Suzannah grew up in Brookline, MA, where she took ballet and jazz at her neighborhood studio, and developed a love for all things musical theater. At Barnard College, she explored tap and modern, and began to combine her interests in dance and writing. She graduated with a major in English and a minor in dance, writing a senior thesis on the role of dance in Jane Austen's work. She has written about dance for various online and print publications.
Margaret Selby never dreamed that her passion for dance would lead her everywhere from working on live TV specials like the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade to producing hip-hop musical Jam on the Groove, from Columbia Artists Management, Inc., to public TV's "Great Performances: Dance in America."
Now, through her company Selby/Artists MGMT, she helps clients like Dorrance Dance, MOMIX and Pacific Northwest Ballet navigate the behind-the-scenes elements that get their work onstage, like booking tours, marketing and planning upcoming seasons.
As an audience cheers, three teenage girls cross the stage in a line, to the high-energy beat of The Chainsmokers' "Don't Let Me Down." They're dressed in head-to-toe black, but each of their shirts is decorated with bright bulbs, flashing and blinking in various colors as they move.
The performance is a product of STEM From Dance, a New York City-based nonprofit founded by Yamilee Toussaint—an MIT grad who's been dancing since age 5. The program targets middle and high school girls of color, who are vastly underrepresented in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields, and might not otherwise see STEM as an option or be encouraged to try it.
Through his work on shows like In the Heights, Bandstand and the game-changing Hamilton, Andy Blankenbuehler is pushing Broadway choreography into new territory. He continually reveals dance's ability to tell stories that matter to contemporary audiences, with movement that's meticulously detailed yet seamlessly integrated into the show's world. In his work, dance becomes not just important, but indispensable.
Last year, it looked like "So You Think You Can Dance" might be on its final season. Viewership and ratings were down, and the show seemed to be trying to hang on by switching up its format, focusing on young talent ages 8 to 13 instead of the adult dancers audiences were used to.
But this summer it's back to its traditional formula, and embarking on a 14th season starting next Monday. That means we get another summer where dance gets an audience numbering in the millions.
That much exposure for that many seasons begs the question: What kind of mark has the show made on the dance world?
What is it like to bring one of your heroes to life on stage? That’s what Robert Creighton experiences eight times a week as the star of Cagney, the off-Broadway musical currently playing at the Westside Theatre. Creighton conceived and co-wrote the show, which tells the story of James Cagney, from his humble beginnings on New York’s Lower East Side to his reluctant start on the vaudeville stage to his rise to Hollywood stardom, where he became known as the quintessential “tough guy.” But dance was also a major part of his life, and the show is full of infectiously energetic tap numbers, expertly performed by the six-person cast. Creighton talked to DM about dance’s role in the show, his love of tap, and how to play an icon.
Robert Creighton and the cast of Cagney. PC Carol Rosegg.
What first drew you to Cagney’s story?
My obsession with Cagney started over 20 years ago. I was in acting school, and a teacher said “You remind me of Jimmy Cagney.” I started watching his films and just thought he was so mesmerizing. And I, too, felt this connection like, “Wow, I do kinda look like him and move like him.” And then I started reading about his life. I had this fire lit in me that this needs to be a story and it needs to be a musical. He became famous as a tough guy, playing mostly gangsters, but inside he was a song and dance man.
How do you approach the role of Cagney? What is it like playing a real person?
Cagney won an Oscar for playing George M. Cohan in Yankee Doodle Dandy, which was a bio pic. And he said, “I don’t believe in imitation, because then you can only do what they did. You take their essence and then you play it for real.” So I take Cagney’s advice on how to play a biographical character. When he danced, he moved his hands in certain iconic ways. He always sort of had his index finger pointed out, and he was very forward and up on his toes a bit. I do bring that element to it, but I just sort of let that wash over me and then play it as me.
What was it like working with Joshua Bergasse on the choreography?
He did the choreography starting with our second production, so he’s been with us since 2010. He really uses the strengths of his dancers—he doesn’t just dictate every single step. And we had to pepper in the iconic Cagney moves throughout. The people who are real fans of Cagney would be unsatisfied if we didn’t have some of that in the show.
Creighton and Jeremy Benton. PC Carol Rosegg
Where does your love for tap come from?
My parents loved old movies, so I was really into Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly. My neighbors used to keep a hat and cane out, and I’d go over after church on Sunday and make up dance routines for them. I never really had any formal training growing up, although I danced a lot. When I moved to New York, I went nuts on tap dancing. I was in acting school, but on the side I would take tap class all the time. Then when I finished school, I would go to probably four or five classes a week. That’s when I really advanced to a different level.
Do you have a favorite dance number in the show?
I really love the tap duet with Jeremy Benton, who plays Bob Hope. Two-thirds of it we do a capella, so it’s just pure sound. And Jeremy is an amazing tap dancer—it’s like playing tennis with someone who’s better than you; it elevates your game. We literally sound like one person while we’re dancing and it brings me such joy to go for that perfection every time. Sometimes you get it, sometimes you don’t.
When the curtain comes down on a Broadway musical, what happens to its choreography? That's the question Broadway dancer and choreographer Lee Theodore sought to address when she launched American Dance Machine in 1978. Her goal was to create a “living archive" of musical theater choreography, so that great works—and the techniques behind them—would be preserved. The original organization folded after Theodore's death in 1987, but in 2012, Nikki Feirt Atkins revived it as American Dance Machine for the 21st Century. The current incarnation seeks to continue Theodore's vision and educate younger generations on musical theater history. In the years since, ADM21 has staged several well-received shows at New York's Joyce Theater, and gained increasing recognition.
