Several months ago, I heard two interesting reports from NPR’s Planet Money team that focused on college majors and jobs – why people decide to pursue particular tracks of study and the careers they hold as a result As might be expected from a program entitled “Planet Money,” both of the these reports focused heavily on the economics of such decisions. Specifically, “What’s Your Major?” took a look at the relationship between college majors and salaries, and the title of “Why Women Like Me Choose Lower Paying Jobs” pretty much says it all.
One topic that came up often as various economic experts tried to justify why someone would choose a less lucrative college major and career was “passion.” On some level, I think that is absolutely true. Some of us do make such decisions based on our passions, even if it comes at personal and financial loss. Onlookers might claim this is just the “self-absorbed” and “stubborn” nature of millennials and generation Y, but I think there is more to it than that.
I think a better word, and one that isn’t mentioned in the above reports, is calling. Since age 12, I have felt called to a life in the arts, specifically dance. I still remember the moment it came to me, the way some people describe moments of religious conversion. I was in class on a Friday afternoon, practicing an adagio, when I was struck by the realization that dance was all I wanted to do. Maybe I wouldn’t be a world-renowned performer, but dance would be my life’s work. And with the exception of a few chaotic months of economic and existential struggle in my early twenties, I never really stopped to question that fact. Dance was simply what I was meant to do, even when I knew it wasn’t always the smartest financial decision.
A second element, related to calling, is service. For better or for worse, I believe that my passion, enthusiasm, and ability for dance are a gift, and I want to use it to serve others in the best way possible. The best way I can contribute to the world is as a dancer, choreographer, dance educator, and advocate. My current hodgepodge of freelance jobs offer me the opportunity to serve in special ways. I have researched the impact of dance in the K-12 setting (the resulting report has been published here), and I have been able to see that impact in action in a variety of school, university, and private studio settings. I have been able to build and be a part of many creative communities through which I explore my own artistic interests, foster the work of other artists, and share the joy of creativity with students and audiences. I have been able to advocate for dance, giving voice to importance and necessity of dance in our schools, on our stages, and in our communities. I could be making more money doing something else, but I don’t think my life’s work would have the same impact.
The third and final element is fulfillment. I don’t always love the hours I have to keep, the uncertainty of my employment, or balancing multiple jobs as a freelancer. I do, however, love what I do, and I’m happy doing it. My parents always told me this was the most important thing in choosing your career path, and they were right. At the end of the day, I’m living out my dream, I’m doing what was I called to do, and I like to think I’m helping others in the process. And that makes me feel pretty darn fulfilled!
All this comes back to mind again as graduation season comes upon us. Hearing the high school seniors in my life talk about their chosen colleges and majors, I think back to those stressful days. Would I have done it any differently? Would I have chosen a different major? Probably not. I owe so much of who I am, both as a professional and as a person, to my dance degrees (BA 2007, MFA 2013). Here are my arguments in defense of the dance major:
1.) Dance teaches work ethic and personal responsibility: As a dance major, you don’t just come late or miss class and rehearsal. That time in the studio is sacred, and impossible to “make up” by borrowing someone’s notes or reading the textbook. When circumstances beyond your control do cause you to be absent, you come back prepared. If you don’t, you often risk getting cut from the piece or being behind all semester. Dance is tough work, and it’s no one’s fault but your own if you don’t live up to the expectations. No matter what field you enter after graduation, those habits of mind will serve you well.
2.) Dance teaches you to hold multiple perspectives at once: As a dance major, you will often have many different teachers. It is almost guaranteed that at least two of them will completely contradict each other at all times. “Well, in MY class you do it like this …” seems to be a favorite mantra of many dance educators (myself included, at times). There are many different ways to approach dance technique and artistry, and each instructor has their own ways of teaching the skills needed to be successful in those areas. You, as the student, need to be flexible, adaptable, and open to trying all them. You need to be able to hold multiple truths at once. This ability allows you to see the world differently, and to relate to people with different values, opinions, beliefs, and backgrounds – certainly an important skill set in today’s global economy.
3.) Dance teaches you to make your own truth: Eventually, you will figure out which approaches to dance technique and artistry work best for you. You will take a little from Professor X and a little from Professor Y and create a beautiful new approach that makes sense for your body, mind, and spirit. In order to do this, you need to get to know yourself. What are your physical strengths and weaknesses – and how can you best accommodate them in your dancing? What is your unique creative voice – and how can you best express it in your choreography? The best dancers are the ones who can take what they learn and apply it in a way that makes sense and works for them, thereby creating their own truths for technique and artistry. Self-knowledge, and the self-respect that comes with it, allows you to tackle new tasks and challenges in and out of the studio with adaptability, understanding, skill, and confidence.
