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By Mary Ellen Hunt
You’re about to graduate from high school and know you want to keep dancing. But how, where, and in what environment? Is your goal to dance professionally? And how much of the college experience do you want?
From the intensive training of a conservatory to the broad-based academics of dance programs in liberal arts colleges, a plethora of choices is available to dancers nowadays. Making a decision that could affect not only your next four years but also your whole career is intimidating, to say the least.
“Honestly, it’s a combination of instinct and research,” says Andrea Miller, who graduated from Juilliard in 2004 and now directs her own company, Gallim Dance (see April cover story). “You have to look at what your goals are. Your passion needs to have a place to be challenged.”
Tiffany van der Merwe, who teaches at the Ann Lacy School of American Dance and Arts Management at Oklahoma City University, lays out the possibilities. “There are programs where your commitment to dance is prime. Then there are other programs where you’ll be actively challenged in dance, but at the same time you’ll have to be excellent in your academics. And there are ones where you can do everything in the brochure—dance classes, academic classes, join a sorority. Lots of dancers pick certain colleges because they want to get excellent dance classes. Others choose state schools because they want that big campus experience, but they may find that they have only so-so ballet classes available to them. There’s a wide range.”
Darrell Jones, a faculty member at Columbia College Chicago, encourages high school students to try taking a summer program like the ones at American Dance Festival or Tisch School of the Arts at NYU, “to get a taste of this kind of environment. It’s a way to get a sense of what’s out there—the variety, the fierceness of the dancers.”
Who Are You?
“You have to know what situation you work best in,” Jones says. “Is it high-intensity, or do you need some space? Are you an introvert or extrovert? You want to see how you are going to get the most out of the experience.”
With an enrollment of nearly 12,000 students, Columbia College Chicago is one of the largest art schools in the country. It offers not only a broad range of dance courses, but also a campus of students focused on other arts as well—music, theater, visual arts. Mark Morris Dance Group member Noah Vinson, who took a year off after high school before deciding where he wanted to go, says that his experience at Columbia College Chicago helped him to focus, and shaped the direction he wanted to take his career.
“Coming from the Midwest, I knew I wasn’t ready to move to New York right away,” Vinson recalls. “But I also knew I wanted the whole college experience.”
At Columbia College he had a chance to study with faculty who were working professionals, as well as take master classes by touring companies from ballet to butoh. He says the diversity helped him figure out what kind of a dancer he wanted to be.
“Growing up, I had a well-rounded background, and Columbia only enhanced that,” says Vinson. “It wasn’t a conservatory-type situation—you get a mix of techniques, but that shaped what I wanted. And being well-rounded has really served me at MMDG because Mark uses so many different types of movement and ideas.”
College as a Resource
“I think if you’re interested in dance but aren’t sure what you want to do, college can be a great resource,” says Atlanta Ballet’s Peng-Yu Chen, a Taiwanese native who studied at the Conservatory of Dance at SUNY Purchase. “I did everything, every class I could at the conservatory. They help you discover what makes you an individual, so you’re not just a technician or a machine.”
Although she had studied ballet, Chen says that she had never even done pointe work before Purchase. But by the time she earned her BFA, she had discovered her passion and knew that she wanted to join a ballet company.
BFA Not for Everyone
The drive and commitment to dance is not in everyone’s makeup, says Wallie Wolfgruber, the director of the Conservatory of Dance at Purchase.
“I think you have to have a calling for a BFA,” remarks Wolfgruber, who notes that Purchase offers both a BFA option for those who want the intensity, as well as liberal arts degrees. “I don’t encourage people who are not sure, because the intensity of a conservatory program is so much work.”
Still, the demands of the most competitive conservatory programs, like those of Juilliard, are balanced by the rewards of creating and performing work at an advanced level. At Purchase and Juilliard, dancers are exposed to a broad selection of repertoire and can work directly with some of the most innovative choreographers in the field.
