So, You Think You Can Ace College Dance?

A Letter to College Dancers on Getting the Most From Your Time on Campus

Dear Dancers,

Welcome to college! As the director of the Now & Next Dance Mentoring Project, I spend a lot of time thinking about the transition from college to the professional field of dance and all the places that dance study can take you. So it was fun when a friend asked me to think about study skills for dancers just entering college. If you and I were to sit down for coffee, here are some ideas I’d encourage you to think about and discuss with your new classmates:

  1. Retaining material
  2. Asking appropriate questions
  3. Filling gaps in your knowledge
  4. Self-care
  5. Communal learning
  6. Making connections

Here we go:

1. Retaining material. Your college dance professors won’t walk you through every step, every time and they might dance with you less than you are used to. Why? Because in addition to watching your technique, they’ll be watching your learning skills, artistry, and ability to navigate the unknown. Your college dance professors won’t walk you through every step, every
time and they might dance with you less than you are used to. Why?
Because in addition to watching your technique, they’ll be watching your
learning skills, artistry, and ability to navigate the unknown. This means that you need to remember material class to class, and make choices in and around the material. You may have a ballet teacher, for instance, who says “tendus from Tuesday” then cues the accompanist, with the expectation that you’ll have the outline of the exercise still in your body (even if you glance around here or there). But if you fake it on Tuesday (or skip class) and just follow along come Thursday you’ll have nothing to hang on to — and your teacher will see that. That said, the opposite is also true. You’ll have a teacher who will say, “No, shift your weight more like this” or “Feel in this exercise like you did in the other” and you’ll watch her demonstrate over and over again and you’ll do it over and over again, and have no idea what the difference is — until one day you do.

Kathryn EnrightIn either case, the onus is on you to remember the actual steps and exercises and remember the sensations of doing. And smashing that all together, you’ll have teachers who will say. “Okay, take every phrase we’ve ever done and improvise! So what’s the study skill: go through the material that didn’t click for you after class and again in your dorm room. Journal about what you are learning and how things feel to do and have chats with your peers. Most of all, get it in your body. Dance full out as much as possible; mark when that’s more appropriate; visualize if you need; and don’t zone out in class. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t want you to go to your dorm and repeat every exercise. Just be present in class and work on the material that you either can tell you aren’t getting in your body, or that which your professors are repeatedly correcting you on.

2) Asking appropriate questions. Your teachers will say in class, “Any questions?” and you’ll occasionally ask for clarification. You don’t want to ask every question you have, every time. Figure it out from dancing it. Dance is, itself, knowledge. Too many questions slow down class — too few and the class misses the opportunity for cognitive, discursive breakthroughs. How do you know? You mostly have a phrase but get stuck and you know what’s before and after, but can’t figure out how your professor is getting from here to there, ask. If you have no idea what is happening at all because you were thinking about your hottie crush, don’t ask (and snap out of it). If you just learned something in LMA class that makes total sense here, speak up. If this phrase reminds you of a piece you learned in high school that was about star-crossed lovers, cool but save it for your journal.

3) Filling the gaps in your knowledge. If you keep hearing your professor talking about Merce and you are like, WTF? Go get Googling. Some of you have lots of dance history background, some of you have none. That’s okay, you all belong here — but everyone needs to fill the gaps in her or his knowledge base. Start by reading your technique professor’s bio (actually read all the bios of your faculty) and be sure you know who s/he has danced for and with. Likewise, if you don’t know the difference between your hamstring and your bicep — get on that. Your professors aren’t here to hang with you, and we really don’t want to spoon feed you. Don’t go to office hours asking for this information; instead go to office hours and say, “I want to learn about choreographers who (use video, combine ballet and modern, work in the africanist aesthetic, etc.). Who should I research?” (We DO love bragging about you!)

4) Self-care. College and partying often go hand in hand. But we, your professors, don’t care. If you skip class to sleep or come to rehearsal hung over, we won’t think, “Oh, she’s in college.” We’ll think, “Oh, she’s not a serious dancer.” So be smart with your choices. That said, college is also a time when life gets difficult. If something happens or shifts in you and you need help, you can contact any dance faculty member and we will refer you to the counseling services — even walking you over there if we need to. You are not alone here. And on another note, if you decide you don’t want to be a dance major, that’s okay too. We aren’t better than any other major and if this isn’t for you, we’ll be as proud of you in that discovery as we would for your dance successes.

