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The Non-Dance Major: Why You Don't Have To Major In Dance To Make A Successful Career of It

Article appeared in Dance Spirit, April 2000

"I love to dance and I know that dance will always be part of my life. My teachers say I should go to a conservatory. The problem is that I'd really like to learn other things, too. Every time I look at college catalogs, I find majors that I'd never heard of before and that look interesting. But if I don't go to a conservatory - or at least major in dance - can I still have a dance career if that's what I decide I want?"

Does this sound like you? You love to dance, but worry about missing out on a great college education? Are there things you want to learn in college besides dance? There's good news: You don't have to major in dance to make it your career. Two successful dancer/choreographers share their thoughts on higher ed and why they're glad they didn't major in dance.

John Carrafa was a science major in college. Rachel Bress designed an interdepartmental major, which incorporated her interest in communications, performance studies and human development. Both are now pursuing successful dance careers in New York City and believe that their academic training contributed to their success as dancers and choreographers.

A biology major at Bates College in Lewiston, ME, John had never considered a dance career. A few tap classes and a featured role in a high school play prompted a friend to write in John's yearbook, "Good luck with your dance career." But he was headed for medical school.

At Bates, John took a dance class for gym credit. Soon he was joining the dance club and organizing a performing company. He discovered that he loved to dance and even considered leaving Bates to study dance full time. "Every semester, I agonized over whether I should be at Bates or in NYC, but I couldn't bear to leave college. I experienced myself in a different way in college and I liked the feeling."

But soon, the need to dance became too strong to resist. While doing an internship at a hospital in Hartford, CT, in preparation for applying to medical school, John studied at the School For The Hartford Ballet. During his senior year at Bates, he joined the newly formed Ram Island Dance Company and took a master class with Twyla Tharp, which led to a position in her company.

John became Twyla's assistant and collaborated with her for 10 years. He believes that Twyla appreciated his way of thinking about dance. "I always had a different way of conceptualizing a piece, which definitely came from having studied things like science and art and history. I believe that my academic training challenged and stretched me in ways that made it possible for me to grow as both a dancer and a person, and to bring an interesting dimension to my creative work. I definitely use my academic background when I choreograph. I draw on everything I know, whether it is the way atoms and molecules move through space or a class I took once on Impressionism. My education gave me lots of images and ideas to draw from, and I like dancers who can understand and visualize and fill out my ideas," he says.

While choreographing an independent film in NY, John asked if any of his dancers were interested in doing research for him. The dancer who offered to help was a recent Northwestern University graduate, Rachel Bress. Impressed by the same qualities in Rachel that Twyla had seen in him, John offered Rachel choreographic opportunities.

Rachel also appreciates that her college education has opened doors for her. "I have worked with - and learned from - some incredibly talented and accomplished people in TV, film, theater and concert dance who respect my academic as well as artistic achievements," she says.

Now two years out of school, Rachel still remembers making decisions about college. "I had been a dancer since I was 12. By the time I finished high school, dance was my life. I wanted to go to college to find out what else I could be passionate about besides dance. I knew that if I was destined to be a dancer, I would continue to be drawn to dance," she says. And she was right. Although she enjoyed her academic studies, dance continued to be Rachel's passion. Knowing that she had other options, however, made her appreciate the huge role dance played in her life.

When asked to join Gus Giordano Jazz Dance Chicago's second company in her junior year, Rachel created an academic schedule that allowed her to meet company as well as college obligations. "I took any academic class that met at 8 am so that I could get to my 10 o'clock ballet class at Giordano's. I found some of my most interesting classes that way!"

Rachel knew that in order to be the kind of dancer she wanted to be, she needed to grow intellectually. She also wanted to create her own path in the dance world. "I did not want to follow anyone else's curriculum. While in college, I found dance opportunities in the Chicago area and figured out how to take advantage of them. I performed, taught, choreographed and did an internship in dance administration. The ability to create learning experiences has been valuable to me in New York, too."

Looking back on her college experience, Rachel believes that the balance between her academic life and her artistic life shaped the way she creates and performs dance. "I have so many palettes to draw from. I'm influenced by friends who studied economics and physics, as well as by classes I took in history and child development. I appreciate that my dancing has a dimension that comes from outside my art world."

COLLEGE CHOICES: Which Path Will You Take?

The majority of your classes will be dance or dance-related. The others will be liberal arts courses. Emphasis in primarily on performance, although some conservatory programs offer teaching or administration tracks. Admission is generally by audition. An entire school can be a conservatory or a conservatory can be part of a college or university. Conservatory programs award the BFA degree (Bachelor of Fine Arts). This is an arts degree.

Approximately one-third of your courses will be dance or dance-related. There is less emphasis on technique and performance than you will find in a conservatory program, and more emphasis on academics. The philosophy of most academic dance programs is that the dance world needs thinkers, teachers, writers and creators in addition to performers. Most programs award the BA (Bachelor of Arts) or BS (Bachelor of Science). These are academic degrees. In an academic program, you can also double major in two subjects.

You may choose to take some dance classes at college, but your major will be in another discipline. You may take advantage of professional companies and studio schools in the area. Your degree will be an academic degree and will depend on what academic area you choose to study.

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