Dance Degrees, Rebooted
More than performing: Boston Conservatory courses cover self-producing. Jim Coleman, Courtesy The Boston Conservatory
Colleges are rethinking how they prepare students for sustainable dance careers.
Students sat in two long rows snaking through Jennifer Edwards’ classroom at Point Park University earlier this year as they prepared to pitch a new project: a multi-city tour by one of the world’s leading ballet companies in its American debut. The program would include an imaginative piece dealing with erotic themes in an exotic and brightly colored vision of the East. Another piece, based on Russian folk tales, would feature music by a fast-rising young composer. The students touched on target audiences, marketing strategies and branding considerations for the tour on the premise that this was the turn of the 20th century and they were trying to convince a wealthy patron to help fund the Ballets Russes performances of The Firebird and Scheherazade. This is dance history, as taught by one of the leading voices in a call to rethink what it means to prepare college students for a sustainable career in dance.
“We need technique and training, but that’s maybe 50 percent of the skills that a dancer needs,” says Edwards. The rest of the equation, she says, is about professionalism, creativity, networking skills, a strong sense of personal values—and entrepreneurship.
Indeed, the most recent report from the Strategic National Arts Alumni Project found that three-quarters of the more than 92,000 alumni surveyed who are currently working as artists say they depend on entrepreneurial skills in their professional lives, but only about a quarter of them acquired these skills in school. “By not teaching those skills,” Edwards says, “we are actually undermining students’ success.”
According to Alyson Pou, director of the Creative Capital professional development program for artists, many schools have been reluctant to embrace “career development” for art, theater and dance students. “The aesthetic training is there, but students are then thrown out into the world to figure out how they are actually going to earn a liv-ing,” she says. Yet slowly, she adds, dissatisfaction among parents, students and debt-burdened alumni is helping to drive some change.
Mills students, here in a master class with Anna Halprin, lobbied for a seminar on practical skills. Shinichi Iova-Koga, Courtesy Mills
More than 1,100 students graduated college during the 2015 academic year with a bachelor’s degree in dance from the 73 programs that participated in a survey by the national Higher Education Arts Data Services Project. That’s up 33 percent from a decade ago. In a saturated market, many find that the only opportunities are those they create themselves through their own projects and pickup companies.
Even students whose plans center on auditioning for an established company, however, can benefit from learning the business side of dance. Job seekers who know what to look for in a database like GuideStar, for example, can peek at the finances of a potential employer. “You can see how money moves in the organization, how you can maybe negotiate your contract, and get an understanding of ‘Is this company in dire straits? Is this a good contract to sign?’ ” Edwards says. At the same time, as more companies turn to their dancers for marketing and social media content, performers who are strategic in how they build their personal brands have an advantage.
Teaching business and management skills is hardly standard practice at this point, but it’s not new, either. Oklahoma City University has offered a dance-management track since the 1980s, and even students on the performance track are required to study contract law and management for performers. The Boston Conservatory prepares its dance students with courses focused on creating an online presence, self-producing, marketing and fundraising.
USC students take notes in a colloquium class. Justina Gaddy, Courtesy USC
The University of Southern California’s new Glorya Kaufman School of Dance requires all students to study dance management and entrepreneurship. Director and vice dean Jodie Gates also encourages students to pursue further business studies at the Marshall School of Business across campus, as well as minors in areas like the cinematic arts, music and sciences. Ideally, Gates says, students will graduate with a full entrepreneurial tool-kit. “We are training students for jobs that do not exist yet,” she says, noting opportunities like developing choreography for animation and gaming, or working in new kinds of performance spaces made possible by virtual reality.
To be sure, not every dance major is eager to study financial planning. Choreographer and University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign faculty member Tere O’Connor is among many critics who warn against molding institutions of higher learning into factories of commercially viable skills. “I don’t think the immersion into the art form and its poetics should be undermined because people are so addicted to its economic possibilities,” he says.
For a liberal arts college, carving out time to cover everything can be challenging. “We’ve got so many other requirements,” says Mills College department head Sonya Delwaide. Yet in response to students “begging” for practical skills, the school has created a biannual seminar, called Do It Yourself, covering topics like how to build a resumé, craft a press release, find grant opportunities and get help from the local service organization.
Even O’Connor admits he sees value in arming artists with complementary skills. “There’s a lot of different aspects to earning money for a company, a lot of different ways to earn income as a dancer,” he says. Grant writing, offered to dance majors at Urbana-Champaign, is an important piece of that. So is exposure to somatic practices: Teaching Pilates, yoga or Gyrotonic can offer supplementary income while informing the physical practice of dancing.
Jodie Gates, here teaching ballet, encourages students to take business courses. Rose Eichenbaum, Courtesy USC
Beyond learning practical skills, like how to balance a budget and craft a five-year strategic plan, students walk away from successful entrepreneurship courses with a new sense of empowerment. For example, after taking Edwards’ arts entrepreneurship course, Point Park student Christian Warner submitted a proposal for an emerging choreographer’s opportunity and made it to the final round; then he asked for feedback (“I can do that?” he asked Edwards) and received a fruitful response. Later, he reached out to documentary filmmakers who had inspired a piece he created, and received lengthy, personal replies. As part of a summer project, he was able to ask informed questions about contract terms and understand the implications of the business agreement. He’s now more confident with the networking aspect of the business that had previously seemed intimidating. “I’m able to deal with that and actively practice more vulnerability and courage to reach for the goals that I want,” he says.
