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. 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.

    1. 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!

  2. 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.

      1. 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!

  3. My sister graduates next week with her dance degree and I couldn’t be prouder of her for following her dreams!

  4. 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. 😦

  5. 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.

    1. 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.

  6. 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.

    1. 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!

  7. 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!

  8. 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.

  9. 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!

    1. 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!

  10. 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.

    1. 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.

  11. I really enjoyed your article! I took various dance classes and performed in various (amateur) stage productions in my 20s, and I loved the whole experience. I loved how you talked about dance as a calling. I’m currently using creativity to make things to sell, and while not lucrative, it sure is fun!

  12. speaking as a female who went into engineering, I totally envy your calling to the creative side!
    My passion is photography but my career is technical writing…which not even as exciting as is sounds…
    To do for a living that which is also a passion puts you in the lucky minority!
    You are quite right to defend the Dance Major, I can only imagine how hard you have to work!
    good luck with everything!

    1. Thank you for reading and sharing such kind words. There are many ways to follow your passions – do invest the time and resources to do so outside of your career is also quiet admirable. There are so many things I’d love to explore besides dance – thank you for a little kick in the pants to do so! Best wishes to you!

  13. Number 7 holds true for me in so many ways. I am an 18 year old who has been dancing since I came into this world. I am passionate about everything I do since dance had taught me to be passionate about every movement since our passion will always shine the brightest. I have learned to be cooperative because by helping your fellow performers out makes you appear even more talented. I am definitely someone you want on your team! Amen! Great article 🙂

  14. So well said! I couldn’t agree more, especially with the points you make about dance teaching students “21st century skills” and the ability to deal with frustration and setbacks with poise and grace: “failing forward” is part and parcel of the dance training process! For myself, I reflect often on my childhood where I was immersed in the dance world, and often wonder why it is that I turned my back on it in college. For some reason that I now can’t recall (I’m in my 40s now) it never occurred to me to pursue a major in dance, though I did take classes here and there throughout college and grad school. Now, as a parent of a very young dancer, I hope my daughter will end up loving dance as much as I do, and if she finds that it is her passion and calling, that she isn’t afraid to embrace it.

  15. For a summer I worked at the Harod Conservatory at Boca Raton, Florida. This was a ballet studio taking in only prodigies. The lead person was Tallchief. The hard work does not really convey the amount of work necessary. It was sixteen hours a day. Drill and more drill. Feet sore and blistered. Exhaustion on the face, and the soul. And the outcome iffy. My hats off to all that walk this path.

  16. Shannon, Thank you for this thoughtful, comprehensive, insightful and eloquent piece. Dance: a wondrous and vibrant passion to blessed with. Thirty years ago, I lost my nerve and majored in History, became a lawyer, and started a family. Thanks to my amazingly supportive husband, I reclaimed my passion for dance in my 40s by becoming a dance teacher, performer and choreographer. I am so grateful and thrilled that today, I am dancing more than ever, including performing with an inspiring and talented company. Brava to you, my friend, for figuring out so early what is important. I am psyched to have found you–now following. Xo

    1. Thank you so much for sharing your inspirational story! It is awesome that you were able to reclaim your passion and follow your calling. What a great reminder that it is never too late! Best wishes to you!

  17. you are so lucky you got to pursue what you wanted. some of us do not have that choice – financially, culturally, and of course, parents.

    1. Yes, I do feel very blessed to have had support in my goal from my parents, and to have chosen small schools where I was able to get a lot of financial support through scholarships. I hope that you are able to find time and space to dance and to follow your passions in other ways!

  18. I love your article on this topic. I’ve been obsessed with dance for years now and although I don’t dance myself, I have such admiration for dancers. The discipline dancers have is simply extraordinary.

  19. This was so inspiring! Though I never pursued a professional career I have been dancing since I was young and still take drop in classes. Some people don’t understand the joy that brings and how natural it is to your body when you’ve been doing it for so long but you captured all of this beautifully!

