In Defense of the Dance Major

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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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169 thoughts on “In Defense of the Dance Major

  1. I’ve been around a lot of people who do dance, I even used to do some myself and I can say the commitment and dedication needed is incredible, your post sums it up perfectly and reminded me of the times I saw engaging dance from passionate people

  2. LOVE DANCING, it sets me free! I was never good enough to do it for a living, but I follow my passion. You have a great opportunity to make your passion your living! Never miss a chance to dance ❤

  3. Well said! and true. I started a love affair with dance when I was 3 and still dance. It shaped my life then and always will.

    1. Thank you for reading and for sharing your story. I was inspired to write this piece in part because of the impact dance has had on me, but also on the way it has affected so many of my friends who went on to other careers. Dance can definitely shape one’s life in truly wonderful ways, and the impact is lasting!

  4. What a perfect piece! My degree is in Theatre, and whenever anyone asks what I do with it, I always answer that I use it Every Day. People usually think I’m being flip – it really takes someone who has been there to understand. I am not working in the arts right now, but I can’t imagine my life and career without the lessons I learned from on and off the stage.
    Side note: I began taking ballet at the ripe old age of 30, and now I can add dance to the list of arts that inspire and encourage me everyday! Thanks for this post!

  5. Stumbled upon this post and I’m so glad I did! I knew when I was 12 that office life was not for me. I got a BFA in dance 2001.
    When my Mom told people I was going to be a dance major, they asked her all kinds of questions, mainly “Why would you let her do that?” Her response was “Its her life. She loves to dance and that’s what she wants to do” I’m so glad I had a mom who was supportive.

    I now have an MA in Arts Management, so I work on the other side, but I still get to be creative and help to bring dance to people. Dance taught me many of my life skills. Its because of dance I know how to work hard and push myself. I wouldn’t trade my Dance BFA for anything!

    1. Wonderful to hear your story. We are both lucky indeed to have supportive people in our lives. I am so happy to hear that the skills you learned in the studio are serving you well on “the other side!” Dance teaches us many valuable lessons, which we can use in a variety of ways. We need people

      1. YES! YOU HAVE MY SUPPORT BELOVED. I may be bias when I say this BUT DANCING is one of the greatest portal to the source and MUSIC is the catalyst by which transcends us there! BLISS AND LOVE.

  6. I am in awe after reading what you had to say about choosing the art of dancing vs. “where the money is”. Congratulations! I can see that dance has truly shaped your life and the wonderful person you’ve become. Thanks so much for sharing your wonderful story.
    Dottie Biggs

  7. Absolutely inspiring and encouraging, as I too try to make my transition from one profession I just took up for the money and job opportunities, to another that will most likely not pay as much but is my genuine passion and happiness. Thank you for writing this. 🙂

  8. Recently at the RDA festival I was sharing about my daughter’s recent college visits and which dance program she liked better. I had said that my daughter wanted to major in dance because she wasn’t done dancing. She felt she had not peaked in her training and ability and she just didn’t want to be done. She would also select another major, but one major would be dance. She was undecided about her other major. One mom said “I would never encourage my child to major in dance! What are you going to do with it?”
    I had thought that I had explained quite well that the dance major for my daughter was about the process, not the degree. So I was pretty put off. I love this article because it expresses exactly why my daughter wants to keep dancing and why i want to help her figure out a way to do that!

    1. Wow! How wonderful for your daughter to have such support. I agree that it is about the process – not just about the process of refining your technique and ability as a dancer, but the process of developing the skills needed in today’s economy through dance. I have “just” a dance degree, but I have been gainfully employed since graduation. I wish your daughter lots of luck and success. It can be scary, but its so worth it!

  9. This post was amazing.. “That investment, that willingness to sacrifice and suffer for what you love and believe in, will never leave you.” ❤ ❤ it 🙂 🙂

  10. Wonderful article! I’m a theatre major and I really connect with so much of what you wrote in this post. I just finished my first year as an undergrad, and I can definitely say I’ve already made some of those discoveries about why it is useful and why I choose to follow this path. Thank you so much for sharing your experiences from working in the arts — hearing stories like this gives me hope for the future!

    1. Thank you for reading and sharing your story. There is hope – so much hope. I know many former theatre majors who have found work in a number of fields, from education to the arts to business and HR, and I don’t think any of them look back on their degree with regret. Best wishes to you!

  11. My son is a dance major and will be a sophomore in the fall. As his mom both myself and my son have had to field questions about his choice. The dominant point trying to be made is that basically he will starve. Our answers have always been as stated by yourself or the many lovely comments above. But there is one additional reason that I may choose to share and that is related to maturity. While my son is a gifted dancer and I am sure he will have a successful career, he decided on college because he simply was not ready for the real world. The stress of budgeting, living on your own or with roommates, cooking, shopping etc… I am so proud of my son, the path he has chosen, his passion for ballet, and his love for the arts. He will soar and I hope I can fly right along side him….Thank you for such a beautifully written treatise on Dance as a Major.

