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By Mary Ellen Hunt
Is an MFA dance program right for you?
UNC Greensboro’s MFA program in choreography also offers K–12 licensure.
Photo: Denise Murphy, Courtesy UNC Greensboro.
For choreographer and Ohio State University professor Bebe Miller, getting a graduate degree helped to advance her career in academia as well as present a world of choreographic resources that continues to feed her work today. “Suddenly, I had a context for what I did in dance,” she says. “Where I came from, how I fit in the scheme of things; it gave me a sense of thickening the soup of creativity and it allowed me to be part of something larger.”
Miller got her degree from Ohio State in the mid-1970s, when it was one of few universities to offer an advanced degree in dance. However, in the past 30 years, MFA programs in dance have proliferated. The Dance Magazine College Guide includes a listing of over 30 programs across the country, and there are many more. But with all these choices, how do you know which program is right for you—or even if getting an MFA is the right step in the first place?
Why do you want an MFA?
“I would advise against returning to school after only a couple of years,” Miller says emphatically. “So many BFA students graduate, go to New York and dance for friends, find out that it’s hard, and decide they want to come back to academia.” Instead, Miller urges prospective students to think about their work, its aesthetic, and determine what they truly want out of the degree.
In addition to expanding your portfolio, she continues, an MFA can encompass movement studies or experiencing different styles of production. And on the other side of the admissions table, Miller says, “we’re looking for something that a candidate brings of his or her own expertise that is going to be catalytic to the field.”
Choreographer Tere O’Connor, who teaches at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, suggests choosing a school to match your personal goals. Are you interested in doing dance writing? Do you want to teach in higher education or expand your understanding of pedagogical techniques? The program at University of North Carolina at Greensboro, for instance, offers K–12 licensure along with an MFA. If you want to investigate the intersection of dance and technology or methods of documentation, Ohio State’s program, with its access to the Motion Capture Lab and digital resources, might be a great fit. Or perhaps you’re interested in dance-making with a social conscience? UCLA’s Department of World Arts and Cultures/Dance not only embraces a wide swath of dance practices, but also focuses on dance as a form of cultural study.
Consider your options.
Many programs offer either an MFA, which is typically a two- or three-year terminal degree, or an MA, which is generally a two-year degree that’s a stepping stone to a Ph.D. You’ll want to think about how much time you’re willing to commit to a degree. The Hollins/American Dance Festival Program, for instance, offers three tracks: an intense yearlong residency course; a two-summer low-residency track designed for mid-career professionals; and a three-summer program for emerging artists.
“It’s harder going back to school than you’d think,” says former Cunningham dancer and Urbana-Champaign MFA graduate Paige Cunningham Caldarella. She notes that it was a shock to go back to school after eight years out. “As a working professional, you have all this freedom in your schedule,” she says. “All of a sudden, I was back on a schedule and bound by requirements.”
When Caldarella was in school, UIUC offered an option for returning professionals to complete their degree in two years. “I wasn’t at a place in my career or personally where I felt I could stay three years, so I rushed through everything,” she says. “Looking back, I should have enjoyed the time and spread the work out.”
Get to know the faculty.
UCLA choreography professor Victoria Marks suggests looking closely at the faculty along with the curriculum and requirements. “Who are your mentors going to be and what are they focused on?” she asks. “How large or small is the faculty? That’s going to be important because you work so closely with them.”
Judith Nelson, who was among the first students to earn an MFA with a dance focus from the University of Arizona in Tucson, says she chose that program simply because she wanted to work with then-faculty member John Wilson, because he had been instrumental in taking dance out of UA’s phys-ed arena and building the dance department.
“I had had a career in New York as a dancer with the Limón company, so I applied to NYU because I was there,” she says. “But that school wouldn’t have been the right fit for me. At U of A, the main draw was Dr. Wilson, who became my lifelong mentor.” Today, Nelson is on faculty of the school at the Mark Morris Dance Center in Brooklyn, where her studies in areas from kinesiology to arts administration continue to serve her.
Mentorship is a large part of UIUC’s program, says O’Connor. “We want to create a place where faculty can do research and support our grad students as they create their own research—on top of teaching them. I love engaging people who create a friction against one’s own certitude.”
Keep an open mind.
Jan Van Dyke, a professor and former head of the program at University of North Carolina at Greensboro, notes that 30 years ago, an advanced degree wasn’t needed to teach in academia. Nowadays, many students consider grad school because an MFA or another terminal degree is required for most university teaching positions.
“I think that’s putting the cart before the horse,” Nelson says. “That’s not what life is about. Get some life experience, travel, so that you will have so much more to bring to your program.”
“One of the things we want to validate is just having a choreographic practice and coming here to deepen and amplify its potential,” says O’Connor. “We don’t say, ‘Come here to get a degree to teach.’ ” O’Connor does admit, however, that UIUC’s graduate program helps strengthen dancers’ teaching skills: “It’s an advantage of the program…You leave [here] with three years of teaching experience.”
Keeping an open mind is crucial for a satisfying graduate experience. Caldarella had originally decided to go back to schoolbecause she wanted to teach. But the experiences she had working with faculty members such as O’Connor and former Paul Taylor dancer Renee Wadleigh, “blew my mind open as to the process of dance-making,” she says. “Finding the right program opens up a whole new network and support system.”
Today, Caldarella is an assistant professor at Columbia College Chicago. “People working in academia are still active themselves—choreographing, teaching, writing,” she says. “And I still e-mail teachers I knew at UIUC for advice.”
Mary Ellen Hunt writes about dance for the San Francisco Chronicle.