A Letter to My Former Student

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No, Dance Isn’t a Pyramid Scheme; If It Was, I’d Own More Real Estate

By Karen Kohn Bradley

Recently, an article by the erudite and whip-smart Sarah Anne Austin (B.A. Dance, University of Maryland, 2008) touched off heated discussion in the academic dance world. The piece, titled for impact, if not knee-jerk responses, “Is American Modern Dance a Pyramid Scheme?” seemingly pricked every raw nerve in every dance alum from every dance program across these United States. Austin was applauded by the young and instructed by the old, including the erudite and whip-smart Tere O’Connor and me.

My personal feelings about this piece are quite mixed. I taught this young woman and have a lot of pride in her insight, writing skills, and passion for dance. I’ve also seen some of her post-B.A. choreography and I’m a fan. She’s funny, irreverent, incisive.

I’m also distressed; not only for her cynicism about dance and her degree, but also for her failure to look historically at the changing contexts for modern dance inside and outside the academy. My response to her on Facebook included the following reminders:

Dear Sarah Anne,

As you may recall, much of this was discussed in your own undergraduate program. And I will add that while all of what you write is true for these times, each time has faced similar challenges. I may have shared with you that living in NYC when Senta Driver announced the disbandment of her company in the early 1990s, I knew THAT was the moment the “dance boom” of the 1970s/80s (funded by the National Endowment for the Arts and major corporations, including tobacco companies) had ended. And as for touring universities, the Martha Graham’s company danced on many a gymnasium floor in its early days, inspiring young women (and a few men) to drop out of university and head to American Dance Festival at Bennington then Connecticut colleges, in hope of a career in dance. Not many made it very far; those who did, some of them, went on to found university dance programs, such as the one you graduated from.

So, history matters here, because no one in dance (or any of the arts, or recently, anyone in any field of study) is promised a rose garden or a place in Mark Morris’s company. I have been teaching dance in higher education, in several very different types of programs (B.A., B.F.A., certificate program, no dance major) for 40 years. As I pointed out in my response to Sarah Anne, Maybe 12 percent to 15 percent of any alumni from any program go on to perform  professionally, mostly in small local companies. What happens to the rest of these dance majors?
maybe 12 percent to 15 percent of any alumni from any program go on
to perform  professionally, mostly in small local companies. What
happens to the rest of these dance majors?
Many teach. Especially in the 1980 and ’90s, fitness and personal training were big draws, along with teaching yoga and Pilates, which continues to be popular. Dance-movement therapy. Physical therapy. Medicine. Law. Dancers who go through university training are generally smart and resourceful and organized; they had to be.

Shawn Lent, who graduated with a B.A. in dance from Milliken University in Decatur, Ill., wrote a 2013 blog piece that went viral: “Am I a Dancer Who Gave Up?” In it, she shares:

In 2010, I went back to my alma mater, Millikin University, as one of two alumni selected to speak to the then current theatre and dance undergraduate body. I spoke about working with a child with cancer, leading an arts project with juvenile offenders at a community center in East London, and the role of arts in public schools. This speech was before my projects in Bosnia, Egypt, etc.

After my talk, I opened the floor to questions. One of the undergraduates asked me the following, seriously,

“Did you have any sort of breakdown when you gave up on your dreams?”

It took me a moment to process her question. For her and her peers, dance and theatre students focused on training, headshots, audition skills, and getting their big break, my career trajectory as an artist seemed to be a failure, a major detour. I composed myself and explained that I had not given up on my dream; my dream had gotten bigger.

Artists engage with the world in a variety of ways. Dancers, especially, have specialized skills and knowledge of the body/mind and also a sense of progression through a task, discipline, and resolution of idea. These applicable and transferable skills serve us well, no matter what paths are chosen. But perhaps most important, dancers are resilient.

In order to enhance and facilitate the afore-mentioned 21st-century skills, college and university dance programs all over the country have undergone significant changes in recent years. In order to enhance and facilitate the afore-mentioned 21st-century
skills, college and university dance programs all over the country have
undergone significant changes in recent years. At the University of Maryland College Park, for example, foundational practice courses are more rigorous and consistent than in the past, and a course called Project-Based Learning is required in the junior and senior years for dance majors. Other programs have developed similar courses, designed to improve kinesthetic and aesthetic performance and to engage young dancers in real-world creative and scholarly projects. Do these shifts mean that a larger percentage than the 12 percent to 15 percent will become performers? No, and that is not the purpose of these redesigned courses of study.

The purpose of the university dance program is to offer students the opportunity to participate in a deep and profound process of creating, performing, responding to, and connecting from the practice of an art form. Dance takes them into the life of arts-informed human beings; people who live not at the margins of the world, but lead the way, by example, to full, proactive, creative, disciplined, empathic, and imaginative lives.

Once, long ago, a university administrator asked me why a dance major was important to offer on a campus. When I explained the value physical practices that include creating, performing, analyzing, applying, utilizing, transforming, building, etc., added to the campus community, he looked at me and said, “It sounds like you think you are special.” “No,” I said, “just lucky.”

Sarah Anne, you and your fellow dance majors and alums may not have the lives you dreamed about, but you have the lives you are creating, and the world you are helping to build. Our trust is in you.



Karen Kohn BradleyKaren Bradley is associate professor and director of graduate studies in dance at the University of Maryland College Park. She is the author of Rudolf Laban, a volume in the Routledge series on 20th century performance practitioners, and numerous articles on dance, arts education, and neuroscience. She is currently the Dorothy G. Madden Professor of Dance at the University of Maryland, through which she is organizing a series of workshops and panels on dance and global peacemaking. Other recent projects include The Art of Science Learning, a community program using arts practices to develop solutions to water, transportation and food concerns; Moving Stories: digital tools for movement, meaning, and interaction, a project funded by the Canadian government using Laban Movement Analysis to inform embodied technology design, and ReImaging and ReImagining Choreometrics, a project to digitize and annotate the dance films in the Alan Lomax American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress.


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