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Dance Degrees, Rebooted
More than performing: Boston Conservatory courses cover self-producing. Jim Coleman, Courtesy The Boston Conservatory
Colleges are rethinking how they prepare students for sustainable dance careers.
Students sat in two long rows snaking through Jennifer Edwards’ classroom at Point Park University earlier this year as they prepared to pitch a new project: a multi-city tour by one of the world’s leading ballet companies in its American debut. The program would include an imaginative piece dealing with erotic themes in an exotic and brightly colored vision of the East. Another piece, based on Russian folk tales, would feature music by a fast-rising young composer. The students touched on target audiences, marketing strategies and branding considerations for the tour on the premise that this was the turn of the 20th century and they were trying to convince a wealthy patron to help fund the Ballets Russes performances of The Firebird and Scheherazade. This is dance history, as taught by one of the leading voices in a call to rethink what it means to prepare college students for a sustainable career in dance.
“We need technique and training, but that’s maybe 50 percent of the skills that a dancer needs,” says Edwards. The rest of the equation, she says, is about professionalism, creativity, networking skills, a strong sense of personal values—and entrepreneurship.
Indeed, the most recent report from the Strategic National Arts Alumni Project found that three-quarters of the more than 92,000 alumni surveyed who are currently working as artists say they depend on entrepreneurial skills in their professional lives, but only about a quarter of them acquired these skills in school. “By not teaching those skills,” Edwards says, “we are actually undermining students’ success.”
According to Alyson Pou, director of the Creative Capital professional development program for artists, many schools have been reluctant to embrace “career development” for art, theater and dance students. “The aesthetic training is there, but students are then thrown out into the world to figure out how they are actually going to earn a liv-ing,” she says. Yet slowly, she adds, dissatisfaction among parents, students and debt-burdened alumni is helping to drive some change.
Mills students, here in a master class with Anna Halprin, lobbied for a seminar on practical skills. Shinichi Iova-Koga, Courtesy Mills
More than 1,100 students graduated college during the 2015 academic year with a bachelor’s degree in dance from the 73 programs that participated in a survey by the national Higher Education Arts Data Services Project. That’s up 33 percent from a decade ago. In a saturated market, many find that the only opportunities are those they create themselves through their own projects and pickup companies.
Even students whose plans center on auditioning for an established company, however, can benefit from learning the business side of dance. Job seekers who know what to look for in a database like GuideStar, for example, can peek at the finances of a potential employer. “You can see how money moves in the organization, how you can maybe negotiate your contract, and get an understanding of ‘Is this company in dire straits? Is this a good contract to sign?’ ” Edwards says. At the same time, as more companies turn to their dancers for marketing and social media content, performers who are strategic in how they build their personal brands have an advantage.
Teaching business and management skills is hardly standard practice at this point, but it’s not new, either. Oklahoma City University has offered a dance-management track since the 1980s, and even students on the performance track are required to study contract law and management for performers. The Boston Conservatory prepares its dance students with courses focused on creating an online presence, self-producing, marketing and fundraising.
USC students take notes in a colloquium class. Justina Gaddy, Courtesy USC
The University of Southern California’s new Glorya Kaufman School of Dance requires all students to study dance management and entrepreneurship. Director and vice dean Jodie Gates also encourages students to pursue further business studies at the Marshall School of Business across campus, as well as minors in areas like the cinematic arts, music and sciences. Ideally, Gates says, students will graduate with a full entrepreneurial tool-kit. “We are training students for jobs that do not exist yet,” she says, noting opportunities like developing choreography for animation and gaming, or working in new kinds of performance spaces made possible by virtual reality.
To be sure, not every dance major is eager to study financial planning. Choreographer and University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign faculty member Tere O’Connor is among many critics who warn against molding institutions of higher learning into factories of commercially viable skills. “I don’t think the immersion into the art form and its poetics should be undermined because people are so addicted to its economic possibilities,” he says.
For a liberal arts college, carving out time to cover everything can be challenging. “We’ve got so many other requirements,” says Mills College department head Sonya Delwaide. Yet in response to students “begging” for practical skills, the school has created a biannual seminar, called Do It Yourself, covering topics like how to build a resumé, craft a press release, find grant opportunities and get help from the local service organization.
Even O’Connor admits he sees value in arming artists with complementary skills. “There’s a lot of different aspects to earning money for a company, a lot of different ways to earn income as a dancer,” he says. Grant writing, offered to dance majors at Urbana-Champaign, is an important piece of that. So is exposure to somatic practices: Teaching Pilates, yoga or Gyrotonic can offer supplementary income while informing the physical practice of dancing.
Jodie Gates, here teaching ballet, encourages students to take business courses. Rose Eichenbaum, Courtesy USC
Beyond learning practical skills, like how to balance a budget and craft a five-year strategic plan, students walk away from successful entrepreneurship courses with a new sense of empowerment. For example, after taking Edwards’ arts entrepreneurship course, Point Park student Christian Warner submitted a proposal for an emerging choreographer’s opportunity and made it to the final round; then he asked for feedback (“I can do that?” he asked Edwards) and received a fruitful response. Later, he reached out to documentary filmmakers who had inspired a piece he created, and received lengthy, personal replies. As part of a summer project, he was able to ask informed questions about contract terms and understand the implications of the business agreement. He’s now more confident with the networking aspect of the business that had previously seemed intimidating. “I’m able to deal with that and actively practice more vulnerability and courage to reach for the goals that I want,” he says.
