It's that time of year for high school seniors: early decision/early action season. Your guidance counselor at school might have already recommended these options to you—but just as the college admissions process is more complicated for dancers overall, you'll also need to think carefully before deciding whether or not you want to jump ahead of the regular admissions timeline. To help you decide, we enlisted the help of Dr. Elizabeth Stone (executive director of Campanile college admissions counseling) and Sara Pourghasemi (director of college counseling at the Professional Performing Arts School in NYC).
Who among us hasn't daydreamed about finishing college a semester or two ahead of the class? But as tempting as it may be to get started on your dance career ASAP, this isn't a decision to take lightly. So DS had a dance department chair and an alumna who finished ahead of schedule lay out the case for—and against—graduating early.
For Harvard grad and professional ballerina, Liz Walker, school and dance were always separate. In high school, she studied at a private, all-girls school by day and trained at American Ballet Theatre's Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School by night. At the same time she was auditioning for professional companies, she was applying to colleges. But when the time came to decide between her education and her dance career, Walker struggled to figure out what path was her own. Eventually choosing to go back and forth between Los Angeles Ballet, freelance work, and Harvard University, Walker graduated with a degree in the history of art and architecture after four years in 2011—and rose to soloist rank in just eight seasons. Here, she tells her story and explains her decision to do both. —Sophie Robertson
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.
July 1 marks an exciting new era for The Juilliard School. Vail Dance Festival director and former New York City Ballet principal Damian Woetzel steps into the role of president, and the dance division will also have a new leader: Alicia Graf Mack, 39, will take over from Taryn Kaschock Russell, acting artistic director for the current school year.
As a performer, Mack was a beloved star at Dance Theatre of Harlem and Alvin Ailey American Dance Theaterand also a guest performer for Beyoncé and Alicia Keys.
But she's no stranger to higher education. Early in her career, she earned an undergraduate degree in history from Columbia University, and, later, she took a break from dancing with Ailey and pursued a master's at Washington University in St. Louis. She majored in nonprofit management, focusing on arts administration.
Since retiring from Ailey, Mack has stood at the front of the room as an educator. She's currently based in Houston, where she's wrapping up teaching commitments as an adjunct dance instructor at the University of Houston and as a visiting assistant professor of dance at Webster University in St. Louis. Dance Magazine spoke with Mack about her appointment as director of The Juilliard School's dance division.
How are you feeling right now?
I'm deeply honored, I'm incredibly excited. My head is absolutely spinning from the buzz. My family's from the East Coast, my brothers live in New York City, and my sister is also a dancer, so all of this is just so exciting for me and my family.
What was the selection process like?
It was an open, national search. I went through the application page on Juilliard's website and submitted my cover letter and resumé. Then I went through a three-month process, going through rounds of interviews, writing a vision statement, meeting students, meeting faculty. It was quite involved.
Do you know if you'll be teaching as well?
I'm not sure if I will have a regular class, but I would love to be in the studio. That is a place where I feel that I can connect the most with the student body.
What value do you see in dancers going to college?
I think, today, dancers must be equipped for an ever-changing landscape. The field is so different, even from when I was performing. Job opportunities, it seems, in large dance companies are starting to narrow, and dancers have to be equipped with versatile training and entrepreneurial skills in order to stay relevant and employable.
I want to empower young artists to step boldly into the world upon graduation knowing that they can create their own opportunities and their own realities if they are not presented immediately.
And I think that the role of higher education is different than that of a professional training program. My charge at Juilliard is not only to make sure that the dancers are physically capable, but that they are thought leaders and they are provoking thinkers and they are citizens of the world.
Artistically, what are you hoping to see in the next generation of Juilliard dancers?
I would like them to hold on to the historical perspective that the training has provided them. If dancers are trained very rigorously in the foundational techniques of classical ballet and modern dance, that gives them a very special sense of themselves and of performance techniques. Moving forward, these dancers are also poised to be leaders in a new sort of contemporary modality of movement, and I see them continuing to push the envelope of physicality and finding new ways of creating dance.
As an African-American woman, what does this position mean to you?
