Until recently, dance was not thought of by US educators as an academic discipline in its own right. College dance instruction was given within departments of theater or physical education and prepared students for acting or teaching careers. Serious dancers did not go to college, but focused exclusively on their art, training in specialized schools of dance while auditioning for companies.
Within the last few decades, this situation has changed, and the student of dance has many more options. Dance is now offered as a major by over 300 US colleges and universities. Many have become strong performing centers for dance, especially modern dance. Graduate degree programs in dance have also been established. Specialized schools and studios continue to operate, and short-term opportunities are available from many sources.
While some college and university dance departments remain housed in divisions of physical education or the theater arts, their location does not necessarily imply anything about program content. The student must examine the curriculum of particular programs to determine what they have to offer. However, the credential awarded by a program can provide some clues. Undergraduate programs generally grant the Bachelor of Arts (BA), the Bachelor of Science (BS), or the Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) degree in dance.
Many institutions offer two tracks, one leading to a BA or BS, the other to a BFA. The BA and BS degree titles are equivalent and indicate a liberal arts program, with about half of the courses in dance-related areas and half chosen from other fields of study. Students in BA or BS dance programs often also earn teacher certification or pursue a second major. A liberal arts program in dance can also be begun at a two-year college granting the Associate of Art (AA) degree. BFA programs are more focused on dance performance than are BA and BS programs, with approximately two-thirds of the courses in dance-related areas. BFA programs are designed to prepare students to seek professional employment in dance directly following graduation.
Whatever the degree title, most undergraduate dance programs offer a fairly broad base of instruction, including instruction in both performance and choreography, both ballet and modern technique. Specialization is relatively rare, though it may be possible in a few BFA programs.
As well as ballet and modern dance, students commonly learn other dance forms, such as jazz (almost universally offered by US dance programs), tap, ethnic and folk dances, ballroom or social dance, dance for the musical theater, and character dance. Exact courses vary from institution to institution.
In addition to performance and choreographic courses, students can expect to study dance history, music for dance, anatomy and kinesiology (principles of human movement), and perhaps also movement technique (practical methods to become more aware of one's movement, improve its fluidity, and eliminate undesirable patterns). They are likely to learn dance notation (also known as labanotation) to record and analyze dances and read movement scores. One or more courses in teaching methods are usually required -- almost all dance professionals teach at some point during their lives. Students are encouraged or required to participate in dance productions: performing, choreographing, designing costumes and scenery, arranging lighting, and more.
Schools of Dance
Another option are the programs offered by specialized schools, which are usually associated with a dance company. These schools offer instruction entirely in dance-related areas, often including both individual classes for children and adults at various levels of proficiency and full-time certificate or diploma programs. Certificate and diploma programs commonly last about two years and are designed to prepare graduates for professional careers.
Instruction in a school of dance generally concentrates on performance and teaching of dance forms practiced by the company, whether classical ballet or a modern technique based in the teachings of a particular practitioner. However, while some programs focus primarily on building technique and repertory, many schools offer a wide range of dance-related classes. The certificates and diplomas awarded by schools of dance do not have a commonly accepted academic value, although schools may have arrangements with an area college to grant credit toward a degree based on program completion. Students should also be aware that acceptance to a company's school does not routinely lead to acceptance to the company, even if the program is called an "apprentice" or "trainee" program. Enrollment in a program can, however, provide intensive instruction and opportunity for contact and collaboration with professionals.
Programs awarding the Master of Fine Arts (MFA) degree differ significantly from those offering a Master of Science (MS) or Master of Arts (MA) degree. Although MA and MS programs are likely to offer continuing instruction in dance performance technique, they are primarily designed to prepare scholars and teachers, offering specializations in such areas as dance education, dance ethnology, or dance criticism and history. They are initial degree programs (usually lasting one and a half to two years), with further study expected at the MFA or doctoral level. A dance theory project or thesis may be required for completion.
MFA programs, which usually can be completed in two or three years, prepare professionals in dance performance, production, or choreography. Program specialization will be in one of these areas, though courses in such areas as dance notation, teaching methodology, or dance history and criticism are also likely to be included. The MFA is a terminal degree, with no further formal education expected. Program completion usually involves a performance project.
Doctoral programs (which generally last between two and six years and award a PhD or EdD) may be entered directly from undergraduate study or following an initial master's degree program. A dissertation is usually required to complete such programs, which are intended to prepare graduates for a career in college or university instruction and research.
Special Dance Admission Requirements
BFA, MFA, and professional diploma and certificate programs often require applicants to audition. Dancers generally are observed participating in one or more dance classes. They then may have the opportunity to perform one or more brief solos that they have learned (and perhaps even choreographed themselves, if they have choreographic ability) in advance. Faculty want to see how applicants perform in a group as well as how they respond to instruction. For these reasons, videotaped auditions are less commonly accepted in dance than in other types of performing arts programs, and an in-person audition is always preferable.
If tapes are not given as an option they should not be submitted. If submitting a videotape, check what format is acceptable. Applicants may also be asked to submit a photograph. These are mainly used for identification during auditions. A professional photo is not necessary; students should just send a full-length picture of themselves in dance clothing. Those applying to dance programs may also be asked to fill out a health form. Honesty is important here; applicants should report any past injuries. They may be given an orthopedic examination at auditions or later be asked to submit results of a medical check-up.
Professionals and students who wish to study for a short time in a particular area of dance have a variety of choices. Summer dance programs, festivals, and workshops are offered by colleges, universities, dance companies, and schools of dance. These are a good choice for dancers coming from overseas because they generally provide a fairly intensive schedule and may also be able to arrange housing and other accommodations. Dance associations also often offer short workshops, conferences, or certification programs in teaching or other areas of dance. (Certification by a particular association may involve completion of a training program, an examination, or simple fulfillment of professional qualifications and membership in the association.)
Thousands of dance studios and teachers provide dance lessons and practice opportunities year-round. However, it is difficult to select such instruction from a distance. Dance studios are largely unregulated and vary widely in quality, instructor background, and appropriateness for different skill levels. The best sources of information are word-of-mouth, class observation, or an introductory lesson. While a dance studio or teacher may provide a valuable supplement to a full-time program, enrollment is best deferred until the student is in the United States and can explore possibilities in person.
For long-term programs, some formal mechanisms designed to evaluate program quality exist. Any degree-granting US institution being considered by an international student should be accredited by a recognized institutional accrediting body. Specialized schools of dance that award certificates or diplomas rather than degrees are not generally eligible for institutional accreditation, but a professional accrediting body for dance does exist and accredits a number of these specialized schools as well as degree-granting programs.
The National Association for Schools of Dance, founded in 1980, has granted professional accreditation to forty-six institutions offering baccalaureate, graduate, or nondegree programs in dance. Professional accreditation indicates that programs are capable of meeting their stated objectives, and that they meet basic quality standards in such areas as faculty qualifications, faculty-student ratios, class time requirements, financial and library resources, and physical facilities.
Many institutions, including some with very strong dance programs, choose not to pursue professional accreditation for reasons unrelated to program quality. However, some international governments, scholarship sponsors, and universities may only recognize credit from professionally accredited programs. Students should check whether any restrictions apply in their case and should also examine other indications of quality as well as the program reputation of institutions not professionally accredited with particular care.