Dance of the Diploma

In a profession traditionally prioritizing the career over education, dancers are choosing both. And succeeding.

While “arts education,” or lack thereof, has proven to be a buzzword in conversations surroundings today’s primary and second education, fueling support for continued integration of the arts into school curricula, it often assumes a negative connotation when used in discussions of higher education. With one of the lowest income return values of any area of study, $42,000, according a national study conducted by Georgetown University’s public policy department, visual and performing arts majors are often viewed as irresponsible and wasteful. For dance majors and academically-oriented dancers, however, the prejudices and stakes are often even higher: the decision to pursue higher education is not only viewed as a waste of finances and effort, but also a symbolic abandonment of any realistic chance at a professional career.

“[Dance] […] is one of the few professions […] where you are a fully-fledged professional at eighteen years old.”

The above statement, made by Peter Martins, Artistic Director of New York City Ballet, in an interview for the AOL web series, city.ballet., speaks to the belief that, in the professional world of dance, qualified students should, ideally, seek employment straight out of high school, or even earlier. With an average career duration of just fifteen years, according to Princeton University’s aDvANCE study, being hired early maximizes the chance a young dancer will have to perform, allowing them to begin working more rigorously while the body is still young and less susceptible to injury. With the ideal hiring age the same as that of a student making college decisions, dancers are often persuaded away from pursuing higher education, faced with the prospect of limited job opportunities post-graduation if they choose to attend. Dance in Higher Education, a survey conducted in conjunction with this article, sought to identify the prevalence of this belief, and its impact on aspiring dancers. The survey was presented through Facebook, Instagram, and a personal blog and received 30 usable results.

With the vast majority of respondents aware of a stigma and, more often than not, affected in their decision making, it is no surprise that many dancers are continuing to choose beginning their careers over pursuing higher education.

The wealth of opportunity for young dancers is precisely why Rio Anderson, faced with acceptances to both Harvard University and The Royal Ballet School in London her senior year, chose to dance, recognizing The Royal over Harvard as a “dream come true,” in an interview for Seeker. Kimberly Brubacher, an apprentice with Alabama Ballet, chose similarly. Finishing her second year with Ballet Austin’s Butler Fellowship Program, she will be entering her first professional contract, an apprenticeship with Alabama Ballet, next season. “I do desire to eventually go to college,” she says, “but a ballet career is so short lived [that] I made dancing my priority.”

For many dancers, however, especially those in the ambiguous space between student and professional, college presents a compelling opportunity. Holly Laroche, after spending two years dancing with the Joffrey Concert Group, the student performing company of New York’s Joffrey Ballet School, chose to attend college as a dance major at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, in lieu of the “stigma.”

While she had originally planned to begin professional life after dancing with Joffrey, she ultimately chose to take more time to “explore different avenues and try different things,” an opportunity she has “definitely found […] at Tisch.” Notably, she cites, she has become involved with dance filmmaking, and is in the process of completing several larger-scale projects.

Laroche performs a stag jump in front of the Washington Square Park arch, an NYU icon. © Sabrina Karlin, 2016.

Wanting additional opportunity in the transition to professional life is a sentiment reflected by Tisch Dance graduate, Karla Garcia, now a swing performer in the Broadway production, Hamilton. “Other people […] can just go into the professional world without college,” but “I needed some structure, because I don’t think I was mature enough yet,” she reflects in an interview with NBC. “I just wanted the experience of going to class and meeting different kinds of people, not just people who are like me. I’m very grateful for that.” As Laroche also cites in her interview, the chance to “know your art in not only the performance aspect […] but also the politics and business aspects” provides a unique opportunity to college dancers, one which may, in fact, make college less of a compromise, and more of an advantage. JP Viernes, a sophomore dance and physics major at Columbia University, concurs.

