The Only Dance Degree Program in Arkansas Is in Danger of Closing

May 20, 2020

The dance faculty and students of University of Arkansas at Little Rock thought that the closure of their school for the remainder of the semester due to coronavirus was the biggest of their problems.

Though the university had begun a retrenchment process in January, the dance program had widespread support among university stakeholders—and no one thought the school would eliminate the only dance major in the state of Arkansas.

So the news in early May that the university’s chancellor Christy Drale had recommended the dance program be completely cut came as a shock to faculty members and students alike, who had braced themselves for reductions but not elimination.

UA Little Rock dance students create a ballet-inspired formation, with multiple levels, wearing pink or grey tanks and ballet slippers.
Photo by Benjamin Crain, courtesy of Stephen Stone

“We immediately called a Zoom meeting with all our students,” says Stephanie Thibeault, associate professor of dance. “The students wanted to mobilize and get the word out. They said, ‘You guys have been fighting for us; now it’s our turn to fight.’ I told them, ‘First get all your schoolwork done; then make sure you’re taking care of yourself; then go make your voice heard.'”

Their efforts so far have been impactful. A petition to save the program created by rising junior Alysa Anderson has almost 11,000 signatures. She and her classmates (along with Arkansas Dance Network, which has rallied behind the cause) have been e-mailing university and political stakeholders “like crazy,” says Anderson, and she has an interview scheduled with a local news station. “I had no idea it was going to get so big,” she says. “Even if it doesn’t change anything, I have found so much hope in the community all across the U.S.”

Though the coronavirus pandemic hasn’t helped UA Little Rock’s financial situation, the retrenchment process stems from years of decreasing enrollment that’s landed the university millions of dollars in debt. But while some programs have seen enrollment drops of up to 50 percent, says Thibeault, the dance department’s numbers have remained fairly consistent since the program’s founding in 2009.

“One of the emotions I’ve felt is embarrassment,” says Thibeault. “We built this program for 10 years, and boom.”

UA Little Rock dance student Alysa Anderson wears a three-piece suit and leans to the right, right arm by her head.
Alysa Anderson

Photo by Benjamin Crain, courtesy of Anderson

The university used the number of graduates and credit hours to determine which programs would be on the chopping block, says Stephen Stone, associate professor of dance—not statistics that can capture the value that the dance program brings to campus. Thibeault wonders if the move to online learning for the semester—and possibly for longer—was a factor, too.

“People assume that our students are just sitting at home and we put in a grade for them,” she says. “That’s not the case—they are as much or more engaged as ever before.”

This isn’t the first time the value of the UA Little Rock dance program has come into question. In 2018, Arkansas state senator Bart Hester caused an uproar when he tweeted the following about a billboard featuring a UA Little Rock dancer:

After an enormous public backlash, the university kept the billboard up for months longer than they intended to, and a donor (cheekily) created a dance scholarship in Hester’s name. “The arts community rallied behind us, and that’s what they’re doing again,” says Thibeault.

Losing the only dance major program in the state will have implications far beyond the university. Many students can’t afford out-of-state tuition and won’t have another program to attend, says Thibeault. Efforts to foster a thriving dance community in Arkansas by Stone and Thibeault have been successful—but many of the students they’ve hosted at various workshops won’t have an in-state dance program to attend once they’re college-age. “We’ve made an impact on dancers across the state. They just haven’t gotten to us yet,” says Thibeault.

UA Little Rock dance students onstage sit around a table, each striking a different pose.
Photo by Benjamin Krain, courtesy of Stone

Thankfully, all current students will be taught out of the program, including incoming students who’ve been accepted for the fall. Stone and Thibeault have already formulated a plan for how they’ll round out the program. It’ll be complicated, since they have both BFA and BA students, many of whom are transfers, and some of whom will likely choose to transfer out.

Though the petition is gaining momentum—and students and faculty still have hope—they realize that, technically, the decision has already been made. “It was a final decision, but programs have been reinstated,” says Thibeault. “Final decisions have been overturned. Miracles have happened.”

Want to help save the program?