When Diane Grumet, co-artistic/managing director of Steps on Broadway, approached Atkins about teaming up, she jumped at the opportunity. Through the new partnership, which began in September, ADM21 is in residency at Steps, offering repertory classes and a Ballet for Broadway class for intermediate and advanced dancers. “If we're going to reconstruct work and preserve it, we need to teach it to today's dancers and choreographers so they can experience it," Atkins says. “It's so important for dancers to have that history, even if they're doing new work."
A rotating faculty of dancers, choreographers and directors—many of whom have staged work for ADM21's performances—teach the repertory class, which begins with the original ADM warm-up created by Theodore. The program launched with Donna McKechnie teaching “Tick-Tock" from Company, originally choreographed on her by Michael Bennett. Others, like choreographer Warren Carlyle, have taught historic works by luminaries such as Carol Haney, Agnes de Mille and Jerome Robbins. Ballet for Broadway is taught by former American Ballet Theatre and New York City Ballet principal Robert La Fosse, who was Tony-nominated for his role in Jerome Robbins' Broadway and has staged Robbins works for ADM21.
The courses are generally geared towards pre-professional dancers, and the repertory classes are required for Steps' conservatory program students. “I think it's creating a great sense of community," Grumet says. “It's important to have working artists working with students, developing them, mentoring them." She hopes it will also lead to networking and hiring opportunities.
Talks of expanding the offerings are already in the works, and Atkins has a long list of artists she'd like to bring in, including choreographers from some of Broadway's more recent productions, like Andy Blankenbuehler, Joshua Bergasse and Josh Prince. Lorin Latarro is already on board. ADM21 is expanding in other ways, too—a possible Broadway production of their Joyce show is in the early stages of development, targeting a fall 2017 opening.
In the meantime, the partnership with Steps is opening new doors for both organizations—but it's also, in some ways, a reunion. When Steps opened its studios at 74th Street 32 years ago, founder and artistic director Carol Paumgarten still remembers who taught the very first class: Lee Theodore. “I feel as if it's gone full circle," she says.
Women's colleges foster female leadership and empowerment.
On the surface, the offerings at women's colleges are similar to those of other small liberal arts colleges. But Lynn Garafola, co-chair of the dance department at Barnard College, notes the intimate settings are tailored to meet the specific needs of women. These dance departments view the field from a female perspective, and help students thrive as leaders. “They get a heightened awareness of women's place in the universe," says Garafola. Jordan Wanderer, a rising senior at Mills College majoring in dance and biology, says she's found that students become more empowered: “We are not afraid to speak our minds and to stand up for ourselves." That approach can change how dancers see themselves in the studio and beyond. “As women, we're socialized to be small," says Paris Williams, a rising junior dance major and social justice minor at Hollins University. “I've learned how to take up space and be okay with that."
At a Glance
Jordan Wanderer, a rising senior at Mills, and Paris Williams, a rising junior at Hollins, share their experiences.
The All-Woman Environment
Jordan Wanderer: “As dancers, we are empowered to claim space and understand the power of our weight. It's a welcoming environment rooted in unapologetic exploration."
Paris Williams: “There's a different intimacy. It allows me to really focus on what I want, and practicing that mind-set is preparing me for when I am in a bigger place."
A Typical Day
JW: Technique class; lunch; rehearsal; dance theory or composition classes; science lecture or lab; rehearsals for student work.
PW: Dance class; a gender and women's studies class or sociology class; rehearsal; weekly RA meeting; dinner; repertory class; possible rehearsal.
JW: “We work very closely with the coed grad students. We are always taking classes with men and potentially dancing in each other's work. Contact improv or partnering of any kind is gender-fluid."
PW: “Our graduate program is coed—some grad students are here year-round, and there are a lot of male dancers here in the summer."
JW: Wanderer is an ambassador for the undergraduate dancers at Mills, acting as a resource for prospective students and answering questions about the department.
PW: Williams is the external chair for the Hollins Repertory Dance Company, and is earning a leadership certificate through the school's Batten Leadership Institute. “It's a way for us to navigate and redefine what leadership means. With pretty much any situation, you can think of yourself as a leader, big or small."
Dance History Connection
Lynn Garafola, co-chair of the dance department at Barnard College, points out the close connection between some women's colleges and the early development of modern dance. Schools like Mills and Bennington (now coed) were among the first places to establish modern dance programs and give women professional training in the form. Today, the schools' dance departments cover a wider variety of genres, but she finds that these roots have made them good places for women to explore choreographing. “Composition has historically been a very important part of a modern dance program," she says. “I think this is one of the reasons why women's colleges prepare students to take part as performers but also to create their own work."
Women's Colleges Offering Dance Degrees
Agnes Scott College
New York, NY
Bryn Mawr College
Bryn Mawr, PA
Cedar Crest College
Mount Holyoke College
South Hadley, MA
Sweet Briar College
Sweet Briar, VA
The runaway hit is carving out new possibilities for dance on Broadway.
Hamilton cast members Jon Rua, Morgan Marcell and Austin Smith. All photos by Jayme Thornton.
Picture a group of dancers who can do it all. Place them in an unlikely musical about America's first treasury secretary, Alexander Hamilton—think city streets pulsing with revolution, battlefields and ballrooms, political intrigue and scandal—and watch them go. In one moment, their hands look almost Fosse-like; in another, they're soldiers in full battle regalia, all whirling physicality and sharp movements; in still another, they sweep across the floor in formal gowns, the style aptly reminiscent of an 18th-century courtship dance.
