Two recent articles that discuss college dance programs and the world of professional dance offer a sobering look at the difficulties of the dance world and the overproduction of dancers with professional potential by dance programs that offer little preparation for that world.
Will Storr shares a somewhat depressing portrait of the life of a professional dancer in London with a focus on television and the music industry. There's a lot worth considering in this piece but his comments about college dance programs especially caught my eye:
"Oh, the annual churn of the colleges. The dancers hear it constantly, the sound of the machine in the distance, its ceaselessly grinding gears that, with every coming year, push out hundreds of new dancers, each one younger and hungrier and less jaded than you. And with every release of fresh limbs into the stew of the city things get harder."
Natalie Walters shares some of the views of college-trained dancers in the New York area who often feel unprepared for the actual world of dance. Though a few mention professional preparation, the majority find that education programs focus on the art and offer little guidance for the business which ill prepares students for life after college.
My own observations from the late 70's to the late 90's was that college dance programs gave students an opportunity to immerse themselves in dance yet had little to say about life after graduation. I remember talking to a faculty member at one major program who confessed that she wasn't sure what to tell students because dancers found so many ways to earn a living in dance after graduation. My suggestion to "teach them about those things" seemed to fall on deaf ears.
The other problem is that the business model of college dance programs does not allow for an adjustment based on job prospects. Dance faculty have to keep pumping out dance graduates or they won't be able to justify their existence in the world of academia. The fact that humanities and arts professors often have a bias for an [expensive] education for education's sake, washing their hands of any responsibility for the future, simply compounds the problem.
That said, except for dancers who are clearly professional material by their teens and enter the youthful world of ballet, most dancers will be better served by having a college degree than not. College degrees have become the equivalent of high school degrees in that they are now often required as a basis for hiring in any field, whether or not the degree is related. College also gives students the opportunity to broaden their awareness of the world in an atmosphere that is intended to encourage reflection on the state of things. Though that reflection may be disconnected from the world beyond the campus, it can still set in motion skills and abilities that are useful throughout one's adult life.
As both articles share by the end, dancers stay in the game not because they expect huge monetary rewards but because they love to dance. However some of the happiest dancers I know are teaching kids in small towns and loving their time nurturing young dancers in the studio and on stage. There are many ways to make a life in dance but, at the end of the day, dancers must be proactive in finding out what those are and preparing for that point in their lives. Expecting a dance program to prepare one for what comes next without going beyond what that program offers is one of the surest ways to shortchange one's future as a professional dancer.