So much. I do realize that this is a historic appointment, and I believe that hiring a woman of color to lead the dance division into the 21st century is a signal to the world. And I believe that under the leadership of Damian Woetzel and provost Ara Guzelimian, it is clear that they are not interested in the status quo in dance or the arts. They are ready to see all of the possibilities and invite all of the different voices in the Juilliard community. And I believe that these guiding principles will permeate through the institution right down to the students.
Even if you've choreographed tons in high school, having your work seen—and critiqued—by professors and peers for the first time can be more than a little intimidating. So DS asked those who've been there how you can feel confident and creative throughout your first collegiate choreographic experience.
If you want to go far with dance after college, head to your university's career services office early and often. "We try to see all first-years during their first semester," says Faith McClellan, director of Field Work Term and career development at Bennington College in Bennington, VT. "That's when you should ask the big questions: What you love about dance, what you want to know about the field of dance, where you want to fit in the broader dance world, and how you want experiences like internships or intensives to help you explore those questions." Whether you're set on going pro right after graduation or just want your postgrad work to be somehow connected to dance, on-campus career counseling can prep you to do amazing things with your dance degree.
Of the many moving parts of a college application, the essay might be the most daunting. But consider yourself luckier than other applicants, because your dance experiences can only help you craft a winning essay—whether or not you're planning to pursue a dance major.
Considering a dance degree to build on your competition experiences? DS caught up with comp-circuit stars who chose higher ed to learn the advantages of transitioning from comp kid to college kid.
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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Applying for a college dance program can feel like a guessing game. Should you highlight all your competition titles and awards? How important are your academic grades? And how should you act in the audition? Here's advice from admissions officers from some of the top dance programs in the country about how to make your application stronger.
When it comes to college, you've got countless options. University or conservatory? BA or BFA? East Coast or West? But there's one potentially game-changing option you probably haven't considered yet: U.S. or international?
The perks of going global are hard to ignore. For one, international programs are often significantly cheaper than domestic ones. "The tuition for schools in Europe tends to be less than half that of U.S. programs," says Nicola Conraths Lange, director of comparative arts and a dance faculty member at Interlochen Arts Academy in Interlochen, MI. What's more, many programs offer a BA, a BFA, or an approximate equivalent in three years rather than four, which not only cuts tuition costs but also gets you into the professional dance world one year sooner.
And international programs will expose you to entirely new cultures, choreographers, and methods of training. "Our classes focus more on becoming thinking, creative movers than on perfecting technique," says Carlene Raibley, an American in her third and final year at London Contemporary Dance School (LCDS). Erica Badgeley, who joined a postgraduate student company at Salzburg Experimental Academy of Dance (SEAD), had a similar experience. "As opposed to the typical U.S. focus on vertical alignment, we learned to be three-dimensional movers, almost like amoebas," she says.
Many dancers forgo the international option because navigating the ins and outs of the application process seems intimidating. And it can be complicated—but it's worth the effort. Here's a breakdown of the process.
We've all gaped at those YouTube clips of dancers executing fiendish fouetté sequences, complete with doubles, triples and spot-changes, in astonishing unison. When it comes to wowing a crowd, there's nothing quite like unison movement—and when it comes to dancing in unison, “perfect synchronization is what carries the vision of the choreography," says University of Cincinnati Dance Team coach Jennifer Bernier.
Applying to colleges is beyond exciting. But it can also be beyond stressful, especially once you and your family start looking at tuition and room-and-board costs.
Many factors affect how much you and your parents will ultimately contribute to your education—and what your financial aid packages might look like. To help you understand your options, Dance Spirit asked a couple of experts to weigh in.
(Photo by ZimmyTWS/Thinkstock; Michael Quirk/Thinkstock)
Setting aside money for college should be a cumulative effort made over many years. Talk to your family about what they’re willing to contribute. When you begin high school, start saving for all the fees associated with college applications. “Travel, auditions, head shots, dance photos, school and financial aid applications themselves—those things add up,” says Heather McCowen, PhD, the post-secondary counselor at The Chicago High School for the Arts. Application fees vary by school. And McCowen notes that conservatories tend to charge higher fees than colleges and universities—often between $70 and $100.