This is the world of Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda's hit Broadway musical, where cabinet meetings are rap battles, bullets are personified through movement and an ensemble of triple threats weaves seamlessly through it all, tracing and shaping our understanding of the action. Since it first exploded onto the off-Broadway scene with a sold-out run at New York's Public Theater, the show has taken the nation by storm. Big names—from Stephen Sondheim to Busta Rhymes to President Obama himself—have flocked to the Richard Rodgers Theatre in droves. The show has attracted a following from people all over the country, many of whom never would have thought of attending a theater performance otherwise. Those who can't get their hands on a highly coveted ticket experience it through watching the free #Ham4Ham shows the cast puts on outside the theater during lottery drawings, listening to the Grammy-winning soundtrack on repeat and following the cast on Twitter.
Dance has made waves in a fair number of musicals recently, from Christopher Wheeldon's balletic An American in Paris to Joshua Bergasse's fresh take on On the Town. Choreography often thrives in revivals or more traditional shows. But Hamilton—and its movement—feels different: It's at the forefront of something game-changing, and truly of-the-moment.
This isn't the first time dance has been integral to a landmark show. Agnes de Mille's dream ballet for Oklahoma! in 1943, often considered the first major instance of dance moving the plot forward in a musical, revealed the inner workings of the main character's psyche. Jerome Robbins, in shows like West Side Story, made the movement an essential tool for understanding who the characters were. In Michael Bennett's A Chorus Line, which pulled back the curtain on show business, dance—and the struggles of dancers trying to make it on Broadway—was the story. And in the same way that Hamilton, which is sung-through, feels saturated with words, it's also chock-full of movement. Like an engine that propels the action forward, the ensemble moves almost nonstop through the nearly three-hour show, embodying the emotional arc of the plot and staying in constant dialogue with the music.
Emmy Raver-Lampman, Seth Stewart and Carleigh Bettiol
“Hamilton ends up being sort of like a ballet in many respects," says choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler of movement's weight in the show. The choreography, though, is a mash-up of styles, incorporating everything from jazz to hip hop to swing to jitterbug. To Blankenbuehler, each movement onstage is a piece of choreography—even those as simple as a person standing still on a turntable as it rotates them around. And every one of those moments furthers the story in some way, placing a huge responsibility on the dancers. “We're all greatly involved in giving the experience its detail," says ensemble member and Hamilton understudy Jon Rua. “We're translating it. We become a medium for you to take in what's going on."
Blankenbuehler's process was about finding the right way to build movement from the show's action. “I think there's a challenge to throw away the idea of steps, because steps are based on an idea that has already happened," he says. “Hamilton was really from the ground up brand-new." There are recognizable shapes sprinkled throughout: turns, kicks, isolations. But as quickly as you think you've noticed a specific step, it's blended with something else. He emphasizes that the score allowed him to make the movement feel so fresh and contemporary—and to draw from so many rhythmically driven styles. The music, which tells much of Hamilton's story through rap, also incorporates elements of jazz, British pop and classic Broadway show tunes, and references a melting pot of artists, from Rodgers and Hammerstein to The Notorious B.I.G. “Just the fact that I'm imitating Lin's music makes the imitation really current," Blankenbuehler says. “Lin doesn't write stagnant music. Even when he writes a slow song, it moves."
But what's making Hamilton resonate with so many people? After all, hip hop has been brought to Broadway before with mixed success—including by Blankenbuehler and Miranda, who worked together on the Tony-winning In the Heights and the shorter-lived Bring It On: The Musical. With Hamilton, it's the way hip hop makes this particular world recognizable, and speaks to our current moment in history. And it's the visual, in addition to the music, that lets audiences see a story they can relate to. “Social dance reflects how people are feeling at the time," Blankenbuehler says. “Hip hop gives a sense of expression to humongous groups of people who are struggling with social injustices." By using hip hop, the show filters the action through a lens that feels directly relevant to the anxieties our own culture is facing. “Our history is repeating itself," Blankenbuehler says. “We have things that are important to fight for. We are demanding for our voice to be heard—that's happening more than ever."
Sasha Hutchings, Voltaire Wade-Green and Ariana DeBose
By making contemporary movement essential to such an influential musical, Hamilton may also help give it a definitive place on the Broadway stage. Along with inspiring future artists, which it's sure to do, Blankenbuehler points out that the show has helped people to “believe that real stories can be told in new ways. Important stories can be told through dance, important stories can be told through rap." If a new generation of theatergoers grows up with this in mind, the revolution is really just beginning.
Student choreographers and musicians get collaborative.
You might think only professional dancers and choreographers get to perform with a full orchestra, or commission scores for their compositions. But some college programs offer opportunities to work directly with music students, giving dance majors a chance to learn from artists outside their department. “We are moving into an era where the lines between disciplines are blurred,” says Cathy Young, director of the dance division at The Boston Conservatory. “Learning how to collaborate is an invaluable experience in preparing for success as a 21st-century artist.”
A doctoral student from the Jacobs School of Music accompanies IU dancers. Photo Jeremy Hogan, Courtesy IU.
Degrees offered: BFA and minor in dance through the department of theater, drama and contemporary dance
No. of majors: 50–60 total
Collaborative coursework: In a required course called Choreographic Projects, dancers work with artists in various departments, including composers from the Jacobs School of Music. Student musicians also accompany many dance concerts and musicals on campus, and are often involved in the annual concert produced by senior dance majors.
Music for dancers: All majors take music theory, and some study voice.
Additional opportunities: Each year, a group of student composers and dancers spend eight months collaborating on short original works, which they present at a local theater. A student-run dance group and choreography lab also offers chances to work with musicians on independent projects.
Degree offered: Three-year BFA in dance
No. of majors: 15–20 total
Collaborative coursework: Each year, Stephens choreographers collaborate with composers from University of Missouri’s Mizzou New Music Initiative to create original works. The process culminates in a student-produced performance accompanied by the New Music Initiative orchestra. This is the capstone project for the dance major.
