Western Michigan University Department of Dance students in Frank Chaves' Charanga (photo by John Lacko, courtesy Western Michigan University Department of Dance)

Should Dancers Take a Gap Year Before College?

For many non-dancers, planning a post–high-school gap year can feel like a necessary step toward getting college-ready. For potential dance majors, though, taking a year off between high school and college might sound counterintuitive. After all, you're essentially delaying your entry into dancing professionally. But a gap year can provide helpful experience, training, or personal growth—it all depends on how you use the time.

Why Take a Gap Year?

Megan Slayter, associate professor and chair of the dance department at Western Michigan University, says a gap year works best for potential dance majors when they do something specific and dance-focused during that time. "Let's say you're offered a contract with a cruise ship," she says. "A dance degree isn't required to work in the dance field. If you have the opportunity to chase your dream, take it. Then come to school."

Leigh Evans, a graduate of the World Arts and Culture program at the University of California, Los Angeles, knew she wanted to dance professionally but felt she needed time to redirect her training before college. "UCLA was where I wanted to study, but I was a bunhead in high school and knew that the wider focus of UCLA might be a rough transition," she says. Evans spent a year living, working, and training in L.A. before starting the program, pushing herself to branch out and take classes in different styles. "I might have been fine starting college right away," she says. "But after a year, I was certain that I was ready to take on new challenges." And, she adds, she had a clearer understanding of her own interests.

Back to School

That said, taking a gap year won't be the right choice for everyone. When Slayter teaches first-years at WMU, she loves seeing how open and excited students are about the possibilities of dance. "Usually, they've had limited exposure to the art form they already love," she says. It's certainly possible to be exposed to a wide variety of styles and potential jobs during a gap year, but Slayter thinks that information is easier to digest when you're at a college or university. "You're surrounded by faculty posing questions and guiding you," she says.

Evans feels she made the most of her gap year by pushing herself out of her comfort zone, but it was her college community and UCLA's program structure that ultimately helped her understand dance within the larger world. "I was already open to lots of dance ideas," she says, "but I hadn't thought about how movement relates to film or mental health or all these other disciplines and pathways you can pursue. There's so much more to dance than just performance."

Bridging the Gap

Associate professor Megan Slayter knows that it can be tough for dancers who took a gap year to transition into college. "Fortunately," she says, "nontraditional students, people who don't go straight from high school to college, are very common."

It's normal to feel nervous if you're a bit older than the rest of the freshman class, or if you have more professional experience. But faculty will likely recognize that and place you with dancers at your skill level. "Even at a big university, dance departments are like a family," Slayter says. "It shouldn't take you long to acclimate."

A version of this story appeared in the May/June 2018 issue of Dance Spirit with the title "Mind the Gap."

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