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By Clare Croft
Choosing a college can be an onerous task. For dancers graduating from performing arts high schools, who have spent years balancing dance and academics, college selection can be even more complicated. Should college be a place where dance is the main focus, part of a liberal arts curriculum, or extracurricular? Is college even the right choice, or is it best to jump right into company auditions?
For students who aim to dance professionally, many schools advise applying to college, rather than auditioning straight away. “It’s been my experience,” says Ellen Rosa, dance department chair at California’s Idyllwild Arts, “that companies today are looking for someone who’s a complete package: someone who’s an adult and who can take care of his or her body.” Among seniors in a graduation class, she adds, “maybe one or two have that level of maturity.”
College dance programs are growing in number, size, and variety; they include conservatories, BFA tracks in four-year institutions, and BA programs that fold dance into a liberal arts curriculum. Michelle Mathesius, chair of the dance department at LaGuardia High School of Performing Arts in New York City, advises professionally oriented students who need further training to audition for conservatories. Rosa says that students with strong technique but weaker academic records generally consider conservatories, where academic demands are less intense. For those more interested in academics and double-majoring, they recommend four-year BFA or BA programs.
Once a student chooses a type of program, more in-depth research begins. Cameron Basden, director of dance at Michigan’s Interlochen Arts Academy high school, encourages students to visit many colleges and ask lots of questions.
Researching the faculty is key. “A school is only as good as the people teaching in it,” says Daniel Lewis, dean of dance at Miami’s New World School of the Arts. “If the faculty came straight from an MFA and have no professional experience, it’s very unlikely they have a lot to offer unless they’ve been teaching for at least 10 years. We also look at who’s chairing the department. Is it someone who has a vision and can explain how and why they’re training dancers?”
Lewis advises students to look into course offerings in arts administration, pedagogy, and choreography too, reminding them that there are many ways to stay involved in the dance field; careers in big companies aren’t the only option. “I’ve been trying to convince kids for years that you don’t have to be a soloist in a major company,” he says. “If you’ve got talent, you’re going to do something. Lots of our grads are managers of dance companies, writers, agents, etc.” LuAnne Carter, chair of the dance department at Houston’s High School for the Performing and Visual Arts (HSPVA), has a similar outlook. “Some of our kids might go into science or law, and we’re good with that. They make great arts supporters.”
Preparing for a range of careers means that academics matter as much as turnout. A strong academic record also provides a leg up in the running for scholarships. “We tell students not to limit their options based on a school’s financial demands,” says Basden. “If you think it’s the right fit, go for it. Many of our students have gotten large academic scholarships.”
Lewis says financial concerns have pressed several recent students to opt for in-state tuition at Florida State University or New World’s college division, rather than going to pricey out-of-state programs like Juilliard or NYU. “A couple of years ago, parents would take out a second mortgage,” he says. “Now they can’t afford that.”
Higher education isn’t the right path for all students. Mathesius says that a third of LaGuardia graduates go straight into dance companies or musical theater. Companies often notify her of upcoming auditions, and she sends students or alumni that she thinks will be a good fit. Taylor 2, Paul Taylor’s second company, recently offered contracts to several LaGuardia graduates who had auditioned or participated in LaGuardia’s annual Taylor summer intensive.
Basden encourages her students to try several paths at once. Many audition for companies while also applying to their dream schools and backup schools. At Idyllwild, students interested in immediate professional careers are encouraged to participate in international competitions, like the Prix de Lausanne, and in companies’ summer intensives.
Regardless of what the next step may be, all of these schools make efforts to prepare students for a new phase of their dance lives. Carter invites university faculty to hold auditions at HSPVA. LaGuardia brings in choreographers who may be looking to hire to set work on dancers. Idyllwild helps students make high-quality audition videos. Interlochen hosts a college day with a variety of university faculty. And Lewis encourages students to talk with professors in New World’s college division to understand their full range of options.
All of this preparation helps students make educated decisions but can elevate already high stress levels. Rosa tries to help students relax. “This is not a choice for the rest of your life,” she says. It’s just the beginning of a path which, if the passion for dance is there, is sure to be filled with many more opportunities.
Clare Croft is a freelance arts writer based in Ann Arbor, MI, and a post-doctoral fellow at University of Michigan.
Pictured: Interlochen students in Randy Duncan's Journey, 2009. Photo Courtesy Interlochen Center for the Arts.