better dancer,” she says. Despite her initial reluctance, she started placing at the top of her upper-division courses. “It was so exciting to see this other side of myself emerge,” she says.

Even so, her schedule was relentless—typically from 8 am to 7 pm with an hour break. “I always felt a little torn,” she says. “There were countless times when I couldn’t take an extra jazz class or be in my friends’ choreography projects.”

Because there was virtually no overlap in the two majors’ coursework, she enrolled in 20–30 credit hours every session. This meant that she spent a day every semester gathering faculty signatures confirming her good grades, so that she could petition the dean to approve her ambitious schedule. She took summer classes every year to knock out nutrition requirements (and took advantage of Ballet Tucson’s drop-in ballet classes at the university in the summer).

Burkholder-Cooley is currently enrolled in a public health doctoral program, but dance directly influences her work. “Studying ballet at U of A made me disciplined,” she says. “I never could have gotten through these academic programs without that focus.” When she graduates, she wants to focus her practice on dancers. “My dance degree,” she adds, “will give me that necessary credibility.”

Breanna Gribble

Southern Methodist University, 2008

Degrees in dance and geophysics; minor in math

As a high school student, Gribble felt pressure to select a major that would lead to a stable career. “I knew I had to keep my options open,” she says. “What if I got injured?” She decided to double major, a choice that relieved her parents. “Professional dance can be a really difficult lifestyle,” she says. “They were glad that I wanted to do something else, too.”

Following two paths as different as dance and geology meant Gribble was forced to use every available minute wisely. Her daily routine included classes in ballet, physics, jazz and earth materials. An hour dinner break was followed by rehearsals. Finally, she’d work in the lab from 10:30 to around midnight. The geophysics department was accommodating, allowing her to turn in papers a few days late during particularly busy periods. The dance department, while sympathetic to the fact that Gribble was often exhausted, offered less flexibility. “You can’t make up a ballet class later,” she says, “the way you can make up a paper.” Still, she graduated in four years.

After college, Gribble auditioned for companies. “I got a lot of job offers,” she says, “but the economic downturn meant they didn’t come with a salary.” Now, she’s the associate artistic director of Mari Meade Dance Collective in New York. She balances the position with her full-time job as a project manager and geologist at Louis Berger, an engineering consulting firm. “I’m immersed in the arts,” she says, “and then I’m looking at soil pourings and doing reports for the Environmental Protection Agency. I love this dual life.” DT

Julie Schechter is a dancer and New York City–based freelance writer.

Photos from top: by Justin Lundquist, courtesy of Gribble; courtesy of Osato

Why a two-year program can be a good option

Valencia College dance majors get plenty of opportunities to perform.

Sometimes you know early on that a student isn’t cut out for a four-year college or conservatory experience. Maybe she struggles to balance dance class with academics, or always needs a little more one-on-one time with you to master tricky choreography. Maybe the cost of a four-year institution isn’t possible for her or her family. Ericka Brown, who didn’t study dance until she was 16, needed a program to help her develop a stronger technical foundation and give her time to adjust to adulthood. Her high school dance teacher suggested her own alma mater: Riverside City College, in Riverside, California, only 30 minutes away from Brown’s hometown.

At a community college—typically a two-year, nonresidential program—students can earn an associate’s degree or a vocational certificate. Got a student in mind who you think might be a good fit for community college? Here are five reasons it could be a gentler (and less costly) transition to collegiate life—without sacrificing all the opportunities of a four-year degree program.

Smaller class size Community colleges typically have lower student-teacher ratios than their four-year counterparts, ensuring that no dancer gets lost in the shuffle. “I do better in a smaller class environment,” says Taylor Mancil, a first-year student at Florida School of the Arts, a community college branch of St. Johns River State College in Palatka, FL. In order to keep class size small, FloArts only accepts around 10 dancers each year.

