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College Versus Conservatory:
Are They Really Different?

Article appeared in Dance Spirit, September 1999

Fall is a great time to try new things. Perhaps you've been to dance camp or attended a national convention where you learned a new dance style. You may have taken class with a teacher who's nothing like the teachers at your studio. Or took some time off from dance and tried something you've never done before. Most likely you met some new people - both dancers and non-dancers - and at least one of them asked you that all important question - so what are you going to do after high school?

Even if you have a few more years of high school, you would be wise to begin thinking about where dance will fit into your life once you've graduated. If you're thinking of a career in dance or in a dance-related field, now is the time to start learning about the ways dancers can build a professional life around their art. The more you know about different types of dance programs, the more likely you are to choose wisely and enter the program that will be best for you.

There are some dancers, particularly young women, who join select ballet companies and successfully begin their career while still in their teens. They frequently apprentice for a company or study as a scholarship student at a company school while still in high school. Traditionally these talented dancers delay thoughts of college until their performance careers are almost over. As the dance world becomes more sophisticated, however, and learns to extend the performance life of a dancer, companies such as the Joffrey Ballet and Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater have formed alliances with universities to enable their dancers to earn a college degree while performing.

Modern companies, on the other hand, are rarely interested in the teenage dancer. Comfortable working with mature bodies and mature themes, modern choreographers - many of whom have gone to college - expect that their dancers will bring experience and knowledge to the creative process. Jazz and musical theater dancers, as well as dancers who hope to choreograph, teach or become dance critics or producers, also frequently benefit from several years of education beyond high school.

Young dancers who want more education and training before they begin their professional career or working dancers who want to resume their education have the following options:
* A conservatory which offers a Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) degree in dance.
* A conservatory program which offers a BFA degree within a university.
* A university or college which offers a liberal arts degree, either a Bachelor of Arts (BA) or a Bachelor of Science (BS), in dance or a dance-related field.

Admission to a conservatory is by audition, artistic standards are high and the training is intense. While pursuing the BFA degree, students take approximately 75% of their courses in dance and the remaining 25% in academic subjects. Students can expect to take at least two technique classes a day and, by the fourth year, performance is the major component of most conservatory programs. Some count dance-related courses such as music theory, dance history or pedagogy as academic courses rather than art courses, while other programs require that students fill academic requirements with English, history and science classes. Because all students in a conservatory are performing artists, faculty members frequently relate academic work to the interests of performers. An English composition teacher, for example, may assign reviews of local performances.

While the conservatory allows students to live and work in a total art environment, some dancers appreciate interaction with non-artists. A conservatory program within a university allows these students to take their non-dance courses with students from the general university. They can benefit from academic classes and social activities with people of diverse interests. As in the free-standing conservatory, students in a university-based conservatory program graduate with the BFA degree.

Academic requirements at university-based conservatory programs vary. Some require that students meet the academic requirements of the university as well as the artistic requirements of the conservatory program. Others put more emphasis on a student's audition performance and have lower academic requirements for conservatory students than for students in academic programs. Once you're accepted into the program, some insist students meet standard university requirements while others function more independently. The emphasis in all conservatory programs, however, remains on dance.

Dancers with talents or interests in addition to performance are often happiest in a BA or BS program with a major or minor concentration in dance. Some students may elect to double major in dance and a related field like psychology, business or education. Major requirements range from 35% to 50% of total coursework in dance, allowing you to explore and develop other areas of interest. With smart planning, dance majors have gone on to graduate study in fields as diverse as architecture, medicine and law.

In a BA or BS program the focus on technique and performance is less intense than in a BFA program and academic standards are generally higher. If you're planning to pursue an academic degree in dance, prepare yourself by taking a full complement of academic courses in high school in addition to your dance and performance-related classes.

Admission to a liberal arts dance major may require an audition, but some schools accept students with the desire to study dance regardless of their talent or experience. This is consistent with the philosophy that the dance world needs thinkers, writers and creators in addition to performers.

Because the BA or BS degree is an academic rather than an art degree, technique and production classes, although required, are frequently non-credit courses. This allows you to acquire a broader academic background than the student in a BFA program.

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