When Francisco Villa left his native Argentina to attend the American Musical and Dramatic Academy, he had a specific goal in mind.
"I was telling my friends, 'I am going to New York and I am going to dance with Lady Gaga.' I was trying to visualize those things that I wanted," he says.
Not long after completing the four-semester conservatory program at AMDA, Villa got his wish and danced in Gaga's Super Bowl LI half-time show. He says AMDA was "like a snowball…after that things started moving and getting bigger and bigger."
Today, dancers' goals are more ambitious than ever. And for good reason—opportunities for dancers are expanding, training institutions are adapting in response, and it's becoming easier and easier to switch between coasts, gigs and styles.
"Dancers are moving from a contemporary company, to film, to commercial work," says Marina Benedict, co-chair of AMDA's dance department. "No longer are the days where dance is so segmented. Dance artists now are crossing all boundaries and we are trying to prepare them for that."
Here's how AMDA ensures that their dance students are prepared to truly "do it all":
Escape the pigeonhole.
"I caution first semester students from predetermining what their strengths are because they will be exposed to so much," says Benedict. "Some come in thinking they are a commercial dancer, or a concert dancer, and that changes. It is one of my favorite things about this work."
AMDA is rife with opportunities to try new things, and according to Coleman, to take risks—which for her meant presenting two full nights of her work and creating a dance film.
Three years post-grad, Coleman is now a dancer with LA Contemporary Dance Company and has been a choreographic assistant to Nicole Berger (who was her teacher at AMDA Los Angeles) on shows like "The Good Place," "Veep," and "Deadwood."
Michael Higgins, Courtesy AMDA
Network—with the right people.
Having faculty members with connections is key. "Because of our locations in Los Angeles and New York City, our teachers are not people who have had to leave the art form to go teach," Benedict says. "Our faculty are coming directly off the stage or the screen and they are bringing info directly to the students." She says that dance students can expect to interact with at least 50 current industry professionals in each location.
Both Villa and Coleman were signed by agencies immediately following their senior performance, thanks to connections made through faculty members. For Villa, signing with Bloc Agency led to opportunities to work with Lady Gaga's choreographer Richy Jackson (and ultimately the Super Bowl performance) and to dance at this year's Oscars. Coleman estimates that 85 percent of her work comes from AMDA connections, including both faculty and peers.
Connections aren't all that stays with AMDA graduates long after they leave campus: They also enjoy lifetime access to studio space and accompanists.
AMDA spans the two biggest dance hubs in the United States: The New York City campus is right behind Lincoln Center, and the Los Angeles location is directly in Hollywood. Villa came to New York first, where he spent time honing his technique in ballet and contemporary before transitioning to Los Angeles to chase commercial work.
Benedict adds that there are important basic logistics that the bicoastal experience offers students. "They know how to navigate both cities, the cost of living, the neighborhoods," she says.
It's difficult for dancers to achieve their goals if they're constantly being sidelined by injury—or haven't been taught how to properly care for their bodies. At AMDA, dancers receive injury prevention screenings in their first semester, and are given an exercise plan to address weaknesses and concerns. If they do become injured, there's a medical team on hand to help rehab them. Students also have access to a mental health team and special programs are focused on de-stigmatizing mental health issues to encourage use of those resources.
Know the ropes.
"The mission of AMDA is to make each student not just a well-versed performer, but also someone who knows how to make a life as an artist," says Benedict. While technique and artistry will take a dancer far, Benedict warns that many trained dancers have no idea how to get a job after their education.
"By the eighth semester they are really being treated as a professional," she says. "They are given call sheets and breakdowns and they are expected to email back within 24 hours to accept the place. Once they get representation, we have already been treating them that way for a while."
"Give yourself the gift of really honing your artistry," says Benedict. "The artists coming out of AMDA are much more prepared with the knowledge of who they are and what they want."