Music for dancers: Dancers are required to earn three credits in music through music theory, piano or voice lessons, or music history.
Additional opportunities: Stephens recently expanded its interdisciplinary offerings by introducing a dance-for-camera course during the summer.
TBC dancers in Francesca Harper’s Maladjusted Pride. Photo by Jim Coleman, Courtesy TBC.
The Boston Conservatory
Degree offered: BFA in contemporary dance performance
No. of majors: 130 total
Collaborative coursework: In the school’s Junior Composition course (required for majors who choose the composition-and-improvisation emphasis), student choreographers create an original work with a composer from the music division or Berklee College of Music, which is merging with TBC. Many of the school’s dance performances are accompanied live by music division students—sometimes a full orchestra.
Music for dancers: Dance majors are required to take courses in Western music, time and rhythm, and voice. They can take additional music courses at Berklee.
Additional opportunities: Dance students have choreographed for music videos, participated in improv jams with music students and been part of the informal student-run performances that take place regularly at Berklee.
College programs dive into outreach.
Oberlin College Dance Diaspora students performing at a street fair. Photo by Adenike Sharpley, Courtesy Oberlin.
College is a time to explore not only your own dance journey, but how the form fits into the outside world. Through outreach programs, students venture off campus and bring dance to their local communities, while honing their skills in teaching and performing. “Interacting with students through Q&As gave us time to share and reflect on our experience at Hunter College,” says Kristina Dobosz, an alum who participated in the school’s lecture-demonstration program that works in New York City high schools. “The ‘real world’ and our dance lives in the department crossed.”
Degree offered: BA and minor in dance
No. of majors: 12–18 total
Outreach opps: Dance Diaspora, a by-audition group, explores African dance and culture. Oberlin also runs Girls and Boys in Motion, a mentorship program that partners with local schools and a Boys & Girls Club.
The details: Dance Diaspora students perform in community centers, churches, prisons and schools; lead youth summer camps in Cleveland and Oberlin; and travel internationally to work with performance groups in the communities they visit. Past destinations include Cuba, Puerto Rico and Nigeria. For Girls and Boys in Motion, Oberlin student mentors teach after-school movement-based workshops to elementary- and middle-school students.
Related coursework: Dance Diaspora students are encouraged to take jazz, blues, West African, Afro-Cuban and Afro-Haitian dance. They also perform in two on-campus shows each year. Girls and Boys in Motion mentors take a course on community engagement through dance and a training course taught by student leaders.
Bryn Mawr, PA
Degree offered: BA and minor in dance
No. of majors: 2–4 per class
Outreach opps: Bryn Mawr has a Dance Outreach Project, open to all students, and offers a course on teaching the arts in educational and community settings.
The details: The ensemble performs an original work each year for over 1,000 students in Philadelphia schools. The performance connects to the schools’ curriculum, and is often used as a teaching tool. As part of the arts education course, students are placed in schools or communities where they assist and teach arts programs four to six hours per week.
Related coursework: In the Dance Outreach Project’s classroom component, students learn the history of arts education and education approaches.
A Hunter College lecture/demonstration. Photo by Maura Donohue, Courtesy Hunter.
New York, NY
Degree offered: BA and minor in dance
No. of majors: 50–60 total
Outreach opps: All dance majors are required to participate in Hunter’s lecture/demonstration program for one semester. It gives New York City high school students an idea of what it’s like to study dance in college, and teaches them about different dance forms.
The details: Hunter students visit six high schools over the course of the semester. They perform two student-choreographed works, plus ballet, hip-hop, West African and folk pieces choreographed by faculty members.
Related coursework: Students are required to take two levels of contemporary dance and one level of ballet technique before participating, and it’s recommended that they also take hip-hop and West African dance.
Kimberly Van Woesik's style is effortlessly cool. She balances loose layers, like a gray crop top and a comfy sweatshirt wrapped around her waist, with skintight leggings that have just a hint of texture. Her neon-pink sports bra stands out against the charcoal palette.
At first glance, Melissa Fernandez seems to stick to functional and stylish staples: structured black dance pants, a striped zip-up, warm socks. But she sheds layers to reveal a sporty, high-necked leotard that also has a zip front—a subtle, yet effective touch that gives her look symmetry.
College students tackle William Forsythe’s technique and rep.
Forsythe teaching a ballet class at USC’s Glorya Kaufman School of Dance. Photo by Rose Eichenbaum, Courtesy USC.
Widely regarded as one of the most inventive choreographers of our time, William Forsythe creates movement that dancers long to perform. “It is extremely beneficial for young dancers to be exposed to his techniques, which have globally influenced late 20th-century and current approaches to dance,” says Jill Johnson, a former dancer with Forsythe’s Ballett Frankfurt and director of Harvard University’s dance program. Today, there are more chances than ever for college students to explore Forsythe’s methodologies and perform his work—sometimes under the guidance of Forsythe himself. These programs offer ample opportunities to delve into his creative process, improvisation methods and repertory. —Suzannah Friscia
University of Southern California, Glorya Kaufman School of Dance
Los Angeles, CA
Degrees offered: BFA and minor in dance
No. of majors: 33 in the inaugural class
Forsythe on campus: As a faculty member and an artistic advisor of the school’s Choreographic Institute, William Forsythe is on campus several times each semester. In the inaugural semester he taught ballet, a weekly lecture colloquium, and a required course that covered his choreographic approach and improv techniques. He also explored choreographic thinking and processes with students, and is a mentor to the inaugural class.
Master teachers: Forsythe repertory is included in the dance program’s curriculum. Director and vice dean Jodie Gates, a former Ballett Frankfurt dancer, stages work on students and teaches ballet. Former Ballett Frankfurt dancer Thomas McManus is also on faculty, and stages Forsythe’s work on companies around the world.
