What Directors Really Think of Ballet Dancers Going To College
In the ballet world, the phrase "going to college" is sometimes regarded as the musings of a dancer who's not really serious about their craft. Although schools like Juilliard and Bennington College have made degrees acceptable for modern dancers for decades, the competitive ballet world (which often follows a philosophy of "the younger the better") tends to discourage higher education.
But some ballet students just don't feel physically or emotionally ready to join a professional company at age 18, and others simply don't want to miss out on the college experience. So they choose to pursue an undergraduate dance degree to continue their ballet training in an academic atmosphere.
Gaining versatility at Butler University. Photo by Brent Smith, courtesy Butler
However, dancers need to understand how this decision will play out once they graduate. What do artistic directors—most of whom never chose to pursue a bachelor's degree themselves—think about this path? Do they see college as a four-year detour? Or have they come to appreciate the knowledge and experience dancers can obtain from this once unheard-of path to a ballet future?
The Benefits Graduates Bring
Setting yourself apart from the crowd is an essential part of getting that first job in a ballet company. Having demonstrated the ability to graduate with a degree while maintaining a high performance quality can be a fantastic way to get your foot in the door. "Knowing a dancer has that deeper arts education can make a difference—it sways in a positive way," says Devon Carney, artistic director of Kansas City Ballet, where a handful of dancers hold degrees from schools like Indiana University. "Graduates are personally and artistically more level-headed. They have a better ability to deal with problems, and that maturity is something I highly value in a dancer."
Devon Carney teaching class. Photo by Ken Coit, courtesy KCB.
College dancers often graduate with life skills that students from a purely dance-oriented environment might not have gained. Often, they can better communicate both inside and outside of the studio, and they know how to shift subjects and organize a tight schedule as quickly as possible. By taking courses like ballet history, anatomy, nutrition, psychology, public speaking and piano, students become not only well-rounded employees, but assets to the ballet world.
"Dancers who have given themselves the opportunity to explore other sides of life have also given themselves the opportunity to understand that the world is bigger than the studio and stage," says Victoria Morgan, artistic director and CEO of Cincinnati Ballet. She earned both a BFA and an MFA in ballet from the University of Utah, and says she likes seeing a degree on a dancer's resumé. "It is confidence-building to know that there are options, and that confidence shows onstage."
Victoria Morgan. Photo by Daniel Wagner, courtesy Cincinnati Ballet
The Challenges Undergrads Face
The harsh truth is that obtaining a job in a professional ballet company is far from a guarantee. "Most programs sell a dream that they know they can't deliver," cautions Mikko Nissinen, artistic director of Boston Ballet, where hiring college graduates is far from common. He notes that a resumé listing connections and repertoire performed at school may provide entry to the audition studio, but dancers then have to prove their technical and artistic abilities.
Mikko Nissinen. Photo by Liza Voll, courtesy Boston Ballet.
Many people in the ballet world still view most BFA programs as too dissimilar from the professional realm to be truly competitive. The insulated bubble of campus life can mean students don't realize they're not performing at a high enough level.
"Students need more exposure to the realities of what the professional world requires—they have to understand that if you want to get a job, there is no optional class, you have to be serious, show up day in and day out and know all your material," says Carney. In a company, you would lose your job for frequently missing rehearsals or eating in class, but in some dance departments, undergraduates may be allowed to slip in their professionalism.
Some directors feel the hardest part of attending college can be the many distractions, like parties, all-night study sessions, excessive drinking and a disregard for the basic human need to sleep. "Dancers must keep their bodies healthy and strong," says Julie Kent, artistic director of The Washington Ballet. "A lot of times the college lifestyle renders proper nutrition difficult."
Julie Kent. Photo by Rosalie O'Connor, courtesy The Washington Ballet.
Even with limited dining-hall options and little time for cross-training, students must maintain their physical form in the same way a professional would. However, it is by no means impossible to keep up the daily intensity required to stay in shape: One of Kent's first hires after arriving at TWB was EunWon Lee, who earned a BFA from Korea National University of Arts in Seoul.
The key is staying passionate and competitive. If an undergrad wants a career in the professional ballet world, it is up to them to find an institution that provides the tools necessary to train at the level the industry requires, and then take advantage of every resource and opportunity to improve. College may not be the most common pathway to a professional ballet career, but it has all the potential in the world to develop artists who can change the art form for the better.
Have you ever seen a performance and thought, "Wow, this was so good. Dance Magazine should really be writing about this!"? You're in luck.
We're collecting nominations for our annual Readers' Choice feature, and we need your help! We'll compile our favorite nominations, and then you'll vote on what should make it into our December issue. But for now, we want to hear about the most memorable dance you've seen so far in 2017.
Throughout the summer, we've been noticing beachside views and scenic waterfalls sprinkled in with all of the usual rehearsal and performance posts we see from ballet's biggest stars. But even while enjoying some sun and relaxation, dancers like Sara Mearns and Michaela DePrince prove that they never really take a break from ballet. Ahead, check out some of the cutest vacay pictures and videos our favorite dancers have been sharing this summer. Not only will they give you some future vacation inspo, they'll also have you itching to get back in the studio.
This fall, the University of Utah's School of Dance welcomes the first class of candidates to its newly reinstated Master of Fine Arts in Ballet program, currently the only ballet-specific MFA in the country. Geared toward those with professional ballet experience, it requires courses in pedagogy, choreography and scholarly inquiry. Melonie Murray, the director of graduate studies, says, "We want to support students in understanding ballet in a deeper way."
The 2017–18 Broadway season is just getting underway! But before we look ahead to new productions, let's recall what came before. Here are a few of the sparkliest shows that opened on the Great White Way in previous Augusts.
42nd Street (1980)
The cast of the 2001 revival of 42nd Street performing at the Tony Awards
If you need an example of traditional Broadway-style tap, this couldn't be any closer. The original production of 42nd Street ran for over eight years. That's a lot of time steps.
When I saw Kele Roberson dancing at New York City Dance Alliance Foundation's college scholarship audition, I only had to watch a deep plié before writing down a 10 out of 10 on his score sheet and scribbling a giant star next to his name. Before he even had a chance to show off his incredible lines, I was mesmerized by his nuanced grace in even the simplest of movements.
He walked away from that audition with NYCDA Foundation's Dance Magazine College Scholarship worth $25,000 to the college of his choice, which happened to be Juilliard, where he was planning to attend this fall.
But shortly after winning, it turns out, his plans changed. I caught up with him earlier today to find out what happened.
Yep, you read that right.
Alpaca dance classes are a thing, thanks to 313 Farms in Manitoba, Canada. Students can take classes like "Barn Barre," "Mommy, The Alpacas, & Me" and "Poppin' Pacas" while the animals roam—and you're welcome to stop and pet them mid-class.
"Having worked in a dance studio, I had quite a few students visit the alpacas and they loved being around them," says owner Ann Patman. "Most studios have no windows and even though the class might be great, you don't get any fresh air or see what's going on outside."
Nominations for our Readers' Choice Awards are underway, and you've been sending in tons of exciting ones.
As a reminder, we're compiling nominations in seven categories:
- Best Viral Video
- Most Moving Performance
- Biggest Choreographic Breakthrough
- Coolest Collaboration
- Best Dance Documentary
- Most Inventive New Work
- Funniest Performance
We'll choose our favorites, then ask you to vote on what will make it into our December issue.
Here are some of our favs so far: