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.
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."