Romancing College Students: Building the Next Generation of Dance Audiences – Part 2

You may find part 1 of this article here.

How can dance compete? The conversations in the “Viewing Dance” classes offer several approaches to achieve that out-of-the-box sensation. These integrated elements, including use of interdisciplinary collaborations, use of technology, choreography that breaks tradition, and the athletic aesthetic, contribute to creating one-of-a-kind experiences.

Interdisciplinary collaborations and the diversity that they bring to the dance stage can offer multiple feelings within the structure of a dance concert. Choreographers can utilize the talents of artists from other genres to construct works that feature multiple layers of original and assimilation material. Concrete substantiation of this theory resulted from a project for both the non-dance community of “Viewing Dance,” as well as dance majors, who were each assigned to attend a performance of Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company’s presentation of Fondly Do We Hope, Fervently Do We Pray at the Ohio Theatre in Cleveland this past January. This rich tapestry of dance incorporated the artistry of Jones’s choreography and vision, paired with various artisans: stellar company dancers, two live singers who at times followed the dancers or remained stationed downstage to sing, a narrator who recounted background lore during certain sections, heightening the meaning of each pull, reach and interaction in the choreography. Also on stage: movable visual art that served as set, scene manipulators, and video technology projected on an enormous curtain displaying written text and images that ushered the audience into this magical work of art. The piece, performed without an intermission, ran for approximately an hour and 40 minutes, which greatly surpasses the threshold of most attention spans. Faculty anticipated that the dance majors would appreciate this production; the company is well regarded for artistic integrity. However, the response from several dance majors’ companions, who accompanied them to the performance, as well as the overwhelming majority of the “Viewing Dance” non-dance majors, provided an important revelation. Dancers and non-dancers alike noted that this event was out-of-the-box. The artistic aspects and diversity held their attention, enabling the audience to fully invest in the production. This was all the more surprising given that it ran for such a relatively long duration. Many expressed the desire to attend future productions of this nature.

As in the Jones piece, choreographers have and continue to include technology in their choreographic works, adding more texture, stimuli and dimension, and providing a somewhat familiar interaction for this generation. While most students may not understand particulars of the language of dance technique, they are innately familiar with the language of technology, as it revolves around their lives far more frequently than dance. While most students may not understand particulars of the language of dance technique, they are innately familiar with the language of technology, as it revolves around their lives far more frequently than dance. Interestingly, while researching the use of dance and technology to present to students, less information is available in the genre of ballet. Random videos of ballet can be found on YouTube, such as On The Other Side, choreographed by Benjamin Millepied of The New York City Ballet. A pas de deux, it is enhanced by a brief video with personal introductions to the two dancers and their relationship, which unfolds in the resulting choreography. Millipied chose to film this brief introductory video with the dancers in street attire, making it much more relatable to the student audience who, no doubt, can identify with them in street clothes. The non-dancers described this video as helpful in presenting the premise of a story, which was then danced. Technology supported this illustration, creating human interest that many students can connect with. Why has ballet not realized this asset as readily as contemporary and modern dance? Millepied’s work stands as testament to this query.

Choreography that breaks tradition is another feature of out-of-the-box programming. Breaking from traditional dance technique, like ballet, modern, or folkloric forms, creates new, exciting and, in many respects, unexpected shapes and transitions that take audiences by surprise. This process contributes to building a more athletic and visually rich experience. Though most student and novice audiences may not have experience viewing dance, many can relate to the physicality of dance by associating it with sports. Dances that feature athleticism provide a common aesthetic that most viewers not only understand, but appreciate and wish to emulate, for physical fitness is a desirable goal in our culture. Choreography capitalizes on that. Ballet choreographers who clothe dancers in little more than leotards and tights realized that the beauty of the human form could be best displayed in less attire. Contemporary choreographers such as Alonzo King, William Forsythe, David Parsons, Jennifer Muller and many others feature dancers in works that emphasize the streamlined physique of the dancer as athlete. This physical aesthetic fosters an almost Olympian sense of fitness. Non-dance majors often commented on this, expressing interest in works that exhibit the physical and virtuosic. William Forsythe’s In The Middle Somewhat Elevated was so valued that many male students stated that they often returned to YouTube to watch this piece because the sheer athleticism of the dancers intrigued them.

