How to better educate college dancers


by Roger Lee for The Dance Journal

The Dilemma

Each August thousands of dance majors grace the halls of college campuses around the United States. From conservatories to liberal arts schools, college dance students are honing their skills for the real world. The general assumption is that you go to college for dance, train and work hard, land your dream job in the field, and live happily ever after. The only problem is reality. Unfortunately the intense competition and bad economy leaves only a small percentage of dance majors employed in field upon graduation.

In this article I discuss what schools can do to better prepare students for the real world of 21st Century dance employment. I also provide tips that will help dance majors to take control of their education, make the most of their college studies, and make themselves more marketable to employers.

Dance Program Solutions

Many dance programs are so focused on teaching their students technique, history, composition, and theory that they neglect to teach them the business side of dance. I learned that once you graduate from comforting dance programs, you are on your own in the real world. Most dance graduates have a bunch of impressive artistic skills with next to no business skills. While artistry is a major component of professional dance career success, business savvy cannot be neglected! At some point in their career, even the most gifted dance artist will need to learn how to budget, articulate, market, and produce their own work. These are just a few basic business skills that are needed to succeed in any profession as an adult. The business skills are needed more than ever in the performing arts, particularly the dance field. College dance programs owe it to their students to prepare them adequately for the ever-evolving world of 21st century professional dance. Long gone are the days when great artistry is enough. Dance majors now need to combine artistry and business to succeed in the real world. It is now the role of college dance programs to make this happen.

Even the most well intended dance programs may have difficulty putting their desires into practice. Many college dance programs are aware that their students lack basic business skills, however, they do not have the infrastructure, funding, faculty, or time to make business a part of their dance program. Other dance programs are simply overwhelmed and do not know how to start incorporating business into the curriculum. Whatever the case may be, there is still hope for college dance programs who want to change for the sake of their current and prospective students.

Take some ideas from Julliard, one of the most prestigious performing arts conservatories in the world. The school realized that their students needed skills that spanned beyond the realm of artistry. Thus, Business of the Performing Arts, Julliard’s only business course, was born. The course has been taught by Bill Baker, former President of WNET. According to an article published online through MetroFocus, “Baker’s class, The Business of the Performing Arts, which he teaches jointly with Fordham University, gives students a snapshot of the structure and economics of America’s performing arts industry, and brings in practitioners ranging from the head of the Metropolitan Opera to young artist-entrepreneurs who graduated just a few years ago.” To learn more about the class and Julliard’s Entrepreneurship Program, please click here for the full article:


Dance Major Solutions

It is easy for dance majors to sit back and point the finger for their lack of business skills. I have heard students blame their professors, program directors, program curriculum, and more. College dance majors have to take responsibility for their education by getting actively involved. This means going to speak with an academic advisor about career goals, selecting courses that support those goals, and possibly even adding a minor or second major. Dance programs cannot always provide artistic and business instruction to students. Even programs that are interested in this educational balance are probably in the midst of a long approval process. With that said, current college dance majors cannot afford to sit back and wait for their programs to be redesigned. They have to take action, be creative, and work with what is currently being offered on campus.

If a dance program does not have performing arts business courses, students may consider enrolling in a business elective, taking a minor in businesses, or adding it as a second major to compliment their dance studies. Perhaps an entrepreneurship class is better suited for particular dance majors who want to learn how to create new dance projects more efficiently. No matter what the case may be, dance majors should not be afraid to step outside of the studio and explore other academic options. Additional courses, minors, and second majors will hopefully provide students with the business skills that will inevitably take their art to the next level. The same skills can also help secure higher paying jobs in any field.

As an undergraduate student at Ursinus College, I majored in both Dance and Media & Communication Studies. This taught me how to write and landed me a professional career as a dance journalist. To gain more skills, I earned a Master’s Degree in Arts Administration from Drexel University. This program taught me all about the business of non-profit and for-profit arts administration. I recommend that dance majors explore coursework in business, communications, marketing, and entrepreneurship to develop business skills that will work in their favor after graduation.


  1. Hi Roger, Thank you for bringing attention to this important issue — it is one very dear to my heart. For the past several years Headlong co-founder Andrew Simonet and I have been teaching artists how to build balanced, sustainable lives for themselves as artists — Andrew through his program Artists U and myself through the “Life of the Artist” class I teach at the Headlong Performance Institute and now at UArts. I also lead Financial Literacy for Artists workshops through the Creative Capital Professional Development Program. I agree that too many college dance programs prepare their students to be good dancers or dance-makers but don’t give them enough (or any) preparation for how to build a life as a dance artist. We should all (artists, educators, and students) be advocating for more and better education of this type, both institutional and grass-roots/peer-to-peer.

  2. Hi Jenn and Shannon,

    Thank you for your insight! I agree, dance majors desire and deserve clarity. It is hard to come by! Also, I agree that it is important to explore ALL options of the dance field before leaving it completely! Like you said, there are so many avenues within the field that make it financially possible to still practice the actual art form.

  3. Roger, I completely agree with both points raised in this article – that both the students and the programs need to reassess what it means to be a 21st century dance artist and the skills needed to survive in the contemporary marketplace. I might also add that advocacy skills and exposure to the broad range of diverse opportunities within the dance field should also be a focus of collegiate dance programs. Too many former dance majors, realizing how difficult it is to have a sustainable career as a performer, leave the field entirely (and often bitterly). However, there are many opportunities in dance education (beyond studio teaching – K-12 schools, charter schools, community programs, etc.), dance therapy, dance writing (as you mentioned), dance science (there is some fascinating research happening now about how dance impacts the brain – check out the “Your Brain On Dance” project), arts management, and arts advocacy (such as with Americans for the Arts or the National Dance Education Organization). Many of these career paths provide a stable income, health benefits, and even time for your own personal practice of choreography and performance. Pursuing a career in one these options, while perhaps seemingly less glamorous than trying to “make it” as a performer, helps grow our field by increasing the public’s exposure to dance as a real, exciting, and accessible activity, not just something really flexible people do on TV. When dance is seen as a vital, integral part of American culture, then perhaps the economic conditions for dance artists will improve. I encourage dance majors to really explore these options, and collegiate programs to give them more than just a cursory nod within their curriculum.

  4. Roger,
    You gave hit the nail on the head. Starting a company or marketing yourself as an individual is an extremely confusing path to navigate. Even reaching out to other dance professionals can leave the desire for clarity unfulfilled.

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