Recent rep: As a tool for practicing composition and improvisation, the class learned excerpts
and phrases from the 1986 ballet The
Questioning of Robert Scott, and built new choreographic content under Forsythe’s direction.
Degree offered: Harvard does not offer a dance degree, but has credit and noncredit dance classes, a master-class series, an emerging-choreographers program, performance-research courses and student-led dance groups.
No. of dance students: Over 500 students participate in the dance program each year.
Forsythe on campus: Dance director Jill Johnson, who stages Forsythe’s work worldwide, teaches master classes that incorporate his improvisational and compositional tools. In one class, students study specific Forsythe works in detail, learn excerpts from them and collaborate on their own original work using the concepts from the course.
Guest artists: Former Ballett Frankfurt and
Forsythe Company member Christopher Roman has led master classes with Johnson.
Recent rep: Last spring, students performed an excerpt from 1988’s The Vile Parody of Address.
The Juilliard School
New York, NY
Degree offered: BFA in dance
No. of majors: 94
Forsythe on campus: A required second-year seminar on improvisation techniques includes Forsythe methodologies, and his tools are often incorporated in composition courses for first- and second-year students. Former Ballett Frankfurt dancer Helen Pickett has taught Forsythe improvisation technologies in the second-year seminar for the past few years.
Guest artists: Jill Johnson and former Forsythe Company dancer Riley Watts have taught master classes.
Recent rep: Students have performed the third act of 1990’s Limb’s Theorem and 2000’s One Flat Thing, Reproduced. n
Not many dancers have a stage presence strong enough to earn its own Twitter hashtag. But Ariana DeBose has reached that level. In the ensemble of Broadway's Hamilton, she embodies the bullet in the show's climactic duel scene—a moment she's become so well-known for that it's simply called #thebullet. Even when she's playing more human characters, DeBose's personality is so electric and her technique so precise that her every movement crackles with infectious energy.
DeBose is currently hitting the Broadway boards for the fourth time. Photo by Curtis & Cort Photography, courtesy DeBose.
Broadway shows: Currently in Hamilton. Past include Pippin, Motown: The Musical, Bring It On: The Musical
Hometown: Raleigh, NC
Training: Dance Theatre, Pierrette Sadler Danceurs and CC & Co. Dance Complex (all in North Carolina)
Accolades: Top 20, “So You Think You Can Dance" Season 6
Breakout moment: DeBose originated the role of dance crew diva Nautica in Broadway's Bring It On in 2012. It was her first time working with choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler. “He helped me find my comedy and what my strengths are," she says.
Quick change: In Hamilton, DeBose plays everything from a lady in a corseted ball gown to a soldier fighting in the Revolution to, yes, a bullet. “It's always a challenge to know who you are in every moment," she says. “In the Battle of Yorktown, I could choose to be a man that evening, or a woman who has disguised herself as a man fighting for our country. There's a little leeway."
Technical chameleon: Having taken class with choreographers like Sonya Tayeh, Jason Parsons and Tabitha and Napoleon D'umo during her time on the convention circuit, DeBose is at home in a variety of styles and able to excel in wildly different shows. “Bring It On was a cheerleading hip-hop musical, and I was learning how to stunt," she says, “and then I went right into Motown and was step-touching."
What Andy Blankenbuehler says: “She fills each style with a sense of life, honesty and charisma that instantly catapults her into her characters."
Finding herself: DeBose has also given several solo concerts in New York City, which showcase both her dance and singing skills. “It's important as an artist to find the confidence to do that," she says. “I would rather people know me for who I am, as opposed to them labeling what it is that I have to offer."
Pre-college programs offer a glimpse of campus life.
A West African dance class at UCLA’s Summer Institute. Photo by Brianna Gray, courtesy UCLA.
You can visit colleges and take campus tours, but it still may be hard to imagine what being a dance major is really like. A pre-college summer workshop can help ease that transition, offering a chance to immerse yourself in college life. Students live in the dorms, take class from faculty members and visiting artists and perform original work alongside their peers. “Students are asked to consider dance in a much broader way,” says Donna Faye Burchfield, head of the Summer Institute at University of the Arts. “These programs help students find new ways to see themselves and find a new community in dance.” —Suzannah Friscia
New Brunswick, NJ
The programs: Junior and Senior Conservatories for middle and high school students, by audition; Pre-Conservatory for middle and high school students, with no audition required.
No. of students: About 200
Timeline: Two weeks (students may stay for one or both): July 17–29, 2016
Application deadline: June 1
Coursework: Ballet, contemporary, repertory, improvisation and choreography. Special workshops have included Broadway, hip hop, West African, jazz, voguing and dance history.
Additional opportunities: Guest artists like Monica Bill Barnes, Douglas Dunn and ABT Studio Company dancers teach master classes and perform. Senior Conservatory students are paired with graduate students who observe and provide assessments. Seniors also attend a performance in New York City.
Performance: Students perform faculty repertory and their own work on Rutgers’ main stage.
University of the Arts
The program: Pre-College Summer Institute, open to high school students, by audition. College credit is offered.
No. of students: 35–50
Timeline: Three weeks: July 11–30, 2016
Application deadline: March 19 (scholarship deadline is April 1)
Coursework: Classes incorporate ballet, jazz, modern, hip hop, tap, contemporary styles and composition.
Additional opportunities: Students visit museums and attend performances in Philadelphia. They sit in on open rehearsals with UArts companies-in-residence, which have included BalletX and Sidra Bell Dance New York. Additional guest artists like James McGinn, Sara Procopio, Burr Johnson and Lanette Costas-Stampley and Nathaniel Stampley give master classes and talks.