Creating an out-of-the-box experience, however, does not overshadow another factor, which can diminish audience investment: a sense of detachment. For many who might attend a live concert, lack of experience and education in the art form can inhibit a personal connection. On many levels, this millennial generation can be seen as lacking personal connections, as noted. How can dance generate more personalization?

An example of a presentation that has excelled in personalizing the dance experience for the audience is the popular Fox television show “So You Think You Can Dance.” In an interview with me earlier this year, former choreographer and television director Matthew Diamond outlined several key points that have made the show a success. Among them he says the audience gets “two minutes of each style, you get to know the kids, you include some edgy ideas, and it makes for a very entertaining evening of television.” The short filmed sketches of each contestant’s story personalize the viewing experience. Theodore Bale, Houston-based critic and journalist, recently wrote in Dance/USA’s e-Journal that this personal element is a key for the show’s success: viewers “learned about Adechike Torbet’s tough childhood in Brooklyn, Jose Ruiz’s boyish crushes, and winner Lauren Froderman’s student teaching in her hometown studio. When dancers share their moods and emotions, viewers form a stronger connection with them, and are more likely to return to watch them perform.”

Using these ideas, one can find ways to personalize dance events on university campuses and beyond. Interviews and profiles seem to bridge the gap between unknown performers and the audience that views them. Why doesn’t live concert dance take this up? Videos that depict the hardship, tears, trials, triumphs, laughter, nerves, and excitement of performing endear dancers to their audiences, who may relate to similar emotions in their own experiences. Filming rehearsals not only illustrates sequences that do not work and the frustration that ensues, but it also shows the joy of achievement when the process yields a desired result. Who doesn’t cheer for a success story? In addition, audiences glimpse the “secret” life of dancers through clips of them panting in the wings, rubbing ointment on sore muscles, applying band-aids to bloody toes, actions seldom seen in the context of concert attendance. This can serve to further interest in the field. Once filmed, the video could be continuously played in theater lobbies where patrons pick up tickets before curtain time, or even at the start of the performance as an introduction to the final product. The video could also be played anywhere on campus, or in an arts district, including where people eat and congregate. Perhaps interest might be sparked between burgers and fries.

Podcasts, purposely filmed in the wings during a performance, are another option for breaking down that fourth wall. Again, potential audience members might be captivated by the allure of seeing the behind-the-scenes action, not usually witnessed. Perhaps this could result in purchasing a ticket to see the concert from the angle of the audience.

Each generation comes of age with new and improved skills and the ability to hone those skills. Perceptions, communication methods, expectations, and results get processed differently by each succeeding generation. Learning and discovering the particular lifestyle choices and consequent desires of this current generation of potential dance goers might spark increased interest and investment. As dance advocates, teachers, and presenters, we must recognize and respect this changing landscape and open ourselves to strategies that may best appeal to future generations. The art, beauty, and communication of dance deserve this.

Andrew Carroll has an extensive background in the performing arts, which includes performing nationally and internationally for nine years as a soloist with the Pennsylvania Ballet Company in Philadelphia, and a principal with the Ohio Ballet prior to that. His career spanned performing throughout the United States as well as appearing throughout South America, China, and Europe. In 1994, he was named one of six cultural ambassadors to the City of Philadelphia. In 1996, Carroll joined the College of Creative and Professional Arts at The University of Akron, teaching advanced levels of ballet, ballet history and choreography. He was director of The University of Akron Dance Company for 13 years, and helped to organize and plan numerous campus residencies and outreach programs, including with The David Parsons Dance Company, Alonzo King’s Lines Ballet, Doug Varone and Dancers, among others. He has been a master teacher, choreographer, and guest artist at Towson University, Grande Valley University, Verbs Ballets, The Rock School, The Ohio Ballet and The Canton Ballet. In 2010, Carroll accepted the position of assistant professor of ballet at the University of South Florida, Tampa, teaching ballet, history, partnering and choreographing. He has since presented internationally for IUGTE in Austria, and is currently researching popular culture and its impact on dance. Carroll holds a BFA in dance and an MA in arts administration.


We accept submissions on topics relevant to the field: advocacy, artistic issues, arts policy, community building, development, employment, engagement, touring, and other topics that deal with the business of dance. We cannot publish criticism, single-company season announcements, and single-company or single artist profiles. Additionally, we welcome feedback on articles. If you have a topic that you would like to see addressed or feedback, please contact

Disclaimer: Opinions expressed in guest posts do not necessarily represent the viewpoints of Dance/USA.

Skip to content