“We get a lot of individual attention from our professors,” says Mancil. “It sounds cheesy, but it really feels like a family, the way my studio did.” This close-knit environment allows the faculty to keep closer tabs on students. For example, if FloArts students have work commitments, faculty members will tailor their rehearsal schedules accordingly, ensuring they don’t stretch themselves too thin.

Quality training Community college students spend just as much time in the studio as freshmen and sophomores at four-year schools. At FloArts, Mancil takes class five days a week: ballet, modern, jazz, choreography and improvisation. One Friday a month, she attends a rotating workshop, with West African dance and conditioning among the master classes available. In the afternoons and evenings, she’s in rehearsal, learning choreography for the school’s end-of-semester show. “If our students are planning to go out and work professionally,” says faculty member Mary Ward, “we need to get them prepared.”

Professional exposure is an important part of two-year programs, too. Recent guest artists at Valencia College in Orlando, Florida, include Pilobolus, the Limón Dance Company and Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Valencia alumni have appeared on Broadway and with companies like Atlanta Ballet and Cirque du Soleil. Department chair Suzanne Salapa says students should expect a challenging, stimulating experience. “We used to hear, ‘Oh, I’ll just go to Valencia’ from future students,” she says. “But you don’t ‘just go’ here. When they arrive, it’s a lot harder than they anticipated.”

Reasonable price tag Earning a two-year degree is significantly less expensive than attending a public or private university. At Valencia, for instance, one credit hour for an in-state student is $103.06; at FloArts, it’s $108. In contrast, the average rate for public four-year universities in Florida is $205 (in-state tuition) or $696 (out of state); at a private university, it’s $599. “Not everybody has the financial ability coming out of high school for their families to send them to a four-year university,” says Salapa.

Transfer Options Many community college dance students move on to a four-year college after graduation. To ease this transition, some schools develop relationships with in-state four-year institutions that allow students to preview the dance department and interact with faculty. Valencia, for instance, partners with the University of Florida and Daytona State College for student choreography showcases. “Our job is really to create pathways, and we do that with our concerts,” says Salapa. “We’ve had students go on to Florida State University, New World School of the Arts, Boston Conservatory, CalArts.”

Students who want a guaranteed transfer enter into what’s called an articulation agreement with the four-year institution of their choice. The agreement, which is binding, outlines which courses taken (and grades earned) at the community college will transfer over to the university, making the switch easier—and preventing students from unexpectedly having to repeat classes. Not all community colleges have such systems in place, however, and students must sometimes take additional courses at a four-year college to make up for credits that didn’t transfer.

Career alternatives Community colleges often provide their students with chances to explore a number of dance-related careers during their stay. Pilates certification is offered at Riverside, for instance. Because many Valencia students hope to open dance studios, their program is designed to give them practical experience. Every summer, the dance department runs a four-week intensive for local high school students. At FloArts, Ward introduces viable career options by bringing in guest lecturers. This year’s roster included a dance journalist.

No matter where she ends up after graduation, Brown feels confident in her choice to attend Riverside. “Whenever I go into a professional setting or take class somewhere, I’m able to adapt and handle myself in a responsible manner,” she says. “And I know that comes from RCC and the experiences and opportunities I’ve gotten here.” DT

Julie Schechter is a dancer and New York City–based freelance writer.

Photo courtesy of Valencia College

Pursuing an academic degree doesn’t mean students have to leave dance behind.

Danza members can perform in eight works a semester and choreograph their own.

Kellie Drexl approached the end of high school with trepidation. “I’d been training at a studio and competing for 10 years,” she says, “and I knew I couldn’t give that up.” Though she didn’t want to pursue a dance major, she couldn’t bear cutting dance out completely. So during her freshman year at the University of Florida, she auditioned for Danza, a student-run performing group. Now a senior and Danza’s president, Drexl performs in seven pieces per show and choreographs. “It’s replaced my studio life,” she says.

