Emily (center) working with choreographer Joshua Peugh and fellow SMU dancer Shauna Davis (by Katie Bernet)

My freshman year at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, TX, was pretty incredible. In just two semesters, I made lifelong friends, took countless hours of technique and academic classes, performed in a variety of works on many different stages and experimented with my own choreography. I also survived dorm life, soreness, injuries—even a massive spider bite. At this time last year, I had no idea how challenging and exciting being a dance major would be!

Here are some reflections on my freshman year. Are you about to head to a college dance program? Read on to get a sense of what your life will be like—and to learn from my experiences.

My Average Day

Each morning, I got started with either an academic class or a ballet class. I spent lunch breaks at the dining hall with the other dancers, and my afternoons and evenings were filled with rehearsals, homework and hanging out with friends. I lived in my school’s fine arts community, so between the theater, music and dance students that filled my building there was never a dull moment.

The Good Surprises

One of the first surprises of my freshman year was how quickly the other 18 first-year dance majors became my family. Dance is a unique major because it comes with a built-in support system of like-minded people. We were thrown into constant action, starting rehearsals on our very first day of school for a performance at the opening of a new theater in Dallas. SMU gave us opportunities right from the start and expected us to rise to the occasion.

First-year dance majors picnicking on the lawn

I also surprised myself by pledging Chi Omega, a sorority that has introduced me to some truly amazing friends. I discovered that one of the benefits of attending a university is exposure to a variety of life experiences that will ultimately strengthen my art.

The Bad Surprises

Yes, there were a few. The biggest was that I worked on the beginnings of a piece for a student-choreographed show, but unfortunately, it didn’t end up making the program. In the moment, it felt like a major setback. But it gave me the time to audition for the summer program I ended up attending in July. It was a reminder not to focus too much on one disappointment—you never know what other opportunities are about to come your way.

Over fall break, I experienced one of the strangest surprises of the year. While camping with some friends, I was bitten by a black widow spider. After stubbornly dancing through the pain for a few days, I ended up in the hospital with a swollen leg and an IV of antibiotics, wishing I’d slowed down and taken better care of myself. Frankly, even without the spider bite, this year would have served as a reminder of how important it is to care for your body as a dancer. I pushed myself to new extremes, but I learned how to rest, too.

Performing in Joost Vrouenraets’ Rite of Spring (by Sharen King Bradford)

Highlights of My Year

The most life-changing experience of my freshman year was performing in Joost Vrouenraets’ new Rite of Spring in April. The material was risky, extremely physical and unlike anything I’d ever danced. Joost encouraged us to focus on the intent behind the movement—not only directing us, but also asking for our personal opinions and motivations. He expected us to collaborate instead of waiting to be told what to do. That was so eye-opening. I was also cast in two student-choreographed shows where I worked with upperclassmen. They gave me a chance to show my personality and learn from everyone’s unique dance backgrounds.

What I’ve Learned

After only one year in college, I’ve learned so much beyond technique and theory. I’ve learned never to question myself and to have conviction in my art, but also to be open to every new idea. I’ve learned to use my personal judgment to help me grow, instead of letting it restrict me. I’ve learned that sometimes you have to put your health first—our bodies will never last if we don’t take good care of them. Finally, I’ve learned that while it’s good to have a vision of your future goals, it’s even more important to invest in the present. Opportunities and experiences will surprise you. College is an opportunity to say yes to new things, in and out of the studio, without being afraid to fail.

My Advice to You

Incoming freshmen, remember: These four years are a gift! Once we graduate and enter the “real world,” opportunities to take class and focus on ourselves will be much harder to come by. Discover what inspires you. Experience as much as you can, but don’t forget to take time for yourself. Never be discouraged. Practice patience, both with yourself and with the process of being a first-year. Most importantly, enjoy every minute.

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