4.) Dance teaches you to deal with pain, frustration, and disappointment: Even if you are a hard worker with an open mind who knows and owns your truth, you will definitely face pain and disappointment as a dance major. You will bruise your knees and your toenails and your ego. You will be at rehearsal until all hours of the night while your friends are playing video games and partying. You will lose friends and lovers because they feel like you’re putting your career ahead of them. You will have complicated relationships with teachers who confuse you, upset you, and don’t seem to understand you (even if they’re really just trying to help). You won’t always get the parts you want. But you will learn how to deal with all of these things; you have to, if you want to survive. And while you may act like a fool for a while as you learn to handle the pain, frustration, and disappointment with grace and poise, the truth is you experience these deep emotions and put up with them because you care. That investment, that willingness to sacrifice and suffer for what you love and believe in, will never leave you. You will apply it to whatever field you enter, and you will be able to handle the new pains, frustrations, and disappointments it brings with maturity because you’ve been there.
5.) Dance teaches you to forge your own path: As a dance major, you are constantly making your own way. You are learning how technique works for you, you are figuring out your own creative voice, and you are learning what makes you unique as an artist, performer, and person. You are finding new ways to set yourself apart in class, in auditions, and on-stage. It is all part of the process. After you graduate, you are better able to create your own career path, as well. In the above articles and in popular culture, the arts are almost laughed at as a viable college major and career path. But the truth is, I have never wanted for work, even with “just” a dance degree. While I have seen acquaintances lose jobs as teachers, struggle to find work as nurses, and get laid off in a number of other fields, I’ve always had a job. They weren’t all glamorous, and I’ve never made a ton of money, but I have been working (and working my butt off) since graduation. Because I’m used to forging my own path, I’ve never relied on an employer. I’ve created a career that goes beyond any one job – and thousands of other dancers have done it, too. I firmly believe that anyone who tells you artists are lazy has just never met a real one. We’ve mastered the hustle, not to get wealthy but to survive – which ultimately allows us to thrive no matter what path we end up taking.
6.) Dance teaches twenty-first century skills: Business leaders lament that graduates do not possess the skills needed for the contemporary workforce, but dance majors have been honing these very skills for decades. Critical thinking? Technique and performance is all about understanding, recalling, analyzing, evaluating, and synthesizing movement. Creativity? We live and breathe the creative process through choreography and performance. Collaboration? Collaboration has been an integral part of dance even before it was a buzzword in business and education. From peer feedback to collective choreography to the seemingly simple act of performing as a ensemble, dance is one of the most collaborative of all the arts. Communication? Not only do dancers learn to communicate without words on stage, college dance majors are increasingly being taught to communicate about their field through articulate writing, clear verbal presentation, and passionate advocacy. Gone (mostly) are the days of the “silent” dancer. For the sake of our careers and the field we love, we are learning to speak up for ourselves. What to see it for yourself? Hire us.
7.) Dance teaches you to be a good person: Sure, we’re portrayed as evil backstabbing bitches in movies, and we’ve all run into a few nasty dancers (and dance teachers). But the truth is that most of the dancers I meet are really, really lovely folks. We’re passionate about life and the beauty that dance adds to it. We’re supportive of one another because we know how tough the field can be. We’ve learned empathy, kinesthetic and interpersonal, through the act of dancing with real people in real space and real time, face to face and heart to heart. We’re invested in our communities, artistic, local, and global, and are eager to serve through education and artistry. We’re not putting glass in one another’s pointe shoes or sleeping our way to the top – well, most of us aren’t, anyway. We’re cooperative, engaged, eager – the kind of people you want on your team – and we learned it in the studio!
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Reblogged this on Travelling Trolls and commented:
One of my dance teachers just posted this and I am really excited to share it after a conversation I heard at the studio the other day. A woman (ex-dancer and mom) was talking to a student about to take class. The student was mentioning still looking into some conservatories and dance training options even though it was later in her career just because she wanted to dance more hours and get the intensity of training an institution like that would give her. I didn’t hear the whole story but it switched to the woman essentially saying that college dance majors get the butt end of the stick because they never get enough dance hours and then they suffer academically. Now, I can’t say that every program will take core of sorting out this balance for you, they probably will not, but every student has a choice. They can decide to aim for programs with a better balance, find out what the class structure is and where that puts them academically. I do know a lot of dance majors who essentially went to a conservatory with the way the dance was run. I also know some who barely danced but usually they chose to be minors and knew that going in.