And SLEEP. You cannot do all nighters as a dance major. You need to be fully present and invested in your classes. Period. Same for injuries: if you are injured it is your responsibility to take that seriously and let your faculty know and seek treatment (physical therapy, doctor, etc.). If you push through or keep and injury secret, you’ll get worse and can risk having to take time off from the program. I’m 36 now and I completely and totally promise you that things do not magically get better if you ignore them. They get worse.

5) Communal learning. You are part of a cohort and it is your responsibility to seek and give support. This means going through material with classmates, being active and engaged in rehearsal whether it’s the “fav” piece of your life or just an okay one, and being as respectful of your peer’s rehearsal as you would a guest choreographer. This is not the place to be catty or judge-y of other dancers. There’s nothing in the learning of this department that depends on the success of some and failure of others. You can learn from everyone by actively watching and engaging with the artistry and physicality of others. It doesn’t always feel that way, with auditions and castings — but in four years when you all enter the field, you’ll need a strong network and you have the opportunity to create that here.

6) Making connections. Class, rehearsal, dance academics, and your other major, minor, or other Gen. Eds. all interrelate. Connect what you are learning and learn to effectively articulate those connections when speaking about dance to the wider world. And write. Write about what you are discovering; it will deepen and connect your experience. You are in a unique position, with incredible opportunity and immense responsibility. You get to dance. Think about it. You get to do the most complicated thing possible with your body while expanding your brain. People will say to you, “Oh you’re a dance major, that must be fun” and you’ll want to scream. Sure, it’ll be fun, and exhausting, and mind-blowing, and incredibly profound.

Your task, my friend, is to draw connections between brain and body, rhythm and peace, pirouettes and physics, creativity and economic prosperity — whatever your interests are, learn to dance, speak, and write with clarity and purpose. People will say to you, “Oh you’re a dance major, that must be fun” and
you’ll want to scream. Sure, it’ll be fun, and exhausting, and
mind-blowing, and incredibly profound.

So go decorate your dorm room and buy some foot tape and let me know what else you are doing to begin your college career. And join us at Now & Next this summer!


Ashley Thorndike-Youssef, PhD
Executive Director
Now & Next Dance Mentoring Project
Adjunct Faculty
George Mason University

With thanks to fellow “doctor” dancers: Dr. Marissa Nesbit at East Carolina University and Dr. Jessica Zeller at Texas Christian University, for prompting me to write these ideas out. John Giffin for “tendus from Tuesday”; Abby Yager for “feel like you did then”; and Annie Arnoult for “improvise with every phrase I’ve ever taught you.”
Photo courtesy Now & Next Dance Mentoring Project

Ashley Thorndike-YoussefAshley Thorndike-Youssef is the founder and executive director of the Now & Next Dance Mentoring Project. She holds a PhD in dance studies from the Ohio State University, a Masters degree in educational counseling from the University of Virginia, and a BFA in modern dance from the University of Utah. She has worked in the dance departments of Ohio State University, Oberlin College, George Washington University, and, currently, George Mason University. Previously, she managed the operations and designed health and fitness curricula for the Young Women Leaders Program at the University of Virginia. Ashley has performed and created with Striding Lion Performance Group, Annie Kloppenberg & Co, Meghan Durham/MERGE, and Ashley Thorndike/Peter Swendsen. She has presented at the following conferences: National Conference on Girls Education, Society of Dance History Scholars, Congress on Research in Dance, World Dance Alliance, and the National Dance Education Organization. Her work creating Now Next Dance has been featured in Dance Magazine, on Life of a Modern Dancer, and was recently described as “trailblazing” on From the Green Room, Dance/USA’s online journal. An advocate for studio-based learning, she has two essays forthcoming in Middle Dance, a textbook on teaching dance to teens, and is at work on a journal article synthesizing her dissertation research on dance epistemology. Ashley is also a BASI-certified Pilates instructor with a specialization in dance training, and a registered yoga teacher.


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