Transitioning from College to Pro
By Laura Di Orio of Dance Informa
For some dancers, dance life post-high school can become a dilemma: Do they try to plunge right into the professional dance scene, or do they venture to college to gain more academic and dance training but hope that, four years later, it’s not “too late”? These days, it seems many dancers are choosing the higher education route, and for many of them it has proven to be a success.
Here, two professional dancers and a dance company artistic director, all who graduated from college, tell the story of their experience and how they transitioned their way into a professional dance career. For these individuals, college gave them the resources, mental skills and life experience that added to what they had to say as artists and prepared them for a successful dance life.
Where did you go to college, and what was your major?
Jourdan Rose Epstein, Dancer, Complexions Contemporary Ballet
I attended New York University (NYU) and majored in Dance Medicine and Science. I began my college career in the dance department at NYU Tisch School of the Arts and ended up transferring to an academic program my sophomore year. The dance department at NYU is very strong and has a good reputation, but it wasn't for me.
George Staib, Artistic Director, Staibdance, and Senior Lecturer In Dance at Emory University
I graduated from Dickinson College with a BA in Political Science and a minor in French, and then received my MFA in Dance and Choreography from Temple University.
Chris Aubrey, Dancer, Sydney Dance Company, and Personal Trainer
I majored in contemporary dance at Adelaide College of the Arts (ACarts) in Adelaide, Australia.
What made you decide you wanted to go to college rather than try to dive right into a professional dance career after high school?
I was in no position to dive into a professional career after high school! My formal dance training came very late, starting halfway through year 12 at age 18. Attending tertiary school was critical if I were to pursue a career in dance.
I knew I still wanted to learn more academically as well as continue my dance training. In this day and age, it's important to have a college degree. It's not necessarily required in the dance world, but I knew I wanted to accomplish that for myself. It's always good to have options.
For me, dance wasn't even on my radar until sophomore year of college, so I went to school thinking I would either be a lawyer or an actor!
How do you feel your time at college prepared you for a professional dance career?
I cannot imagine what life would have been like without school. I felt having a college dance experience better prepared me for longevity in the field, opened my mind to so many dance possibilities and shed light on the type of dancer I wanted to be.
I don't know that tertiary school can ever fully prepare you for working with a company. Each company has a different background, different movement styles and skill sets that are developed whilst working with them. However, saying this, college is an essential part of your learning that must be undertaken. For me, initially I thought it was about developing technique and the physical body, but developing the dancer's mind is also extremely important. We learn how to articulate movement vocabulary through speech, understand anatomy and their functions, how to self-manage one's career and be self-disciplined to keep in good condition. I think some of these skills that mature a dancer can be missed when not attending college.
I think college is a great way to explore and find yourself, as cheesy as that may sound. It is easy for dancers, especially young dancers, to get wrapped up in their dancing and forget about who they are outside of dance. I feel it's important to be a well-rounded person as well as a well-rounded dancer.
To younger dancers in high school, would you recommend they go to college rather than jump into being professional?
Absolutely! Go to college. The funding in our art is so minimal that finding creative ways to expand one's knowledge, influence and relevance in the field is so beautifully fostered in an academic setting. Get a BFA, get a double major, but go to school and learn all that you can about the history of our art, the possibilities of the form and all that it can do. Dancers with a broad base of knowledge are far more effective than those who try to jump immediately into the field. Ballet, of course, is the exception. If a career as a pro-ballet dancer is what you want, then I don't think you can take much time off from intense training.
I highly recommend attending college even if you are a highly technical dancer. There are mental skills that are developed that can help you survive the challenging dance industry.
After graduating from college, how did you go about transitioning into a professional career?
After college, transitioning into a professional career is difficult. It is important to make connections early on. I had the aspiration to dance for Complexions Contemporary Ballet since I was 14. I had attended their summer programs numerous times and had kept in contact over the years. It is good for directors to see you grow and improve and get to know you. I didn't audition for companies while I was in college because I was still thinking I might go to grad school, but I would recommend it to dancers. It's always good to get experience. And if you make good relationships with your teachers, absolutely ask for their advice and they will help guide you. The dance network is pretty small, and the more positive relationships you make, the better.
I personally didn't feel ready for the profession by the end of my third year, perhaps as a result of having much less training than others in my year at college. I had applied for all of my secondments, but I didn't think I was ready to second with Australian Dance Theatre and didn't apply despite the company being located in the city I was studying. However, it turned out that one of the dancers needed some ballroom movement and asked me to come in and teach some. That then led to my first performance with the company in the middle of my third year with a tour of Ignition (the dancers' individual projects). That then led to a private audition for Garry Stewart (Artistic Director), who then offered me a contract to perform G, a work that is continuing to tour Australia later this year. And the rest is history!
What was the easiest part about the transition from college to pro? What was the most difficult?
The easiest part of the transition was accepting that I would be juggling many things. For many, that is the hardest part. It was easy for me because it was all new. I didn't know what a trained dancer was "supposed" to do, so I did what I felt like doing! The hardest part was eventually realizing I needed it in my life every day, and then the "for real" job search took over. I was no longer happy dancing on the side. I wanted it to be a main focus. That is when I found my amazing job at Emory.
The most difficult part is definitely rejection. My first summer after college graduation, I began auditioning and heard nothing positive, audition after audition. It caused me to struggle with my confidence and question if I would ever "make it". Do not be discouraged. Everyone gets rejected, and as long as you keep working and believing, something good will happen.
The easiest part for me was actually being in the right place at the right time. Quite often it comes down to that to get your first break. Choreographers can be reluctant to take someone straight out of college without any company experience, but how do you get experience in the first place? Sometimes when you are there and you have been learning the material, someone may get injured and next thing you are on! Don't ever treat a secondment lightly, because it could be your lucky break.
What is your advice for dancers regarding going to college or transitioning into a professional dance career afterward?
Be open. There is so much out there in the dance world, so take advantage of it. Explore styles you haven't been trained in, take every workshop and master class you can find, make connections and make every day count. And enjoy dance! There really is no point to dancing if you don't enjoy it.
You really need to go in like an open book and be willing to listen to the more experienced dancers. Don't be afraid to give anything a go. Quite often we would be thrown into an improvisation that seemed impossible, but sometimes really interesting things came out of it. Don't take anything personally. Eat well and stay hydrated! Give your body lots of TLC. Keep your core strong and keep up your maintenance of weak areas. Prehab instead of rehab!
I think choosing a life in dance is choosing a life of excitement and one that in no way looks like the lives of your friends. They won't understand how you could be happy piecing a life together from four jobs, dancing all night all weekend, and doing it over and over. They will never understand that. I think choosing a roller-coaster for a career is noble, goes against status quo and is very important. Let other people sell insurance. Dance all you want and don't judge the profile of your work. Go to school – not so you can have a fallback career, I don't even know what that really means – go to meet people, explore, discover and get in touch with what you want to say. When you graduate, say it loudly and say it often!