The Dancer’s Dilemma: Is College a Viable Option for a Professional Career?

05 May 2020 Published in News and Announcements

Many serious dancers face a difficult decision upon graduating high school: they can begin to audition for companies and start their careers, or they can choose to join a college program. Collegiate ballet programs offer similar training to what dancers receive growing up: daily technique and pointe classes, modern and jazz classes, and performance opportunities galore. But this can set dancers four full years back in their career. Others may choose to audition for companies right out of high school and, if accepted, get a head start on moving through the ranks of companies and making professional connections. So which is the right way to go?

Contrary to what some believe, college ballet programs are not for the faint of heart. The audition process is nearly as intense as it is for companies. With only a handful of reputable programs around the country and limited spots in each, those who choose this path certainly have their work cut out for them. Once they begin their collegiate experience, college students also receive education in other subjects including kinesiology, history, and pedagogy. On top of this, some dancers choose to pursue a second major, or a minor, nearly doubling their class load to do so.

Dance teachers in college programs stress to students that they are being prepped for company life, and for careers that can be just as successful as those who begin after high school. Sydney May, a BFA student in the University of Utah’s ballet program, took her shot at professional auditions during her third year in the program, but ultimately decided to return and complete her fourth year of training at the U. She feels that the program has many benefits, especially the amount of performance experience students receive. “I think the faculty gets to know you on a different level and they have more desires [for you] so it’s a more personal relationship,” says May. “I think the coaching you get is more personal and focused on you.” 

When it comes to auditioning for companies, some argue that dancers are better off auditioning straight out of high school. In an interview with Dance Magazine, Artistic Director of Boston Ballet Mikko Nissinen states frankly that he feels “most [college] programs sell a dream that they know they can’t deliver.”[1]Along with many other company directors, Nissinen views BFA programs as something far from the professional world. 

May begs to differ. “I feel really well rounded, like, with regards to the training that I’ve received,” she says, noting that when she went through auditions, she noticed no differences between herself and those who were fresh out of high school. “Regardless of if there were other college dancers [in the auditions], I didn’t feel like I was behind anyone.”

Adam Sklute, the artistic director of Ballet West, speaks highly of dancers who chose to get a college degree before joining a company. Only about a half-dozen dancers in Ballet West went the college route first, but Sklute says there are many more who are currently going through college while performing. When asked if he had a preference between the two, he said no. “Some of my best dancers have come to me right out of high school,” he noted. “But others have come from a college program.” Sklute emphasized the fact that he values intellect in dancers when he is looking for people to add to the company. “I look for dancers who have a probing mind, who are interested in their art form beyond just doing the steps and getting it right,” he said. “Sometimes they come without a college education, and sometimes they come with the benefit of having [one].”

In fact, several students in the University of Utah’s ballet program were invited to audition for Ballet West’s second company this season. May was one of these students, and expressed her excitement at the opportunity to apply her collegiate training to a professional opportunity. “Participation in both programs would be valuable,” she said. “The fact that simply performing with my university gave me the chance to be seen prominent figures of a prominent ballet company is a gift.” Ultimately, May feels it was the training and performances she participated in at the U that led her to this opportunity.

University dancers have the opportunity to study so much more than just ballet. Supplemental classes like history, pedagogy, and kinesiology can spark external inspiration and add knowledge to a dancer’s “toolbox.” Additionally, the university setting usually offers the opportunity for students to double major, or minor. This leads to dancers who are, arguably, very well-rounded, as well as providing a safety net in the unlikely event of a career-ending injury. Coming straight from high school, dancers may not have the life experience that is needed to be a part of the professional realm.

In addition to classes, students in these programs endure long hours and late rehearsals. What better way to prepare students for company life than a full day of dancing followed by, well, a little more dancing? College students leave their programs more than prepared for company life in terms of the hours spent in class and rehearsal. May admits, “The days are really long, so that kind of inhibits certain [things],” adding jokingly, “I would love to take class on pointe every day, but I can’t. With how long our days are, it would probably kill me to do that!” She admits that all of these classes and rehearsals, have prepared her well for auditioning and, hopefully, company life. 

So which is the right way to go? Ultimately, it is up to the student. Auditioning for companies straight out of high school can certainly give students a head start on their careers. However, for those who don’t feel quite ready to enter the professional realm, college programs are a more than viable option. These programs are designed to prepare dancers as much as possible for company life, and can offer a door to other forms of education as well. With pros and cons on both sides, dancers should take the time to consider which option would be best for them.  

By Ellie Bresler.
Ellie Bresler is a senior at the University of Utah majoring in Ballet and Strategic Communications. After graduating, she hopes to pursue a career in marketing, social media, and public relations.

[1]“What Directors Really Think of Ballet Dancers Going To College,” Dance Magazine, 2017