It’s All About Potential
“Our goal is pretty lofty,” says Lawrence Rhodes, director of the Dance Division at Juilliard. “We want to give them a tremendous amount of experience so they’ll have the flexibility to understand work from many points of view. We want to make today’s dancer.
“When I was a young person I got my first job at 16 years old; those days are over,” he says matter-of-factly. “Now there’s more interest in people who have education and maturity.”
Rhodes says that when interviewing potential applicants to the program, he looks at the whole person. “When I look at dancers, I try to imagine four years of training on their body, even knowing that I can’t make that happen,” he says. “It’s really up to them.”
Andrea Miller says, “You have to identify what kind of environment you need, what kind of attention you want. If what you want is to dance professionally, then dancing all day and working on your technique and being pushed by classmates with similar goals at a place like Juilliard can be a good option. I met students who were so amazing and inspiring—being around that level of quality really motivated me.”
Once you know what you’re looking for, though, practical considerations enter the equation. Cynthia Young, an associate dean at the School of Dance at the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts), says that students should also be thinking about what schools are a good fit financially.
“One of the biggest concerns these days is how you are going to support the four-year education,” says Young. “What kind of debt will you be carrying when you leave school? When you’re young, you might have big ideas about what you want, but you often don’t think about what it’s going to cost you. Nowadays, kids are leaving school with $60,000 to $100,000 of debt, and that’s a huge amount for a dancer to carry.”
Young points out that the multifaceted program at CalArts offers students not only dance training, but also a host of other production skills—lighting, stage crew, costume design, audio and video—that help provide graduates with alternative job options.
A more pointed question to ask, says van der Merwe, is How do I make a living with that education? Do you want to be a performer, a teacher, a choreographer, or an arts manager? While you’re likely to be taking technique classes, asking what other classes a program offers can broaden your career options. OCU, which van der Merwe describes as a small-sized program where no one “disappears into the woodwork,” offers classes on the business side of dance—like contract law for dancers, tour management, fund-raising—as well as regular tap, jazz, and ballet classes.
Former Radio City Music Hall Rockette Nita Borchardt says that her education at OCU gave her the skills of an industry insider and helped prepare her to navigate the business. “College isn’t for everyone,” she concedes, “but it does give you ways to survive.”
“Learning how to succeed in the business—how to network, find an agent, read a contract,” van der Merwe says, “when you get to do that in the safe environment of a campus with people whose sole purpose is to help you, you’ll walk in with a bag of tools that puts you steps above the others who are trying to get that same job.”
Become Who You Are
Choreographer Kate Weare, a CalArts alumna, notes that it’s useful to see the practical, ground-level street smarts of a program. Even before she went to college, Weare says that she knew she was an independent—even willful—student with lots of her own ideas.
“At CalArts I wasn’t asked to fit into someone else’s expectations,” she says. “You’re encouraged to discover what you have to say. Conservatories, by their very nature, conserve the form. At CalArts, your educational experience is very much up to you.”
“Try to figure out what motivates you, what moves you as an artist,” Weare advises. “I think that in the strongest training, the wisest teachers aren’t trying to turn students into versions of themselves. They’re trying to empower students to become more who they really are.”
Mary Ellen Hunt writes about dance and the arts for the San Francisco Chronicle.
How much $ for one year at…
Oklahoma City University: $25,000
Columbia College Chicago: $20,000
State University of New York, Purchase: $14,000 for out-of-state residents
(Approximate cost of tuition and fees, not including room and board)
From top: Students from Columbia College Chicago Dance Center. Photo by Andreas Larsson, Courtesy Dance Center, CCC; Class at SUNY Purchase. Photo by Natasha Poon Woo, Courtesy SUNY Purchase; Lawrence Rhodes teaching at Juilliard. Photo by Rosalie O’Connor, Courtesy Juilliard; CalArts class with Cynthia Young. Photo by Steve Gunther, Courtesy CalArts; Oklahoma City University. Photo Courtesy OCU.