This past April, I received an email from dance blogger Tonya asking for advice regarding an email that she received from Juan, a concerned father of a seventeen-year-old dancer living in Barcelona who was about to make a critical decision that many young dancers face: whether to pursue a bachelor’s degree at a liberal arts college or attend a dance conservatory with the hopes of eventually dancing professionally. Juan’s daughter had been accepted to several US universities with dance programs, Barnard being one of them, but she was also considering attending a ballet conservatory in France, if accepted. Here’s an excerpt from Juan’s email:
Some professional ballet people here in Spain told her that dance majors at US universities are worthless to become a professional ballet dancer. IS THIS TRUE? They say she should attend a ballet-only school, nothing else, full time ballet, here in Europe. But we (parents) are encouraging her to dance at a US university and get a BA so she can later work in anything she wants around the ballet world if becoming a professional ballerina fails. BA’s can get you such a well-rounded education. What do you think?
My gut instinct was to encourage his daughter to attend a liberal arts college – particularly Barnard, but I admit that I’m biased – as it would broaden her horizons and allow her to explore interests outside of dance (I arrived at Barnard certain that I would major in dance, but I became so interested in other areas – anthropology, sociology, and Latin American literature among them – that I ended up majoring in Spanish and Latin American Cultures and minoring in Dance). Performing careers can only last as long as the body can handle the physical demands of dance, so to me, it seemed like a safer bet to pursue a bachelor’s degree so that she would have options. However, I didn’t want to mislead her into thinking she could definitely join a ballet company after college, especially since most major companies hire dancers when they are just sixteen or seventeen.
I decided to ask one of my favorite dance professors for advice on how to respond to Juan’s concerns. Katie Glasner, a Senior Associate and Assistant Chair of the Dance Department at Barnard, was my adviser for the dance minor, my professor for a class almost every semester, and an incredible source of support and sage advice. Since Katie danced professionally with Twyla Tharp Dance Company before returning to college and eventually becoming one of Barnard’s most beloved dance professors, I knew she could offer some guidance about the college-versus-professional-track dilemma. Here’s an excerpt from her email to me:
I often tell people that dancing is indeed perishable, whereas the mind is not. Or, it’s less perishable. At this point in time, people can have a career in dance and pursue education options when they decide to end their performance career, at least this is the case in the US. A liberal arts education…is the best education. I like to think that if [the dance department at] Barnard had existed when I was 17, I would have jumped at the chance. But who knows? I also ALWAYS tell people that no one has the powers of Cassandra nor has a crystal ball. No one can see into the future. There are no insurance policies in life.
You’re right, it would be misleading to convey that someone can move from four years at a liberal arts college directly into a ballet company. That’s not what the liberal arts mission is – it happens, but it is the exception and not the rule. Even for students pursuing modern dance performance careers.
The first line of Katie’s email – about dancing being perishable and the mind less so – really struck me. I thought more about my own opinion on the matter and realized that what Katie said was true. So, I replied to Juan’s email, encouraging his daughter to attend the conservatory now if that’s what she really wants, with the understanding that she can always pursue a bachelor’s degree after a dancing career.
A few weeks later, Juan emailed me to say that his daughter decided to attend a liberal arts college here in the US and hopes to pursue a double major in dance and something else. It was great that Juan was so concerned about his daughter’s decision, and clearly wanted what was best for her. But in the end, he said that she made the decision herself. There’s certainly no right or wrong answer to the college-versus-professional-track dilemma, so I would love for others to comment and share their opinions about this issue. I think the best thing that young dancers can do – with some help from their parents/guardians and friends – is explore all of the options, examine the pros and cons of each, and make a decision with which they’re happy.