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.