College Dance and the “Real World”

By Natalie Walters 

If you’ve hung out with a Senior in college lately, you’ve probably witnessed a least one breakdown or “freak-out”  about something along the lines of entering the vicious job competition underprepared and moneyless. If you’re hearing this from a Dance major, then they’re also worrying whether their body is pretty enough, strong enough, flexible enough, and whether they’re talented enough. And if it’s any one of my friends, then you’ve heard that they feel they have to face this transition all on their own.

Fear of entering “the real world” after college isn’t unique to dancers. Most new graduates step into the machine fairly clueless and jobless. But college is expected to equip a student with the skills they need for their projected career. Is this true for dancers?

Most dancers enter college with the intent and understanding that if dancing professionally is what they want to do, they are pursuing Modern dance. The dancers interviewed were well aware by high school that they would never be a Prima Ballerina; the career path for ballet is rather unique and set in stone over centuries. If you’re not apprenticing by your late ‘teens, the odds are bad that you’ll ever be in ABT or NYCB. That’s not to say a college graduate can’t dance for a small or local ballet company, but in Adelphi Senior and Paul Taylor Dance Company intern Elissa Cretella’s words, “I chose to go to college because I knew that I could never become a professional ballet dancer, and I was interested in learning modern and becoming a professional modern dancer.”

Attend nearly any modern dance show in New York City, and invariably, many of the dancers’ bios in the program will include the university at which they studied. This bodes well in terms of advocating the college dance route, because it shows that college graduates do get hired by modern dance companies.

But it’s worth delving into the question of whether a college education is the best choice for budding dancers. After all, it is a career that depends more on actual talent than on academic knowledge. There are no certifications or degrees required to become a dancer, as there are for, say, a lawyer or accountant. This raises the question of why a dancer should even bother getting a degree.

The answer is that for a lot of dancers, skipping college would mean not satisfying a big part of themselves as people. For those interviewed, college satisfied not only their need for technique class and dance training, but their academic pursuits as well. “I was very scholastically inclined in high school; I knew I wanted a college degree,” explains Ginanicole Caputo, an Adelphi graduate. While a substantial number of interviewees felt that attending college after high school was simply “the right thing to do,” for the others, college offered the opportunity they craved to explore and nurture interests and skills other than dance. “I wanted the best of both worlds, of my thirst for knowledge in writing and dance,” says Stephanie Falkowski, a Senior at Adelphi, currently interning with Dance Spirit magazine. College offers a special time and place to really focus on the “self,” serving as a kind of incubation period in which students have time to grow not just in their field, but as artists and as people. “Here, I am given the chance to grow. I’m being nurtured and prepared […]. Very rarely in life do you have the chance to be so openly self-centered for years,” says Sylvana Tapia, also an Adelphi Senior.

This isn’t without its drawbacks. Adelphi alum and LMProject dancer Jessie Niemiec cites a Kerry James Marshall quote from “Letters to a Young Artist” describing the cloistered, safe nature of art schools. “With any college,” she explains, “it is easy to get wrapped up in your surroundings, and the politics of each individual program, where everyone knows you; in ‘the real world,’ it is a lot of first impressions and direct contacts that get you ahead.

But mostly, after this “incubation period,”  dancers are ready and eager to enter the dance world. When asked if ready to graduate and begin their careers, Falkowski and fellow undergrad Hana Delong proclaimed very positive interest in taking the next step. “I’m ready to start the next chapter of my life,” Falkowski expressed, and she can’t wait to “work at a real job and be a real person.” Delong feels the same way: “I’m ready for a new place, a new environment.

But when asked if they actually feel prepared for this step, the answer was dramatically different. “Fuck no,” says Tapia. Falkowski: “I’m scared shitless.” Generally, when asked whether their university, Adelphi, is helping them to prepare for the upcoming stressful transition, this Senior class gave a unanimous “no.” Cretella “[doesn’t feel that her university] gave [her] enough guidance or preparation for the transition” and Tapia “simply does not feel their concern.” Delong says, “as a Senior no one has spoken to me about anything. They probably have no clue I’m graduating; no one is really looking out for us.” To be fair, they do mention that a few teachers are exception to the rule; but the department as a whole “shows little interest … in the wellbeing of their graduating Seniors,” Cretella explains

But it is not just this graduating class. “I think only one or two of my professors actually attempted to help me in the transition. Other than that, no,” added Caputo.