Performance: The program culminates in a show that students help curate. They perform repertory and their own original work.
University of California, Los Angeles
Los Angeles, CA
The program: Dance/Performing Arts Summer Institute, open to high school students by online application. College credit is offered.
No. of students: Approximately 45
Timeline: Nine days: June 18–June 26, 2016
Application deadline: Application opens February 1. Admission is rolling.
Coursework: West African, Hawaiian dance, postmodern, hip hop, composition and an academic class that incorporates spoken-word poetry and written reflection. Specialty courses may include tap, popping and stepping.
Additional opportunities: Students take a three-hour acting class with a professional actor and improv coach, and a workshop on the process of choosing a college. Current UCLA dance majors act as teaching assistants and live in the dorms with students.
Performance: At the end of the program, students perform their own compositions and work they’ve learned in class at the UCLA theater. n
New York City Ballet principal Tiler Peck is working through a tap combination—in pointe shoes and a gray bowler hat. Nearby in the same New York City Center studio, the comedian and actor Bill Irwin goes over a note with Damian Woetzel, then rejoins Peck to practice a phrase together. They count aloud as they play around with a sequence of salsa steps, but quickly break into laughter.
The unlikely pair have come together for Time It Was/116, a work they co-choreographed with Woetzel (who originally commissioned it for the Vail International Dance Festival, which he directs), and performed for New York and DC audiences at last year's Fall for Dance festival and at the Kennedy Center. Much of the work is set to the beat of a metronome, and the idea of time is present in everything from its title to the age difference between Peck and Irwin.
The initial spark came when Irwin—known for his vaudeville-style clowning and acclaimed theater and film performances—saw Peck dance at the Kennedy Center Honors, and approached Woetzel with the idea of a collaboration. “I was trying to draw inspiration from what it would be to hybridize my movement and Tiler's," Irwin says. “There's an implied story of, 'A character does what he does. A different figure does what she does. They see each other and have an influence on each other.' "
And that influence has delightful results—as when Peck breaks into a rollicking Charleston step, or when Irwin strolls in his jaunty, disjointed way across the space, his entire body lifting in surprise when his character sees Peck's balletic movement for the first time.
“Laughter is all about context," Irwin says. “You juxtapose a corkscrew movement from vaudeville with a perfect développé, and one or the other is possibly going to be funny—and it might be the développé." Peck adds that, often when they were first creating the piece, she wasn't actively trying to be funny. “Just the fact that I was trying to look like Bill was funny," she says, “and we didn't really know that until we had the audience."
Much of their rehearsal time involves bouncing ideas off each other and seeing what sticks. “I have sort of an order, like a storyboard in my head, but it's not my first nature to set choreography exactly," Irwin says. Each time they run through a section, it's as though they are experiencing the “pure mash-up of movement," as Irwin calls it, for the first time. And when their characters meet in the middle to dance a combination in unison, it's a joyful discovery of common ground. As Irwin says: “Unison has a power that's like singing in harmony."
Arts management programs broaden students’ perspectives of the dance world.
There’s more than one way to be involved in dance, and understanding the business side of things can open doors to a wider range of opportunities. “Many years of training made me well-versed in the artistry of dance, but I was also interested in the business and management side,” says Shardai Taylor, a recent graduate of the international arts management program offered by Southern Methodist University and HEC Montréal, in collaboration with SDA Bocconi. Graduate programs in arts administration give students the training they need to pursue careers in development, marketing, production, education or finance in arts organizations.
Taylor got real-world advice from companies like Les Grands Ballets Canadiens. Photo by Joris Jan Bos, courtesy LGBC.
Carnegie Mellon University
Degree offered: Master of arts management
No. of students: 55. Most come from arts backgrounds.
Curriculum: Courses cover arts marketing, fundraising, communications, producing, cultural economics and audience engagement.
Hands-on experience: Students complete a full-time internship in the summer, and can do apprenticeships at Pittsburgh-area organizations during the year. The program has a gallery and performance space, run by arts management students.
Global perspective: CMU offers dual degree and exchange programs with the University of Bologna in Italy, and an exchange program with Ludwigsburg University in Germany.
Final project: Students work in teams on a management consulting project with a real client. Past clients have included Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre and Americans for the Arts.
Alumni: Graduates have worked at American Ballet Theatre, Miami City Ballet, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival.
Degrees offered: MS in arts administration, graduate certificate in arts administration or fundraising management
No. of students: Approximately 100 in the MS program. About 70 percent have a performing arts background, about a third of which studied dance as undergraduates.
Curriculum: Required courses cover topics like nonprofit financial management and legal issues in arts administration.
Hands-on experience: All students complete a 150-hour internship at an arts organization. They also organize conferences at the university and create a series of talks in which they interview artists and arts administrators from around the world.
Global perspective: Students are required to take at least one international course in Cuba, Spain, Ireland or the UK.
Final project: In addition to the internship, students may opt to write a thesis or complete a cultural project.
Alumni: Graduates have worked at Boston Ballet, commercial theaters and performing arts schools, among other places.
Southern Methodist University and HEC Montréal in collaboration with SDA Bocconi
Dallas, TX; Montréal, Québec; Milan, Italy
Degree offered: Master of management in international arts management
No. of students: 10–14. The program is designed for students with undergraduate arts degrees or previous cultural management experience.
Curriculum: Students complete a third of their coursework at each school. They study fundraising at SMU, marketing at HEC Montréal and strategic arts management at SDA Bocconi.
Hands-on experience: Students visit cultural organizations in all three cities and learn from arts leaders, like the executive director of Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montréal.
Global perspective: In addition to the program’s international focus, students take a 10-day trip to Bogotá, Colombia, where they visit organizations that work to empower children through the arts.
