A Day in the Life of a College Dancer
The busy schedules of students at Juilliard, Indiana University and Harvard.
If you’re trying to select a college dance program, you probably have the websites bookmarked, the pamphlets dog-eared and the faculty and guest artists memorized. But it can be hard to picture the day-to-day life you would experience for the next four years. We talked to dancers at three different programs—a conservatory in the big city, a ballet-intensive school in the Midwestern suburbs and a deeply engaging, nonmajor program at an Ivy League—about a typical day in their undergraduate lives.
Third-year dance BFA
The Juilliard School
7 am: Wake Up
Falk on the reformer. Courtesy Falk.
Angela Falk’s alarm goes off halfway across the double room she shares with a violinist on the 23rd floor of Juilliard’s residence hall at Lincoln Center. The view from her window towards the Hudson River is a reminder of sprawling Manhattan outside, but students who live on campus don’t venture far. “Breakfast is right downstairs,” says Falk, “and I live 30 seconds away from the school building, where everything happens for the rest of my day.” She puts her hair up in a bun, trades one pair of sweats for another and heads to the dining hall, where she listens to the news or finishes last-minute reading while eating.
8 am: Warm-Up
Falk spends the next 45 minutes on the reformer in the Pilates studio or in a pre-technique class, a stretching and strengthening session led by one of the modern teachers three times a week.
9 am: Academics
Anatomy is her first class, and Falk has a quiz tomorrow, but she won’t have a chance to study until tonight.
10:40 am: Dance Classes
The dancers take two back-to-back technique classes—some combination of ballet, pointe, modern and classical partnering. “You learn two different modern techniques every year,” she says. “As a junior, I’m studying Cunningham with Jean Freebury and Limón with Risa Steinberg. I love the way the classes contrast each other—it’s all about precision in one and drop-and-release in the other.”
1:40 pm: Lunch
A student council meeting. Courtesy Falk.
Lunch hour might also be used for a student council meeting or fitting in a few runs of a student-choreographed piece.
2:30 pm: Composer Meeting
Falk meets with the student composer she’s been matched with for an elective choreography course. “It’s very cool and collaborative, and it leads up to a live performance in the black-box theater,” she says.
4 pm: Rehearsal
Three days a week, Falk and the other 24 members of her class rehearse a new work by Zvi Gotheiner for Juilliard’s New Dances concert.
7 pm: Work Study
Falk ushers a theater performance for her work-study job after dinner tonight. On other nights, she might rehearse student pieces, study, do homework, visit friends or call her parents. “I like to be in bed by 11,” she says. “Anyone considering Juilliard should expect to be this busy. That’s why you’ll see us all eating lunch outside, sitting on the concrete in our leotards, getting a solid 20 minutes of sunlight for the day.”
Third-year ballet BS
Indiana University, Jacobs School of Music
8 am: Breakfast and Stretching
Raffaella Stroik stretches at home after making breakfast in the kitchen of the four-bedroom, two-bathroom apartment she shares with three other IU dancers. “There just isn’t much time to warm up once I get to the studios after my 9 o’clock voice lesson and 10 o’clock Italian class,” she says.
11:30 am: Technique Class
IU dancers study a variety of ballet techniques taught by a rotation of seven faculty and guest teachers, including department chair Michael Vernon, Violette Verdy and Jacques Cesbron. “They email the schedule the night before, so you know what to expect,” says Stroik. “It’s great to be learning different methods, but you also have to be prepared to jump from Balanchine to Bournonville.”
1 pm: Lunch, Pointe and Rehearsal
Stroik at a voice lesson. Courtesy Stroik.
There’s a half hour to eat before an hour-long pointe class, followed by rehearsal. “I take advantage of any break to go to the physical therapy room,” says Stroik. “At midday, I’m there to roll out for 15 or 20 minutes, and after rehearsal, I’ll ice my feet for half an hour, especially if I’ve been on pointe since barre or center that morning.”
4 pm: Dinner and a Lecture
After walking home, she showers and makes dinner before a night class—today it’s Art History. Finding time for homework can be tricky. “I spend the most time on Italian, since it’s my concentration outside ballet, so I squeeze it in before and after night class or sometimes in the morning.”
9 pm: Opera or Theater
The toughest requirement of Indiana’s program might be the two semesters of piano mandated for the entire music school. “It’s really challenging and you’re alongside incredibly skilled pianists!” says Stroik. But all that talent is inspiring on Friday nights, when Stroik and her roommates attend a student opera or drama show.
Fourth-year government BA
7:30 am: Wake Up for Volunteer Work
On most days, Kayla Chen wakes up between 8:30 and 9. “But on Mondays, I run a mentoring program for Boston-area kids to grow their leadership skills—that starts at 8 am,” she says. After, she grabs a bite to eat. When it’s cold, there’s no need to venture outside: Chen can walk from her dorm room to the dining hall through a series of tunnels in a matter of minutes.
Studying. Courtesy Chen.
10 am: Spanish and Sissonnes
When she’s not meeting with other leadership mentors or supervisors for her senior thesis, Chen is in class—first Spanish, then Science of Food and finally, a lecture about human rights movements throughout history. If she’s enrolled in a dance course, it also takes place during these hours. Last semester, Chen took ballet and Jill Johnson’s Forsythe technique class. Both met twice a week for an hour and a half.