Early in your junior year, start seeking private scholarships—merit- or need-based awards that are offered through businesses or nonprofit organizations. McCowen suggests looking in your hometown and into organizations related to the arts. Service clubs, like Rotary or Kiwanis, are great places to start. Investigate dance-related options, too, like the scholarships provided by the New York City Dance Alliance Foundation.
Figuring Out FAFSA
As your senior year approaches, make sure your parents have their tax returns in order, so they’re prepared to fill out the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid). The application becomes available January 1. Roberta Daskin, from the financial aid office at Sarah Lawrence College, advises high school students to fill out FAFSA as soon as
possible, since, for those who qualify, funds for college may be limited.
Colleges (especially liberal arts schools) might also ask you to fill out the College Scholarship Service CSS/Financial Aid PROFILE. The PROFILE requires your parents to specify what type of tax return they file, along with information on whether the family receives certain forms of government assistance, their housing status and whether they’re self-employed. “The CSS PROFILE allows the college, rather than the federal government, to determine the student’s financial need,” McCowen says. “And schools are a lot more flexible than the government.”
Adding Up Your Aid
There are three major types of aid: grants, work-study jobs and loans.
Grants are basically free money—they’re gifts you don’t have to pay back. Some grants, like the need-based federal Pell Grant, are offered through the government and are determined by the FAFSA. Colleges and universities can also award other need-based and merit-based grants at their own discretion.
A work-study job means that you work a certain number of hours (about 10) and the school pays you a wage. “It’s a great way to get work experience while you’re in school,” Daskin says.
You are required to pay back loans, which can either be federal or private. There are two types of federal student loans: subsidized and unsubsidized. Subsidized loans don’t start accruing interest until six months after you graduate and are based on financial need. Unsubsidized loans accumulate interest right away and aren’t based on need. The school and your FAFSA determine how much of each (or either) loan you’re offered. There are also federal loans your parents can take out, called PLUS Loans. For all loans, you and your parents only have to borrow the loan money you need, no matter how much is offered to you.
Private loans are another option, though McCowen strongly discourages taking them out. “Students rarely qualify without a co-signer, meaning your parent takes partial responsibility for paying back the loan,” she says. If your aid package is only a few thousand dollars short of letting you attend your dream school, a private loan should be your last option to make up the difference—but know that they come with high interest rates and no option to defer payment.
Make It Work for You
What if your aid package isn’t quite enough? Once you’ve reviewed it, don’t be afraid to ask your dream school(s) for more money. It might feel uncomfortable, but, McCowen says, the amount of money available for aid can change dramatically between March and May. She recommends asking for a hard number and making sure the school knows you need non-loan aid.
“If your aid package at a specific school isn’t enough, and the trade-off is that you’ll have to stop dancing to pay off a mountain of debt, it’s not worth it,” McCowen says. “You’ll find the right place.”
Dancers are known for being organized, driven and busy. So it’s no surprise that many who attend college choose to double-major in dance and another field. “Dancers who are serious about their art in high school are already prepared to balance technique classes and performances with academic work in a university setting,” says Lynn Garafola, dance department co-chair at Barnard College in NYC.
But double majoring isn’t for everyone, and it often comes with some difficult decisions. Read on to hear from professors and recent graduates about the ins and outs of double majoring—and to discover unique ways dancers can combine their diverse interests.
Finding the Best Program for You
Some conservatories only offer a bachelor of fine arts (BFA), which can be difficult or even impossible to balance with a second major. If pursuing a double major is a priority, you may want to consider a program that offers a bachelor of arts (BA) in dance. “If a student expresses an interest in double majoring, we often place them in the BA program rather than BFA,” explains Rubén Graciani, chair of the dance department at Point Park University in Pittsburgh, PA, which offers both degrees. “These students will have the same performance opportunities but fewer requirements for technique classes, which frees up their schedule for academic courses.”
