How to Make the Most of Each Phase of Your College Career

September 27, 2022

The transition to college can be a shock. For dancers who are accustomed to rigid structure and routine, the freedom and agency of college can be exhilarating and overwhelming all at the same time. How do you start making decisions when it feels like your future is hanging in the balance? There is no one “right” college path, but it does help to have a road map. To get you started, here’s a year-by-year look at what to prepare for and prioritize.

Freshman Year

Embrace the New

“One of the biggest revelations for me freshman year was how different people’s dance backgrounds were,” says Maia Sauer, who graduated from Middlebury College in spring of 2022. Jessica Ziegler, a 2021 graduate of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, agrees. “In my small cohort, we all were so different from the get-go. I came from a classical ballet background, so I showed up in my tights and leotard, with my hair in a bun. Other people were wearing shorts and T-shirts,” she says.

It’s not just about dress code—through your new peers and faculty, you’ll be exposed to ideas about dance you’ve never encountered before. “It’s both beautiful and painful.­ You get to college and you realize that it’s not going to be more of the same. Dance begins­ to spill out all around you, and you find new ways to step into it,” says Donna Faye Burchfield, dean of the School of Dance at University of the Arts.

Take advantage of this by trying forms that are new to you. “So few pre-college programs­ have African forms. If you’re at a college that offers that opportunity, take advantage­ of it. If you haven’t encountered improvisation, especially contact improvisation, try that out. It teaches you a way to be in the body which will inform your dancing forever,” says Heidi Henderson, chair of the Department of Dance at Connecticut College.

Connect With Your Classmates

Get to know the other students in your cohort. Chances are, you’ll be spending a lot of time with them over the next few years, and if you can build a sense of community rather than competitiveness, you’ll all have a more positive experience. “Our program had a student board, with representatives from each class. I did that freshman through junior year, and it really helped me dive deeper into the department,” says Ziegler.

The extent to which you share classes with upperclassmen will vary depending on your program, but take full advantage of any chances to connect with older students. Their recommendations and advice can help you figure out what direction to take your studies in. For example, Sauer says she took an improvisation class at the suggestion of some upperclassmen. “It was something I hadn’t had any exposure to in high school, and it was really influential for me,” she says.

Sophomore Year

Getting to the Guts

“In your first year, you’ve done the skin. Sophomore and junior year are when you really get into the guts of a program,” says Henderson. Even in conservatory programs—which tend to have a more prescribed schedule than liberal arts programs—most students begin to have more choice over what courses they take starting in their second year. This is the time, Henderson says, to dig deeper into things you found exciting in your freshman year: “If you are interested in choreography, you need to take that class as soon as possible so you can then take other levels. If you got really excited about a new technique, take the next levels of that class so you can get more experience in a direction you think you might want to head.”

female dancer wearing bright pink pants performing on stage
As a sophomore, build on your freshman year by taking advanced and upper-level classes in the techniques and topics that interest you, Henderson says. Photo by Jonathan Tsu, Courtesy Henderson.

Navigating the Sophomore Slump

The “sophomore slump” is a bit of a stereotype, but Ziegler says that for her and many of her classmates, it rang true. “I felt good going in. I had more confidence with one year under my belt,” she says. “But in the first part of second semester, I had too much on my plate. I burned out.” Many positive experiences still came out of that year—Ziegler started taking composition classes, an important part of her college experience, and working with visiting artists, including Nia Love, whom she continues to work with professionally. This is where leaning on the relationships you’ve built with classmates can be helpful. “It was comforting that my class as a whole went through these phases,” Ziegler says.

Junior Year

Moving Beyond the Foundations

At University of the Arts, faculty refer to the first two years of the program as “foundation years,” and the second two as “research years.” “Think of it like a house,” says Burchfield. “The first two years, you are building your base. The second two years, you’re building those sides of the roof that grow toward each other.” By this point in college, you’ve learned where your strengths are and what you’re interested in. If your program includes a thesis or final project, now is a good time to start thinking about what you might like that project to be.

Ziegler says junior year was her favorite year of college, because she was pursuing fulfilling creative work on her own, with guest artists and with grad students, and she’d learned to manage her schedule to prevent burnout. “That friction from sophomore year subsided,” she says.

female dancer wearing blue romper dancing in a park
For Jessica Ziegler, beginning to pursue her own creative work and collaborations made her junior year fulfilling. Photo by Alison Bert, Courtesy Ziegler.

Look Ahead, but Not Too Far

Junior year is also a good time to start thinking about your postgraduation aspirations. “If your dream is to dance with a company, or if you want to do more commercial dance, there are certain things you need to home in on,” says Burchfield. Be mindful in selecting your classes, but try not to stress over your future too much yet. “I do remember feeling like graduation was looming,” says Sauer. “But my professors reminded me to stay present. You really want to take advantage of the time you have to be in a college dance department.”

Don’t Be Afraid to Take Time Off From Dance

“In our program, many students go abroad junior year, and dance—or not,” says Henderson. “I tell my students, and I don’t think they believe me until they come back, that they don’t lose anything by not taking technique class for a semester. In fact, they’re often better dancers when they go abroad and open themselves as human beings and learn different things. Something gets into your body from being in a new place.”

Senior Year

Dig Deep

Many dance programs, including an increasing number of conservatory programs, involve some kind of senior project. “In my opinion, senior year should be about pursuing a personal interest in a deep way,” says Henderson. “Even if your senior year is not a special project, think about who you are and what you’ve learned about yourself. It’s about taking everything you’ve learned in those previous three years and making it your own.”

female dancer posing in front of water landscape
Senior year is the time to pre­pare for going out into the world as a professional artist, says Maia Sauer (shown here performing her work Memory Map). Photo by Sam Kann, Courtesy Sauer.

Ease Into the Future

Take advantage of any opportunities your program provides to learn skills you’ll need in your professional life. “I remember being in the thick of it and feeling like, Really? You’re going to make me do a mock budget for my thesis? I felt resistant to it then, but now I realize how helpful that was,” says Sauer. Connecting with alumni can also be a helpful way to envision your own future, and many programs will help facilitate those connections. Some programs also offer credit to students who are performing or apprenticing professionally, a good option for those looking for a bridge between college and professional life.

Appreciate Your Accomplishments

Try not to go through your last year with one foot out the door. Instead, focus on how far you’ve come. “I was so anxious about the future,” says Ziegler, “but my advisor reminded me that worrying about things doesn’t actually do anything productive.” That advice helped her embrace the experience of being a senior. “Senior year felt the most creative,” she says. “It was like wrapping up all my college experiences and tying them in a bow. By that point, I really felt like an artist.”