Understanding Dance in Higher Education
Anderson, Jennifer, Dance Teacher
A guide to helping your high school students plan out their next four years in college
For any high school student, the pressure to get accepted into college can be overwhelming. But for dancers, that pressure is twofold, since they must contend with the additional stress of deciding whether to spend the next four years majoring in dance and, if so, how to find the best program for them.
If you're a private studio or K-12 dance teacher, your juniors and seniors may look to you for help at this critical time in their lives. Armed with some basic knowledge, you can help clear things up and steer them in the best direction. When students are deciding on the right college dance program, it really comes down to what fits them individually.
First things first: What type of dancer is your student and what is she looking to pursue after high school? Take note if her love of modern dance exceeds all else, or if she lives and breathes ballet. Does she want to focus on honing her choreography skills, or simply know that there are a variety of ways to remain involved in dance on campus while majoring in psychology?
Andrea Paris, creative director of the Los Angeles Ballet Academy in California, holds a summer conference with her rising seniors to get a feel for what they want. "We sit down and map out what they're interested in and what direction they want to go in," she explains. Having this conversation can help students start thinking about what type of program they are leaning toward. And don't forget to discuss other variables, such as budget, how far away from home they're willing to travel and if they prefer a large or small school. Sometimes writing everything down can help them see what they want more clearly.
You might even want to consider starting a program like the one at the Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts in Dallas, Texas. "We have a mentor committee of professionals in our community who go through mock auditions and mock interviews with the students and give them feedback," explains Lily Cabatu Weiss, head of the school's dance department. "They ask them questions about their goals so they can evaluate whether they need additional help." If a student needs help, he or she is given a personal mentor to check in with once a week.
If a program like this is not possible at your school, take another note from Cabatu Weiss and make the commitment to check in with your students from time to time, as early in their high school careers as possible. "Set up a forum or informal dialogue about their goals, because they are going to shift as students progress," she advises. Lynn Herrick, owner and artistic director of The Dance Refinery in Indianapolis, Indiana, also puts seniors in touch with alumni from her studio who are recent college graduates or current students at various universities.
The Conservatory Route
Is your dancer focused on achieving a performance career? "Ask students where they see themselves professionally," advises Cabatu Weiss. "If they're not looking at all for academics, they should look at a conservatory." These institutions offer intense studio training coupled with theory courses and a strong emphasis on performance. Students graduate with a BFA and generally go on to dance professionally. Within these schools, students can often select which genre of dance they wish to major in, such as ballet, jazz, modern or musical theater.
Ballet and Biology
If a student has strong academic interests, or wants to explore an avenue in the dance field that doesn't focus on the stage, like pedagogy, choreography, dance production or dance therapy, look at nonconservatory dance programs within larger universities. This is where many students and teachers alike can feel overwhelmed and confused, because there is so much out there. But you just need to know where to look.
Tom Ralabate, an associate professor in dance at the University at Buffalo, stresses understanding the specifics of the school. "At UB, we consider ourselves a conservatory program within a research setting," he says. "It has a conservatory feel to it, but there's a strong emphasis on the academic part of dance as well. After four years, students are required to do a scholarly paper. They do a lot of written work and research within areas they're interested in. You would not find that in a conservatory."
It's also important to consider factors such as the faculty. "As a teacher, what I look at is, 'What is the background of the faculty? What is their professional experience?'" says Paris. Ralabate adds that a strong dance program within a university should possess a healthy balance between practice and theory. As he puts it, "You can't spend four years in a classroom and never be onstage, because you won't understand the sense of performance by just doing in-classroom studies." Be sure your students are aware of what performance opportunities are available as well as the requirements of the college curriculum.
Can Non-Majors Still Dance?
What about those who don't want careers in dance, but aren't ready to give it up once they get to college? Herrick recommends pursuing the school that best suits their academic interests first-then finding ways to keep dancing, such as taking class at a local studio, trying out for the college's dance team or participating in local dance groups. "At Indiana University, there's a dance squad called In Motion," she says. "It's not part of the university, but it's all university [students] who love dancing. Even if they don't want to be a dance major, they can find creative ways to keep the dance going."
Robert Ivey, a professor in the dance department at the College of Charleston in South Carolina and artistic director of the Robert Ivey Ballet, has managed to do just that. CC currently offers only a dance minor, but the Robert Ivey Ballet has been in residence at the college for years, allowing students the opportunity to continue dancing while pursuing their academic majors. "We have a ballet and a modern company through the college," Ivey explains. "Students get the experience of performing with a company while they're attending a liberal arts school." The Robert Ivey Ballet also encourages student choreography and even holds a special performance to feature the pieces. CC students who have danced with Ivey have gone on to law and medical schools, all while keeping up their love and passion for dancing during their college years.
As a teacher, you can provide a lot of knowledge for students about what a school will likely be looking for. "We're looking at potential," says Ralabate. "We don't expect students to come in and already be proficient at everything, but we're looking for that balance between performance and technique." In addition to technique, make sure seniors can think on their feet, because in many modern programs, improvisation is a key aspect of an audition. "We're looking for students who are able to take risks and have an artistic approach to their work," Ralabate explains. "We don't expect them to have a total identity of themselves, but we want to see potential that their dance identity can be developed."
When it comes time to audition, Paris suggests allowing some scheduling leeway for graduating seniors. "One of the most important things a private studio can do is give them the freedom to have the time to go audition," she says. "We give our 12th graders the option to opt out of the fall production if they need to go on auditions or prepare their materials for entering college." She also never fails to wish her students well on audition day. "I offer a lot of support as far as making sure I check in with them," she says. Most importantly, make sure students know to follow all of the school's guidelines for the audition. "The universities all have websites that tell you exactly what to do-follow what they tell you," Herrick advises. "Why would they seriously look at someone who couldn't even comply with what they're asking for at auditions?"
Applying to college is undoubtedly a formidable process, but you can help smooth the path for your overwhelmed high school students just by knowing the basics. Check in with them early and often to make sure they are on track to meet their deadlines. And don't forget to pass along Herrick's words of wisdom: "The reality is, there's no prescription. Find where you feel at home!"
BA vs. BFA:
What's the Difference?
Many students and teachers are unclear about the difference between a BA (Bachelor of Arts) and a BFA (Bachelor of Fine Arts). "We find that students who want to go into teaching usually take the BA," says Tom Ralabate. "And if a student's immediate goal is to perform, he or she should be in a BFA program." Usually, a BFA program requires much more intense studio training time than the BA, because it is geared toward performance. But both groups take the same academic dance classes, like kinesiology or dance history. Often, you will find double majors in a BA program: As Ralabate explains, "The BA gives a more well-rounded general education experience."
Make the commitment to check in with your students from time to time, as early in their high school careers as possible.
Jennifer Anderson is a writer and dance teacher in New Brunswick, NJ.…
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: Understanding Dance in Higher Education. Contributors: Anderson, Jennifer - Author. Magazine title: Dance Teacher. Volume: 29. Issue: 12 Publication date: December 2007. Page number: 56+. © Macfadden Performing Arts Media LLC Mar 2009. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.
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