College Before Career?

Four dancers share their undergrad experience and how it helped them succeed in the companies where they dance today.
Published in the October/November 2010 issue.

Peng-Yu Chen

Photo by C. McCullers

Traditionally, ballet dancers bypassed college to maximize their dancing years. But for today’s generation, earning a degree before auditioning for the corps has become a smart move. The right undergraduate program can be an opportunity to grow intellec­­t­ually, polish up technique and work with major choreographers. Even more importantly, it can offer experiences that will help you mature as an artist. Sure, there are trade-offs to sacrificing four years of prime performing time. But for some dancers, college can be just what they need to make the leap from student to professional.

 

 

Peng-Yu Chen
Age: 28
College: SUNY Purchase
Company: Atlanta Ballet


Why College: Coming from Taiwan, it was the most direct way for me to get a visa to the U.S. Also, college is expected from most Asian families—mine might have had heart attacks if I told them I was going all the way to the other side of the world to find a job right after high school.

Why SUNY Purchase: I saw the student company perform in Hong Kong and knew it was where I wanted to go—it was the only place I applied.

Best Part: In college, you learn different styles much faster. I was exposed to so many choreographers. I danced works by Balanchine, Paul Taylor, Doug Varone, Mark Morris, Jacqulyn Buglisi and Lin Hwai-Min (of Cloud Gate Dance Theatre). 

Hardest Part: I didn’t speak English very well at first, so academics were difficult, but the professors helped me. I didn’t party or have a regular college life. I had to work really hard, but that’s what I was there for. Purchase prepared me for what I’m doing today—and now I get to enjoy life.

Extra Opportunities: In addition to getting a BFA in dance, I also got an arts management certificate, which will one day be useful when I finish dancing.

Advice: Before I started at Purchase, I didn’t think I could get into a ballet company. Although I had a strong ballet base, I had never put on a pair of pointe shoes or done any partnering. Remember that a lot can happen in four years.

 

Michelle Mahowald
Age: 25
College: Indiana University
Company: Ballet Arizona

Why College: I wasn’t ready to join a company—I needed more training and fine-tuning.

Why Indiana: The program functions exactly like a company: After academics in the morning you have company class at 11 am, and rehearse until 6 pm.

Best Part: The teachers really made an investment in me. They polished me up, cleaned my technique and looked at the details, especially my weak points.

Favorite Subjects: Piano, which is mandatory at IU and so important for dancers. Half of our job is music! English literature, especially Shakespeare, was another favorite.

How College Helped: I learned what I wanted out of a professional life, so I felt more mature when it came time to select a com­pany. Because we were able to perform a diverse repertoire at IU, I knew that I enjoyed classical work the most and wanted to join a company that was mostly classical but occasionally performed neoclassical or contemporary repertoire as well.

Age Concerns: I didn’t feel age was such an issue because the IU program is designed to be completed in three years. I was more concerned that my technical experience surpassed my performance experience. When I got into Ballet Arizona I was still green.

 

Advice: Try to think beyond a career in dance and find a program where you can earn a double major. As we all know, a dancer’s career can be short-lived and somewhat unpredictable.


Annie Breneman
Age: 30
College: University of Utah
Company: Ballet West


Why College: I auditioned for companies all over the U.S. during my senior year of high school but didn’t get any job offers.

Why University of Utah: I was hoping to join a company, so I liked that they have strong connection to Ballet West.

Age Concerns: After my second year I became an apprentice at Ballet West, which let me dance and work on my degree at the same time, so I wasn’t so concerned about age.

Hardest Part: Dancing while being in school made the days rough and long. I was always two minutes late to company class, which was stressful. It was good, though, for me to have a focus outside of the ballet world. Education gives you new perspectives and more depth as a person and a dancer.

Favorite Subject: Kinesiology. Seeing how the muscles pull the joints to create the movement we do every day was fascinating to me.

 

Extra Opportunities: I took the requirements to go to physical therapy school. I would love to work with dancers some day. I’ve never missed a show because of an injury—I like to think that I’m both a lucky and smart dancer.

Advice: Keep auditioning while you’re in college. You want to keep your audition edge so that nerves don’t get start to get in the way. Unfortunately, in the dance world, jobs are rare. If you’re offered one, jump at the chance, because you can continue your education almost anywhere.

 

 

David Neal
Age: 25
College: New York University
Company: Richmond Ballet

Why College: Coming from Casper, Wyoming, where there are six other guys in the whole state pursuing dance as a career, I was not ready to hit the professional scene. I also love academics and didn’t want to give that up.

Why NYU: I knew I wanted to dance but wasn’t sure whether modern or ballet was the right fit, so I liked that NYU wasn’t geared toward one genre. Also, they have an impressive ballet faculty, including former American Ballet Theatre and Houston Ballet dancers.

Best Part of College:  I was able to do work by Dwight Rhoden, Bill Young and Merce Cunningham. Merce even came to watch us—that was pretty awesome and one heck of an opportunity. I also had access to the grad students, many of whom had already had professional careers.

Favorite Classes: Dance history. It helped me understand the full-lengths, and the distinction between Classical and Romantic ballets. Women were more ethereal in Romantic ballet. Knowing that shifts my approach to partnering: I see myself catching a woman as she tries to fly away rather than lifting her. I also enjoyed taking classes in eclectic subjects like the History of Western Judaism.

How It Helped: Before college, dance was just about the thrill of athleticism. It has much more meaning for me now. It’s almost a spiritual experience, and that’s what I try to share onstage.

Advice: College helps you figure out what kind of dancer you want to be. I went in thinking I would end up in ballet, but first I wanted to see what else was out there. I found my place within the dance world. If I had gone straight to an apprenticeship, I wouldn’t have had that.

 

 

Nancy Wozny writes about the arts from Houston, TX.