Dancer to Dancer
Sarah Stanley (Paula Court, courtesy Sarah Stanley)

Navigating college can be tough, especially when you're balancing an intense dance schedule with academic classes and jobs—and trying to make new friends! About to begin your college adventure? We talked to these recent graduates about what they wish they'd known before starting college.

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Dancer to Dancer

"When a biology major asked if I was illiterate because I studied dance, I realized just how much of a joke my field of study is to some people."

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Dancer to Dancer
Students at Pomona College learn how ethnic groups use dances, like the Hawaiian hula, to construct identities. (via Thinkstock)

If you're thinking about majoring in dance at a liberal arts school, you're probably already excited about the technique and repertory classes on offer. But what about the academic classes that you'll need to complete your major?

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Dancer to Dancer
Students in ballet class at Chaffey College (Jeff Harris, courtesy Michele Jenkins)

College dance programs are popular for aspiring performers and choreographers, but the expense and time commitment of a four-year institution can seem daunting. If you're feeling overwhelmed, consider attending a community college dance program. Community colleges offer two-year programs in which a student can receive an associate in arts degree (AA)—a preliminary step toward earning a bachelor of arts (BA) degree. Dance Spirit explored three reasons why community college might be the right move for you.

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Taking a campus tour is an integral part of your college decision-making process. But what if you're already super-serious about one or two schools, or your guide doesn't know very much about the dance department? You may want to consider taking your daytime tour one step further by scheduling an overnight stay with a current dance major.

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Confident you’re going to breeze through your college application essay? On campus, you can take those writing skills to the next level. Whether you’re reflecting on a repertory class, critiquing a performance or researching a pivotal moment in dance history, in these writing-heavy dance programs you’ll sharpen your critical, technical and creative skills all at once.

Emory University

At Emory University in Atlanta, GA, every dance major double-majors in another subject—which means students can combine English literature or creative writing with dance studies. “We’re teaching students how to reflect on dance,” says Lori Teague, an associate professor and director of dance at Emory. “Every class, from ‘Contemporary Issues in Dance’ to ‘Somatic Practices,’ has a writing component.”

Sarah Freeman performs in her honors thesis concert at Emory University. (Photo by Lori Teague, courtesy Emory University)

Emory students with high GPAs can complete an honors thesis crystallizing their writing skills. “Our most recent honors thesis in dance was by Sarah Freeman and combined an academic paper with choreography inspired by author Flannery O’Connor,” Teague says.

University of California–Irvine

At UC Irvine, dance majors are pushed to apply their performance skills to their writing. “Dancers’ observational powers make them very good writers,” says Jennifer Fisher, PhD, an associate professor of dance. But she stresses that great writing requires as much work as technique class.

Students put those skills into practice in classes like “Critical Issues in Dance,” where they learn to differentiate among various types of dance writing. Students also learn why dance writing and criticism are important elements in a performance career. “It’s a way to engage with the public and be recorded in history,” Fisher says. “Choreographers need to be able to solicit and facilitate that kind of writing to survive in the dance world.”

Barnard College

Dancers at Barnard College in NYC have many opportunities to stretch their writing skills. Mindy Aloff, adjunct associate professor of dance—and noted author, editor, journalist, essayist and dance critic—teaches classes like “From the Page to the Dance Stage,” which covers works of literature that have been interpreted through dance but weren’t originally intended for it.

When she teaches dance criticism, Aloff wants her students to gain perspective on the role of a critic by being one themselves: “Dancers should understand what goes into that specialized kind of writing—especially if one is, someday, likely to be reviewed!”

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.

Dance News

College-bound dancers: Got any plans for Valentine's Day weekend? If not (and if you're in or around NYC), consider checking out the Ivy Ballet Exchange. Here's the scoop:

Student-run, pre-professional ballet groups are an emerging trend in the Ivy League. (It turns out there are a lot of serious ballet dancers who are also gifted students! Somehow we're not surprised.) Leading the charge are the Columbia Ballet Collaborative (CBC), Princeton University Ballet (PUB) and Harvard Ballet Company. And this Valentine's Day weekend, the three will come together to put on a collaborative show: The Ivy Ballet Exchange.

Each company will perform separate works, and the program will include a mix of professional and student choreography. The performance will take place in Columbia University's Miller Theatre on Saturday, February 15 at 8 and Sunday February 16 at 3. Tickets are $20 for the general public and $10 with student ID. To purchase tickets, click here or call the box office at 212-854-7799.

In the meantime, check out this trailer put together by CBC, or browse the event's Facebook page.

Craving more college info? Check out the Dance Magazine College Guide.

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