Every high school dancer faces life-changing decisions as graduation approaches: Do I want to keep dancing? Should I audition for companies right away, or get a degree in dance, or major in something else and join my school’s dance team? Should I try to go to college while pursuing professional dance opportunities? What if I make the “wrong” decision and miss out on something great?

If you think the options seem overwhelming, you’re in good company. Aspiring professional dancers feel pressure to begin their careers as early as possible—but they’re also often told to have a normal college experience and get a degree, “just in case.” Here’s the truth: There are a million different routes to a rewarding dance career. Read on to hear from five dancers about the decisions they made after high school—and how those choices got them to where they are today.

Meredith Webster and David Harvey in Meyer (photo by Angela Sterling)

Meredith Webster

Alonzo King LINES Ballet company member

Studied environmental science at the University of Washington while training

at Pacific Northwest Ballet

In high school, I knew I wanted to dance professionally. I grew up thinking every professional dancer gets a job right after graduating high school. But that’s not true anymore.

I went to a couple auditions my senior year of high school, but since I didn’t get any job offers, I entered the professional training program at Pacific Northwest Ballet. My parents said the only way they would support me going to PNB was if I went to college at the same time. So I enrolled in one class every quarter at the University of Washington.

At first I was super-resistant. I was the only dancer in the PNB program waking up for an 8:30 am college class before dancing all day. But it turned out I liked having a connection to “normal” life, and I ended up really enjoying the classes I took.

After two years at PNB, I decided to go to school full-time to finish my degree—and to keep dancing. The modern teacher at PNB had her own company, so I performed in two shows a year with her. By then, I was less sure of what I wanted. I loved dancing, but I was also considering pursuing a job in wind power, which was what I was studying. When I was about to finish school, Donald Byrd came to Seattle and took over Spectrum Dance Theater. It felt right, so I auditioned, and I’ve been dancing in a company ever since.

I haven’t had as many years to perform as some other people my age. But I wouldn’t take it back. As an artist, the broader your experience is in the world, the more you can bring to your work. I had experiences through the university that I wouldn’t have had if I’d gone straight from high school to wearing pink tights all day every day.

(Photo by Marcel Indik Photography)

Taylor Ackerman

Commercial dancer

Moved to L.A. straight out of high school

I’ve always known I wanted to dance professionally, so I decided I needed to dive in and move to L.A. to give it a try. I told myself school would always be there if I wanted to go back, but this was something I needed to do while I could.

My mom and I decided I would take online classes my senior year while I focused on my dance training and added singing and acting lessons to my schedule. At the end of the year, I auditioned for an ABC Family movie called Lovestruck: The Musical, and I booked it. After that, I signed with an agency in L.A. I work as a waitress at night so I can support myself, and I go to auditions during the day.

Moving to L.A. at 18 was scary, but I’ve always been independent, and 95 percent of the people here are doing the same thing I am. I’ve never been more stressed and confused than I am now, but I’ve also never been happier.

You have to pay your dues in L.A. by showing your face at a lot of auditions and classes. So I feel like I have a head start. I’ve been here two years now, and although it took a couple months to book my first job, I worked my way up to dancing with Taylor Swift at the MTV Video Music Awards, and I recently booked the TV show “Hit The Floor.”

Corina Gill in Boston Ballet's The Nutcracker (photo by Gene Schiavone)

Corina Gill

Boston Ballet corps de ballet member

Majored in dance at University of California, Irvine

When I was in high school, not going to college wasn’t an option for me—that’s the way I was raised. I knew I wanted to be in a ballet company one day, so my major concern was how I would keep dancing in college. I chose to major in dance at UC Irvine, and the connections I made there helped me get the job I have now at Boston Ballet.

For a ballet dancer, college is a hard route to go. You start your career four years later than many people, and dancers already have such a short shelf life. But looking back, I wouldn’t do anything differently. College rounded out my dance education as well as my academic education. It exposed me to different ways of thinking and different kinds of people. Now, a few years into my dance career, I have to start thinking about what I’m going to do after dance—and while some of my colleagues are working on their bachelor’s degrees, I’m working on my master’s in nonprofit management.

Johnny McMillan in Jonathan Fredrickson's For the Wandered (photo by Todd Rosenberg)

Johnny McMillan

Hubbard Street Dance Chicago company member

Became an apprentice with Hubbard Street Dance Chicago’s second company soon after graduating high school

I was always interested in joining a company right out of high school, but all of my friends were doing the college thing—so I joined them and auditioned for The Juilliard School, The Boston Conservatory, Purchase College, SUNY and California Institute of the Arts. The Boston Conservatory offered me a scholarship, and I accepted.

