Higher-Ed Voice | Making the Leap to Academia

A reality check for aspiring college dance teachers

By Bonner Odell

It’s a thought on the minds of more dance studio teachers these days than ever before: “Maybe I should get into college teaching.” At a time when small businesses are taking a financial hit and funding for professional dance companies is waning, more and more artists, students, and instructors are looking to colleges for career opportunities in dance. Some are lured by the prospect of artistic rigor, others by the opportunity to work with pre-professional dancers. Still others seek access to resources for art making: student repertory companies to set work on, studio space, technology.

“]City College dance program director Amber McCall (top, supported by Megan Opel in this 2007 photo) warns prospective college teachers that “there’s no easy way to get there. . . .You just have to keep putting yourself out there and building your resume.” (Photo by Matthew Kertesz)”]

City College dance program director Amber McCall (top, supported by Megan Opel in this 2007 photo) warns prospective college teachers that “there’s no easy way to get there. . . .You just have to keep putting yourself out there and building your resume.” (Photo by Matthew Kertesz)”

Most dance teachers inclined toward academia, however, name two incentives as the most appealing: a set salary and health insurance. The prospect of such stability can be so appealing to those used to living from paycheck to paycheck that it can eclipse important questions about potential positions. Many college dance teachers report that working a college gig is—for better or worse—rarely what they expect it to be when they’re hired. The better you can inform yourself before dancing through those doors of higher learning, the more satisfied a faculty member you’re likely to be.

Landing a college teaching job
If you have full-time teaching aspirations at the college level, you need a graduate degree. Some departments will hire part-time candidates without one, but usually to teach courses outside the primary curriculum, such as tap or hip-hop. Most permanent positions at the college or community college level require at least an MFA to teach technique and choreography, and universities are increasingly seeking candidates with PhDs to teach dance history and theory. Candidates with an MA in dance history or a related field may be hired on an adjunct (or part-time) basis, but are usually unable to advance into permanent, full-time positions and often earn less than those with an MFA or PhD, which are considered “terminal” degrees.

There are some exceptions to these rules. If you have extensive performance experience with a well-known dance company, or have distinguished yourself through other artistic achievements, you may qualify for what’s known as “professional equivalency.” In such cases documented evidence of your professional background is considered in place of a graduate transcript.

Regardless of your background or the position you seek, persistence in applying is essential. “There’s no easy way to get there,” says Amber McCall, a longtime ballet instructor who now directs the dance program at San Jose City College (SJCC), a community college in California. “I interviewed at a number of places before I was hired. You just have to keep putting yourself out there and building your resume.”

Maureen Janson, an adjunct at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, echoes that advice. An accomplished choreographer and experienced teacher, she admits to having “a two-inch-thick file of rejection letters.” It’s clear from her lighthearted tone that she’s developed a skin just as thick.

Extending your dance network and letting dance acquaintances know you’re looking can make all the difference. “It sounds simple,” says Katie Faulkner, adjunct professor at the University of San Francisco (USF), “but getting hired has everything to do with who you know. Establish a presence to get your foot in the door. Send a letter of interest to schools where you’d like to teach, even if there’s not an opening. Offer to sub classes. Try to make inroads as an adjunct if you’re looking for a full-time position.”

It’s also a good idea to attend departmental concerts where you can meet and network with faculty. You’ll gain exposure to the styles and aesthetics of particular schools, which you can address in your cover letters (or perhaps run screaming from, grateful that you didn’t waste your time on programs with completely different sensibilities than yours).

Many aspiring university instructors teach at community colleges to gain experience and bolster their resumes. For some, like McCall, these positions can lead to rewarding careers in and of themselves. At age 32 she is relishing the creative freedom to steer the dance program at SJCC according to her personal vision. “I want to build toward offering an AA degree in dance,” she says, “so I’m working on growing curriculum and enrollment. The sense of possibility and flexibility is really satisfying to me right now.”

Dancing up the academic ladder
Dance artists hired to teach college often confess to entering academia clueless about the institutional hierarchies and job expectations. Tricia Young, a professor of dance history at Florida State University, offers an apt example in her article, “Universities 101” (printed in an excellent resource guide cited at the end of this article), about a young dance artist who was surprised to find that she didn’t automatically receive tenure when hired for a “tenure-track” position. She didn’t realize that the term only implies the possibility of tenure (that coveted status of a permanent position, granted after a probationary period).

For most college teachers, that probationary period, usually several years, consists of a series of promotions up the academic ladder. The first rung is commonly “assistant professor,” a position generally lasting one to four years, followed by “associate professor” and finally “full professor.”

Qualifying for promotions and tenure in the academic world is a formal process usually based on three areas of evaluation: teaching, service, and scholarly (or in the case of dance artists, creative) activity. Of these, the service component tends to be the most time consuming. Activities that fall under this category include student advising, serving on curriculum or hiring committees, planning concerts and master classes, or promoting departmental events.

