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10 Dance College Programs You Should Know

10 Dance College Programs You Should Know
Photo Source: Jesse Balgley

“Good Morning Baltimore,” “Memory,” “Girl in 14G,” “All That Jazz”…. These songs are essentially colossal red stop signs, according to college audition “do not sing” lists around the web. But even more difficult than choosing a college audition song can be choosing the colleges to audition for—and later attend—whether we’re talking musical theater or dance. That’s why we’ve put together some considerations for performing arts students preparing to take the college plunge, as well as our top 10 lists of the best schools for each major.

One of the first decisions students need to make pertains to their degree and whether to go the bachelor’s of arts (BA) or bachelor’s of fine arts (BFA) route. BFA programs are an upfront commitment to a more defined curriculum outlined for students in advance, and the chosen major often makes up 75 percent of coursework, leaving only 25 for other liberal arts courses. “The BFA path is really only appropriate for someone who is 110 percent sure they want to major in that performing arts discipline,” says Susan Taub, an independent college counselor with expertise in performing arts admissions.

In BA programs, on the other hand, a musical theater or dance major would be like any other and make up closer to one-third of a student’s coursework. (Again, this can vary between schools.) It’s also usually much easier to double major in BA programs. The most important thing to remember? “Both paths can lead to success in life and in a career in the arts,” says Taub. In the end, it almost always comes down to talent rather than the type of degree on your diploma.

Next up: We have your three must-haves for program training and for the academic and college experience. Write them down, and use them to narrow down your college list! Firstly, a student who wants immersive conservatory training will likely be applying to different schools than one who wants to minor in art history and prioritizes the other academic programs, so know what you’re looking for right off the bat. Secondly, you should visit every school to which you’ve been accepted so you can actually get a feel for campus and classes. And thirdly, you must have an honest conversation with your family about what you can and cannot afford.

“Let’s face it: As a performing artist, you’re going to have long periods of unemployment, and it doesn’t make sense to take on a whole lot of debt,” says Mary Anna Dennard, owner and founder of College Audition Coach. Also, check in with yourself about your strengths and weaknesses in your performing arts field, then use them to help you decide on a school. The bravest thing to do would be to go to a school that’s going to challenge you most in the areas you are the weakest,” says Dennard.

Are you a dance student narrowing down your options list? It’s a good idea to think about the dance genres and techniques the school specializes in, if students must choose a specialization and the program’s philosophy. Also consider if there is a dance showcase for graduating seniors, if the school helps with job placement and prepares dancers for navigating “the business,” and if master classes are available. To round out your pros and cons lists, research the available opportunities for student choreography, the program’s partnering breakdown, recent guest choreographers, and the number of technique classes per week.

We here at Backstage considered some of the above criteria and used interviews with experts to help us shape this year’s list of the top 10 colleges for dance across the country. In alphabetical order, here’s the rundown of our favorite dance schools.

What’s unique about Ailey/Fordham? It’s a BFA program partnership between the Ailey School and Fordham University allowing students to enroll full-time at both schools and to take 14–17 dance technique and creative classes per week. Students are trained daily in ballet and modern dance (Horton or Graham technique), and other courses include somatic classes, improvisation, dance composition, modern partnering, jazz, hip-hop, and West African dance. The Ailey School also offers on-site physical therapy and a dance video and research library.

Performance opportunities: BFA students dance in two fall shows and at a spring benefit concert. Seniors also dance in New York City area venues with the Ailey Fordham Student Dancers, a touring repertory ensemble—and with BFA director approval, students may dance with local professional dance companies.

Post-college prep: Students in their final year can perform at various venues in the greater New York City area, as well as two fall performances of senior choreography and two spring senior concerts. All students also have the opportunity to audition for professional division workshops during the school year, provided they meet selection criteria.

Notable alumni of the Ailey School include: Taeler Cyrus, Clement Mensah, Alia Kache

The dance program is structured on a “triple track” curriculum with equal emphasis on ballet, modern, and jazz. Tap, African dance, choreography, and improvisation classes are also available, and the program offers emphasis in one or two areas during junior and senior years. As for studio work, the ensemble has performed the work of Alexei Ratmansky, Christopher Wheeldon, and George Balanchine. Students also have the opportunity to earn another degree alongside their BFA in dance (in the past, these have ranged from business to mechanical engineering).

Performance opportunities: The school of dance has a full performance season September through May made up of more than 40 performances a year.Recent unique performance opportunities include international engagements in Italy, Germany, and Mexico, national performances at the Joyce Theatre in NYC and in Oklahoma, and local performances with the Tucson Symphony Orchestra.

Post-college prep: Guest artists visit campus every year to set choreography or teach class to give dancers a better idea of their career goals. Rehearsals always operate in a professional setting, and students also learn career preparation, how to work with musicians, and technical production skills.

Notable alumni include: Alex McBride, Mindy Moeller, Ashley Lafferty

Boston Conservatory focuses its curriculum on ballet and modern dance, but students are also exposed to areas like jazz dance, hip-hop, pointe, improvisation, African dance, musical theatre dance, and swing dance. Near the end of a student’s sophomore year, they must declare an emphasis in either ballet, modern, jazz, composition, or pedagogy (teaching).

Performance opportunities: The annual dance season is made up of four fully produced mainstage shows, comprised of guest artists’ original works and choreography, choreography by senior dance majors, choreography by sophomore and junior dance majors, master works, and guest artist choreography for freshmen.

Post-college prep: The school hosts guest artists in residency and allows for student networking opportunities, as well as offering a year-long senior seminar outlining how to transition into the industry post-graduation. This year, Boston Conservatory is also offering a new creative entrepreneurship minor in partnership with Berklee.

Notable alumni include: Ebony Williams, Kurt Douglas, David Glista

Florida State’s BFA dance program hones in on performance and choreography, as well as pedagogy, history, and aesthetic. Other courses include music and choreography, composition, movement analysis, and production. Potential students should note that before advancing to the next level of any studio technique, dancers must demonstrate a certain level of progress or re-take the course. The school also offers dance study abroad programs in both Paris and Valencia featuring master classes and courses in dance history.

Performance opportunities: Every year, the school of dance produces the Day of Dance and Evening of Dance concert series on its main stage, as well as a selection of master thesis projects. The school also hosts smaller performances in its black box studio.

Post-college prep: Dance at Florida State offers multiple opportunities for students to be exposed to the industry, including a semester in New York City featuring classes, performances, and internship opportunities at the likes of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, American Ballet Theatre, and the Merce Cunningham Dance Foundation. At the main campus, students also attend regular dance forums—including lectures by industry professionals—throughout their undergraduate careers.

Notable alumni include: Lela Aisha Jones, Yeman Brown, Nora Chipaumire

Juilliard students study four years of ballet technique (courses include pointe and classical partnering), five different modern techniques (including Graham, Limon, and Cunningham), different types of improvisation (like contact and Gaga), repertoire and contemporary partnering, as well as jazz, tap, hip-hop, and ballroom. Freshmen are also offered one-on-one sessions in Alexander Technique.

Performance opportunities: About 30 annual performances are produced by Juilliard’s dance division, including a new dances series showcasing each class of students in a new work created for them by a choreographer. Dancers perform in established works during the spring Juilliard Dances Repertory series, and the annual Choreographers and Composers concert features a collaboration between six student choreographers and six student composers. Each year’s senior production spotlights works by senior choreographers.

Post-college prep: Graduating seniors take a year-long seminar about the industry, including advice on planning for professional auditions and objective self-evaluation, and in their senior production course, students learn to plan, budget, and present a full production.

Notable alumni include: Robert Battle, Paul Taylor, Sylvia Waters

Students hit the ground running in NYU’s BFA dance program, which centers on a three-year and two-summer curriculum. First-year courses focus on learning to dance healthily and efficiently with technique classes on placement and alignment. Second-year classes emphasize dance history, acting, improvisation, and music literature. And a student’s third-year training incorporates what they’ve learned into choreography and staged performance.

Performance opportunities: Major dance works are choreographed annually by faculty and guest choreographers, and students also have the opportunity to perform work from their composition classes in studio theater concerts, as well as repertory classes and performance workshops. Dance majors in their final year perform as ensemble members in NYU Tisch’s Second Avenue Dance Company, where four guest choreographers create new work or stage master works, and seniors can showcase their own choreography in concerts throughout the year.

Post-college prep: Students are taught by many faculty members who are currently working in the industry, and they learn from and network with professional dancers through the Second Avenue Dance Company their senior year.

Notable alumni include: Kyle Abraham, Denis Jones, Ryan Vandenboom

UNCSA students can graduate with a degree in either classical ballet or contemporary dance, though they can train in both concentrations. Other classes for dance majors focus on technique, composition, improvisation, somatic practices, choreography, music, dance history, pedagogy, business, and production. 

Performance opportunities: The school puts on four major performance series annually—the fall, winter, and spring dances, plus the Nutcracker. Standalone fully produced student choreography shows include Emerging Choreographers, Pluck Project, and Spree, and UNCSA also hosts repertory class workshop performances three times a year.

Post-college prep: Dance majors take a class in business perspectives that takes them through resume writing, networking, video reels, money management, contracts, and other real-world industry skills.

Notable alumni include: Camille A. Brown, Juel D. Lane, Kevin Tate

In 1981, the dance program at Oklahoma City University only covered performance. Now, its four degree tracks include dance performance, dance management, American dance teacher pedagogy, and entertainment business. For performance majors, the school hones in on musical theater and commercial dance, offering types of jazz dance like musical theater, lyrical, contemporary, classical, and hip-hop. Extensive tap courses are also offered, as well as ballet, pointe, and partnering.

Performance opportunities: Dancers can audition for the American Spirit Dance company (specializing in musical theater dance and using over 100 dancers), the school’s Christmas Spectacular show, a Broadway-style revue in the spring, opera productions, musicals, and other on-campus dance companies.

Post-college prep: Students receive training in basic theatrical management, production, choreography, and teaching skills. In addition, they learn about employer expectations, legal issues in the entertainment industry, auditioning, and career preparation.

Notable alumni include: Sasha Hutching, Kim Faure, Kristin Richardson

Point Park’s conservatory-style program requires students to take classes in all disciplines of dance, like classical ballet, different modern techniques (Horton, Limon, Graham, etc.), theatrical and commercial jazz, improvisation and others. Ballroom and West African dance are also offered, as are courses in kinesiology, dance history, body alignment and nutrition for dancers. Students can also choose a ballet, modern or jazz concentration, and they receive both middle- and end-of-term evaluations from faculty members.

Performance opportunities: Eight to 10 guest artists come to create or re-stage a work on Point Park students annually, and the school’s production season includes pieces ranging from the master works of George Balanchine and Martha Graham to the work of choreographers like Stefanie Batten Bland and Dwight Rhoden. The school also has a relationship with the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre and other local dance companies.

Post-college prep: Point Park’s capstone course, Entrepreneurship in the Arts, teaches dancers about the business of the profession, from marketing and networking themselves to grant writing. Each dance major also has a dance advisor to offer input on training and career advice.

Notable alumni include: Rob Ashford, Cheryl Mann, Luke Murphy

University of Utah dance majors primarily study either ballet or modern dance, and students are enrolled in daily technique classes—as well as training in areas like composition, dance kinesiology, dance history, philosophy, criticism, theater, and video production.

Performance opportunities: Majors can perform or showcase their choreography in an average of five fully produced performances per year. Depending on a student’s modern or ballet focus, there are a host of performance opportunities available. The school’s Performance Dance Company hosts two seasons of shows per year, and the school’s resident ballet company, Utah Ballet, presents an annual 16 performances in two series. Ballet students can also participate in opportunities like Ballet West’s pre-professional trainee program, plus the ballet ensemble and showcase.

Post-college prep: The school invites guest artists like Calvin Kitten, Jeremy Blanton, and Roni Mahler to teach master classes on campus and network with its students.

Notable alumni include: Bart Robinson Cook, Victoria Morgan, Jiang Qi

At Pace, dance students undergo conservatory-style training alongside a liberal arts education. The school offers ballet, jazz, contemporary, hip-hop, tap, theater dance, aerial arts, choreography, and more. One unique highlight? Students travel to Los Angeles to study dance and choreography for on-camera with Mandy Moore and other L.A.-based choreographers and directors, culminating in a local showcase to introduce them to industry players on the West Coast.

Performance opportunities: Two annual main stage performances as well as choreography showcases round out the year, and students can also perform in student-produced or directed shows on campus.

Post-college prep: Pace aims to connect students to the dance industry on both the East and West Coasts through the school’s central location and its L.A. program. Seniors take seminar classes and perform in a senior showcase. “Nearly 100 percent of the graduates have agents when they graduate,” says Rhonda Miller, associate professor and director of commercial dance.

Notable alumni include: Spencer Clark,Briana Pavon, Zelig Williams

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