For Viernes, attending Columbia “is developing a lot of skills that [he] wouldn’t have developed if [he] hadn’t gone to college.” Faced with two interests, dance and physics, he “chose both,” and has not regretted it. “The [ways] you think of dance and think of physics [have] a lot of similarities, in terms of thinking creatively and looking at the world differently,” he says. “As a performing artist, looking through different perspectives is a really innovative way to perform,” and “I’ll be able to apply those skills, as well as my [prior] performing skills, in ways [which] wouldn’t have been possible.” Viernes considers the dance training he is receiving to be advantageous, as well. The opportunities he has had to work with various New York choreographers through Columbia, like Molissa Fenley, have “enriched” his “dance experience, setting up a good foundation for after college.”

Attending college and living on a campus is not the only option for dancers pursuing higher education, however. A rise in online classes and flexible degree programs has made it a reality for some dancers to earn college credit while performing or training rigorously. When Grace Puckett felt that her best opportunity lay outside of her college dance program, she recognized that her schooling was not something she was willing to sacrifice.

After spending two years as a ballet performance major at the University of South Carolina (USC), she was offered a position with the Joffrey Concert Group, and accepted the opportunity to focus on performing in a “company-oriented” setting. Having “always been with the academics,” she found the atmosphere of the group “refreshing,” and a chance to push herself to a more professional level in ways she could not at USC. Committed to finishing her education, she arranged to receive independent study credit for her first year away, and continues to work towards a minor in psychology through her university’s online courses. “I will eventually finish, whether it takes me five years, ten years, who knows,” she maintains.

“In having a BA or a BFA, or even an MFA, you can come armed with that intelligence into newer discussions within the art form. You can put yourself into that choreography or become a critic and really know what you’re talking about, […] [and] not only be able to reach to the dance audience, but also the audience outside of dance, which for us is sometimes a very hard group of people to reach.” — Grace Puckett

Such intelligence is especially important given the short duration of a performing career. “You have to be prepared for what comes [afterwards],” Puckett asserts. According to aDvANCE, the most reported challenge experienced by newly-retired professional dancers is a “sense of loss.” Having a degree or previously-identified interest in another field can aid in the transition process.

In the Dance in Higher Education survey, 10 of 13 dance majors surveyed wanted to go into related fields following a performing career, with dance education, choreography and physical therapy being the top three desired professions. In obtaining a degree from a university, whether in dance or in another subject, students can often complete prerequisites for graduate programs in these areas, as well as acquire the merits necessary for jobs in teaching and choreography that surpass entry-level positions, such as those available in academic institutions. This opportunity affords them a distinct head start over their dancing counterparts who have not attended college, and who often desire the same jobs post-performance career.

In addition to offering courses in dance-related fields, many dance major programs give students the chance to take non-departmental liberal arts courses, as well. Sharon Kung, a professional ballet dancer in the San Francisco Bay Area, and a graduate of the University of California, Irvine dance program, used her non-departmental electives to take courses towards her second degree in economics. She regrets, however, not taking business courses, in addition. “Developing business and marketing skills will help [dancers] make better financial decisions,” she says, in a field where working multiple jobs is a necessity.

While Puckett holds that the choice to leave college was “a good one and one [she] does not regret making,” she admits that, “there are times [she] does miss it quite a bit.” “College [for dancers] is a very viable option, a valuable option and wonderful option,” she reflects, “I loved the program I came from. University […] does a wonder of things. There [are] many opportunities, whether for performing or choreography.”

Indeed, her sentiment is reflected in a hopeful statistic for the future dance in higher education: 12 of the 13 dance majors surveyed are satisfied with their decisions to embark on the paths they have chosen. “I am the happiest I have ever been. I feel so energized and excited to make art and find my place in this world through what I love,” one survey participant responds, “and I know that if my dance career fails, I have many avenues I can go down.”

To continue following Sabrina and her work, you may connect with her on LinkedIn, follow her on Instagram @sabrinakelsey_, and visit her blog, Hamstrings & Heartstrings.

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