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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.
Sarah Haarmann stands out without trying to. There is a precision and lack of affectation in her dancing that is very Merce Cunningham. Her movement quality is sharp and clear; her stage presence utterly focused. It's no wonder she caught Mark Morris' eye. Even though she still considers herself "very much the new girl" at Mark Morris Dance Group (she became a full-time member in August 2017), in a recent performance of Layla and Majnun, Haarmann seemed completely in her element.
Company: Mark Morris Dance Group
Hometown: Macungie, Pennsylvania
Training: Lehigh Valley Charter High School for the Performing Arts and Marymount Manhattan College
In 2012, freelance contemporary dancer Adrianne Chu made a major career change: She decided to try out for A Chorus Line. "Even though I didn't get the job, I felt like I was meant to do this," says Chu. So she started going to at least one musical theater audition every weekday, treating each as a learning experience. After several years of building up her resumé, Chu's practice paid off: She booked a starring role as Wendy in the first national tour of Finding Neverland.
Approaching auditions as learning opportunities, especially when you're trying to break into a different style or are new to the profession, can sharpen your skills while helping you avoid burnout. It also builds confidence for the auditions that matter most.
For many dancers, a "warmup" consists of sitting on the floor stretching their legs in various positions. But this strategy only reduces your muscles' ability to work properly—it negatively affects your strength, endurance, balance and speed for up to an hour.
Save your flexibility training for the end of the day. Instead, follow a warmup that will actually help prevent injury and improve your body's performance.
According to the International Association of Dance Medicine and Science, a smart warmup has four parts: "a gentle pulse-raising section, a joint mobilization section, a muscle lengthening section and a strength/balance building section."
It's easy to feel whiplashed thinking about everything Emma Portner has achieved in such a short amount of time. Last fall, the 23-year-old was the youngest woman ever to choreograph a West End production (it was based on Meat Loaf's greatest hits). This was, of course, after she already choreographed and starred in Justin Bieber's viral hit "Life is Worth Living," and before she charmed major media outlets when she secretly married actress Ellen Page. Now, she's L.A. Dance Project's first-ever artist in residence, and she's working on a commission for Toronto's Fall for Dance North Festival.
We caught up with her for our "Spotlight" series:
Last month, the International Association of Blacks in Dance's third annual ballet audition for women of color was expanded to include a separate audition for men.
The brainchild of Joan Myers Brown (founder of both Philadanco and IABD), the women's audition was created to specifically address the lack of black females in ballet. However, the success and attention that audition drew made the men feel left out, so IABD decided to give the men equal time this year.
Pina Bausch's unique form of German Tanztheater is known for raising questions. Amid water and soil, barstools and balloons, the late choreographer's work contains a distinct tinge of mystery and confrontation. Today, Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch's dancers use questions as fuel for creativity. The company's most recent project introduced a new group of performers to the stage: local high school ninth-graders from the Gesamtschule Barmen in Wuppertal, Germany, in an original work-in-progress performance called Veränderung (Change).
Before she became the 20th century's most revered ballet pedagogue, Agrippina Vaganova was a frustrated ballerina. "I was not progressing and that was a terrible thing to realize," she wrote in a rough draft of her memoirs.
She retired from the Imperial Ballet stage in 1916, and for the next 30-plus years, devoted herself to creating a "science of ballet." Her new, dynamic teaching method produced stars like Rudolf Nureyev, Alla Osipenko, and Galina Ulanova and later Natalia Makarova and Mikhail Baryshnikov. And her approach continues to influence how we think about ballet training to this day.
But is the ballet class due for an update? Demands and aesthetics have changed. So should the way dancers train change too?
I love being transgender. It's an important part of the story of why I choreograph. Although I loved dance from a very young age, I grew up never seeing a single person like me in dance. So how could I imagine a future for myself there?
The enormous barriers I had to overcome weren't internal: I didn't struggle with feelings of dysphoria, and I wasn't locked down by shame.
The dance community is heartbroken to learn that 14-year-olds Jaime Guttenberg and Cara Loughran were among the 17 people killed during the February 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL.
Guttenberg was a talented competition dancer at Dance Theatre in Coconut Creek, FL, according to a report from Sun Sentinel. Dance Theatre owner Michelle McGrath Gerlick shared the below message on her Facebook page, encouraging dancers across the country to wear orange ribbons this weekend in honor of Guttenberg, whose favorite color was orange.
A statement released yesterday by New York City Ballet and School of American Ballet reported that an independent investigation was unable to corroborate allegations of harassment and abuse against former ballet master in chief Peter Martins, according to The New York Times. This marks the end of a two-month inquiry jointly launched by the two organizations in December following an anonymous letter detailing instances of harassment and violence.
The statement also included new policies for both the company and school to create safer, more respectful environments for the dancers, including hiring an independent vendor to handle employee complaints anonymously. These changes are being made despite the independent investigation, handled by outside counsel Barbara Hoey, purportedly finding no evidence of abuse.