  12. This is a really interesting article. I don’t dance and I don’t know any dancers very well, so the specifics here are new to me. The main idea is not. I graduated with another intensely “unemployable” major: liberal arts. And I have never ever regretted it. The fact is that spending years studying something you truly love, whether it’s an art or a science or literature or philosophy, will make you a better person. You will always be wanting to challenge yourself and excel in your area. I spent four years reading and discussing very very old books, and I feel like I gained all of the same pros you listed for dance majors, albeit through a different path. Thanks for reminding people that following your dreams actually makes sense for more practical reasons than most people imagine. They just don’t think about the problem so creatively.

  13. As a mother of a dance teacher that graduated from DeSales (when it was Allentown College of St Francis DeSales) ,I must admit your article enlightened me even if it was many years since my daughter graduated. I too was concerned with her choice of a major. Dance? I questioned. How are you going to make any money doing that? Your aticle opened my mind to probably most of the reasons she choose dance. You make me feel even more pride in her (I’m so proud of her as a daughter and mother of 4 and dance teacher) and her accomplishments. I knew college was tough, but you addressed all of the reasons she probably called home upset, angry, concerned, confused about the department. I would try to get her to change her major and her answer was always “No” this is what I need to do!! I want to dance. Such passion and conviction for the art! Thank you again.

  14. You bring up some really great points, thanks! I am very grateful for my career in dance, it has provided me with countless skills and experiences. However I worry that with rising tuition rates and high loan interest rates that a degree in dance may simply be unwise. For a young dance artist coming out of college and being confronted with impossibly high loan payments it can be daunting if not downright impossible on a dancer’s “salary”. At least it was for me and that was waaay back when college was much cheaper than today. Today I counsel young dancers to consider company studio training programs or traineeships which are oftentimes much cheaper and if they do want to attend university to try for substantial scholarships. And if college is what they opt for I encourage them to do lots of research on programs, since some of them are not rigorous enough and don’t provide enough professional counseling/outlets. I have 2 degrees in Dance (BA & MFA) and quite honestly I feel that they are worthless :/ I did not need a degree to dance in a professional company nor to teach at a performing arts high school.

    1. Hi Lisa,

      I appreciate your concerns. I was lucky to get scholarships to both my BA and MFA programs. However, I also went to a smaller, less prestigious undergraduate program because of the scholarship. I didn’t need a brand name school. Many people, myself included, are using our degrees in a number of fields to make a stable career for ourselves. I know my degrees have everything to do with my positions teaching at a number of schools and a university, and even with my job in administration. I would not have been hired, nor would I have been a good educator, without them.

  15. Thank you so much for writing this article as I think it articulates the skills dancers can bring to ANY job perfectly. I may even site some of your article in a future job interview! I am currently an English Teaching Assistant under the Fulbright Program in Malaysia and I KNOW part of the reason I was accepted is because I talked about dance so passionately in my essays. I mentioned how dance changed my life and how it would be an honor to share my passion with these students who have little to no exposure to dance, outside of cultural/traditional dance. While my focus is teaching English, dancing has made my students much more confident as people- outside of English class and has pushed them to create, collaborate and move like they never have before. Now, they enjoy a challenge and are excited to perform. I couldn’t be more proud!

    Thank you again!

    1. Thank you for sharing your story! There are many ways to use the skill sets we learned as dancers and I’m so happy you found such a wonderful, challenging ways to use your gifts. Best of luck to you and your students – they are lucky to have a passionate, motivated teacher!

  16. Well, I hope all of these useless pats on the back make you feel better at night. Any skill set will teach you the aforementioned things. And surprise, other skill sets are actually valued and respected.

    1. Hi Mark,

      I agree that there are many ways to learn those skills sets – but dance is most certainly one of them. And even if you do not value or respect dance or the arts, many of us do, and the world is a better place for them. I’m sorry you feel so strongly against that, and I hope you find your passion in life. I feel wonderful knowing that I am living my calling and making a difference in my work.


  17. I really love this blog post, Shannon, and have been sharing it with everyone I know. I am NOT a dancer, by the way; I’m a writer. And substitute “writer” and “writing” for “dancer” and “dancing” throughout, and, really, this is about as close to an “artist’s statement” for my writing as anything I could say myself. There HAS to be a reason that artists do what we do, aside from the promise of success or fame or good gawd, money (because, as Miles Davis said, “I’m not in this to make money. If I wanted to make money, I know what to do”).
    Anyway, thank you so much for expressing what I’ve felt myself about my work for so long, and never took the time to put on paper (or typing). 🙂 m

  18. my wife was and still is a dancer at 63 shw had a dance company for many years and a dance studio, she always mention that dance saved her life, its how she felt…

  19. Your article says it all. All that we as Dance Major advisors and faculty said many times to so many people. The major is all encompassing, not only in daily classes and rehearsal, choreography classes, music and history classes, physiology, anatomy and kinesiology classes, but in addition, the broad range of required General Education classes.