Due to their inherent interdisciplinary nature, liberal arts colleges can be ideal for students hoping to double-major. Rebecca Bass, a recent graduate from Barnard College, which is affiliated with Columbia University, chose to double-major in dance and economics. “I chose Barnard because it has a very malleable dance program,” Bass says. “You can choose whether you want your four years to be more technically or academically oriented.” She also discovered that economics and ballet are surprisingly similar. “They both have rules that you have to follow, but they also require you to bring a level of artistry to your work,” she says. Her final project was a joint written thesis on the influence of the Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone (a nonprofit organization that seeks to revitalize communities through job creation and business development) on the Dance Theatre of Harlem. “I proved to my econ professor that dance is socially and politically relevant,” she says.
Point Park dancers performing Terence Marling's Fatum Inflictum
(photo by Jeff Sweeny, courtesy Point Park University)
Weighing Your Options
College should be a place of learning, exploration and discovery—goals that may not be achieved if a student becomes overwhelmed by a double major. “I caution students that more isn’t always better for your schedule,” Graciani says. “Sometimes your body and your brain need time to process.”
Every college career will be filled with difficult scheduling decisions. “There are tons of ways for students to be involved on campus and in the community,” Graciani says. But you can’t possibly do it all. He advises students by asking them ‘What are you hoping to achieve in the long term?’ and then ‘What are you willing to sacrifice?’ to determine what performance opportunities, internships and classes work best in their schedule.
That said, by combining two majors, you can build a more diverse resumé for future careers. Christina Cairns, a BA in dance and BS (bachelor of science) in sports, arts and entertainment management at Point Park, was able to continue her dance training while also preparing herself to work in arts administration. One of her first jobs out of school—working on a startup smartphone app—involved many travel opportunities, and the company allowed her to audition while on business trips. “At the time, I didn’t know if I wanted to stay in dance or transition to a business career, but I kept all of my options open,” Cairns says. For now, Cairns is focusing on dance: In August 2015, she started a contract with a dance company in Cincinnati, OH.
Staying On Track
If you choose to double-major, be prepared for a jam-packed four years. “You have to be very organized to accomplish a double major,” Garafola says. Because you may not have time to complete internships or jobs during the school year, summer will be an important time to establish professional connections. Allocating summers to try out different potential career paths (for example, working in a scientific research lab one summer and interning at a dance magazine the next summer) will help you discover what you enjoy doing, while also allowing you to establish a wide set of professional skills.
The most important thing to remember when embarking on a double major is to stay in communication with your academic advisors to ensure you’re on track for graduating. Some programs, such as the physical sciences, will be less flexible due to their rigid lab schedules, which can limit options for dance technique classes. Bass used extracurricular dance opportunities to help maintain her dance training throughout her double major. “I only took technique classes twice a week during my final semester, but I was dancing every day due to different dance clubs and student performance opportunities,” she says.
Double majoring can be both a daunting and a rewarding experience. While parents, professors or friends may try to pressure you in your academic decisions, ultimately try to find a balance that will be meaningful to you as both a dancer and a college student.
Point Park University's Taylor Robinson and Lindsay Burke in Ben Stevenson's End of Time (photo by Joshua Sweeny, courtesy Point Park University)
Double Majors That Play Well with Dance
Sciences (Pre-Med): Dancers with double majors in
health sciences, like biology, can go on to study physical therapy, nutrition and exercise practices. The body awareness that comes with dance training will give you a leg up on the industry.
History/Anthropology: Dancers who learn research methods through these majors can later earn a master’s and/or a PhD in dance theory or history. You might end up studying the history of movement techniques, or unearthing forgotten dance rituals!
English Literature: Capturing movement through words is a technique of its own. Dancers with writing experience often find jobs and internships with dance magazines, or as dance reviewers for newspapers and journals.
Photography/Film: Dance films are becoming more and more prevalent, and dancers
are always in need of head shots! Photography can be a great source of income that allows you the flexibility to attend technique classes and auditions.
Psychology: Dance therapy is a growing field that helps patients work through physical or emotional traumas. You can attend dance therapy graduate programs to earn a degree.
Music: Dancers who are interested in choreography and music collaboration can benefit from playing their own instruments or writing musical scores. Plus, studying dance and music is a great way to work towards a job on Broadway.