The College Degree in Dance, Does it Make for a Better Teacher?

The discussion of this question has been raging on for generations and I became aware of this divide when I first discovered that there was an online community of dance educators. Most opinions seem to sit firmly in one camp or the other and it seems that the culture surrounding the internet in general has created a generation of teachers who have an overwhelming need to be both RIGHT and THE BEST.

The college educated dance instructor will have been schooled in Dance History, Music, Pedagogy, Anatomy, Kinesiology, Dance Notation and many other relevant subjects that the non-college educated dance instructor will, in all likelihood, never have encountered.  College educated teachers tend to have better skills in constructing syllabi, creating lesson plans and seeing the overall arc of a dance education.

The studio/conservatory trained dancer who embarked on a stage career and then settled into teaching has had a very different educational exposure. Many have been taught by varied notable instructors who teach “experientially”; mining their memories for information on how they were taught, what they did to solve their own problems and how they arrived at a professional level. They will bring to their students the experience of dancing professionally on the stage, being part of a company, navigating the difficulties of the professional dance world, and actually being a part of the fabric of the industry for which we are preparing our students.

Occasionally and rarely we will encounter teachers who bring both experiences, typically returning to college to pursue a degree after a successful stage career (or sometimes, perhaps, the other way around).

There has been a feeling of disdain and contempt between the two groups since I first entered the dance community. When I was performing professionally in the late 1980’s and 1990’s it was generally assumed by working dancers that the dance education one received in a college was inferior to the education available at a professional school or conservatory. However, judging by the dancers coming out of some of those dance programs, this was simply not true. It also seemed to me, when talking with and interacting with these college educated dancers, they had been taught that without a college education, a teacher would be categorically inferior. I have, in fact, been told that I am an irresponsible teacher because I am not teaching ballet from a codified syllabus such as RAD, Cecchetti or Vaganova.

Well our opinions are formed by our own experiences. I have quoted this song lyric before; and trite though it might be:

“It all began the day I found that from my window I could only see a piece of sky.”(Alan and Marilyn Bergman)

I recently watched an interview with the great ballerina Wendy Whelan in which she recalled her time at the School of American Ballet. She talked about how each teacher brought something different to the classroom; from one teacher she got strength, from another she learned musicality, from another she learned style and from yet another she learned repertory. At that time, the great and varied SAB teachers were bringing their individual experiences to the studio. She said that she understood that all of this teaching was going to feed the one thing and she understood how to put it all together.

I will never know (without an enormous amount of study) what a university trained dance educator knows. Never. And that knowledge is extremely valuable. But on the other hand, a university degree can not impart the knowledge and experience that I acquired on the stage and under the tutelage of great professional (dare I say Master) teachers like Luigi, David Howard and Gabriella Darvash. In addition, I have had the experience that Ms. Whelan had of having to “put it all together”; and I believe that trains the brain and body in yet another way, bringing yet another experience.

It is very rare to find a dancer who learned it all from one teacher. And regardless of how a teacher ACQUIRED their knowledge, what is even more important is how a teacher IMPARTS their knowledge. There is something magical that happens when the right teacher connects with the right student. We have all experienced it; and it can’t be predicted and it can’t be taught. Degrees and resumes are snapshots of a teacher; a static image of the complex and ever changing nature of a career. Nearly every job for which I have ever been hired required that I teach a sample class. There were many, many, many jobs for which I have applied that I did not get. Many. In fact, the list of “No’s” is far longer than my resume. But when the fit was right, when I was the RIGHT teacher, the job was mine. And it wasn’t because of my time on the stage or the degree that I had (or didn’t have) but because of how I IMPARTED the information and how that information was RECEIVED.

Perhaps if we could respect our colleagues for their individual journeys, and hire them based on their individual abilities rather than a piece of paper, our students would get a richer and more varied experience in the classroom. And just maybe, as a result, we could let go of the animosity and disdain that divides our industry and work together to build dancers for the next generation.

4 thoughts on “The College Degree in Dance, Does it Make for a Better Teacher?

  1. My experiences provided a world class career as a soloist for 50 plus years and teaching all over the world . I hold BFA. MFA. DFA DEGREES. I studied with the greatest teachers possible all over the world and I also chaired historic leading dance departments. From this bounty of experience, I think that a solid teacher is evolved and has a natural affinity for educating children through adults. The ego in the way / the over emphasis of teachers demonstration / the too much talk / the show off / the follow me / the I did such and so / are beware warnings.

    The class is for the students development on many levels and in many areas. They must learn to listen.
    Look And see.
    Sense the flow and arch.
    Interpret into performance and personalize. Characterizations.
    Know their kinesthetic respond.
    Hear the music and
    be instinctive to rhythm.
    Technical virtuosity is evolved.
    How high a leg goes is a bore!
    Gymnastic gyration dance as seen in current TV is not sustaining and is a deadly path of injury .

    Aesthetics are very difficult to impart with these vulgar displays of 1 minute dump it all on the stage routines.
    A great teacher silently goes about Unteaching years of bad technique.
    This is a complex topic. I have encountered educators that never had any professional career and the had very limited knowledge. I have worked with world level partners that had no interest or desire to teach.
    There are natural born teachers and they are rare and to be blessed.


  2. Oh Bill … you a wise man and this is so refreshing to see your joined up thinking and I wholeheartedly concur.

    I sit in both camps … I was educated vocationally as a child RAD / IDTA and yet no one asked to see my exam results when I embarked on my professional dance career. The Audition was where you proved your worth …

    As a dance teacher I qualified under the auspices of those very organisations and then decided to go down a more “academic” route seeking high level generic teaching certificates which cover generic teaching methods & theory. Akin to a degree in dance without the degree … how many qualifications does one person need? So I sit in both arenas.

    I’ve been discriminated against because I didn’t go for a Fellowship with the vocational institution, my academic qualifications aren’t recognised by the adjudicating panels who only seek people with the aforementioned fellowship as a benchmark to be on their register, I’ve been in meetings with dance degree holders (usually Contemporary dance here in the UK) who refer to the private dance sector who charge for and run pre-vocational training as “rogues, thieves & vagabonds” (I ran a large successful dance academy for 18 years and own my own dance studio) …. and I find this divisive thinking which still exists in abundance in our dance world frustrating in first instance and it fills me with such sadness on the other …

    It’s time for the dance world to wake up, join up and celebrate all that dance and particularly dance teaching at its best embodies, no matter how / where that happens.

    Thanks for your continuing insights.


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