Basically, I was half a second away from cutting the lady off and saying the experience is what you make of it. I danced 8 hours a day, a lot of days, and then i was in the library after that nailing down my hard science pre-requisites for post-grad options. In two years, I, like all of my class mates, get to be Dr. so and so and my only other degree is in dance.
Sounds a bit crass, but even I have given myself heck for choosing a degree that produces a meaningless piece of paper and that is because of so many other peoples views. Dance does have a lot to offer and choosing a college degree to go along with it can be a great choice for a lot of people. At the very least, I think my decisions worked out a lot better than if I had decided to go with Chemical Engineering.
Thank you for sharing your story! Everyone is in a different place, and needs to make the best decision for them, but I agree that a dance education can be a great choice for many. Best of luck to you!
Wonderful article! As a male dancer (and tail end babyboomer) I was discouraged by my parents from pursuing dance, fortunately they were reluctantly supportive and later became very proud. Down through the ages philosophers, poets, and all kinds of great thinkers have promoted pursuing what you are passionate about. People such as Henry David Thoreau – “Do what you love. Know your own bone; gnaw at it, bury it, unearth it, and gnaw it still.” Rumi – “Let the beauty of what you love be what you do.” And more recently Wayne Dyer – “Doing what you love is the cornerstone of having abundance in your life,” and “There is no scarcity of opportunity to make a living at what you love; there’s only scarcity of resolve to make it happen.”
Pursuing what you’re passionate about is not an exercise in selfishness, it is a path to fulfillment which is measured in much more than just dollars, but as Wayne says it does take resolve to make it happen.
What beautiful quotes – such supportive evidence for those who question whether or not to pursue their passions. Thank you for sharing!
Reblogged this on katie skinner and commented:
So nicely said. A dance education is a valuable, experiential, and exciting education.
Thank you! The term “experiential” is a great way to describe dance education. In dance, the learners are active and engaged in a way that I think is really important in the digital age.
Reblogged this on Ashley David and commented:
Love these thoughts from a UMD Dance M.F.A. alumna!
Thanks fellow Terp! Hope you are doing well and that the end of the semester is being kind to you!
Great piece – I am BFA in Dance 1987 – University of Cincinnati College Conservatory of Music – I wish you had written this sooner:)
Thank you for reading and sharing your comment – I guess late is better than never?! 🙂
This makes me regret not following through with dancing. I hope that I can feel for writing what I felt for dance one day!
Thank for for reading and for your kind words … and it is never too late to get back into the studio!
Your probably right! I wonder if I would just make a fool of myself now though or if all that I learnt before would just come back to me naturally? Probably worth a try!
Reblogged this on chelsea at sea and commented:
Wow! I couldn’t agree more. I am so happy with the presence dance has in my life.
Thank you for reading and sharing your thoughts. Dance can bring so much joy!
Reblogged this on The Dance Buzz and commented:
Really well-written post about the benefits of dance and why some students choose to major in a field that might not benefit them the most economically. Brava!
Thank you for reading and sharing!
My sister graduates next week with her dance degree and I couldn’t be prouder of her for following her dreams!
Wonderful! Best of luck to her – she is lucky to have your encouragement and support!
Wow I love this! I would love to dance but I don’t know how. In movies, they usually show a character who claims that they can’t dance but after “listening to the beat/rhythm”, they are experts.
I would love to learn ballet, it’s so sophisticated and precise and I can only wish to be that flexible but I’m 21 and I feel like I’m too old to start learning now. 🙁
It’s never too late to start! I have taught plenty of adult beginners, some of who take up dance for the first time in their fifties or better. I hope you can give it a try some day!
Ya know…I have two different degrees in communications and worked in TV and radio for twenty years and haven’t worked in almost a year. If I could do it again, I’d pursue something creative because that’s where my heart is. Instead i spent that time chasing money. Always follow your heart.
Well, there are pros and cons to every career path! I hope that you have found what your heart wants and are able to pursue it now. Thank you for reading and sharing your thoughts!
