A Day in the Life of a College Dancer

If you're trying to select a college dance program, you probably have the websites bookmarked, the pamphlets dog-eared and the faculty and guest artists memorized. But it can be hard to picture the day-to-day life you would experience for the next four years. We talked to dancers at three different programs—a conservatory in the big city, a ballet-intensive school in the Midwestern suburbs and a deeply engaging, nonmajor program at an Ivy League—about a typical day in their undergraduate lives.


Angela Falk

Third-year dance BFA

The Juilliard School

7 am: Wake Up

Falk on the reformer. Courtesy Falk.

Angela Falk's alarm goes off halfway across the double room she shares with a violinist on the 23rd floor of Juilliard's residence hall at Lincoln Center. The view from her window towards the Hudson River is a reminder of sprawling Manhattan outside, but students who live on campus don't venture far. “Breakfast is right downstairs," says Falk, “and I live 30 seconds away from the school building, where everything happens for the rest of my day." She puts her hair up in a bun, trades one pair of sweats for another and heads to the dining hall, where she listens to the news or finishes last-minute reading while eating.

8 am: Warm-Up

Falk spends the next 45 minutes on the reformer in the Pilates studio or in a pre-technique class, a stretching and strengthening session led by one of the modern teachers three times a week.

9 am: Academics

Anatomy is her first class, and Falk has a quiz tomorrow, but she won't have a chance to study until tonight.

10:40 am: Dance Classes

The dancers take two back-to-back technique classes—some combination of ballet, pointe, modern and classical partnering. “You learn two different modern techniques every year," she says. “As a junior, I'm studying Cunningham with Jean Freebury and Limón with Risa Steinberg. I love the way the classes contrast each other—it's all about precision in one and drop-and-release in the other."

1:40 pm: Lunch

A student council meeting. Courtesy Falk.

Lunch hour might also be used for a student council meeting or fitting in a few runs of a student-choreographed piece.

2:30 pm: Composer Meeting

Falk meets with the student composer she's been matched with for an elective choreography course. “It's very cool and collaborative, and it leads up to a live performance in the black-box theater," she says.

4 pm: Rehearsal

Three days a week, Falk and the other 24 members of her class rehearse a new work by Zvi Gotheiner for Juilliard's New Dances concert.

7 pm: Work Study

Falk ushers a theater performance for her work-study job after dinner tonight. On other nights, she might rehearse student pieces, study, do homework, visit friends or call her parents. “I like to be in bed by 11," she says. “Anyone considering Juilliard should expect to be this busy. That's why you'll see us all eating lunch outside, sitting on the concrete in our leotards, getting a solid 20 minutes of sunlight for the day."

Raffaella Stroik

Third-year ballet BS

Indiana University, Jacobs School of Music

8 am: Breakfast and Stretching

Raffaella Stroik stretches at home after making breakfast in the kitchen of the four-bedroom, two-bathroom apartment she shares with three other IU dancers. “There just isn't much time to warm up once I get to the studios after my 9 o'clock voice lesson and 10 o'clock Italian class," she says.

11:30 am: Technique Class

IU dancers study a variety of ballet techniques taught by a rotation of seven faculty and guest teachers, including department chair Michael Vernon, Violette Verdy and Jacques Cesbron. “They email the schedule the night before, so you know what to expect," says Stroik. “It's great to be learning different methods, but you also have to be prepared to jump from Balanchine to Bournonville."

1 pm: Lunch, Pointe and Rehearsal

Stroik at a voice lesson. Courtesy Stroik.

There's a half hour to eat before an hour-long pointe class, followed by rehearsal. “I take advantage of any break to go to the physical therapy room," says Stroik. “At midday, I'm there to roll out for 15 or 20 minutes, and after rehearsal, I'll ice my feet for half an hour, especially if I've been on pointe since barre or center that morning."

4 pm: Dinner and a Lecture

After walking home, she showers and makes dinner before a night class—today it's Art History. Finding time for homework can be tricky. “I spend the most time on Italian, since it's my concentration outside ballet, so I squeeze it in before and after night class or sometimes in the morning."

9 pm: Opera or Theater

The toughest requirement of Indiana's program might be the two semesters of piano mandated for the entire music school. “It's really challenging and you're alongside incredibly skilled pianists!" says Stroik. But all that talent is inspiring on Friday nights, when Stroik and her roommates attend a student opera or drama show.

Kayla Chen

Fourth-year government BA

Harvard University

7:30 am: Wake Up for Volunteer Work

On most days, Kayla Chen wakes up between 8:30 and 9. “But on Mondays, I run a mentoring program for Boston-area kids to grow their leadership skills—that starts at 8 am," she says. After, she grabs a bite to eat. When it's cold, there's no need to venture outside: Chen can walk from her dorm room to the dining hall through a series of tunnels in a matter of minutes.

