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!