[ November 20, 2019 by Annie Libera 0 Comments ]

What is the Value of a Dance Degree?

A 2018 article from Dance Spirit Magazine, “What Dancers Can Do with a College Degree that They Can’t Do Without One,” has recently resurfaced on social media. It has been getting a lot of buzz and, this week, I’d like to add to the noise. For those of you who have been here before, you likely already know that I attended university and earned my dance degree. So, as you can probably imagine, the reemergence of this Dance Spirit Magazine article prompted me to reflect on my own education and post-college experience. After careful consideration, I am… torn. The article is somewhat aligned to the reality of my own experience, it is very informative, and it provides a good deal of food for thought. That said, I believe the article’s assessment of the value of a dance degree is a tad skewed. In an effort to balance the perspective, here is my two cents.

A 2018 article from Dance Spirit Magazine, “What Dancers Can Do with a College Degree that They Can’t Do Without One,” has recently resurfaced on social media. It has been getting a lot of buzz and, this week, I’d like to add to the noise. For those of you who have been here before, you likely already know that I attended university and earned my dance degree. So, as you can probably imagine, the reemergence of this Dance Spirit Magazine article prompted me to reflect on my own education and post-college experience. After careful consideration, I am… torn. The article is somewhat aligned to the reality of my own experience, it is very informative, and it provides a good deal of food for thought. That said, I believe the article’s assessment of the value of a dance degree is a tad skewed. In an effort to balance the perspective, here is my two cents.

Disclaimer: Before diving in, you may want to read the article.   If you choose to forego reading the article, please know that I make every honest attempt to accurately summarize the article in my response below. I’d also like to note that, throughout her article, author Kristyn Brady provides examples and testimony from dancers in and staff members of prestigious programs. My college program is not one that enjoys universal name-recognition. Therefore, my post-college experience is different than that demonstrated in the article. Consequently, I recommend that you take my commentary with a grain of salt.

The first section of the Dance Spirit Magazine piece is titled “Curriculum, Not Just Class.” Here, the article states that college dance programs provide students with a kind of outline for improving technique and self-care. I don’t disagree that university-level courses do exactly that. However, the title of the article is “What Dancers Can Do with a College Degree that They Can’t Do Without One.” As far as I’m concerned, the implication is that this outline, this deeper understanding of technique and care, can be learned only in a college setting. And that simply isn’t true. You don’t need a dance degree to acquire this knowledge and practice.

There are non-college dance programs (e.g., the Debbie Reynolds Legacy Scholarship Program, Edge Scholarship Program, Broadway Dance Center Pro-Semester Program, Joffrey Academy Trainee Program, Alvin Ailey Certificate Program, etc.) that can offer the same tools and education with respect to technique and self-care. These are not four-year programs. Yet dancers who participate in these programs are trained by some of the best in the industry and receive verified information. Yes, college courses can be extremely rigorous. Yes, a student’s degree is on the line. And yes, that does create an environment of high achievement and accountability. But no, I don’t think that pursuit of a college degree is the only course of action. One of the major benefits of the non-college programs is the strict structure provided. You will not be left to figure out and plan your training on your own. In general there really isn’t a difference from the structured curriculum of university programs. My point is simply that there are alternatives to college where the physical element of dance education is concerned. 

The article then goes on to discuss “The Pro Treatment.” In short, this section of the article emphasizes the real-life, practical training that college dancers receive. To an extent, I agree with Brady’s statement that college trains dancers to “manage a rigorous schedule and take on professional responsibilities that will seamlessly take them into the industry.” While many non-collegiate programs offer extensive training and educate dancers about industry-related topics, they don’t impose as much work as that assigned at a school. Not only are college students dancing several hours a day, but they also have academic classes, homework, rehearsals, and, for some, jobs. Talk about holding yourself accountable. On that point, I am in full agreement with Brady. Her claim regarding a “seamless” transition, though, goes too far. Keep in mind that college programs vary greatly. If you choose a concert-based college dance program, then you may easily transition into the concert dance world upon graduation; but you may not be prepared the commercial dance world.