Studying. Courtesy Chen.

10 am: Spanish and Sissonnes

When she's not meeting with other leadership mentors or supervisors for her senior thesis, Chen is in class—first Spanish, then Science of Food and finally, a lecture about human rights movements throughout history. If she's enrolled in a dance course, it also takes place during these hours. Last semester, Chen took ballet and Jill Johnson's Forsythe technique class. Both met twice a week for an hour and a half.

3 pm: Rehearsal

Chen heads to The Harvard Dance Project, a by-audition performance-oriented course led by Johnson that meets for three hours on Tuesdays and Thursdays. The group performs in the greater Boston communities. “Our final show is a major commitment: You need to make it to three nights of tech and shows every night for one week," which is no small feat in Harvard's overachieving atmosphere. Chen is also dancing in a student-choreographed work, which rehearses for two hours every Saturday.

10 pm: Study, Study, Sleep

“I'm usually still doing homework until 1:30 or 2 am," says Chen, “but then I just shut my books and set the alarm. I'm human—I catch up with people, check Facebook." She tries to get six blissful hours of sleep before the busy day starts all over again.

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I'm a Professional Dancer With Generalized Anxiety Disorder. Here's Why Dance Companies Need to Start Prioritizing Mental Health

My name is Abi Stafford, and I have generalized anxiety disorder.

I've had this "hook" in my mind for how I'd open an important essay my entire dance career, but I was never ready to talk about it, until now.

I might be the only dancer to say this, but the best change to result from the coronavirus shutdown is company class moving to Zoom.

As a kid, my teachers encouraged competition between students. While it undoubtedly helped push me, all these years later I still struggle with unhealthy levels of competitive feelings in class. But on Zoom, I don't have to compare myself to anyone, and it feels great. I can dance freely because no one is watching and critiquing my abilities.

When the shutdown started, I was preparing to return to New York City Ballet after a hiatus. I had taken a leave of absence since December 2019, the middle of Nutcracker season, to focus on my mental health.

As NYCB underwent leadership transitions during the last few years and the culture among the dancers shifted, I had developed new feelings of anxiety. Some dancers felt more emboldened to ask for roles they wanted, envisioning exciting career possibilities. Others quietly wished casting choices would remain the same and sensed a more uncertain path. With my brother as artistic director, workplace dynamics collided with my personal life. Casting disappointments jabbed me painfully, and it became hard to find a corner in the theater where my soul felt safe.

It was difficult to officially inform the company that I needed to take a leave because I'd been burned when I'd shown my anxiety before. Back when Peter Martins was in charge, I had an anxiety attack backstage prior to Theme and Variations. I felt too insecure, too scared, too tired, and I couldn't fathom performing. He offered me en­coura­ge­ment at the time, but, several years later, he brought up the episode unexpectedly, pointing to that painful moment to explain why I wasn't reliable. The experience solidified that I should never show emotional vulnerabilities or weaknesses.

Fast-forward to December 2019. When I finally let myself stop dancing, literally mid-rehearsal, some colleagues tried to talk me out of it. While well-intentioned, their words made me feel worse because I started to question my choice. But it was the right decision for me. I have been focusing on my mental wellness, family and pursuing my law degree to heal my spirit as quarantine carries on.

I have lived and performed with (sometimes crippling) anxiety for my entire career, and I'm nowhere near the only one who's struggled. I know of a dancer who picked up her bag and quit in the middle of a rehearsal. One time a young dancer timidly asked a group of older dancers whether ballet company life was hard for them. Upon emphatic replies of "yes," he said, "I thought it was just me. Everyone walks around like they are just fine."

Dancers feel immense pressure from management to constantly be perfect onstage. Yet, we are at the mercy of our bodies. Those two factors are an excellent recipe for anxiety. Some dancers cry a lot. Others call out sick when they're too anxious to perform. Some even choose to retire altogether—far too young.

There needs to be more mental health support within dance companies. Psychological services should be made available to all dancers and artistic staff—including ballet masters. At my company, they're under an intense amount of pressure to prepare the vast repertory, and all are former NYCB dancers who shared similar experiences, stresses and pain during their own careers.

Overall, everyone needs to listen more. Artistic management could send out anonymous surveys to assess what areas need improvement. Companies could hold talk-back sessions with dancers to open up the lines of communication about what's working and what's not. We need to make it acceptable for dancers to take care of their mental health. We need to stop training dancers (explicitly and implicitly) to hide their anxiety for fear of losing performance opportunities.

It is time to begin the conversation, because I worry about the ongoing suffering of dancers if this is not addres­sed. I worry that company leadership will continue to view my very real struggles with my mental health as a weakness. Most of all, I worry that the next generation of artists will continue to suffer as too many of their predecessors have.