College versus Conservatory: A Dancer’s Dilemma

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.

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5 Responses to College versus Conservatory: A Dancer’s Dilemma

  1. Taylor says:

    Interesting post, Evan.

    I’m of the camp that education is extremely important – but I personally think a degree in dance is not necessarily necessary. There are so many people out there dancing (ballet, modern, what have you) without degrees that it certainly isn’t a required step. However, majoring in dance I’m sure provides benefits like networking and tackling dance from other perspectives.

    My BIG thing is the importance of an education outside of dance. At least for me, learning intensely about an outside field has given me so much more than a dance major would have, I think. I now approach dance from multiple viewpoints and have a much broader knowledge base to refer back to in doing and viewing dance.

    I think, from my experience anyway, that an option pursued by very few (I can think of 1 other at the moment besides myself) is to continue to train professionally while pursuing a liberal arts degree separately – i.e. continuing at a ballet studio while getting a degree in something else. Yes, it is a LOT of work to live two lives simultaneously. But I think the payoff of being prepared for two careers upon graduation is wonderful. And you have a back up after the short lived dance career ends.

    I have lots more to say on the subject but am pressed for time at the moment…I’ll look forward to hearing other opinions and will try to add more later.

  2. tonya says:

    Thanks so much for taking on the task of writing about this, Evan. This is a great post — very informative and covering many angles — and I’m sure it will help many people trying to decide.

  3. Danielle says:

    I LOVE KATIE!!! :-D

    OK, that probably not the most eloquent reply… I don’t know, clearly I love Barnard and I think I made the right decision in going there, but I can’t help but wonder how different my life would have been had I gotten the BFA/Conservatory degree instead…

  4. I also agree that an education is very important for dancers to fall back on, especially if they get the opportunity to attend a conservatory or liberal arts school.

    I came from a performing arts high school in Houston, Texas where I got most of my training and where it was expected that we would go on to dance in college. I couldn’t be more pleased with my decision to continue my education. Not only do I get to dance everyday and grow in my craft, as well as learn about other fields of study in the liberal arts, the networking that goes on in a college setting is immense and has booked me several gigs in the field.

    Thank you for bringing this up, I think it is a very important topic that isn’t discussed as much as it should be to help growing dancers make these tough decisions!

  5. Alexandra says:

    I am currently going through this same process, so I found this post very intriguing. After being waitlisted at Barnard and Vassar, I put my deposit down at Butler University to pursue conservatory style ballet training. However, this week I was informed by both Barnard and Vassar that I had been accepted off their waiting lists. As previously mentioned, I know it is extremely rare for someone to attend four years at a liberal arts school and still be able to join a ballet company. I had become comfortable with the idea of studying at a conservatory and continuing to pursue my dream of joining a ballet company, but I also love both Barnard and Vassar and am worried that the opportunities I would receive my attending such prestigious colleges are too good to turn down. I only have two days to make the decision and I have no good gut feeling to follow, I would love to hear any advice/experiences/suggestions!

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