Your Student Wants a College Dance Degree! Now What?

A dance teacher’s guide to navigating the college application process

You could say it takes a whole village to successfully navigate the college application process. Though it is your high school students who ultimately decide whether to pursue dance in college and fill out the applications, parents, college counselors and you—their dance teacher—play a big part.

Your perspective can influence this important decision, but it’s a big responsibility. While you can’t possibly have all the answers, you can help your students figure out when to do what and direct them to resources. We’ve helped identify your part in the decision-making and application process below and included a timeline for your students’ college prep.

Freshman and Sophomore Years

Discuss their interests “Young students often don’t know how to assess themselves, so talk one-on-one with them about what excites and interests them,” says Martha Faesi, dance faculty at the Alabama School of Fine Arts, a public, partially residential high school. These are questions your students should answer for themselves: What do you want to do with dance? What genre of dance are you most interested in? What part of the country would you prefer to live and study in?

Encourage research Attending college fairs, the National High School Dance Festival and pre-professional summer programs will broaden students’ outlook on training. Students can begin visiting campuses they’re interested in as early as sophomore year, during their summer vacation or spring break. (The annual Dance Magazine College Guide is a great resource, with a comparative chart and details about the top college and university dance programs.)

Junior Year

Help craft resumés Though every college’s resumé requirements differ, it’s beneficial to assemble a one-page version that can be easily adapted. “It should be a snapshot of them as a dancer,” says Cameron Basden, dance director at the Interlochen Center for the Arts, a Michigan boarding school. “Include guest choreographers they’ve worked with, what their dance proficiencies are, what roles they’ve danced and performed.” Be sure to add any choreography experience the student might have: “Collaborations and creations are a big part of what schools are looking for these days,” says Basden.

Write recommendation letters If a student asks you to write a recommendation letter, do your own research on the program she’s applying to. “It should be clear that the writer understands what our program is like, when recommending a student,” says Dr. Laura Katz Rizzo, Temple University’s BFA program director. “We want to know if the candidate is an open-minded critical thinker who will use her classical training to explore our program in innovative ways.”

Senior Year

Create audition solos Ask students whether they want to create an audition solo, have one set on them or rehearse a piece from their past. Be sure to check for specific requirements. At Temple University, for example, students must perform a one-minute solo of their own choreography. Katz Rizzo has seen it all. “If there’s a good choreographic idea that’s developed or a unique stage presence or an interesting use of space, it doesn’t matter what the genre is,” she says. “We’ve had hip hop, variations on pointe, bharata natyam, burlesque, competition solos.”

Get in touch with any contacts If you have a connection at the school, let that person know before the audition that your student will be attending, and offer a bit of information about her. “To some degree, if we know who their teachers are, we know the values and pedagogy they’ve been exposed to,” says Katz Rizzo.

Broaden their experience “Make sure they see and experience different kinds of dance so they understand what the current dance field looks like,” Katz Rizzo says. College-bound dancers should have experience with or knowledge about somatic studies, such as Alexander Technique or Laban Movement Analysis, and an understanding of the vast career options available in the dance field, such as pedagogy, arts administration or physical therapy. “Let your students know there are so many possibilities,” Faesi says. “Their knowledge and love of dance will serve them well, in whatever they eventually decide to pursue.”

As you keep the conversation going throughout your dancers’ high school careers, remember to impart this key piece of advice: Stress is not necessary at any point, says Basden. “Students often feel this single decision will decide the rest of their lives,” she says. “I often remind students that they can change schools if they need to—and that we all continue to control our destiny even after college.” DT

Hannah Maria Hayes is a frequent contributor to Dance Teacher and holds an MA in dance education, American Ballet Theatre pedagogy emphasis, from New York University.


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College Prep Timeline for Students

By Rachel Zar

Your students should begin preparing for college as soon as they start high school. “A student’s choices and work ethic impact how a college sees them, starting from the day they enter ninth grade,” says Karlette Fuchs, college office coordinator at Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts in New York City. “But the intense part—the meat of it—begins junior year.” To make the process easier toward the end, there are some things your high schoolers can do right away, like thinking about the kind of school they want, taking practice SATs or ACTs, even visiting college campuses during breaks. Most importantly, they should keep up their grades and dance classes. Share this checklist with your students to keep them on track during junior and senior years.



Junior Year


It’s never too early to start building your list of schools. Decide whether you want a liberal arts school or a conservatory. What part of the country would you like to be in? How much can you feasibly spend on tuition? “Understand that this job is weighty, but you should give yourself time to enjoy it,” says Fuchs. “You will learn so much about yourself along the way.”

Put together a dance resumé detailing your experiences, teachers and any programs you’ve attended. Continue to add to it throughout the next couple of years.

Ask your college counselor about scholarship opportunities.

Check that your e-mail address is appropriate and clean up your Facebook page, social-media sites and blogs. “Colleges know that you’re young, but there’s a level of responsibility that you are expected to meet,” says Fuchs. “If there is something online that you think might be a problem, get rid of it.”


Take the SAT or ACT as early as possible. That way you’ll have many chances to retake it and improve your score if necessary. And don’t forget to factor in the schedule for SAT Subject Tests.

Keep your eyes open for local college fairs, and attend.

Start thinking about your summer plans, noting deadlines and audition dates. Summer dance intensives—particularly those at a college or university—are a great way to prep for auditions.


Meet with a college counselor one-on-one (or with your parents) to begin narrowing down your list. Also, decide if you want to apply early decision or early action to a school.

Repeat the SAT or ACT if you want to improve your score.

Look carefully at the application process for each school you are applying to and begin gathering documents you will need: transcripts of grades, test scores, letters of recommendation (from both academic and dance teachers), awards and income records.

Schedule college visits over spring break, and plan ahead for summer trips. “Try to see campuses during times when students will be there,” says Fuchs. “That way you can get a feel for the culture of the school.” Remember to include the financial aid office in your visit. Plus, reach out to college students from your high school or studio who return home during breaks.

Begin writing application essays. “Just because you’re a future dance major doesn’t mean that your essay isn’t a huge component,” says Fuchs.

Start to think about a solo for dance program auditions. “You shouldn’t have to start from scratch,” says Fuchs. “Choose something you’ve already learned or create and fine-tune it.”


Keep up with your technique classes and stay healthy.

Now’s a great time to get some serious work done toward choosing a college: Keep researching and visiting schools.

Continue working on your essays and your solo for auditions.


Senior Year

If you’re still unhappy with your SAT or ACT score, take it again in the fall.

Complete your application essays. Ask a teacher to look at them.

Make sure you’ve gathered all application forms, letters of recommendation, transcripts and test scores and begin submitting.

Continue to research scholarships and apply early.

Attend dance program auditions.


After Acceptances Arrive 

Celebrate your good news, and make a decision. Be sure to notify the college of your choice by May 1.

Keep up your grades and hard work to the very end. “Schools base their acceptances on the student who you promise to be, and they will contact your high school to ask if your academic performance has changed,” says Fuchs.


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.

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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.

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