Letter to a Future Dance Major

Advice on preparing for your freshman year

By Melanie Bales and Rebecca Nettl-Fiol

Dance has been an integral part of your life for years now, and you want to continue this pursuit in college. How wonderful that there are a myriad of dance programs where you can heighten your training, broaden your knowledge, and prepare for a future in the dance arena. But how much do you know about the field of contemporary concert dance? How many professional dance companies have you seen? How conversant are you about the genres you study, or about dance forms you have never performed? As college professors in major dance departments, we notice that many of our entering freshmen, though technically adept, arrive with unformed notions and very little background about the field they’ve elected to immerse themselves in for the next four years.
This lack of knowledge creates confusion. Students who have only experienced and seen jazz or entertainment-based dance may not understand how to value more conceptually based choreography. Those that have only studied ballet may feel resistant to being asked to release into the floor in a contemporary class, since they’ve never experienced dance forms that use the body in that way. Broadening the scope of your dance experiences will help you to 1) select the type of dance program that most closely aligns with your interests, and 2) fully immerse yourself in the experiences and courses the program offers.
It seems like a no-brainer that a prospective dance major would have seen a lot of dance, just as a prospective music major has heard a wide range of music, probably reads music, and has listened to a variety of genres and styles, including classical music. However, unlike visual art, music, and theater, dance is not offered in most schools, and it is more difficult to find live performances, unless you live in a large city and have family or friends that are concert-goers. Even if you are familiar with several current choreographers and dancers in the Western concert dance tradition, you may not know the figures that influenced them. Without a sense of history, the present has no shape. Without a sense of context, your own connection to dance will be without grounding.
Our experience tells us that for many high school dancers, the focus is primarily on dancing itself. Perhaps you have studied at a local studio and performed in recitals and/or competitions. You may have studied several forms: ballet, jazz, tap, hiphop, lyrical. Or maybe your training has been mostly at a ballet academy. Perhaps you go to a performing arts or magnet high school where you get classes in modern, ballet, and jazz. In each of these instances, you are focusing mainly on learning technique and perfecting various dance forms and styles. Often you are absorbed with rehearsing for a culminating concert or show. Your experience of dance occurs mainly in the studio. But in college, your experience will explode to a much wider dance arena. In a college dance program, you are likely to be viewed as a burgeoning dance artist. You are no longer just learning steps, you are discovering who you are and how you interact with the field.
Subjects that you are likely to study in a college dance program include history and theory, improvisation and composition, dance science and kinesiology, pedagogy, somatics or body-mind disciplines, and dance and technology. You will be asked to perform, create, write, teach, and engage in discussions about the art form. You will see the interaction and reciprocity between the physical and the mental, between the creative and the scientific, between objective analysis and subjective experience. Dancing transforms from what you thought it was to encompass a broader and deeper perspective.
In order to engage at this new level, you will need an understanding of the field, in addition to extensive practice in one or two techniques. The more you dig beneath the surface of what you already know, and the more exposure you give yourself, the better prepared you will be to enter a college dance program.
The following is a list of suggestions to help you develop an understanding of the world you are planning to enter. This is not a complete list, but is designed to encourage inquiry and discovery, in order for you to develop a background in your chosen field.

» See live dance whenever you can. It is less expensive than a rock concert! You may not always like what you see—that is often as informative as loving it. After all, this is your career.
» Read Nancy Reynolds’ No Fixed Points for a wonderful sweep of Western concert dance in the twentieth century. Ask for the book for your birthday! The photos will also educate and delight you.

» Familiarize yourself with some of the key choreographers of the 20th century, in order to understand the landscape out of which contemporary choreographers have emerged. These include George Balanchine, Martha Graham, Merce Cunningham, José Limón, Paul Taylor, Jerome Robbins, Alvin Ailey, and Twyla Tharp, to name a few. Check your local library or order DVDs of their works; read their biographies.

» Familiarize yourself with contemporary choreographers whose works you have seen and liked. Go online and read about them, read reviews of their works, and go to YouTube to see if anyone has added clips.

» Let one inquiry lead to another by looking at bibliographies in articles or books; use them to find other articles or books that would be of interest. Follow your curiosities and interests and continue pursuing various threads that you discover.

» Once a week, do an online search for dance reviews. You will gain knowledge about current trends and begin to familiarize yourself with some of the contemporary dance artists.

» Visit internet sites like YouTube and dancemedia.com. You’ll find a lot to spark your imagination: Argentine tango, amazing hip-hop and break dancers, Russian ballet stars, movie musical clips, rare early modern dance footage, interviews with dancers, photo montages, and more.

» Take classes in as many styles as you can you. If you’re used to taking just one style, like jazz or ballet, try something different.

Studying dance in college is a rewarding and enriching endeavor. But you can enhance your experience by arriving well prepared and conversant about the dance field.

Melanie Bales, a professor of dance at Ohio State University and an expert in Laban Movement Analysis, and Rebecca Nettl-Fiol, an associate professor of dance at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and an Alexander Technique specialist, are co-authors of the recently published book The Body Eclectic: Evolving Practices in Dance Training.