Final project: Students complete a thesis focusing on a business plan or theoretical ideas.
Alumni: Graduates have worked for Cirque du Soleil, Skirball Cultural Center and Teatro Mayor Julio Santo Domingo in Bogotá, among other organizations.
Get a taste of the professional world while earning your degree.
Your first dancing job after college can be a bit of a culture shock. But what if you already had firsthand knowledge of what professional life is like? College dance departments that have their own companies allow dancers to experience the ins and outs of being in a company, with opportunities to learn historic repertoire, perform around the world and work with top dancemakers. “Students learn the rigor of a professional artistic practice,” says Christal Brown, chair of the dance program at Middlebury College. “It prepares them to enter the field armed with the discipline, self-motivation and skills to be successful.”
OU's Oklahoma Festival Ballet. Photo by Wendy Mutz, courtesy OU.
University of Oklahoma
Degrees offered: BFA in ballet performance, ballet pedagogy or modern dance performance; minor in dance history
No. of majors: 80
The companies: Oklahoma Festival Ballet and Contemporary Dance Oklahoma. Each has about 36 dancers, who must re-audition every semester. The companies hold two daytime and four evening rehearsals a week, plus six hours of class and rehearsal on Saturdays.
Recent repertoire: Carla Maxwell, Jock Soto, Francia Russell, Jessica Lang and Paul Sutherland have staged work, including José Limón’s There is a Time, Agnes de Mille’s Rodeo, Balanchine works and new creations. Company members also have opportunities to choreograph.
Performance opps: There are about 20 performances per year on campus. The companies have toured to Austria, France, Japan and Mexico.
Alumni: Recent graduates are dancing with Ballet West, Nashville Ballet and Ballet Hispanico.
The Dance Company of Middlebury. Photo by Joshua Bisset, courtesy Middlebury.
Degree offered: BA in dance, minor
No. of majors: About 60
The company: The Dance Company of Middlebury, with 6–10 members. All Middlebury students can audition after their freshman year. The company rehearses at least eight hours a week during the fall, and travels during the school’s winter term.
Recent repertoire: A different artist teaches a pre-semester workshop each year. Past guests include Sara Procopio and Makeda Thomas. Others who have set work are Ayo Janeen Jackson, Paloma McGregor, and Joshua Bisset and Laura Quattrocchi of Shua Group.
Performance opps: The company performs on campus and tours every year. It’s traveled to New Orleans, New York City, the Dominican Republic, and Trinidad and Tobago.
Alumni: Recent grads have performed with Mark Lamb Dance, and started their own companies and artist residencies.
UT Austin's Dance Repertory Theatre. Photo by Lawrence Peart, courtesy UT Austin.
University of Texas at Austin
Degrees offered: BFA in dance or dance studies, BA in theater and dance
No. of majors: 75 BFAs, 20 BAs
The company: Dance Repertory Theatre. All BFA students are required to become members during their second year, and many BA students are invited to join. DRT is part of a larger course that meets Monday through Friday, two hours a day.
Recent repertoire: The company has performed Ohad Naharin’s Minus 16, and works by Paul Taylor, Sidra Bell, Mark Morris and Kate Watson-Wallace. Faculty members and students also choreograph.
Performance opps: There are three major concerts on campus each year, and DRT performs at high schools, community colleges and the American College Dance Association.
Alumni: Graduates have danced with Diavolo, BODYTRAFFIC, The Foundry and LEVYdance. n
Three programs for dance educators in the making
Dean College dancers in performance. Photo by Anastasia Grady, courtesy Dean College.
Teaching dance is an art of its own, requiring a skill set that you can’t get from a typical dance performance BFA program. But some colleges offer the chance to study pedagogy in-depth through courses, workshops and internships, while still providing ample opportunities to develop your technical and artistic abilities. Here are three top choices to consider. —Suzannah Friscia
The Hartt School, University of Hartford
West Hartford, CT
Degree offered: BFA in dance, with ballet pedagogy emphasis
No. of majors: About 50 (usually half focus on pedagogy)
Coursework: Classes include four levels of ballet pedagogy, music, kinesiology, human development and dance administration.
Master teachers: Marcia Dale Weary teaches a ballet pedagogy workshop. Other guests have included dancers like Misty Copeland and Wendy Whelan.
Hands-on experience: All pedagogy majors spend four semesters teaching younger students in Hartt’s Community Division, a performing arts school, as well as choreographing and assisting in rehearsals and productions. Some also intern in local public magnet schools.
Alumni: Graduates are teaching at the Joffrey Ballet School, Eliot Feld’s Ballet Tech and Ballet Academy East, among other schools.
Dancers at Texas Woman's University. Photo courtesy TWU.
Degree offered: BA in dance, with teaching concentration
No. of majors: 175 (about a third focus on teaching)
Coursework: Classes include two levels of pedagogy, anatomy, kinesiology, early childhood education, psychology, creative movement for children and foundations of education.
Master teachers: Bill Evans is on faculty and recently hosted a teachers’ intensive and a conference on somatics-based teaching. These included workshops, performances and lectures by Peggy Hackney and Kitty Daniels.
Hands-on experience: All teaching students complete internships at regional studios, YMCAs or summer intensives. Dean also has partnerships with the Boston Ballet children’s program and Franklin public schools.
Alumni: Recent graduates are teaching at BB’s children’s program, performing arts high schools and their own studios, among other places.
Texas Woman’s University
Degree offered: BA in dance, with teacher certification
No. of majors: 90 (about 40 percent do the certification)
Coursework: After an initial course, students apply to the teaching program and take both education and dance courses. Classes include dance pedagogy, somatics, learning theory and development, and classroom environment and management.