3 pm: Rehearsal
Chen heads to The Harvard Dance Project, a by-audition performance-oriented course led by Johnson that meets for three hours on Tuesdays and Thursdays. The group performs in the greater Boston communities. “Our final show is a major commitment: You need to make it to three nights of tech and shows every night for one week,” which is no small feat in Harvard’s overachieving atmosphere. Chen is also dancing in a student-choreographed work, which rehearses for two hours every Saturday.
10 pm: Study, Study, Sleep
“I’m usually still doing homework until 1:30 or 2 am,” says Chen, “but then I just shut my books and set the alarm. I’m human—I catch up with people, check Facebook.” She tries to get six blissful hours of sleep before the busy day starts all over again.
For the past 3 years, choreographer Stephen Petronio has been reviving groundbreaking works of postmodern dance through his BLOODLINES project. This season, although his company will be performing a work by Merce Cunningham, his own choreography moves in a more luxurious direction. We stepped into the studio with Petronio and his dancers where they were busy creating a new work, Hardness 10, named for the categorization of diamonds.
'Tis the season to have some fun in the kitchen. If you want to get more creative than simply baking another pumpkin pie, try these Nutcracker-themed treats—created by and for dancers. These recipes from former Boston Ballet and Joffrey Ballet dancers were first published in Dance Magazine's December 1990 issue. Today, they're still guaranteed to turn any holiday party or dressing room into a true Land of the Sweets.
It's no secret that affording college is a challenge for many students. And for dancers, there are added complications, like the relative lack of merit scholarships that take artistic talent into consideration and the improbability of a stable salary to pay off loans post-graduation. But no matter your budget, a smart approach to the application process can help you focus less on money and more on your training.
According to Drexel University performing arts department head Miriam Giguere, figuring out the kind of financial assistance a school offers is just as important as navigating what kind of dance program you want. Here's how to incorporate finances into your decision-making process:
When dancers get injured, they often think they should eat less. The thought process goes something like, Since I'm not able to move as much as I usually do, I'm not burning enough calories to justify the portions I'm used to.
But the truth is, scaling back your meals could actually be detrimental to your healing process.
We always figured that stretching made us more flexible by loosening up our muscles and joints. Some of us, ahem, might have even tried to fall asleep in our middle splits to get our stubbornly stiff inner thighs to let go.
But it turns out that might not actually be how stretching works.
A new review published in the Scandinavian Journal of Science & Medicine in Sports suggests that increased flexibility actually comes from your brain growing more used to the tension.
"Women are often presented as soft, fragile little creatures in ballet," says Léonore Baulac. "We're not." The Paris Opéra Ballet's newest female étoile is discussing her unease at some of the 19th-century narratives she portrays. "It was real acting," she says with a laugh of La Sylphide. "James kills her by taking away her wings, yet she tells him not to worry and goes to die elsewhere onstage!"
Sitting in the canteen of the Palais Garnier, Baulac embodies some of ballet's contradictions in the 21st century. With her fair curls and dainty features, she could easily pass for a little girl's fantasy princess. As Juliet, she exuded a girlish ardor that felt entirely natural; her reservations notwithstanding, her Sylphide was committed and carefully Romantic in style.
Yet the 27-year-old is no ingénue. At Garnier that day, her sweater reads "I can't believe I still have to protest this s**t," a feminist slogan; last winter, Baulac proudly wore it over a Kitri tutu on Instagram. And her repertoire is as thoroughly modern as she is offstage. A versatile performer even by Parisian standards, she is equally at home in Nutcracker as she is in the works of Pina Bausch and Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker.
With her fearless demeanor onstage, it's easy to see how Washington Ballet apprentice Sarah Steele attracted the keen eye of former American Ballet Theatre stars Julie Kent and Ethan Stiefel. Promoted mid-season from the studio company by artistic director Kent, Steele was cast by Stiefel as the lead in Frontier, his world premiere for The Washington Ballet, this past spring. For the space-themed piece, Steele donned a black-and-white "space suit" onstage, exhibiting dual qualities of strength and grace. Most evocative about Steele's dancing might be her innate intelligence—she was accepted to Harvard on early admission, and plans to resume her studies there in the future. But first, she'll dance.
Lots of college groups do stepping—a form of body percussion based on slapping, tapping and stomping—but Step Afrika! is the first professional dance company to do it. They are currently at New York City's New Victory Theater, presenting The Migration: Reflections on Jacob Lawrence, a show based on the painting series by Harlem Renaissance artist Jacob Lawrence about The Great Migration of the 1900s, when millions of African Americans fled the Jim Crow South and traveled by train to the North for a better life. The Great Migration transformed the demographics of the country, and Jacob Lawrence's paintings became famous for their bold color and evocative power.
As we approach Thanksgiving, there's much to be grateful for. Perhaps one of the most important things on your list is dance. Whether you're a full-time company member, an aspiring professional, an audience member, or you simply delight in dancing in your daydreams, this art form is a creative escape.
That's not to say that being a dancer is easy: Pursuing such a competitive career can be heartbreaking, especially when you're faced with rejection.
La Folía, a short dance film by director Adam Grannick that was recently released online, echoes these sentiments in under 12 minutes.
It took two years of intense nutrition counseling and psychotherapy to pull me out of being anorexic. My problem now is that I've gained too much weight from eating normally. Is there no middle ground? I can't fit into my clothes, but I don't want to go back to being sick.
—Former Anorexic, Weston, CT