Further, I worry that the usefulness of some college coursework may be overstated in this section of the article. In particular, the article notes that at least one college program has students take contract law in order to help them in their post-college careers. As someone who took entertainment law in school, I can assure you that one or two classes will not make you comfortable enough to confidently review a major contract. Sure, it is nice to have a bit of background knowledge when reading a contract. But you will still need substantial guidance upon entering the professional world. That is why there are dance agents! Credit where it is due, contract law is a useful class. However, learning about contracts in a classroom can only take you so far.

My final bit of beef with this section of the article is its suggestion that attending college is necessary to learn some pretty basic skills. It discusses, for example, how students are “expected to show up on time” and “retain material week to week.” First of all, this may be my type A personality coming through, but it is never okay not to show up on time for something. You don’t have to attend university to learn that. This is true for every job in every industry. College educated or not, every person who successfully holds down a job knows the importance of punctuality. Second, learning to retain information is something you do in childhood. You don’t learn a math skill only to forget it in the next level. You build on it. These skills should already be developed when entering the college level. 

The next topic Brady tackles is that of dance companies and their changing expectations for dancers. She notes that dance companies prefer to work with college-educated dancers. In my experience, I find this to be true with the bigger dance companies. However, this isn’t always the case. Don’t bank on your college degree getting you hired with a company over your non-degree-holding peer. The article suggests that companies look for dancers who can help behind the scenes with the business end. Again, this is true in some cases, but not all. Likewise, Brady’s sources are right that college coursework can help dancers learn to collaborate with other members of a production team. But those are skills that can be learned in other programs, in other classes, and on the job. Find the learning environment that is right for you—it may not be the college classroom.

In the next section of her article, Brady and I are on the same page: networking. A dancer’s time in college is, essentially, a four-year networking experience. You meet fellow dancers and train under brilliant professors. In terms of a network, you get out what you put in. So yes, dancers can graduate with a great built-in network. Under the direction of our professors, a handful of people from my college program began working with professional dance companies immediately after graduation. So yes, the relationships you build in college can definitely help you get industry work.

Now, just as I was getting on board with Brady, here I am feeling like the rug was pulled out from under me. Following the discussion of “A Network to Get Work,” the article lists a number of job options for the degree-holding dancer. Personally, I feel that this list is a bit careless, for lack of a better word. The career opportunities she lists, somehow manages to include both jobs that require no degree at all and jobs that require a great deal more than a B.A. in dance. Let’s be honest, there are many positions in the entertainment industry that can be attained without a college education. A talented, emotionally intelligent, charismatic, and business savvy performer can work his/her way up to a company operations manager or director position based on skillset, connections, and experience alone. On the other hand, my B.A. in dance certainly does not qualify me to be a physical therapist. To be fair, I understand that Brady is pointing out the various avenues within the performance industry. We are not limited to being dancers or dance teachers. That said, I think this list runs contrary to the very title of the article. 

Perhaps the true saving grace of this article is Brady’s exploration of “The Fallback Fallacy.” Here, she asks you to consider your degree not as a fallback for if/when you cannot dance, but rather as a stepping stone for the establishment of a stable career. I agree. If you want a fallback degree, study business or communications. These are useful degrees that can help you get jobs outside of the dance industry. But if you choose to go to college and study dance, you do it because dance is your intended career. Your degree will be a legitimate credential on your resume and will give you an extra boost when auditioning. It is not a footnote or an escape route. It is useful in and of itself. 

Speaking of which, I wish the Dance Spirit Magazine article would have more thoroughly addressed the inherent value of an education. Being an educated dancer is such a wonderful privilege. Before I went to college, I had no idea who Merce Cunningham, Paul Taylor, or Katherine Dunham were. These icons, along with a handful of others, have literally changed the dance world. And I never would have known or appreciated this had it not been for my college classes. Now to be fair, anyone can do their research on dance history. But I certainly wouldn’t have done so on my own. My classes on the culture and history of dance were challenging and eye-opening.

I hope my above assessment of the Dance Spirit Magazine article was useful and fair. No two college experiences are the same; no two post-college careers are the same. So don’t just take my word for it. If you are interested in attending university to study dance, then I encourage you to explore that option. If you are on the fence, then that’s fine, too. School will always be there, and you can return to it as an option at a later time. There is no right or wrong answer. 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *