For dancers graduating from high school, whether or not to go to college for dance is a huge decision. Dancers contemplating this choice have to weigh the possibility of hefty student loans and time spent against the significant advantage of having a four-year degree. The fact that dancing is a young person’s business also means that taking the time for a dance degree between the ages of 18–22 has a lot of pros and cons.
This is a personal decision that should be based on many factors including your financial situation, emotional readiness, casting considerations, and, most importantly, where your heart lies. While I can’t make the decision for you, I hope the following list of things to consider will help you in choosing whether to go the educational or professional route after high school.
Ask yourself what your financial reality is and if it can sustain you in an unstable work environment if you go the pro route. What kind of savings and/or support network do you have? Will you be spending most of your time in a survival job to support you financially? If so, what’s your strategy for training and auditioning? What are your living and transportation options? Are you willing to forgo some luxuries to stretch your money? If you decide to go to college, will you graduate with student loans?
If you can imagine yourself being happy doing something other than dancing professionally, I recommend going to college or pursuing whatever that path may be. Dancing professionally is nothing less than dream chasing. Those who succeed can walk away with emotional fulfillment but the financial downsides are real. Starting this journey with realistic expectations will help you in the long run.
Casting directors utilize categories of looks and types to hire for roles, so timing can be a significant factor in your ability to get jobs. If you look too grown up to fit in the teen category but not quite old enough to be cast as an adult, it may serve you to get your education between the ages of 18–22. Other dancers easily fit into the adult category as teens and may want to take advantage of fitting into that look category at a younger age.
I was a childish-looking young adult and a late-blooming dancer, so it worked for me to get my degree at the traditional time. By the time I moved to Los Angeles at 23, I was just growing into my adult look and had gained not only maturity but a host of other skills in college that helped me to manage the business side of dancing professionally.
Going to college and starting a dance career can pose challenges such as being far from home, withstanding rejection, and facing scenarios that are completely foreign to you. The difference between the two is that the dance industry doesn’t provide the same structure a four-year degree can.
This industry is an example of the most real the real world can be. Dancers must have the motivation and discipline within themselves to create structure where there is none. I’ve been doing this for 18 years and still find the lack of structure somewhat challenging. No one makes you go to class or show up at an audition or a networking event. This lifestyle has the potential to test even the most disciplined of personalities and the sooner you become disciplined and figure out your structure, the better.
If you’re the strongest dancer at your studio, realize that moving a major market like L.A. or New York means you’ll be competing against your counterpart from every studio in America or even the world. The cream of the crop flock to these cities and compete for a small number of jobs compared to the number of dancers who want them. Are you financially and emotionally ready to be rejected over and over? This career path calls for a thick skin, focus, and humble attitude.
No matter what you choose, it also must be done with intention and commitment. Even if all the logistics aren’t coming together, you may still have the emotional pull to go for it. If that’s the case, college may be a waste of time and money if your heart isn’t in it. I have some retired dancer friends who went to school after their dance careers were over and are much more focused on their studies at a later age. Others have deep regrets about skipping school to start working at 18. They find themselves as 30-somethings with only a high school diploma, negatively affected by the disadvantage of not having a degree.
Ask yourself how much you want it. Do you wake up every day wanting only to dance? Can you imagine doing something else for a living? What else is important to you?
I took a more traditional road after college by landing a job only to realize very quickly that I’m an artist. So I quit an awesome job—something that was considered crazy by my peers—and moved to L.A. Though it was the right decision for me, I still have days where I think about quitting dance. It’s extremely fulfilling but rarely easy.
This is a ruthless business that tests even the strongest individuals. There is no right or wrong answer and no single kind of successful dancer. Do your research, ask yourself the tough questions, and search your heart.
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