Classes to Expect as a Dance Major

College dance departments offer more than ballet and modern technique. The following are a sampling of the types of classes you’re likely to take as a dance major. “These courses are designed to broaden a student’s standard dance curriculum,” explains Bill DeYoung, Chair of University of Michigan’s dance department. The guide is compiled from interviews with former and current students and professors in the dance departments of California Institute of the Arts, Sarah Lawrence College and University of Michigan.

Anatomy/Kinesiology
Just as committing choreography to muscle memory is necessary for rehearsal and performance, memorizing the body’s anatomy is important to dancers’ overall physical awareness. Anatomy/kinesiology is the study of the musculoskeletal structure, emphasizing the moving body. The class involves memorizing and drawing muscle and bone structures. Some courses, like SLC’s, offer movement practice such as Irene Dowd’s “Spirals” (a warm-up designed to mobilize all joints and major muscle groups) to apply and analyze movement anatomically. Former SLC student Pilar Maez valued this application method, “because it took all the information out of the book and made it relate to movement on our own bodies,” she says. Studying functional anatomy also helps dancers build body awareness, which can prevent injuries.  

 

Body Therapies
Body therapy courses provide a comprehensive introduction to body conditioning practices such as Alexander technique, Pilates, Feldenkrais, yoga, massage therapy and Gyrotonic. These studies offer alternative ways of staying in shape, help with injury prevention and increase physical and mental awareness.   

Composition
Basic principles of creating and structuring dance are taught in composition classes. Activities are designed to stimulate creativity and the creation of movement. Expect peer reviews and critiques of your work. The techniques learned here are building blocks for your future dance-making endeavors. Even when working as a professional dancer, this kind of training “gives you a leg up—you might even be able to help with the choreographer’s thought process,” says Katie Diamond, a CalArts graduate.  

Contact Improvisation

Contact improvisation examines the principles of improvising movement when two or more bodies come into physical contact. Dancers discover ways of giving and taking each other’s weight and moving through positions. They also test personal comfort levels and develop spatial awareness. SLC’s contact professor Kathy Westwater stresses the importance of taking risks with this technique. As more modern, ballet and jazz choreographers explore their ideas through improvisation, and investigate unique kinds of lifts, dancers familiar with contact principles are becoming highly marketable.   

Dance and Related Arts
Dance and related arts courses teach dancers how to collaborate with artists in other fields. The instructor will likely facilitate collaborations between your class and artists in another department, and may put forth a theme for you to work together on. Collaborating with many different artists requires an open mind, cooperation and problem-solving skills. The importance of this course goes beyond creating a performance piece. As former UM student Julie Blume says, “It is a lesson in teamwork, creativity, tolerance and compromise.”  

Dance History
Most undergraduate dance history courses are general overviews of 20th-century dance performance predominantly in the U.S., which focus on the works of influential dancers and look at specific periods. You’ll watch videos and read articles to help develop your critical perception, and write reviews of live performances. Studying dance history while reviewing current works is designed to help you realize how yesterday’s dance has influenced what’s created today.

Lighting Design and Stagecraft
Lighting design and stagecraft courses explore both the theoretical and practical issues in designing lighting for dance. Interpreting the choreography, its mood, and its relationship to the music contribute to the development of a lighting concept that transports the audience in a way the choreographer intends. Basic color theory and the functions of theatrical equipment are standard topics. Organization, patience and interpersonal skills are needed to create cue sheets and communicate with other designers and choreographers. Participating in the technical aspect of the theater is usually a requirement for dance majors; a smart dancer knows as much about what’s happening onstage as behind the scenes.   

Senior Career Seminar
Senior career seminars help prepare dancers for life after graduation. You may learn self-promotion (creating a resumé, for both dance and business, and what makes a headshot great), grant writing and cover letter procedures, NYC survival tips, information about prominent dance companies, audition techniques and ways to support yourself financially while pursuing a dance career.

Showings Class
Showings classes provide a safe space to share works-in-progress throughout the year.  Composition class assignments and graduate thesis projects are treated equally. All work brought to the class is performed and discussed in a group. The course is a forum for the artist to experiment, receive feedback and learn to talk about his or her work.

Video Dance
Video dance courses focus on capturing and creating dance for the camera. Participants not only learn how to handle a camera and experiment with angles and settings to shoot dance effectively, but also create a video dance. These courses usually require a major time commitment, but students agree that it’s worth it, as dance and technology are becoming more intertwined—on the stage and for preservation.

Latest Posts


Project 21 dancers (from left) Selena Hamilton, Gracyn French, and Dyllan Blackburn (Photo by Quinn Wharton; hair and makeup throughout by Angela Huff for Mark Edward Inc.)

How Project 21 Is Shaping the Next Generation of Competition-Dance Standouts

"I wish I had a better story about the name," says Molly Long, founder of the Orange County, CA–based dance studio Project 21. In truth, it's a play on the fact that she was born on the twenty-first of August, and 21 is her favorite number. "I was away on a teaching tour, the audition announcement was going live on Instagram the next day, and I desperately needed a name. Project 21 was just the least cheesy of the options I thought of!"

The fact that fans might expect the name to have some profound meaning speaks to the near-mythic status Project 21 has achieved on the competition and convention scene since its founding in 2014. Long's dancers are all wholly individual, yet jell seamlessly as a group, and are consistently snagging top prizes everywhere on the circuit. Each season brings a slew of new accolades, high-caliber faculty, and legions of devoted followers.

The industry has taken notice of the studio's unique ethos. "Molly gets through to her dancers in a special way, and they have this incomparable level of commitment to their craft as a result," says dancer and choreographer Billy Bell, who's worked closely with Long and her dancers. "That's what sets them apart—it's like a little dose of magic."

Keep Reading SHOW LESS
Photo by Jayme Thornton

Dear Katie: What Can I Do to Get More Flexible?

In our "Dear Katie" series, Miami City Ballet soloist Kathryn Morgan answers your pressing dance questions. Have something you want to ask Katie? Email dearkatie@dancespirit.com for a chance to be featured!

Dear Katie,

I'm a strong dancer, but I don't have a lot of flexibility. I stretch every day, but it feels like I'm getting nowhere. What can I do to get more flexible?

Meghan

Keep Reading SHOW LESS

Editors' Picks

contest
Enter the Cover Model Search