I was worried I might be making a mistake by going to college. I went to high school at Interlochen Arts Academy, a boarding school in Michigan, so I had done the “dorm life” thing, and having a degree in dance wasn’t something that interested me. I was ready to get out there and learn what it was like to be a professional dancer.

That summer, I attended Hubbard Street’s summer intensive program on scholarship, and after the summer, I was offered an apprenticeship with the second company. I took the job instead of starting my freshman year at The Boston Conservatory.

Since I got my foot in the door early, I have many dancing years ahead of me. Jumping into professional life isn’t easy: You have to figure out things like insurance and taxes and how to take care of yourself. I also felt like an outsider to my peer group—I missed the college experience. But I don’t know if that’s a bad thing. Having a group of older and more mature dancers around me has improved my dancing, and being in the company has taught me the business side of dance.

(Photo by Jordan Matter)

Gwynedd Vetter-Drusch

NYC-based freelance artist

Deferred a college enrollment to focus on her dance career

When I graduated high school, I felt a little behind as a ballet dancer because I hadn’t started training seriously until I was 14. I’d received a scholarship to Bard College to study international relations, but as I talked with some of the mentors in my life, I realized college was something I could come back to, while dancing was something I needed to do now. Bard let me defer a year so I could focus on my dancing.

I moved to NYC to train at Ellison Ballet and to intern at Pointe magazine, since one of my passions is writing. At the end of that year, I got an offer to join Tulsa Ballet’s second company, and Bard let me defer another year. At the end of that year, I had the opportunity to join the Gelsey Kirkland Studio Company in NYC. This time, Bard said I needed to choose between the scholarship and the dance company. I couldn’t turn down an opportunity to dance with Gelsey Kirkland.

Since then, I’ve been freelancing as a dancer and actor. I’m also directing a preservation program for monarch butterflies. My goal is to create art and tell stories that have a healing or empowering effect on human beings, especially children.

I do think it will be important for me to get a degree in the future. I’ve noticed that in some circles, there’s a stigma associated with not having a college degree—it’s equated with a certain level of intelligence. People will say to me, “You’re so well-spoken for someone who didn’t go to college!” But I can always go to college, and I’m going to make it a priority before I have a family of my own.

Because I came to NYC at 17, I feel like I could go anywhere in the world now and be OK. I’ve been empowered by the understanding that my decisions are my own. If you look at the kind of people who are living the life you want to lead, and backtrack to see how they got there, it’s surprising to see that there are many unique, winding roads.

Aren’t you tired of hearing tales about college life from your parents, teachers and admissions counselors? (Do they even remember college?!) Well, we are too. That’s why we love talking to current students—dancing in colleges across the country—about what their life is really like.

Here, Amara Warrington, a senior dance major at University of the Arts in Philadelphia, PA, tells Dance Spirit why she chose her college and what she experienced when she got there:

“Most liberal arts colleges have dance programs that focus on ballet or modern. But jazz is my favorite style, so I chose to go to a conservatory. At University of the Arts, I have the opportunity to declare a concentration in jazz dance performance. The concentration requires that I take tap, and I also get to take electives in hip hop and partnering.

“Even though dance is such a competitive field, I’ve met so many dancers at UArts (from so many different places!) who are extremely supportive of one another. One of the best aspects of UArts is that we’re all passionate about the same thing, and that helps us build a great community.

“After graduation, I’d like to move out to California because I’m interested in doing commercial work. Auditioning for a cruise line would be a great experience because it would require a different kind of performance than I’m used to. I’d love that challenge, and it would help me be a more versatile dancer."

Stumped about what you really want in a  college? Danceu101.com is full of articles about college life, plus a handy search engine that takes all the guesswork out of choosing a school. Check it out! And don’t forget to click here to order your copy of the Dance Magazine College Guide.

Are you a college student interested in being interviewed by DS for a post like this one? Click here to tell us about yourself.

University of Arizona BFA undergraduates David Maurice, Adam Houston and Laura Kaufman take a break between classes. (Ashley Bowman)

With so many great dance colleges out there, deciding on a few to visit and audition for can be tough. Asking these questions before you plan your college tour can help you narrow your search and target the best schools for you.

What dance degrees are offered? 