One might conclude that this lack of transitional preparation is part of the reason that only some comparable schools’ dance programs are regularly found in dance companies’ bios. Schools definitely differ, according to graduates’ responses, in career assistance and transitional help. Former dancer and Center Stage Hilo owner and director Pier Sircello felt well supported by her alma mater UC Irvine. “They allowed me to take classes there while I was dancing and auditioning after I graduated; and I also danced in their touring company.” She says that yes, she felt well prepared. So did Kile Hotchkiss, a graduate of the Ailey/Fordham partnership: “I felt prepared both physically and mentally for the dance world,” he says. And he describes “seminars and speakers pertaining to different aspects of the dance world,” which just might be key.

As in most areas of study, college selection does matter somewhat. But Adelphi graduate Ashley Chandler, currently employed by Circle of Dance Repertory, doesn’t think your school should define your career. She did feel prepared for “the real world.” “I received a great technical training, the opportunity to work with many different people and personalities, and [my school] provided me with a space to find myself as an artist and a performer.” She states her belief that “life is what you make it to be.” “I recommend experiencing as many different techniques, styles, teachers, and workshops as you can,” she articulates. This advice is repeated by many of the graduates. “Take techniques that may be new or uncomfortable to you,” Hotchkiss adds.

On top of technique training, other preparative tools are unanimously recommended by Seniors and graduates alike. One of these tools is taking on jobs in college, and, most importantly, saving money. “I wish I saved!” Niemiec laments. “I didn’t, and it made it very hard to go on auditions later on, because I wouldn’t be able to miss out on a day’s work because NYC rent will kill you!” In addition to savings, though, jobs offer something you can put on a resume. “I would definitely recommend getting a job at a studio, because it offers hands-on experience to another aspect of a dance career: teaching,” Adelphi Senior Kelly Leya offers

Another important tool for a dancer to utilize is the array of Summer and Winter intensives offered. Interviewees recommend going to as many as you can. “Intensives get your face exposed to the choreographers who are out there and the people you will be competing with for a job,” reasons Leya. “Every dancer should continue to stay in shape during the off season,” Niemiec points out. Another way to do this, Niemiec adds, is to regularly cross-train at the gym. “Dancing doesn’t always give you a cardio workout, and being that [dance] is such a visual art form, it is hard to maintain the physical expectations [of a dancer] without hitting the gym.”  Tapia hopes that “being disciplined and cross-training now will ease the transition from student to professional.”

The final recommendation by interviewees is to try to secure an internship. Internships can be acquired after graduation, which Leya points out may be the ideal time to do them, when the free classes that often accompany an internship can be a godsend. But for those who have participated in one during college, they felt that interning in “the real world” provides a great way to ease into it. “I am becoming a part of a community and making connections, and learning things about the professional world in a studio and behind a desk. I highly recommend doing an internship,” advises Cretella.

Despite regrets at opportunities not taken, and some dissatisfaction with transitional help and post-grad support, all interviewees responded with a resounding yes, they are happy with their college education. “I had regrets, but would not trade any of it,” discloses Falkowski. Cretella only adds that “I feel my school needs to look a little more into our futures, because if ours are successful, theirs will be, too.”

Natalie Walters is a Dance major at Adelphi University, where she has studied under Leda Meredith in dance and writing.

 

2 Comments

  1. I will be sharing this remarkably well written article on my Wall, where it will be appreciated by the dance professionals I’ve been blessed to work with over some decades. And tomorrow I plan to return to this to re-read, more at leisure, take more in and perhaps respond in greater detail. Thankyou!

  2. Nice, well written article. Hopefully future dance majors can read this somewhere.

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