Deciding to pursue dance in higher education might not seem necessary to some, but for me, was the best path I could have taken for both my education and future career. Coming from a small town, I needed those extra four years of higher education after high school to continue training and improving my dance skills, while the college environment itself allowed me the space and safety to explore other interests. At the same time, I was able to begin building my professional network in the city I’d start my career in.
You never know who will remember you as their ‘dancer friend’ from college and suggest you for an opportunity.
That being said, my experience as a dance major wasn’t always positive. I had many moments of insecurity in classes, from feeling like my peers were lightyears ahead of me in their training, to being told that I had too many interests to have a successful dance career. Now that I’m a few years on the other side of that experience, I have the hindsight to see exactly what helped and hindered my college dance education experience. If you’ve decided to study for your BA or BFA in dance, consider these five tips to make the most of your time in college:
1. Build a network outside of your dance peers
While it’s easy to become close with the dancers you take class with every day, try to avoid becoming too insular. The college experience is unique in that it provides its own type of ecosystem, with access to resources and people that will be harder to come by after graduation. From working with film students to create concept videos, to choreographing for the theater program’s musicals, or even meeting design students who could help you with your performance programs and posters, the friends you make in college can become the start of your professional creative network. For example, I recently had two different dance job opportunities offered to me through college friends who work in the film industry. You never know who will remember you as their ‘dancer friend’ from college and suggest you for an opportunity that you won’t see coming!
while in a university setting, your professors are there as learning resources, to help guide your career choices.
2. Get to know your professors outside of class
One of my biggest personal regrets from my time in college was not treating my professors like mentors. Especially now, as a freelance commercial dancer, mentors can be hard to find, but while in a university setting, your professors are there as learning resources, to help guide your career choices - not just give you grades and assignments. If, like me, you get shy about expressing yourself to your professors, start with visiting them during their office hours one on one. Bring a list of your future goals and questions, and offer to help them with any projects they’re workshopping or researching. Taking this initiative to get to know them on a more personal level can help them understand what you’re working on in class, and they’ll also become the base of your professional network once you finish school.
3. Don’t be afraid to experiment
Have you always wanted to try choreographing but never had the chance to? Did that African class on the schedule catch your eye but you’re nervous about trying something new? Try looking at your short time in college as a safe environment to experiment and play. My personal rule in college was to say yes to every opportunity, and that led me to some of my greatest memories and learning experiences, like being in a friend’s piece in the student concert, performing at basketball games with a dance crew, and even choreographing for a student short film. All of these experiences added to my understanding of the type of dancer I am and what I wanted to do with my career. These years in college are the perfect time to let yourself try something you normally wouldn’t, just to see where it takes you.
4. Document everything
When I started college, Instagram had barely entered the chat, so we didn’t film ourselves dancing as much as people do now. I wish I had more solo videos of my dancing over the four years of my dance studies, so I could use them as learning resources to track my growth and really see my improvements over the years. Each week, try filming yourself doing combos from classes, so you can look back from week to week and even senior year to see how far you’ve come. These videos would also be great to bring to your professors (see suggestion #2 above) to discuss what you want to work on or ask for feedback.
5. Explore aspects of university life outside the studio
The best thing I did while studying for my dance degree was purposely getting involved with as many aspects of the university as I could. I tried various work study jobs that aligned with my other interests, studied abroad, joined clubs that weren’t just about dancing, and even studied for a double major. This variety of experiences made me a more well-rounded dancer, and directly influenced my decision to study for an MA and dance abroad after I graduated. It also led me to lucrative side hustles that have kept me afloat financially while in between dance jobs. Especially for those dancers who spent most of their free time in dance training in the years leading up to college, the nature of university life allows you to explore things you haven’t been able to before, from cultural clubs, to volunteer work, to internships in other fields. All of these experiences can inform your creative work and dance practice in ways that you might not anticipate, so while it may seem counterintuitive, try to allow yourself some space in your schedule each week for something other than dance.
Try looking at your short time in college as a safe environment to experiment and play.
While I always advise dance majors to stay open to other interests and network outside of the studio, I also experienced firsthand how that approach led professors to believe I wasn’t as serious about being a dancer as some of my peers. Now I know that the best answer to this is taking the time to communicate with your peers and professors about how much you value your dance education, while staying secure in the knowledge that this time in college is a unique chance for you to experience life beyond the studio. These four years are about growing and learning about yourself as a young adult, not just a dancer, so above all, approach your time in college with an open mind, ready to experiment, explore, and play.