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Dance of the Diploma

BY Sabrina Karlin / New York University | 30-Oct-2016
In a profession traditionally prioritizing the career over education, dancers are choosing both. And succeeding. #artseducation #fineartsmajors #dance @sabrinakarlin
Holly Laroche, dancer and New York University student, performs a "c jump" on campus. Photo by Sabrina Karlin.
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 field of study, $42,000, according Georgetown University’s 2015 report, “The Economic Value of College Majors,” visual and performing arts degrees 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.

In the professional world of dance, qualified students should, ideally, seek employment straight out of high school, perhaps earlier. By age eighteen, students will already have been training pre-professionally for over a decade, ready to begin their careers when their non-dancing peers are just deciding their new college majors. With an average career duration of just fifteen years, according to Princeton University’s 2013 “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 such a belief, and its impact on aspiring dancers. The survey was presented through Facebook, Instagram and a personal blog, and received thirty usable results. With 27 of 30 respondents aware of a stigma, and 19 of those 27 admitting that it has affected their decisions to pursue dance, it is no surprise that many dancers are continuing to choose beginning their careers over pursuing higher education.

“I do desire to eventually go to college, but a ballet career is so short lived [that] I made dancing my priority,” says Kimberly Brubacher, an apprentice with Alabama Ballet.

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.

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 in the Joffrey Concert Group, Laroche’s former engagement, and accepted the opportunity to focus on performing in a “company-oriented” setting. 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.

“You can come armed with that intelligence into newer discussions within the art form,” Puckett notes, “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.”

Such intelligence is especially important given the short duration of a performing career. 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.

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 [and] there [are] many opportunities, whether for performing or choreography.”

Indeed, her sentiment is reflected in a hopeful statistic for the future of 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.”