    I have spent my entire life dancing( except for a period of time working at a job that I hated). I am lucky in that I was a tenured faculty in what is now a prestigious Dance Program. Not only did I teach I choreographed for a top regional opera company, re-staged from the Labanotated score and had professional security. Although now a Professor Emerita and unable to physically teach, I am still and always will be a dancer. It is who I am.

    1. Thank you for reading and sharing your comment, Janet! There are many ways to make a beautiful career in dance, and your story reaffirms that! I’m sure your students benefited greatly from your teaching!

  20. I am entering my senior year as an undergraduate Music Education Major and just like everyone else, am struggling with anxiety about graduation and everything afterward. While I have zero dance experience, our fields are obviously very closely related. My mentor just sent me this post, and at just the right time; it inspired me to say the least. Thank you for helping me to feel justified about what I’m doing 🙂

  21. THANK YOU! I am a regular ed classroom teacher and former dance team coach. I have always told ALL my kids (desk and dance) that if they don’t follow their passion after school, they pay check doesn’t matter. Yes, you have to be able to make a living and support yourself, but you don’t have to sacrifice your calling in life to do that.

  22. As someone who danced with a professional (albeit tiny) company, got injured and is now a double finance and economics major, I have this to say:
    Have. A. Backup. Plan.
    Your union, your AD, your dreams- these will not help keep you out of a state of perpetual bartending. I know I sound jaded here, but I know this terrain. When (not if- be honest) you are finally too injured to do another season, how will you pay the rent? Teaching? In this still-recovering economy? Good luck. Dance on, Ballerinas, but get a business degree too- seriously, you’ll thank me at 35.

    1. Thank you for your comment – but I know plenty of people working in a variety of careers with “just” a dance degree. They (and myself) have taken the skills they learned in and through dance and transferred them into a wonderful career in many fields, from HR to non-profit administration to studio ownership and beyond – without an extra degree. A “back-up plan” is a good idea in any field in this economy, but many of us are doing fine in our field. A dance degree does not just prepare you for performing, but for a wonderful, well rounded and economically stable life, if you work it right.

  23. I’m 15 and still in High School. All my friends already decided what major will they take, and when people ask me I’ll answer “I don’t know but I really love Dance.” and they will be surprised and say “What can you do with dance in the future beside teaching?”. I think about it everyday. I’m so sad and confused. I don’t like anything beside dance and I suck in school subjects. I live in the country where everyone is still underestimating dance and dancers. I often skip school just for dancing and learning new dances. I really want to try ballet but my parents kinda don’t let me do those stuffs because of financial issues. So I only learn hip hop choreographies and some K-Pop dances (It’s really fun!). I really like your blog, Shannon, and can you give me some advices because I don’t know what to do anymore 😦

    1. Hi, and thank you for writing! It is a very difficult decision to make, and I’m sorry to hear it is causing you so much worry. There are many things you can do with a degree in dance! You can be an arts administrator, a teacher in a school or studio, a dance therapist, a dance writer, and many more. I encourage you not to skip school, though! A good dancer needs a well-rounded education to be successful, in my opinion. A professional dance career (like a ballerina) can be very difficult, but there are so many ways you can study dance and incorporate it into your life besides just being a professional dancer. I’m glad you enjoy the blog … keep dancing!

  24. I started dance for fun just as a class in my freshman year of high school at 13, dancing less than an hour a day 5 days a week, and became more and more interested in it. Now, I am 16 as a junior and trying to figure out what to do with my life. I have joined the JV dance team at my school and a small team at my studio, where I take 7 classes a week, but I feel that I am not progressing nearly quickly enough in ballet or in anything else in order to get into a dance program in college, although I love to dance. I never even took a legitimate ballet class that actually pushes me until a couple of months ago, and even so it is with dancers several years younger than I am. I don’t know what else I can major in or be passionate about. Is it still possible for me to join a good dance program despite my lower level? What do you recommend?

    1. Hi Anna! Depending on where you are located, you might find a community college program that offers dance. This would give you 2 years to train intensely before transferring to a larger program. In any case, you might try reaching out to the schools you are interested in attending and asking them directly. Every program is different – some require audition, some are open to anyone, some will require you to do an evaluation in your junior year in order to stay with the major. Getting in touch with the programs you are specifically interested in is the best advice I have!

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