To Dance in College or Not: That is the Question
High school dancers are often faced with the difficult choice of whether or not to attend college and, as if that isn’t a big enough decision, they are then tasked to decide whether or not to pursue an academic major in dance. But there are so many options for dancers, from conservatories to BFA programs within large universities, BA programs with a liberal arts focus, dance minors, and options in between...plus the opportunity to join a dance team at a variety of levels. With college audition season mirroring competition season and creating an additional level of excitement—and sometimes stress—we asked three IDA judges to share their insights and advice on dancing in college, from the audition process through graduation.
So, where to begin? There are so many college programs out there, ranging in size, training modalities, value systems, and degree requirements. The options for dancers are truly endless, so it’s critical for dancers to do their research ahead of time. IDA judge and educator, Christina Yoder, who is an alum of Muhlenberg College in Allentown, PA, notes, “You have so many more resources now than I had 20 years ago when I began my college search! A quick internet search will turn up tons of results for college dance programs. Pick an area (and don't be afraid to go away for college!) and see which of the schools offer a program you are interested in learning more about. There are books and magazines published highlighting dance programs in colleges.” She also suggests consulting social media because many dance departments have their own Facebook and Instagram pages, allowing dancers to see what’s happening in different departments. IDA judge and alum of the University of Arizona, Sam Quinn, echoes these sentiments and recalls the value of his visit to his alma mater during his audition and application process. He had the opportunity to see a live performance in the dance department and remembers, “The show encompassed everything I was looking for: versatility in training, professionalism, and outstanding choreography. This show sealed the deal for me. I’m a firm believer in seeing performances of the current students to get a real inside look [at] what the program offers.” The more aspects of a program dancers can experience firsthand, the better they can understand what it’s like to be a student there.
But the reality of college dance programs is that they are highly competitive and the audition process can be daunting. IDA Judge Max Vasapoli, who is an alum of The University of the Arts in Philadelphia, holds an M.Ed., and serves as an Academic Advisor at UPenn, has been on both sides of the table in terms of the admissions process. He explains that programs are looking to find the best-fit candidates at every audition and also reminds dancers, “Being rejected is, unfortunately, part of working as an artist. Your resiliency speaks volumes about your potential. One unsuccessful audition does not dictate your worth as a dancer.” It’s important to remember that while schools are auditioning you for their program, you are also auditioning them, working to find the absolute best fit school for your interests and goals. Sam also encourages, “Follow every audition requirement to a T. Colleges are looking for students who follow direction.” If the school asks for a headshot and resumé, don’t send your dance shots, no matter how beautiful your arabesque line looks! On the subject of rejection, Sam says that dancers can and should ask for feedback if they are rejected and wish to know why, and reminds us that “everything happens for a reason.” Even if you get rejected from what you think is your ‘dream school,’ chances are that there is a better option out there. Christina suggests, “Give yourself time and grace to deal with it, then move on, choosing a new ‘dream program!’ Consider the breadth of programs that exist so that you don’t feel stuck." Plenty of programs don’t require auditions and still offer amazing training and resources. Studying dance in a liberal arts context, for example, allows dancers to apply their training to other areas, ultimately making them well-rounded, educated people. There’s also no shame in re-auditioning or choosing to transfer programs.
But what happens once you’ve been accepted and have selected your dream school? Some dancers don’t have the support of their families to pursue their dreams, whether that support is emotional, financial, or both. In terms of the steep cost of a college education, all three judges encourage dancers to apply for any and all scholarships at the college, local, state, regional, and national level. Sam and Max remind dancers that many competitions offer scholarships at their regional and national events, so be sure to do your research! Christina shares that she was a Resident Advisor in college, which not only helped her to cover her housing costs, but also gave her an entire additional network of friends. While we all know that dance friends are the best kind of friends, it’s important to take advantage of your college experience and meet students from various communities on campus. She also reminds dancers to use their resources: “If you are struggling to find opportunities, visit your school's financial aid office. They will usually help you find scholarships to apply for, or point you in the right direction to find employment.” In general, don’t be afraid to ask for help!
If dancers are struggling to gain support from family, things can get tricky, especially if their parents are planning to pay for school as long as the course of study isn’t in the arts. There are so many benefits to studying dance at the collegiate level, though, and dancers can share these with their parents. One of the benefits of studying dance is the breadth of coursework—dance is relatable to so many areas of study and programs are evolving to reflect these connections. Max explains, “There is a major evolution of many programs that allows dancers to study business, medicine, or pedagogy in addition to dance.” Christina recalls her own college experience, “As a college dance major, you learn so much more than steps. You learn how to look at dance in a critical way, you learn to write about dance, you learn the history of dance and its importance, you learn how your body moves in the ways it does (and doesn't)! There is so much more to dance than just movement, and a college dance education really opened my eyes to a whole other world than I had ever imagined.” She even had the opportunity to co-author a study that was eventually published! There are plenty of programs that allow students to double major, which is also a great option if dancers are looking to appease parents. It is also often an option to add a second major or minor after a year or two of study, so, again, be sure to do your research ahead of time!
Still, college is not for everyone, and dancers should follow their interests and ask their teachers, mentors, and peers for advice. It’s also critical to remember that plenty of professional dancers pursue degrees in other areas while continuing their training. Many dancers, for example, move to New York City to attend school and study something other than dance, while continuing to take classes and audition. Taking a semester off to go on tour, or booking your summers with professional gigs is also always an option. Don’t get stuck in thinking that there is only one way to pursue a collegiate career—the possibilities are truly endless! There is no ‘one size fits all’ for dance training, especially at the college level, so do your research, ask for advice, and create the best course of study for YOU!
Photos provided by IDA Judge Sam Quinn who attended The University of Arizona