  20. I wasn’t a dance major. Instead, my undergrad degree is in Interdisciplinary Studies and included a combined Performance Art, Business & Marketing course track. I wanted to work in the arts, but not as a performer. Thanks to my wonderful professors guiding me in this direction, I have now been production manager for a youth ballet company as well as a dance teacher for the same company for nearly 15 years.
    My college (a women’s college, Wesleyan) was so in-tuned to the “fulfillment” aspect of our career goals that they did everything in their power to also prepare us for a chance at financial success. Now, I certainly don’t make much money in my field, but I love, love, love my job.
    Kudos to you for not backing down in your choice as a dance major!

    1. Thank you for sharing your story! Your degree sounds absolutely amazing – what an awesome opportunity to blend a range of interests into something that suits your unique skill set and career goals. I’m glad you love your job and are able to make a living doing it!

  21. I was having a very similar discussion this afternoon with some old classmates of mine – we all graduated with BAs in Russian Language and Literature, and we are all too familiar with the “but what are you going to DO with that??” line of questioning. The bottom line is, not all of us ended up in “the field” that we were trained in, but none of us would have had it any other way. We are better people because of what we studied. I love how you outlined the reason this has been true for you with dance.
    By the way, I never in my life took a dance class, not a single one, until five weeks ago. I am thirty years old and I just started taking an Intro to Ballet. I do really regret that I didn’t have the opportunity to dance when I was (a lot) younger, and I’m way behind the curve at this point 🙂 But what the heck, you only live once, right?
    Thank you for the lovely post!

    1. Yes! It is possible to study one thing, take the lessons and skills learned from it, and apply those to another field. I was inspired to write this in part by my friends who have done that and made wonderful careers for themselves. I am excited you have found ballet and have the courage to try! I love teaching adult introductory classes – seeing the excitement and joy that can be found in dancing at any age!

  22. Hold onto your hat – I was an English Literature major. Writing is my passion or, maybe, communicating in general. That does have some high-salary options, but I don’t seem to have taken any of them. Instead I blog, teach and love to work alongside people with honest passions.

    1. Wonderful to hear from someone in a related field. In dance as well, there can be high-salary options, but it is also possible to make a living following your interests – just as you appear to be doing. Congratulations and best of luck to you!

      1. Many thanks! I’m not so sure about the making a living part right yet, but things are coming along that way.

      1. Thank you for your comment! Yes! I love that my daughter’s teacher stops them any time they say they “can’t”, she’s very intuned with their self esteem and self confidence which is such a big part in dancing (everything really…)!

  23. Thorough and thoughtful writing, Shannon. In terms of economics, (and I’m married to someone w/a PhD in Econ and a JD), if everyone got MBA’s or even engineering degrees, there would eventually be an oversupply of them and they might make less than dancers (that thought makes me smile). These days there’s an oversupply of lawyers. When my husband posted an opening he was deluged with resumes.

    Beyond that, one actually has to be good at whatever one does. There are no high-paying jobs for people who aren’t actually good at what they do and no degree from any school guarantees fitness for a particular line of work and I am talking about lawyers, doctors and engineers, etc., not dancers. For the sake of quality, I wish everyone approached their careers as callings (good word, Shannon).

    And then there’s just the times in which we live. I heard yesterday from my husband about a colleague: during the recession, everyone needed bankruptcy lawyers because they were losing their houses. Now they don’t, so those lawyers are worried. Also, US Patent lawyers’ work is being out-sourced to India because it can be done online and guess who charges much less. Once we needed many blacksmiths and elevator operators.

    The world always needs artists, paid or unpaid, anonymous or celebrated – but it’s up to us to make ourselves into the ones people think they need. And that’s really the bottom line in any field.

    1. Thank you for your interesting insight! I appreciate the eloquence of your “bottom line.” It takes people of all careers to make the world go round. A responsible artist will be able to advocate for themselves and fill an important role in society, without compromising their own creative values. It is a delicate balance, but possible!

  24. Thank you for sharing this. My story of dance is similar. One of my favorite dance classes in college was something like “How to Survive as a Dancer”. It covered topics such as mental/physical health, grant writing/money, and others. Every now and then I am faced with a problem and realize I am thinking out side of the box to solve it thanks to my dance background.

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