UA Dance Ensemble members Candice Barth and Gregory Taylor in Jessica Lang's "Among the Stars." Photo by Ed Flores, courtesy University of Arizona

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."

Autumn Eckman

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.

Hayley Meier

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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Courtesy Harlequin

What Does It Take to Make a Safe Outdoor Stage for Dance?

Warmer weather is just around the corner, and with it comes a light at the end of a hibernation tunnel for many dance organizations: a chance to perform again. While social distancing and mask-wearing remain essential to gathering safely, the great outdoors has become an often-preferred performance venue.

But, of course, nature likes to throw its curveballs. What does it take to successfully pull off an alfresco show?

Marisa Grywalski and Alejandro Diaz in Dwight Rhodens "Ave Maria," part of PBT's Open Air Series last fall.

Kelly Perkovich, Courtesy Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

Keeping dancers safe outside requires the same intentional flooring as you have in the studio—but it also needs to be hearty enough to withstand the weather. With so many factors to consider, two ballet companies consulted with Harlequin Floors to find the perfect floor for their unique circumstances.

Last fall, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre invested in a mobile stage that allowed the dancers to perform live for socially distanced audiences. "But we didn't have an outdoor resilient floor, so we quickly realized that if we had any rain, we were going to be in big trouble—it would have rotted," says artistic director Susan Jaffe.

The company purchased the lightweight, waterproof Harlequin's AeroDeck® sprung floor panels and the heavy-duty Harlequin Cascade™ vinyl, which is manufactured with BioCote® Antimicrobial Protection to help with the prevention of bacteria and mold. After an indoor test run while filming Nutcracker ("It felt exactly like our regular floor," says Jaffe), the company will debut the new setup this May in Pittsburgh's Schenley Park during a two-week series of performances shared with other local arts organizations.

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's Open Air Series last fall. The company plans to roll out their new Harlequin AeroDeck® sprung floor panels and Harlequin Cascade™ vinyl floor for more outdoor performances this spring.

Harris Ferris, Courtesy Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

In addition to the possibility of rain, a range of temperatures also has to be taken into account. When the State Ballet of Rhode Island received a grant from the state to upgrade its 15-year-old stage, executive director Ana Fox chose the Harlequin Cascade vinyl floor in the lighter gray color "so that it would be cooler if it's reflecting sunlight during daytime performances," she says.

However, for the civic ballet company's first performance on its new 24-by-48–foot stage on November 22, heat was less of a concern than the Northeastern cold. Fortunately, Fox says the surface never got icy or too stiff. "It felt warm to the feel," she says. "You could see the dancers didn't hesitate to run or step into arabesque." (The Harlequin Cascade floor is known for providing a good grip.)

"To have a safe floor for dancers not to worry about shin splints or something of that nature, that's everything," she says. "The dancers have to feel secure."

State Ballet of Rhode Island first rolled out their new Harlequin Cascade™ flooring for an outdoor performance last November.

Courtesy of Harlequin

Of course, the elements need to be considered even when dancers aren't actively performing. Although Harlequin's AeroDeck is waterproof, both PBT and SBRI have tarps to cover their stages to keep any water out. SBRI also does damp mopping before performances to get pollen off the surface. Additionally, the company is building a shed to safely store the floor long-term when it's not in use. "Of course, it's heavy, but laying down the floor and putting it away was not an issue at all," says Fox, adding that both were easy to accomplish with a crew of four people.

Since the Harlequin Cascade surface is versatile enough to support a wide range of dance styles—and even opera and theater sets—both PBT and SBRI are partnering with other local arts organizations to put their outdoor stages to use as much as possible. Because audiences are hungry for art right now.

"In September, I made our outdoor performance shorter so we wouldn't have to worry about intermission or bathrooms, but when it was over, they just sat there," says Jaffe, with a laugh. "People were so grateful and so happy to see us perform. We just got an overwhelming response of love and gratitude."

Marisa Grywalski and Alejandro Diaz in Susan Jaffes "Carmina Terra," part of PBT's Open Air Series last fall.

Kelly Perkovich, courtesy Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

February 2021