How to Make the Most of Each Phase of Your College Career

The transition to college can be a shock. For dancers used to rigid structure and routine, the freedom and agency of college can be exhilarating and overwhelming at the same time. How do you start making decisions when it feels like your future is on the line? There is no “correct” college path, but it helps to have a roadmap. To help you get started, here is an annual overview of what to prepare for and what to prioritize.

First year of study

Embrace the new

“One of the biggest discoveries for me in my freshman year was how different people’s dance backgrounds were,” says Maia Sauer, who graduated from Middlebury College in spring 2022. Jessica Ziegler, a 2021 graduate of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, agrees. “In my little cohort, we were all so different from the start. My background is classical ballet, so I showed up in my tights and leotard, with my hair in a bun. Other people wore shorts and t-shirts,” she says.

It’s not just about the dress code – your new colleagues and teachers will expose you to ideas about dance that you’ve never encountered before. “It’s both beautiful and painful. You get into college and you realize it won’t be the same as it used to be. Dance starts to spread all around you, and you find new ways to engage with it,” says Donna Faye Burchfield, dean of the School of Dance at the University of the Arts.

Take advantage of this by trying out forms that are new to you. “So few pre-college programs have African forms. If you are at a college that offers this opportunity, take advantage of it. If you haven’t encountered improvisation, especially contact improvisation, give this a try. It teaches you a way of being in the body that will forever affect your dancing,” said Heidi Henderson, chair of the dance department at Connecticut College.

Connect with your classmates

Get to know the other students in your year. Chances are you’ll be spending a lot of time with them over the next few years, and if you can build a sense of community rather than competition, you’ll all have a more positive experience. “Our program had a student council with representatives from each class. I did this freshman through junior year, and it really helped me delve deeper into the department,” says Ziegler.

The extent to which you share classes with high school students will depend on your program, but take every opportunity to connect with older students. Their recommendations and advice can help you figure out which direction to take with your studies. For example, Sauer says she took an improv class at the suggestion of some high school students. “It was something I wasn’t exposed to in high school and it was really influential on me,” she says.

second year

Arrive at the guts

“In your first year you made the skin. Sophomore and junior year is when you really get into the heart of a program,” says Henderson. Even in conservatory majors—which tend to have a more prescribed schedule than liberal arts majors—most students have a wider choice of courses to take by their sophomore year. This is the time, says Henderson, to delve deeper into things you found exciting in your freshman year: “If you’re interested in choreography, you need to get into this course as soon as possible so that you can then get into other levels. When you’re really excited about a new technique, take the next levels of this course so you can gain more experience in a direction you think you’ll want to go in.”

Dancer in bright pink pants on stage
As a sophomore, build on your freshman year by taking intermediate and advanced courses in the techniques and subjects that interest you, says Henderson. Photo by Jonathan Tsu, courtesy of Henderson.

Navigating the sophomore burglary

The “college crisis” is a bit of a cliché, but Ziegler says it was true for her and many of her classmates. “I felt good when I went in. After a year, I felt more confident,” she says. “But in the first part of the second semester I had too much on my plate. I’m burned out.” Many more positive experiences came from that year – Ziegler began taking composition classes, an important part of her college experience, and worked with guest artists including Nia Love, with whom she continues to work professionally. This is where it can be helpful to draw on the relationships you’ve built with classmates. “It was reassuring that my class as a whole went through these phases,” says Ziegler.

junior year

Go beyond the basics

At the University of the Arts, the faculties refer to the first two years of the program as “Foundation Years” and the second two as “Research Years”. “Think of it like a house,” says Burchfield. “In the first two years you build your base. In the second two years you build the sides of the roof that grow towards each other.” At this point in your studies you have learned where your strengths lie and what interests you. If your program includes a thesis or project, now is a good time to start thinking about what that project might look like.

Ziegler says junior year was her favorite year of college because she pursued fulfilling creative work alone, with guest artists and graduate students, and she learned to manage her schedule to prevent burnout. “That sophomore friction has eased,” she says.

Dancer in a blue romper dancing in a park
For Jessica Ziegler, beginning her own creative work and collaboration made her junior year a fulfilling one. Photo by Alison Bert, courtesy of Ziegler.

Look ahead, but not too far

Junior year is also a good time to start thinking about your postgraduate aspirations. “If your dream is to dance with a company, or if you want to do more commercial dance, there are certain things that you need to focus on,” says Burchfield. Be careful when choosing your courses, but try not to worry too much about your future just yet. “I remember feeling like graduation was near,” says Sauer. “But my professors reminded me to stay present. You really want to take advantage of the time you have to be in a college dance department.”

Don’t be afraid to take time off from dancing

“In our program, a lot of junior year students go abroad and dance—or not,” says Henderson. “I tell my students, and I don’t think they’ll believe me until they come back, that they don’t lose anything if they don’t take a tech class for a semester. In fact, they are often better dancers when they go abroad and open up as people and learn different things. Something is coming into your body because you are in a new place.”

senior year

dig deep

Many dance programs, including an increasing number of conservatory programs, include some form of senior project. “I think senior year should be about pursuing a personal interest intensely,” says Henderson. “Even if your senior year isn’t a special project, think about who you are and what you’ve learned about yourself. It’s about making everything you’ve learned over the past three years your own.”

Dancer poses in front of water landscape
Senior year is the time to prepare to step out into the world as a professional artist, says Maia Sauer (shown here with her work Memory Map). Photo by Sam Kann, courtesy of Sauer.

Easy into the future

Take advantage of all the opportunities your program offers to learn skills you will need in your professional life. “I remember being in the middle of it and feeling, really? You’re going to force me to create a mock budget for my thesis? I resisted it at the time, but now I realize how helpful that was,” says Sauer. Connecting with alumni can also be a helpful way to envision your own future, and many programs will help facilitate these connections. Some programs also offer credit for students who are employed or studying, a good option for those looking to bridge the gap between college and working life.

Appreciate your accomplishments

Try not to spend your senior year with one foot outside the door. Instead, focus on how far you’ve come. “I was so anxious about the future,” Ziegler says, “but my counselor reminded me that there’s no point in worrying.” That advice helped her embrace the experience of seniority. “The senior year felt the most creative,” she says. “It was like putting all my college experiences together and tying them in a loop. At that point, I really felt like an artist.”

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