How To Be a Dance Major

Photo by Allison Brickell

A bright mid-afternoon light spills across the vast glossy floor of the studio as quiet settles over the room. A lone dancer is reflected in the mirror that stretches from floor to ceiling. She lifts her leg into a graceful arc and gently flourishes her arms.

Towson junior Olivia Serrill is practicing for an upcoming performance. It’s not a special one-time occasion for her, however; Olivia’s major is in the arts.

She’s a double major in dance performance and graphic design. Though she’s passionate about art in general, Olivia said dance is her best medium.

“I’ve been doing dance since I was four,” Olivia said. “I can’t really see myself doing anything other than art or dance.” She said ballet technique was her forte until she was exposed to modern dance when she entered Towson as a freshman.

She said in the beginning it was rough, but her perspective changed.

“The more I trained and the more I progressed and got to do different things the more I started to really love it,” she said. “Once I got to college it was like ‘I’m definitely going to be a dance major’. It wasn’t really a question.”

To become a successful dance major at Towson University, students like Olivia are required to put in many hours of work: academically, physically, creatively and emotionally.

Dance Department Chair Dr. Susan Kirchner said the dance major program is pre-professional and screened, requiring admission to Towson first and then an audition for the program.

Students can only audition for the dance program twice, Kirchner said. “If they don’t make the second audition,” she said, “I do my best to find them a different major so that they can stay at Towson.”

The first year is the foundational year, Kirchner said. According to the dance department’s requirements, the specific set of courses that first-years are required to take include foundational ballet, foundational modern, scientific basis for movement I, and core courses like English 102, math and a seminar course.

From there students move on to more advanced courses for ballet and modern and dance composition, music for dance, sophomore crew and social and behavioral science. There are also electives for majors to fit into their schedules, like choreography for dance majors, repertory dance, Dance Company and others.

Both Serrill and Kirchner said the program is rigorous. However some dance majors, Kirchner said, are dissatisfied when they learn what their foundational schedule entails.

“Many freshman that I get look at our schedule and they’re disappointed because they’re not dancing enough, in their minds,” she said. “Of course they don’t really fully understand the academic part of college and so once they finally put the two together they realize the two hour breaks and the three hour breaks are very much used up.”

Kirchner said in addition to the 2 required performances of their senior year, dance performance majors have 15 points they fulfill by participating in various performances that can include Dance Company, performing in student compositions, attending the American College Dance Festival and others.

Kirchner said overwork and exhaustion often results from the personal work ethic of the students, not necessarily from the program itself.

“The rigor comes sometimes because of type-A personalities [who] just can’t say no, and they feel like they have to do it all to build their resume,” she said. “I find that dancers really love to dance, that’s why they’re dancers, and when they’re given opportunities and their friends are taking advantage of them, they have a hard time saying no to things.”

It takes a certain amount of mental and physical balance to succeed as a dance major, according to Kirchner.

“The basic requirement is a sensitivity to your body and the mind/body connection,” she said. “If you can’t feel your body or don’t have control of your body or can’t think about how your body functions and ways to mobilize your body either through composition, musicality, creativity, technical drive, then you’re probably not a good candidate for any dance major.”

Kirchner said the basic skills required in any profession are becoming more relevant to those learned in dance. According to the fall 2011 Strategic National Arts Alumni Project cited on Towson’s dance department page, some of the top career skills for the 21st century are teamwork, creativity and communication.

“Artistic careers exemplify new ways of working in the growing contingent economy, and the experiences of artists might increasingly become the norm for many 21st century workers,” said SNAAP Senior Scholar Steven Tepper.

The skills dancers learn at Towson, Kirchner said, are thus a valuable commodity for the government and for businesses at large.

“Our mantra is dancing for a lifetime. So we’re not trying to pigeonhole you into what a Towson dance major is,” she said. “We’re really trying to give you the skills to launch you into the world of your 20s, 30s, 40s and 50s.”

Kirchner said the standards of dance have shifted over time, and it’s much more so a combination of artistry and athleticism than it used to be.

“Now [dance students] have five classes of composition before their senior project, which is making a piece of art,” she said. “That’s very different than 30 years ago when all you had to do was be a good dancer. So I think we’re training artists now, not just technicians.”

Kirchner said the department of dance strives to help students find their inner creativity.

“Finding your own creative voice, your own movement voice, is what we try to get the individual to do,” she said. “We want you to know what you’re passionate about and learn how to stand up and fight for it.”

For sophomore dance performance and nursing major Sarah DiNapoli, dance is something she is very passionate about.

“Dance is my way to express myself without judgment. It allows me to be myself,” she said. “I love dance more than anything.

DiNapoli said that she finds inspiration in different things.

“I love the feeling of pushing my body to its limits,” she said. “I also am greatly inspired by music, and we have great accompanists in the department.”

Olivia Serrill said that though being a dance major can be exhausting, you have to love it to survive.

“It’s a balance between performing, and just enjoying the movement, and choreographing and creating something,” she said. “If you don’t love what you’re doing, it really takes a toll.”

As the sun filters through the high windows of the studio, Olivia keeps practicing. She said that though some dancers may get more notoriety than others, she’s confident that dance is a very communal form of human expression.

“We’re all the same, and we all have the potential to be that way,” she said. “It’s just them capturing a moment and whatever that moment means to me and how I can put that in my daily life and how I can progress and make that part of what I want to be.”

As the afternoon fades, there’s only the view of a graceful dancer reflected in the mirror and the sound of tapping feet on the glossy floor.

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