Though the first dance degree was awarded more than 85 years ago, the focus of dance programs in higher education has stayed, for the most part, pretty much the same: Western dance forms dominate curriculums across the country, with ballet and modern classes reigning particularly supreme.
Over the last several years, however, some colleges have begun thinking critically about what kind of dance they're teaching—and how they teach it. They're ushering in a new wave of dance in higher ed, with the hope that their approach—bringing African diaspora and urban forms to the fore, forging connections with other fields, degendering ballet—might be a catalyst for others.
Photo by Ed Flores/MFA candidate Kara Madden rehearses undergraduate dance majors Gregory Taylor and Joe Ogren
In the final years of her decade-long career with the Lewitzky Dance Company, University of Arizona Associate Professor Amy Ernst began to develop an interest in dance injury prevention. She remembers feeling an urge to widen her understanding of dance and the body. Soon after retirement from the Company, she was hired by the Kerlan-Jobe Orthopaedic Clinic in Inglewood, California as a physical therapy assistant, where she worked for the next three and a half years. This work eventually led her to pursue an M.F.A. in dance at the University of Washington-Seattle. She remembers growing into the role of a professor during her time pursuing her degree. That incubation phase was critical. Ernst joined the faculty at the University of Arizona in 1995, and now as director of the M.F.A. program, mentors the new generation of dance faculty, company directors and innovators.
Nadia Khayrallah wishes she'd been told how much dance work is unpaid. Photo by Eric Bandiero, courtesy Khayrallah
Every year it seems to become more financially difficult to get by as a dancer. But are colleges preparing students for this reality? Some programs teach skills like budgeting, grant writing and marketing. But fewer delve into personal finance, and address what it really takes to dance professionally in today's economy.
Part of the problem is how rapidly the dance world has changed. There were far more full-time company positions available 20 years ago, and many faculty members don't have firsthand experience of today's gig-to-gig landscape. Students today take on more student loan debt and face higher costs of living. Dance professors might also have some form of survivor's bias, as recent Columbia University graduate and New York City–based freelance dancer Nadia Khayrallah points out: They "made it" in the dance world, so their tendency might be to tell students that they'll "make it" too.
Adriana Pierce made Acantilado on her colleagues at Miami City Ballet. Photo by Leigh-Ann Esty, Courtesy Pierce
Once Adriana Pierce caught the choreography bug as a teenager, dancemaking came naturally. More difficult was navigating the tricky situations that would arise when choreographing on classmates and friends. "If a rehearsal didn't go well, I'd worry that people didn't respect me or didn't like my work," says Pierce, who went on to participate in the School of American Ballet's Student Choreography Workshop twice, at 17 and 18. "I had a lot to learn: how not to take things personally, how to express what I wanted, when to push and when to back off."
Choreographing on your peers can feel intimidating. How can you be a leader in your own rehearsals when you're dancing at the same level the rest of the time? How can you critique your cast without hurting feelings? Avoiding pitfalls takes commitment and care, but the payoff is worth it.
Juilliard student Diamond Ancion. Photo by Todd Rosenberg, courtesy Juilliard
In the ballet world, the phrase "going to college" is sometimes regarded as the musings of a dancer who's not really serious about their craft. Although schools like Juilliard and Bennington College have made degrees acceptable for modern dancers for decades, the competitive ballet world (which often follows a philosophy of "the younger the better") tends to discourage higher education.
But some ballet students just don't feel physically or emotionally ready to join a professional company at age 18, and others simply don't want to miss out on the college experience. So they choose to pursue an undergraduate dance degree to continue their ballet training in an academic atmosphere.