Says Faulkner of her first year teaching full-time, “There was a huge amount of administrative responsibility, more than I expected. I felt at times that my teaching suffered for it. I didn’t always have the time I felt I needed to prepare.” This year Faulkner returned to adjunct teaching when a USF faculty member returned from sabbatical. Despite the significant pay cut, she’s excited about turning her attention back to her own artistic work and plans to teach modern dance part-time at two local studios. “The thing to know about full-time academic work,” she warns, “is that it’s more than a job; it’s a lifestyle.”

The adjunct option
For those who prefer a more flexible schedule, adjunct teaching can be ideal. Most adjuncts are not required to attend departmental meetings or take on outside administrative tasks. Says Janson of her adjunct position at the University of Wisconsin, “At first I thought I’d do this until I got a full-time job, but then I realized lots of dance artists do this. It’s perfectly respectable.” For several years Janson maintained her dance company, Smartdance, alongside her teaching load, and now choreographs on a freelance basis for theater and opera companies in Madison. “Freelancing allows me to keep growing as an artist,” she says. “I feel like I’ve struck a necessary creative balance.”

‘The thing to know about full-time academic work is that it’s more than a job; it’s a lifestyle.’ —Katie Faulkner, adjunct professor, University of San Francisco

Developing relationships with other arts organizations, studios, and colleges that rely on adjuncts is a smart way to offset the unpredictable aspects of part-time teaching. One or more of your classes may be axed for the semester due to low enrollment or budget cuts, and with it, a sizable chunk of your income. You’ll also need your own health insurance since most part-time positions don’t include it.

Meet your new students
Learning to navigate institutional policy isn’t the only adjustment that teachers transitioning from studios to colleges report. There’s also the need to reevaluate approaches to teaching. Unlike the children and teens in private studios, college dance students come from a variety of movement backgrounds, and depending on the course, may have little to no training. Teachers may need to break down movement more explicitly and define dance vocabulary.

While the shift can be disorienting, it can also be rewarding. Says Faulkner, “I think the most exciting students to teach are those who are really hungry for the material. It’s possible to have exquisite technique and a lousy attitude, or to have absolutely no dance background but a smart body and an open mind. These [latter] students can progress really quickly, and for me they’re the most inspiring to watch.”

Instructors are also likely to encounter dancers who are highly trained in styles other than their own, who might require an equal amount of patience as they learn to move in new ways. Most college dance programs are modern based and encourage a high level of versatility. For this reason it’s important to value the diverse experience of your students while recognizing your unique contribution.

The instructional time limits of college programs can also challenge teachers who are accustomed to coaching students through successive school years. “You have to ask yourself, ‘How am I going to impact these students in 16 brief weeks?’ ” says Janson. “You also have to accept that as adults, they’re not always trainable. What’s important is knowing the context you’re in and accepting what kind of impact you can have.”

These kinds of limitations aren’t for everyone. After teaching as an adjunct at St. Mary’s College in Moraga, California, for two years, Megan Opel decided to focus on younger students. In November 2008 she and a former teaching colleague opened a dance studio, Ace Dance Academy, in Walnut Creek.

“I prefer working with kids who don’t already have the technique,” she says. “I enjoy building it from the ground up and inspiring them to love dance. I didn’t like grading people in my college classes. It frustrated me beyond belief to have to fail someone in a tap class.”

Opel’s grading policy, like most instructors’, was based on participation and attendance, which steadily declined once midterms hit and papers came due for other classes.

In McCall’s experience, students at community colleges face distractions from their dance studies. “Many are from underserved communities, are trying to raise a family, are holding down two jobs, or are adapting to a whole new set of expectations as first-generation college students,” she says. “Dance isn’t usually the first place they’re focusing their attention. At a four-year college, most students are full-time and not as pulled away by other things, whereas my students might get called in to work an extra shift at one of their jobs and they don’t show up for class.”

The studio/college connection
Despite her frustrations at St. Mary’s, Opel says she would never trade her experience teaching college, which has deeply affected her studio teaching. “It opened my eyes to how much dance history is lacking in studios,” she says. “My tap students, for instance, need to learn where the form came from. I want them to know the ‘greats’ and the way they’ve impacted tap’s evolution. If I take five minutes of class to talk about Bojangles, my students will be ahead of the curve. Soon we’re going to have a video day at the studio where we show excerpts of important dances and choreographers.”

Such cross-pollination between private studios and college programs is vital to the health of the dance field, especially as the professional and college dance worlds become increasingly interdependent. If your studio serves teens with professional dance aspirations, consider hosting master classes or talks by college dance students or instructors. Such encounters can inspire and prepare them for the realities of life beyond the studio.

As Janson points out, “Anyone who stays in the dance field must be a resourceful person. But it’s important that we encourage students that dance is a valid thing to do in the world. I can’t imagine anything better in the universe, after all, than to have dance in one’s life in a big way.”

For more information about dance in higher education: Dance From the Campus to the Real World (And Back Again): A Resource Guide for Artists, Faculty, and Students, edited by Suzanne Callahan, 2005, available from danceusa.org/publications.

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