The first step toward finding your ideal program is thinking about what kind of college dance experience you’re looking for. Do you want to hone your technique intensively and go straight into a professional company? Or would you rather spend more time exploring a broad range of dance styles and related fields? Most colleges with strong dance programs offer either a Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) or a Bachelor of Arts (BA) degree in dance. A BFA program typically looks a lot like a conservatory program, but it also includes liberal arts classes like history and science. “Essentially, a BFA curriculum is more heavily grounded in technique and performance than a BA, with the primary goal being to join a dance company after graduation,” says Melissa Lowe, professor in the BFA program at the University of Arizona.On the other hand, a BA could be a perfect fit for a dancer looking to explore. “A BA is more about studying a range of things,” says Terry Creach, a faculty member in the BA program at Bennington College. “Dance is definitely the concentration, but the thought is that you’re beginning an arts career that could go many different directions.” You might end up dancing professionally, or you might go on to manage a company, choreograph or design costumes.BA and BFA degrees aren’t the only options. Some schools might not have a dance degree at all, but instead offer a dance minor or a dance team that can fulfill your dance goals while you pursue an academic major. Cortney Colich, a 2012 graduate and senior captain of the University of Minnesota dance team, decided she could best satisfy her dance interests by joining the UMinn team and focusing on pursuing an advertising degree. “I’ve always been a team-oriented person, and I love to compete and challenge myself,” she says.

(L to R) University of Arizona MFA student Alyssa Alger choreographs on BFA students Weston Krukow and Raffles Durbin. (Ashley Bowman)

What’s the tuition? And what scholarships and financial aid are available?

Unfortunately, tuition costs are going up, while dance scholarships tend to remain much smaller than scholarships for other subject areas. The good news is that most liberal arts schools also offer academic scholarships to dancers with high grades.

When you’re comparing scholarship packages at different schools, don’t forget to consider the cost of living and other extra expenses, like travel. “What a lot of dancers tend to do is say, ‘This school is giving me $15,000 and this one is only giving me $8,000,’ ” says Lowe, “when in fact, once they sit down with their families and measure the total costs, they see that $8,000 would actually go a lot farther toward the total tuition bill of that school than the $15,000 would at the other.”

Who’s on the faculty?

For Indiana University ballet major Laura Pollin, studying with the right faculty for her goals was a top priority. “I wanted to work with people I knew would push me and have my best interests at heart,” she says.

Most schools offer short biographies of each faculty member on their website. You certainly don’t have to study with the most famous dancers in the world, but look for faculty members whose backgrounds interest you. After all, they’ll be your mentors during your years in the program.

University of Arizona professor Melissa Lowe coaches BFA undergraduate Amie Kilgore. (Ashley Bowman)

What’s the alumni networking situation like?

Researching what the alumni of a program have done with their careers can be revealing. Are they dancing with modern companies? Are they on professional dance teams? Are they on the administrative side of a dance company? Look for a school whose alumni are following paths you can see yourself on.

According to Creach, dance program graduates also find alumni connections to be a valuable resource when they graduate. “Alumni who graduated five years ago are out there making connections and working in the field,” he says. “They know exactly what a new graduate is facing, where she should go and who to connect with.” A school with a strong dance alumni network might help you jump-start your career after graduation.

What styles does the dance department specialize in?

Most dance programs focus on some combination of ballet, modern and jazz, often with an emphasis on one or two of the three styles. Some also offer theater dance, voice and acting classes, perfect for the aspiring Broadway dancer. Others, like Bennington, place their greatest emphasis on the creation of new work. Every program is different, so it’s important to think about the stylistic focus of each one you consider.

Where is the school, and how big is it?

Is it in a vibrant city? Nestled in peaceful mountains? Does it have a contained, haven-like campus, or does the dorm’s front door open to the excitement of NYC?

“It’s important to ask yourself, ‘Do I flourish in an environment where there are a lot of stimuli—like in a big city—or do I need the sanctuary of a quieter campus?’ ” Lowe says. Think about size, too: At a very small school like Bennington, you might get to know everyone on campus, dancers and non-dancers alike. If you attend a large university, you’ll have the opportunity (and responsibility) to customize your own close-knit community by joining your favorite clubs and organizations. (Not sure which size is your style? Check out the “What College Is Right for You?” quiz.)

How’s the food?

It sounds a little silly, but food is a really important part of campus life, especially for dancers. The quality of cafeteria food can vary from one campus to the next. Poke around college websites to see what meal plans are offered and what kinds of food are readily available—especially if you have special dietary needs. Fortunately, many schools are now accommodating of vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free diets. “I’m allergic to gluten, and that can be tough,” Colich says. “But it’s been amazing to see how the school provides options for people with allergies. Now, wherever I go on campus I’m able to find something to eat.”

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