Edwards’ students have thanked her for giving them life lessons. “I think dance teaches us, subconsciously, how to live,” she says. “To bring all of that kinesthetic intelligence to bear, and apply it to budgeting and taxes, and contract negotiation; bringing your mission and values and impact you want to have on the world into a verbal, written statement—that’s really amazing.”
Josie G. Sadan, a dancer with ODC/Dance, has written for The New York Times, Smithsonian, Discover and The Atlantic.
Season 2 of World of Dance is almost here! The new season officially kicks off on Tuesday on NBC, and it's bringing a whole new crew of talented dancers with it (plus, some old favorites). Dance pro judges Jennifer Lopez, Derek Hough and Ne-Yo are back, too, with Jenna Dewan serving as the show's host.
Obviously we'll be watching, but just in case you're not completely sold, here's why you're not going to want to miss out:
JLo Might Be Performing
Earlier this week, JLo (who serves as the show's executive producer) posted this insane promo clip to her Instagram. Dancing to a mashup of Cardi B's "Bodak Yellow" and her new single "Dinero," JLo reminded us all of her dance skills while also leading us to believe she might just hit the stage herself for a performance.
Travis Wall draws inspiration from dancers Tate McCrae, Timmy Blankenship and more.
One often-overlooked relationship that exists in dance is the relationship between choreographer and muse. Recently two-time Emmy Award Winner Travis Wall opened up about his experience working with dancers he considers to be his muses.
"My muses in choreography have evolved over the years," says Wall. "When I'm creating on Shaping Sound, our company members, my friends, are my muses. But at this current stage of my career, I'm definitely inspired by new, fresh talent."
Wall adds, "I'm so inspired by this new generation of dancers. Their teachers have done such incredible jobs, and I've seen these kids grown up. For many of them, I've had a hand in their exposure to choreography."
A few weeks ago, American Ballet Theatre announced the A.B.T. Women's Movement, a new program that will support three women choreographers per season, one of whom will make work on the main company.
"The ABT Women's Movement takes inspiration from the groundbreaking female choreographers who have left a lasting impact on ABT's legacy, including Agnes de Mille and Twyla Tharp," said artistic director Kevin McKenzie in a press release.
Hypothetically, this is a great idea. We're all for more ballet commissions for women. But the way ABT has promoted the initiative is problematic.
On the occasion of its 70th anniversary, the Ballet Nacional de Cuba tours the U.S. this spring with the resolute Cuban prima ballerina assoluta Alicia Alonso a the helm. Named a National Hero of Labor in Cuba, Alonso, 97, has weathered strained international relations and devastating fiscal challenges to have BNC emerge as a world-class dance company. Her dancers are some of ballet's best. On offer this time are Alonso's Giselle and Don Quixote. The profoundly Cuban company performs in Chicago May 18–20, Tampa May 23, Washington, D.C., May 29–June 3 and Saratoga, New York June 6–8.
Considering we practically live in our dance clothes, there's really no such thing as having too many leotards, tights or leggings (no matter what our mom or friends say!). That's why we treat every sale as an opportunity to stock up. And thanks to the holiday weekend, you can shop all of your dancewear go-tos or try something totally new for as much as 50% less than the usual price.
Here are the eight sales we're most excited about—from online options to in-store retailers that will help you find the perfect fit. Happy Memorial Day (and shopping)!
Now through Monday, Danskin's site will automatically take 25% off your entire purchase at checkout. Even new items like their Pintuck Detail Floral Print Sports Bra and Pintuck Detail Legging (pictured here) are fair game.
"The sun may be shining brightly, but we are not in a very sunny mood today!" said New York State assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal during yesterday's rally for the Artists of Ailey.
The dancers and stage crew are demanding increased wages and more comprehensive benefits, what they have termed "reaching for the standard" and "fair wages."
Pain is an inevitable part of a dancing life and dancers have a high tolerance for it, according to Sean Gallagher, a New York physical therapist whose practice includes many professional performers. "So when dancers complain, it really means something," he says.
But women and men experience pain differently, and tend to be treated for it differently as well. Female dancers need to understand those differences before they go to a doctor, so they can make sure they get treated promptly and effectively.
Rebecca Warthen was on a year-long assignment with the Peace Corps in Dominica last fall when a storm started brewing. A former dancer with North Carolina Dance Theatre (now Charlotte Ballet) and Columbia City Ballet, she'd been sent to the Caribbean island nation to teach ballet at the Dominica Institute of the Arts and in outreach classes at public schools.
But nine and a half months into her assignment, a tropical storm grew into what would become Hurricane Maria—the worst national disaster in Dominica's history.
Sidra Bell is one of those choreographers whose movement dancers are drawn to. Exploring the juxtaposition of fierce athleticism and pure honesty in something as simple as stillness, her work brings her dancers to the depths of their abilities and the audience to the edge of their seats.