Master teachers: Summer workshop guests who choreograph on students have included Seán Curran, Bebe Miller, David Dorfman and Mark Dendy. A plan to bring in artists to lecture on teaching and hold practice classes is in the works.
Hands-on experience: Senior year, students spend a semester teaching full-time in public high schools that they are matched with based on their interests and strengths.
Alumni: Many graduates are teaching in Texas public schools, and some have opened their own studios.
Three top collegiate dance teams
Becoming a dance major isn’t the only way to continue dancing in college. Dance teams offer jazz and hip-hop dancers an option that’s fun and social, but still demanding. The by-audition groups regularly perform at football and basketball games, do community outreach and compete with top dancers from across the nation, often working with professional choreographers and building their own dancemaking and leadership skills. —Suzannah Friscia
A UNLV Rebel Girl takes the floor at a basketball game. Photo by Daniel Ward, Courtesy University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
University of Nevada, Las Vegas
Las Vegas, NV
Team: Rebel Girls
No. of members: 25
Styles: Pom and hip hop
Schedule: Sixteen hours of practice and three hours of strength and conditioning a week. They also focus on jazz, hip hop and flexibility during training.
Master teachers: Napoleon and Tabitha D’umo choreograph the hip-hop routine each year, and professionals from shows on the Las Vegas strip work with the dancers. The team attends dance team professional intensives in Vegas to gather material for games.
Recent titles: At the UCA & UDA College Cheerleading and Dance Team National Championship, the team has placed in the top five in Division 1A hip hop for the past six years, including first place in 2013, and placed in the top three in pom and hip hop for the past three years. Rebel Girls is the official dance team for the USA Olympic basketball team’s Las Vegas game, and has performed on “America’s Got Talent.”
- UNLV offers a BFA in dance performance/choreography and a dance production and management BA.
University of Minnesota
Team: University of Minnesota Dance Team
No. of members: 18
Styles: Jazz and pom
Schedule: Practice is three to four nights a week, with extra rehearsals before sporting events or Nationals. Turn and leap technique, ballet and strength training are also incorporated into practice.
Master teachers: Karl Mundt, owner and director of Innovate Dance, and choreographer Dan Sapp set the team’s jazz and pom routines.
Recent titles: UMDT took first in Division 1A pom for the past six years, and has nine Division 1A jazz titles. It has represented as Team USA Dance at the International Cheer Union World Cheerleading Championship in Orlando twice.
- University of Minnesota offers a BFA and a BA in dance.
University of Cincinnati
Team: UC Dance Team
No. of members: 25–30
Styles: Pom and hip hop
Schedule: Three to four days of practice per week—more during Nationals season. Ballet, contemporary, strength training and conditioning are also incorporated.
Master teachers: Guests like Josh Ulep and Liam Soares, from the Academy of Hype and The Headquarters in Honolulu, and commercial artist Laura Edwards have set hip-hop routines.
Recent titles: The team has six Division 1A hip-hop national titles. It’s also won gold in pom, jazz and hip hop at the International Cheer Union World Cheerleading Championship, and has competed in China.
- University of Cincinnati, College-Conservatory of Music offers a BFA in ballet.
There may be fewer degree options out there for college-bound tappers, but that doesn’t mean the ones that do exist are any less rigorous than ballet and modern dance programs. Here are three stellar options for the rhythmically inclined, whether you’re looking to work on Broadway, in a tap company or as a choreographer.
University of Wisconsin - Stevens Point. Photo by K. Danielson, courtesy UWSP.
University of Wisconsin—Stevens Point
Stevens Point, WI
Degree offered: BA in dance
No. of majors: 55–60
Coursework: All majors take at least two levels of tap technique, which incorporate tap history, improv and music theory, as well as some African and Irish dance.
Opportunities: Each summer, the three-day Point Tap Festival, curated by faculty member Jeannie Hill, holds classes, jam sessions and a final concert. Students also perform in a student-choreographed concert and spring show each year.
Master teachers: Guests have included Max Pollak, Lynn Schwab, Brenda Bufalino, and Mari Fujibayashi and Olivia Rosenkrantz of Tapage.
- This year, the advanced tap students performed and taught at local elementary schools and senior centers.
Oklahoma City University. Photo by John Bedford, courtesy OCU.
Oklahoma City University
Oklahoma City, OK
Degree offered: BPA in dance performance, with an optional tap emphasis
No. of majors: 175–200
Coursework: OCU offers eight levels of tap technique, plus rhythm tap, theater dance, American dance history and tap choreography and pedagogy.
Opportunities: All students can audition for OCU’s American Spirit Dance Company, which focuses on tap, jazz and musical theater dance. The group performs on campus every semester and tours internationally. Tap students also perform in campus musicals and an annual student choreography show.
Master teachers: Guest teachers and lecturers have included Debbi Dee, Melba Huber, Donald O’Connor, Bunny Briggs and Fayard Nicholas.
- Recent alumni have danced with Chicago Human Rhythm Project and on Broadway.
Davis & Elkins College's Appalachian Ensemble. Photo by Andrew Carroll, courtesy D&E College.
Davis & Elkins College
Degree offered: BA in American vernacular dance
No. of majors: 5–7
Coursework: Classes include tap, jazz, Appalachian clogging/flatfooting, North Atlantic step dance traditions, partner dance, West African/Afro-Carribean, American social dance and urban dance.
Opportunities: The college hosts a spring festival with more than 20 workshops in various dance genres. In the summer, guest artists visit the school’s Augusta Heritage Center for a weeklong vernacular dance program.
Master teachers: Guests have included Baakari Wilder, Howard “Sandman” Sims and Brenda Bufalino.
- D&E's Appalachian Ensemble is open to student dancers and musicians, and tours regionally.