Think A Dance Degree Is Only Good for A Performance Career? Here Are 4 Grads with 4 Different Career Paths.

July 29, 2018

When you decided to pursue a dance degree, it was most likely with the intent to join a ballet company after graduation. But college is also a place of self-exploration and discovery—and sometimes your dreams change. While auditioning for companies may seem the natural “next step” for graduating dance majors, a degree can lead to a variety of paths. Here are four recent dance program graduates with four different career goals.

Devinne Cook, University of North Carolina School of the Arts

Photo by Rodney Rice, Randolf Images, Courtesy Davinne Cook

“When I was applying to colleges, I knew that dance was something I was good at, and something I wanted to do as long as possible,” says Devinne Cook, who graduated from University of North Carolina School of the Arts with a BFA in dance last spring. By her sophomore year, however, something had changed: The high caliber of talent at UNCSA reframed her perspective on what it takes to be a successful dancer. “I just started feeling really defeated, like I wasn’t going to make it,” she says.

Cook felt a great deal of pressure, having convinced her mom to let her apply to only conservatory programs: “When I decided I wasn’t going to dance after college, I didn’t tell my mom. I just told myself, ‘I’m going to finish my degree.’ ”

Somewhat panicked, Cook looked into simultaneously pursuing an online business degree, but it wasn’t feasible. “Our dance schedule was pretty demanding, and I would have been stretched too thin,” she says. She decided to take the next two years to explore potential career paths.

Cook got some clarity her senior year, when she served as co-chair in two extracurricular organizations. “I realized I’m really good at administrative work, and I got so much more fulfillment out of it than performing,” she says. With this new insight, she began looking into graduate programs in arts administration. All the while, she continued taking technique, repertory and liberal arts classes, savoring the opportunity to grow in UNCSA’s immersive environment. Her decision to stick with the dance program paid off her senior year, when she had the opportunity to perform work by Doug Varone. “He came to UNCSA to set a piece on us, and it was honestly my most fulfilling performance experience, ever,” she says.

Cook plans to keep dance a part of her life. She began her master’s degree in business/arts administration at Wake Forest University this summer, with aspirations to open a dance studio.

Orlagh McKenzie, Point Park University

Photo by Kamillia McKracken, Courtesy McKenzie

By age 14, Orlagh McKenzie knew she wanted to join a professional ballet company. This aspiration took her to Point Park University, where she began working toward her BA in dance in 2014. Yet something shifted around her sophomore year. “My sister is a psychologist, and she would share stories about helping children and the great feelings it gave her,” she says. “I realized I wanted to experience that in my career.” In high school, McKenzie had worked with abused dogs. She thought there might be a career that could utilize that experience, but for children who were victims of abuse. That’s when she stumbled upon dance therapy, and began to revise her postgraduate plans.

Letting go of her dance dream wasn’t easy. “I spent a lot of time second-guessing what I wanted,” she says. “I felt lost. I had this career path in my head for so long, and now everything I knew was going away.” But when she finally made the decision to apply to graduate programs in dance therapy, she felt a sense of happiness and excitement. “I knew then that I was making the right choice,” she says.

McKenzie continued her dance training with the same rigor, while also exploring courses in human development and psychology. “Point Park’s training program is so amazing,” she says. “It’s an intense schedule with 18 credit hours of technique, and I wanted to take advantage of every moment of it.” Because of her packed dance schedule during the year, McKenzie used her summers to take prerequisite courses for graduate school at her local community college. Now, she’s working toward her MA in dance/movement therapy at Lesley University. She hopes to continue dancing and to take on the occasional freelance project, but she’s excited to be working toward her new dream career.

Anna Grunewald, Jacob’s School of Music, Indiana University

Grunewald in Balanchine’s “La Source.” Photo by Morgan Buchart, Courtesy Grunewald.

Anna Grunewald considered auditioning for companies right after high school, but a bad spinal injury her senior year temporarily closed that door. “I was wary of pursuing a dance degree, because I didn’t know a lot of dancers who chose that path,” she says. “But because I could use videos to audition while I recovered, it seemed like the best option for me.”

She knew she had made the right decision as soon as she entered the ballet department at Indiana University. “It didn’t feel like I was delaying anything,” she says. The staff at IU run the ballet department as much like a professional company as possible. More than that, Grunewald relished the exposure to world-class training and diverse repertoire, as she took on roles from Balanchine to Bournonville to Mark Morris. “I not only developed a stronger sense of technique and awareness of my body as a dancer, I developed a completely new sense of artistry,” she says. Grunewald believes her experience at IU helped prepare her for her performance career, which she will begin this fall as an apprentice with Ballet Arizona.

All ballet majors at IU also take on an outside field, which is above a minor but below a major. Grunewald studied arts management at IU’s School of Public and Environmental Affairs. This made for long days, with a full schedule of dance bookended by academic classes, but she is thankful to have the arts management experience in her back pocket. “I want to have as much of a professional career as I can, but as a dancer, I know my body is my instrument, and there is always a risk of injury,” she says. “If anything should happen, I can stay in the field of ballet and the arts, but shift focus to management.”

Colleen Reed, The University of Oklahoma

Photo by Rachel Neville, Courtesy Reed.

When Colleen Reed began her BFA at The University of Oklahoma, she thought it would be wise to get a second degree. She initially thought sports medicine would be a nice complement to dance, but scheduling proved difficult. Then she discovered OU’s Gaylord College of Journalism and Mass Communication. “I really clicked with the public relations courses, and decided to take it on as a second major,” she says.

Reed gave equal energy and attention to her dance training. “The teachers shaped me into a different dancer,” she says. “They are, in my opinion, the best faculty you can receive training from before you enter the next step in your life.” In addition to working with visiting guest artists, she developed a love for contemporary ballet after performing a featured role in Michael Bearden’s Simpatico.

Meanwhile, Reed’s senior dance capstone project integrated her PR studies and helped her discover her niche within the field. “I wrote about how important public relations is for boosting ballet’s popularity in the media,” she says. “I’m really inspired by Misty Copeland’s Under Armour campaign, and I feel like if ballet companies connected more with the media world, they’d be able to boost their audiences.”

While completing her project, Reed pursued opportunities in both fields, auditioning for companies and attending journalism/communications career fairs. During one of those fairs, Reed got some interesting advice. “I have two separate resumés, one for PR and one for dance,” she says. “One representative told me I should include my dance experience on my PR resumé, because it would set me apart and show the level of discipline I’d bring to the job.”

At graduation, Reed’s hope was to dance professionally while also doing PR for the company. Luckily, having two passions helped deflect some of the job-searching pressure: “If I end up going the PR route, I can still be involved in the dance world, and hopefully pick up some freelance projects on the side.” As of now, however, it looks like her career may go the other way around: In July, she announced on her Instagram page that she will be joining Ballet Frontier in Fort Worth, TX, and that she plans to pursue public relations work once she gets settled.