Why University of Arizona's Dance Program Is the Ultimate Prep for Company Life
If you think becoming a trainee or apprentice is the only path to gaining experience in a dance company environment, think again.
The University of Arizona, located in the heart of Tucson, acclimates dancers to the pace and rigor of company life while offering all the academic opportunities of a globally-ranked university. If you're looking to get a head-start on your professional dance career—or to just have a college experience that balances company-level training and repertory with rigorous academics—the University of Arizona's undergraduate and graduate programs have myriad opportunites to offer:
The pace of your day and semester model a company schedule.
"At Charlotte Ballet, we typically went to class at 10 am, followed by six hours of rehearsal or one or two performances," says Gregory Taylor, who came to University of Arizona to study dance and optics after five seasons with the company. "At UA, the schedule is pretty similar. Instead of one block of rehearsal, I may be in an academic class or lab, but there's absolutely the same rigor as company life."
In fact, a year in the life of a university dancer functions much like a company season. "In the professional world, you work, rehearse and build up to a few weekends of shows, and then you quickly move on to the next piece or performance," says Hayley Meier, a grad student in the university's MFA program who also completed her BFA at the school in 2009. She danced with River North Dance Chicago for five seasons in between. The sheer number of performances at UA—five productions and 40 performances a year in their own theater, where they have a strong subscriber base—ensures that students get used to a nonstop pace, she says.
Perhaps this is why so many students go directly from graduation into varied careers with the likes of Paul Taylor Dance Company, Giordano Dance Chicago, and Sacramento Ballet, or the casts of West Side Story and Cirque du Soleil. "The students' education is tailored toward being able to step into a professional environment and know the ropes," says Autumn Eckman, an assistant professor of dance. "From day one, they're learning how to budget their time and manage a schedule. Conditioning and self-care are built into daily technique classes, and even though we are a large program, the faculty's doors are always open. They become adaptable, which is so necessary in today's dance industry."
Ed Flores, courtesy University of Arizona
You'll be taking company-level classes with and from the pros.
Faculty members come from the professional dance world—and their expectations are high. "The dancers are not treated any differently than they would be in a company environment, and they rise to the occasion," she says. "This is the hands-on, personal attention you'd get as an apprentice or trainee."
Students can immerse themselves in ballet, modern, jazz and improvisation. And with a 2:1 ratio of women to men, they gain strong experience in partnering. "It's equivalent to or better than company class," says Taylor.
"The graduate students are also wonderfully integrated with the undergrads," says Eckman. "These are dancers who come from diverse professional careers, bring a fresh perspective and maybe want to launch their own companies someday." Grad students teach and choreograph, but they're also right there at the barre, so BFA students can see how a pro takes class.
Ed Flores, courtesy University of Arizona
The academic environment facilitates and encourages creative exploration.
Many UA dance majors are double majors or pursue a minor in a completely different field. "You'd be surprised how one course of study can actually facilitate another," Eckman says. Plus, students and faculty regularly collaborate across departments: Eckman herself has created original work with the harp faculty member at the school of music and an MFA student in the art department.
Considering that companies are full of artists with side projects and diverse passions, there's no reason to put your other interests on ice for four years. Taylor just finished a project where he sent a small payload with a camera to the edge of our atmosphere using a weather balloon, and he's converting the video to virtual reality so anyone can travel to space.
UA Dance Ensemble members in Alexei Ratmansky's "Bolero"
Ed Flores, Courtesy University of Arizona
Diverse repertory and perspectives help you mature as a performer.
Not only are students working with faculty and guest artists on original works each semester, but dancers also switch gears quickly to learn an impressive range of repertory. In the past few years alone, they've performed works by Christopher Wheeldon, Alexei Ratmansky, Jessica Lang, George Balanchine, Jerome Robbins, Martha Graham, José Limón and Nacho Duato. "The diversity of the rep is what drew me to the university in the first place," says Meier. "I knew a traditional ballet company probably wasn't the right place for me, but at Arizona I could take ballet five days a week and still experience so much of what else is out there."
This exposure helps dancers to develop skills they'll need on the job, like collaboration and a deep sense of their own artistry, without stumbling through their first months in a company to get it. But new challenges are also a draw for experienced professional dancers going back to school. "These are choreographers I wasn't even exposed to as a professional dancer," adds Meier, "so coming in as a grad student doesn't feel like a step backwards."
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In the middle of one of New York City Center's cavernous studios, Misty Copeland takes a measured step backwards. The suggestion of a swan arm ripples before she turns downstage, chest and shoulders unfurling as her legs stretch into an open lunge. She piqués onto pointe, arms echoing the sinuous curve of her back attitude, then walks out of it, pausing to warily look over her shoulder. As the droning of Ryuichi Sakamoto and Alva Noto's mysterious "Attack/Transition" grows more insistent, her feet start to fly with a rapidity that seems to almost startle her.
And then she stops mid-phrase. Copeland's hands fall to her hips as she apologizes. Choreographer Kyle Abraham slides to the sound system to pause the music, giving Copeland a moment to remind herself of a recent change to the sequence.
"It's different when the sound's on!" he reassures her. "And it's a lot of changes."
The day before was the first time Abraham had seen Copeland dance the solo in its entirety, and the first moment they were in the studio together in a month. This is their last rehearsal, save for tech, before the premiere of Ash exactly one week later, as part of the opening night of City Center's Fall for Dance festival.
Back in 2011 when Joe Lanteri first approached Katie Langan, chair of Marymount Manhattan College's dance department, about getting involved with New York City Dance Alliance, she was skeptical about the convention/competition world.
"But I was pleasantly surprised by the enormity of talent that was there," she says. "His goal was to start scholarship opportunities, and I said okay, I'm in."
Today, it's fair to say that Lanteri has far surpassed his goal of creating scholarship opportunities. But NYCDA has done so much more, bridging the gap between the convention world and the professional world by forging a wealth of partnerships with dance institutions from Marymount to The Ailey School to Complexions Contemporary Ballet and many more. There's a reason these companies and schools—some of whom otherwise may not see themselves as aligned with the convention/competition world—keep deepening their relationships with NYCDA.
Now, college scholarships are just one of many ways NYCDA has gone beyond the typical weekend-long convention experience and created life-changing opportunities for students. We rounded up some of the most notable ones:
Dancers are understandably obsessed with food. In both an aesthetic and athletic profession, you know you're judged on your body shape, but you need proper fuel to perform your best. Meanwhile, you're inundated with questionable diet advice.
"My 'favorite' was the ABC diet," says registered dietitian nutritionist Kristin Koskinen, who trained in dance seriously but was convinced her body type wouldn't allow her to pursue it professionally. "On the first day you eat only foods starting with the letter A, on the second day only B, and so on."
"The show must go on" may be a platitude we use to get through everything from costume malfunctions to stormy moods. But when it came to overcoming a literal hurricane, Houston Ballet was buoyed by this mantra to go from devastated to dancing in a matter of weeks—with the help of Harlequin Floors, Houston Ballet's longstanding partner who sprang into action to build new floors in record time.