Most colleges offer ways for students to stay involved with dance, whether via dance teams or student-run organizations like UF’s Danza. Some schools, like Harvard University (which doesn’t offer a dance major), encourage interested students to take advantage of noncredit classes and guest-artist opportunities. Don’t let your high school students assume that forgoing a dance major or minor will mean the end of their dancing days—they just need to find the right extracurricular.

Join the Club

Drexl, a health education major, was drawn to the flexibility that Danza offered her as a member. Monday nights are mandatory, when the group either rehearses the show’s opening or closing number or a member teaches a technique class. Otherwise, team members can dance as much (or as little) as they want.

The company holds open auditions each semester. Choreography for Danza’s semester-end showcase is largely jazz and contemporary and is screened by the whole company. Most members perform in three or four pieces each semester. But Drexl says a third of the group dances in the maximum number of pieces—eight.

University of Florida

Fellow student Noelle Cummins joined another UF dance club, the Dancin’ Gators. The criminology major needed a break from the rigorous schedule of her high school dance team and hometown studio and felt she could moderate her participation in this student-run group. The Dancin’ Gators doesn’t have auditions and accommodates students who just want a weekly technique class, as well as those who want to dance in or choreograph for the semester-end showcase. Members can also participate in the club’s performance team, which will travel to Disney World this year. “If you take advantage of all the opportunities,” says Cummins, who is now president of the club, “it’s about 6–10 hours per week.”

Another plus is the club’s versatility, which has reinvigorated Cummins’ love for dance. “We have every level and style,” she says. “We do mostly contemporary, hip hop and jazz, but we also have hula, swing, salsa and Irish. It’s changed my outlook and given me back my drive.”

Team Spirit

Ellen Eubanks is a finance major at the University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg, where she spends 15–20 hours a week each fall semester practicing with the Dixie Darlings, a precision dance team that has performed at Southern Miss’ football games since 1954. Teammates practice Monday through Friday, for two to three hours each day (for which they receive two class credits). They must also put in three hours of outside conditioning to prepare for the high-energy game-day shows. Like Eubanks, about 90 percent of the Dixie Darlings are studio-trained dancers. “I look for that training,” says coach Tracy Smith, “because a technical background allows them to pick up the team’s jazz routines quickly.”

Things slow down in the spring: Daily rehearsals are over, though team members can take technique classes (taught by Smith) or join the team’s new competition group and perform at community events.

Despite the dance team’s hefty fall commitment, Eubanks finds time to be a sorority member. “I have to schedule my time out to the hour,” she says, “but on game day, when I think about being part of this team’s tradition, I just get chills.”

Nina Shevzov-Zebrun has ample opportunity to take ballet and work with guest artists at Harvard.

Study with the Masters

Nina Shevzov-Zebrun trained for a ballet career until the end of high school, when she decided to enter Harvard’s chemistry program. She takes class from renowned modern choreographers, made available through the dance program.

Despite the lack of a dance major, the program provides a range of for-credit and extracurricular opportunities. For instance, director Jill Johnson (DT, August 2011) brings guest artists to campus each semester (Dwight Rhoden last spring and Andrea Miller in 2013) to teach open master classes. These classes may also serve as an audition—each artist chooses a cast for an original work created for the semester-end showcase. When Shevzov-Zebrun was cast by Pontus Lidberg in spring 2013, she had to come back early from winter break to rehearse about eight hours a day for two weeks. “Then we rehearsed six hours a week until the show,” she says. “I’m not sure I’d have time to do it again, but it was an incredible experience.”

Interested students can also apply for the Emerging Choreographer program: Two or three are selected each semester and given work space and guidance from Johnson and current artists in residence.

Shevzov-Zebrun also takes advantage of noncredit technique classes, open to all and offered in conditioning, contemporary and ballet. Classes meet either once ($55) or twice ($75) per week or can be taken on a drop-in basis ($7 per class). DT

Julie Schechter is a dancer and New York City–based freelance writer.

Photos from top: by Jordan Albright, courtesy of Drexl; courtesy of Cummins; by Thomas Earle, courtesy of Shevzov-Zebrun 

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


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


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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