Reblogged this on Big Blue Dot Y'all and commented:
One of the reasons I love this piece is that it emphasizes something I’ve come to learn in my own life — creative people have a tremendous amount of knowledge and skill to bring to the job market. It most certainly is not frivolous.
Thank you for reading and for sharing your thoughts! I was inspired to write this piece in part because so many of my friends took what they learned through dance and applied it to other careers about with they are equally passionate.
I’m actually not a dance major because my university doesn’t offer one, but I am a very passionate ballroom dancer who is on the floor every time she isn’t studying. Dance has taught me so much about relationships, myself as an artist, and myself as a person. Personally, sharing the joy dance brings to me with others is my dream job.
Thanks for sharing your experience! It is wonderful that you are able to keep up with your dancing even if it is not offered as a major at your school. I think that sharing what we love is a special calling and privilege – I wish you lots of luck!
What a great article and I thank you for writing this…this resonates for all of us that were Dance Majors years ago and I am sure those who are about to enter or are currently Dancer Majors will feel that much more validated in what they do. Some of your points totally reminded me of my time at Indiana University, where I was a ballet major 1994-98. Cheers!
Thank you for reading and for sharing your comment. Best wishes to you!
Great post! I share your perspective completely. The discipline, self-reliance, collaboration and beauty of dance has stuck with me and applied to so many parts of my life. I just recently started ballet classes again after a 20 year gap. I missed moving, hearing the music and getting lost in the process. It’s great to be dancing again. Thanks for sharing your experience.
Thank you for reading and for your comment. I’m so glad you found dance again 🙂 Best wishes to you!
From a former dancer.
I teach in a school of business, so I would be expected to say, “why don’t you study something practical”….but that’s not me. I studied dance and theatre in high school, and did some pre-university theatre programs. And although I ended up in a totally different academic discipline, I use skills from my dance and theatre training every single day. You make so many good points here, especially about skills like collaboration, creativity, and discipline being great training for anything. Thank you so much for writing this! Go, you!
Yes! Thank you for sharing your story. This was exactly what I was trying to communicate – you can use the skills you learned as a dance major anyway. In fact, I think our experience as artists makes us uniquely qualified for many kinds of work, and perhaps even more qualified than people who had more traditional education experience. I’m happy to hear the skills you learned are helping you in the field you ultimately chose! Thanks for reading and commenting!
I disagree and agree with you. I think this is a wonderful article, but even though it comes with these amazing attributes, at the end of the day money does still matter. I realized my passion wasn’t guaranteed to support me and my college debt so I decided to double major. If my major doesn’t work out and I’m faced with not being able to find a job I have something to lean back on. Maybe its just me, but I refuse to receive any kind of help from family to support me or a husband to rely on. I know people who are absolutely passionate about what they teach but are not making enough to pay off their loans. I think the extra work and semester in school is worth it and that way you can receive the best of two worlds.
First of all, thank you for reading and taking the time to comment! I really do appreciate it!
Yes, I agree with you 100% on the “finances matter” piece. But, it is possible to support yourself with a dance degree. I had very limited financial support from my family and am not married. I went to a small undergrad program where I received a full academic scholarship (instead of a bigger name conservatory) and a grad program where I was fully funded. I am extremely fortunate that I do not have that many loans, but I also very intentionally planned it that way and worked hard to earn the institutional financial help I received.
I also wrote this article to show that the skills learned in dance are transferable. I spent years supporting my dancing and teaching with work at in management at theme parks, teaching swimming lessons, baby sitting, and nursery programs. As I said in the article, it was not always glamorous, but I was able to pay my bills and support myself in a modest but comfortable lifestyle. However, I also have friends who majored in dance but were able to secure better paying jobs in HR, marketing, banking, etc. They used what they learned as dance majors to help them find a more sustainable career – and most still dance and teach on the side to feed their artistic interests.
“Following your passions” does not always mean poverty. I argue that the dance major gets a bad rap because people think you can “only” use it to be a dancer, and that being a dancer always means financial hardship. I really don’t think that’s true. It you are mindful, and you make good plans, you work hard, and you are smart with your time, money, and choices, you can find both financial success and personal fulfillment with a dance degree.
This is a beautifully, educated, detailed and well written piece that I think all artists can relate to. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this.
Thank you very much! Yes, the experiences of all artist, but particularly dancers and theatre artists, are quite relate able! I’m glad you enjoyed the piece!.