The College Dance Department’s Dilemma

This past weekend, Dance Theater Workshop presented The Barnard Project, a partnership between guest choreographers and students of Barnard College (my alma mater). Although I was unable to attend any of the performances, a friend of mine sent me this article about the dance department at Barnard. It discusses the department’s increasing emphasis on experimental and avant-garde dance. Although the department offers six levels of ballet classes, along with six levels of modern and myriad other styles, there are no performance opportunities in ballet.

As much as I loved my dance classes and performance opportunities at Barnard, I grew frustrated that ballet seemed to take a back seat when it came to performing. This is probably true of other college dance departments, as well, since most tend to focus more on modern than ballet. Perhaps this is because ballet is associated with elitism, sparkly tutus, backwardness, and lack of experimentation. But what about the world of contemporary ballet? Do I even need to mention Morphoses/Wheeldon? Experimental dance has its place in a college dance department, but it pains me to think that ballet is only considered worthwhile in the classroom for the sake of technique, but not on stage – for the sake of artistry. While Mary Cochran (chair of Barnard’s dance department) has made excellent use of her connections with the downtown modern dance scene to provide Barnard students with unique performance opportunities, she (and all college dance professors) should cultivate relationships in the world of contemporary ballet, as well. Although it may seem like the majority of college students prefer modern to ballet, there are still plenty of bunheads, such as myself and some of the students quoted in the article, who long to be a part of ballet not only in the studio, but also on the stage.

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1 Response to The College Dance Department’s Dilemma

  1. Evan, I hear this kind of question all the time from students who come to college with a background in ballet, jazz or tap. Coming to a mostly modern department can be frustrating if that is not your desired focus. But, dodern dance dominates college dance departments because historically it is modern dancers who have run the departments. Modern dancers, as opposed to ballet dancers, have been more likely to go to college in the first place and then later choose to pursue teaching at the college level. Many of the most accomplished ballet dancers never go to college at any level, let alone get advanced degrees. Hence, they are not qualified to teach at a university (from the university’s point of view). The dominance of modern dance at universities won’t change until the directors of the programs are from more varied backgrounds. Of course, there are a number of universities that offer ballet focuses, as well as jazz, musical theater and ethnic forms – if a student is really interested in these forms of dance they just need to do some research and find those schools.

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