Edwards’ students have thanked her for giving them life lessons. “I think dance teaches us, subconsciously, how to live,” she says. “To bring all of that kinesthetic intelligence to bear, and apply it to budgeting and taxes, and contract negotiation; bringing your mission and values and impact you want to have on the world into a verbal, written statement—that’s really amazing.”
Josie G. Sadan, a dancer with ODC/Dance, has written for The New York Times, Smithsonian, Discover and The Atlantic.
We've been saying for years that dance training has benefits that reach far beyond preparation for a professional dance career: The discipline and attention to detail fostered in technique class, the critical thinking skills acquired in composition, and the awareness and rapid reaction times required for improvisation can all carry over into other fields.
But what if a choreographic tool kit could have a more direct application outside the studio? Say, to city planning?
"What if you could learn from the world's best dance teachers in your living room?" This is the question that Dancio poses on their website. Dancio is a new startup that offers full length videos of ballet classes taught by master teachers. As founder Caitlin Trainor puts it, "these superstar teachers can be available to students everywhere for the cost of a cup of coffee."
For Trainor, a choreographer and the artistic director of Trainor Dance, the idea for Dancio came from a sense of frustration relatable to many dancers; feeling like they need to warm up properly before rehearsals, but not always having the time, energy or funds to get to dance class. One day while searching the internet for a quick online class, Trainor was shocked to not be able to find anything that, as she puts it, "hit the mark in terms of relevance and quality. I thought to myself, how does this not exist?" she says. "We have the Daily Burn for Fitness, YogaGlo for yogis, Netflix for entertainment and nothing for dancers! But then I thought, I can make this!" And thus, Dancio (the name is a combination of dance and video), was born.
There's a surprising twist to Regina Willoughby's last season with Columbia City Ballet: It's also her 18-year-old daughter Melina's first season with the company. Regina, 40, will retire from the stage in March, just as her daughter starts her own career as a trainee. But for this one season, they're sharing the stage together.
Last night, the New York City Ballet board of directors approved ballet master in chief Peter Martins' request for a temporary leave of absence amidst an ongoing investigation into sexual harassment.
The investigation came to light on Monday, when the New York Times reported that NYCB and the School of American Ballet had hired a law firm to investigate their leader after receiving an anonymous letter detailing instances of harassment.
You dance like a knockout—but can you take a punch? Intense stage combat is a crucial element in many shows, from the sword fighting in Romeo & Juliet to the left hooks of the Broadway musical Rocky. But performing it well requires careful body awareness, trust and a full commitment to safety. Whether you're dancing a pivotal battle in a story ballet or intense partnering in a contemporary piece, these expert tips can help you make your fight scenes convincing, compelling and safe.
1. Master the Basics
When Luke Ingham was cast as Tybalt in San Francisco Ballet's Romeo & Juliet, he spent a full month practicing the basic body positions, footwork and momentum of fencing. "You need to be really grounded, you need to know where your feet are," Ingham says.
Brooklyn-based burlesque troupe Company XIV isn't afraid to take risks. Nutcracker Rouge, their take on the holiday classic, features a cast of jack-of-all-trades dancers who double as greeters, ushers, singers, actors and aerialists, while baring a good amount of skin but even more confidence. (Disclaimer: The show is for mature audiences only.) What's most impressive about these artists is how captivating they are. Regardless of what style of dance you do, if you want to become a better performer, consider taking a page out of their playbook.
You've got to be "on" the moment the audience walks in the front door.
Former New York City Ballet dancer Wilhelmina Frankfurt first spoke out about sexual misconduct at NYCB in Psychology Tomorrow in 2012. Since October, she's been working with The Washington Post reporter Sarah Kaufman for a story about Peter Martins, and when the School of American Ballet began investigating Martins for an anonymous accusation, she was called in to discuss her experiences. But Frankfurt feels there's more to the larger picture, and shares that here with Dance Magazine, as edited by Maggie Levin.
In 1994, I began to write a book of essays about my life in dance—mostly as an exercise. When the #MeToo movement began this year, I knew it was time to brush the dust off and take another look. Although incomplete, these essays addressed the roots that have long run between sexual abuse, alcoholism and ballet. They involve George Balanchine, Peter Martins and numerous stars of the New York City Ballet. It's painfully clear that my story is the same story that has occurred thousands of times, all over the world.
I'm heartbroken that I might have to drop out of the Radio City Christmas Spectacular. My back has been spasming since I did an extra-high kick to the back. My X-ray and MRI are normal, but my doctor thinks I hurt my sacroiliac joint. Physical therapy hasn't helped yet. How can I know for sure that this is the real problem?
—Injured Rockette, New York, NY
Freddie Kimmel's musical theater career was just taking off when he woke up one morning with a pain in his groin. A trip to the doctor assured him it was nothing of concern, even though the sensation returned a few months later. As a dancer, Kimmel was used to pushing through discomfort, so he kept going to dance class to "work it out."
But the pain persisted. During a run of The Full Monty at Westchester Broadway Theatre, Kimmel was diagnosed with advanced metastasized cancer. Ten tumors had infiltrated his body.
Japanese-born, New York–based choreographer Kota Yamazaki returns to his roots as a butoh dancer in Darkness Odyssey Part 2: I or Hallucination. He explores butoh founder Tatsumi Hijikata's idea of the extreme fragility of the body. Yamazaki is joined by contemporary luminaries Julian Barnett, Raja Feather Kelly, Joanna Kotze and Mina Nishimura, each of whom engages in drastically eccentric pathways, making the body appear to disintegrate before your eyes. Music is by Kenta Nagai and visual environment by lighting wizard Thomas Dunn. Dec. 13–15, Baryshnikov Arts Center. bacnyc.org.