How University of the Arts Teaches Dancers to “Pay Attention Differently”—and Why It Works

Sponsored by University of the Arts
November 29, 2023

When first-year students begin classes at the University of the Arts’ School of Dance in Philadelphia, they’re met with guiding questions that challenge them to reframe the very purpose of dance training: “How do you pay attention to what you’re doing all the time, differently?” asks Donna Faye Burchfield, professor and dean of the School of Dance. “What happens when you provide a kind of environment where dancers are surrounded by ways to pay attention differently?”

Burchfield says these questions help reorient students’ capacity to put their thinking first. At UArts’ School of Dance, students in the BFA program are emboldened with agency, artistry, and a fine-tuned ability to advocate for themselves in the professional world.

Vespers, by Ulysses Dove, staged by Alfred Dove, for University of the Arts’ Winter Dance Series. Photo by Kait Privitera, courtesy University of the Arts.

Cultivating Artists With Agency

Around 75 BFA students graduate from UArts’ School of Dance each year. For each of those dancers, their education starts and ends with their agency. “We don’t tell them, ‘You have to be ___, you have to be ___,” Burchfield says. Instead, dancers’ futures are shaped by students themselves.

“A lot of encouraging agency is encouraging students to speak to their own experience, to ask questions,” says Shayla-Vie Jenkins, assistant professor of dance and former performer with Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company. In her classes, student curiosity is a priority. “A lot of times it’s turning toward a classmate and working through the material together,” she says, “and then I encourage questions and elicit feedback in the moment.”

This approach, Burchfield says, is not to be confused with an unstructured or non-rigorous curriculum. All students must enroll in courses which expose them to UArts’ full spectrum of dance faculty and performance opportunities, many of which take on the rigor of a conservatory approach. In first and second years, these courses compose UArts’ Foundation Series; for the latter years, it’s Portfolio & Research.

How dancers learn to find themselves within this structure is what makes a difference. “People ask things like, ‘How do you prepare them for the real world?’ ” Burchfield says. “I always like to say, ‘Well, this is the real world.’ If a student really wants to be a filmmaker and a dancer, that is the real world. So then what does that mean? You’re going to have to divide your time; you’re going to have to figure out where you need it.”

Studio practice with associate professor Jesse Zaritt. Photo by Miles Yeung-Tieu, courtesy University of the Arts.

A Curriculum Built on Reflection

During the school year, dance majors gather every five weeks for reflection. “It’s a kind of intentional pause,” Burchfield says, explaining it as a time for students to move outside of their everyday experiences and ask, “What have I learned?”

In the first and second years, these reflections occur when the dancers rotate teachers while staying in the same classes, exposing them to the breadth of UArts’ diverse faculty while still carving out time to notice their own artistic growth.

During the reflections, which are facilitated by associate dean Jen McGinn, faculty are not present, giving students the freedom to be honest with each other, and also themselves. Wendell Gray, a 2015 UArts alumnus, says these pauses gave him the space to pay attention to how he was growing as an artist.

“You see other people’s agency in real time. You see how people are learning ideas and taking control of what they do,” says Gray, who is now a Brooklyn-based artist and choreographer, currently working with Joanna Kotze, Jordan Demetrius Lloyd, Miguel Gutierrez, and others. His professional work remains directly influenced by his time at UArts. “It’s amazing, talking about what we do and how it extends to areas of philosophy and wisdom, understanding ways of being,” he says.

Students from Sophomore Performance & Coaching Project in a groove theory, by associate professor Jesse Zaritt and adjunct assistant professor Song Tucker, for University of the Arts’ Spring Dance Series. Photo by Stephanie Berger, courtesy University of the Arts.

When Representation Is Not an Afterthought 

UArts’ pathway to student empowerment is aided by the diversity represented within the School of Dance as well as the Philadelphia arts district that the school calls home.

“Our student population is majority students of color,” Burchfield says, adding that the faculty makeup is similarly diverse. “Being in Philadelphia, it reminds me that America is made of diversities and differences—racially, ethnically, economically,” she continues. “There is an intentionality in our pedagogy. It’s an intention in the choices we make about who sets work on our students, who is teaching dance history—all of it. There is a social practice embedded in the dance practices.”

Burchfield also notes the city’s strong history of queer acceptance, and she emphasizes that UArts reflects such attitudes in the affirmation of its students and faculty.

Gary Jeter, assistant professor and former Complexions Contemporary Ballet and BalletX company member, teaching studio practice. Photo by Miles Yeung-Tieu, courtesy University of the Arts.

Using Performance as Education

In third- and fourth-year students’ Pedagogies of Performance classes, the dancers ask questions such as, “How can you use this as a practice of intention? How can you think about what it’s like to move toward something you don’t recognize as familiar?” Burchfield, Jenkins, and Gray all agree: It’s experiences like these that teach students how to pay attention.

“I’m not just there to replicate the steps and to do them well,” Jenkins says. “I’m also being engaged physically and I’m also engaged critically in whatever the content is. I have an opinion. I have a point of view I can express.”

The resulting atmosphere, Burchfield says, cultivates a spirit of risk-taking that stays with students long after they’ve become alumni.

“Usually there’s no right or wrong,” Jenkins says. “It’s about the process. It’s really about the process.”

Joining the University of the Arts Family

Burchfield encourages anyone interested in UArts’ School of Dance to check out the program’s free Winter Dance Series, in person in Philadelphia November 30 through December 2 (or via its virtual broadcast online December 12 and 13—see @uartsschoolofdance for more details). This year’s program will feature BFA students in works by Bill T. Jones, Dinita and Kyle Clark, Gary Reagan, Katie Swords Thurman, Mark Caserta, Gary W. Jeter II, Jesse Zaritt, Juel D. Lane, Sydney Donovan, and Uwazi Zamani—many of whom are full-time UArts faculty members.

Audition workshops for UArts take place both in person and virtually. During the sessions, current students join the group of auditioners for a holistic approach to class.

Gray encourages prospective students to approach the process without too many nerves. “They really looked at me,” he remembers of his own audition. “I felt that desire. I just felt like a person.”

Learn more about the BFA application process here, as well as UArts’ MFA in dance.