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The Graduate Advantage

Graduate students enhance undergraduate programs.

Published February 1, 2010.
 
UIUC's Lauren Vandevier and Josh Ford in Renay Aumiller's Broken Chords. Photo by Daniel R. James.

When faced with the task of choreographing a piece, University of Arizona freshman Brendan Rooney decided he could use some guidance. So he cast his dance with graduate students. “Considering it was the first piece I choreographed,” says Rooney, who has since earned his BFA, “I wanted a cast that could help the process.” University of Arizona Co-Graduate Advisor Douglas Nielsen says Rooney’s project exemplifies the collaboration the department strives to cultivate between its undergraduates and graduates.

UA isn’t the only one encouraging give and take between these groups. These days, when a professional dance career often isn’t enough to secure a teaching position, graduate programs are attracting dancers with impressive resumés. (Recent MFA recipients at Hollins University in Roanoke, Virginia, for example, include dancers from Alvin Ailey, Trisha Brown and Paul Taylor and choreographers Sarah Skaggs and Doug Elkins.) At the same time, with budget cuts eliminating adjunct professors, dance departments have begun to draw more from graduate students to fill the gap. The result? Graduate students now provide a whole new level of support for their undergraduate colleagues.

At Texas Woman’s University in Denton, Texas, for example, graduate dance students not only fill an increasing number of teaching spots, they also serve in less traditional positions such as department recruitment advisor, coordinating open classes, audition dates, phone interviews and inquiries from parents and students. “The recruitment advisor has a relationship with students before they come, and when they arrive she helps them navigate the university,” says TWU department head Penelope Hanstein.

The department also dedicates a section of the graduate student orientation to discussing student mentorship. “Grads are often the first point of access when a student has a problem,” Hanstein says. Undergraduates see graduate students as role models, but also as fellow students who are closer to them in age and experience than the faculty. As a result, undergrads often go to grads for advice and help.

Brendan Rooney craved a mentor when he tackled his first piece at UA. In addition to casting his dance with graduates, he asked MFA student Alison Whitcomb to act as his advisor. “Brendan is a talented choreographer,” says Whitcomb, who earned her graduate degree in 2007, “so he really just needed someone to talk to and to watch his phrases and say what worked. Grad students have experience and a high level of understanding for how a dance comes together, so Brendan gained a lot of confidence through doing that piece. He was reassured that his choreographic instincts were good.”

At some schools like University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC), choreographic-process classes may include a mixture of BFA and MFA candidates. This allows undergraduates to refine choreography and performance skills, while graduates enhance their own ability to analyze dance and articulate feedback. At UIUC, such exchanges develop even further in the undergrads’ senior year, when BFA candidates are encouraged to ask MFA students for help with the solo performance and group thesis work needed for graduation.

In 2008, for example, UIUC MFA student Esteban Donoso worked with Talia Kraft, then a senior, to develop her solo. Donoso’s feedback, informed by his studies in psychology, allowed Kraft to perform her work with more authority. “It was as if Esteban’s attentive presence gave Talia permission to follow her impulses more completely, and so the work became more unique to her and less defined by a need to please a general audience,” says UIUC dance professor and composition teacher Sara Hook.

At Hollins University, such collaboration is taken to another level: The entire dance department, plus guest artists, attends weekly choreographic showings. Graduates, undergraduates and faculty present, watch and give feedback on works-in-progress. “That time transforms the program, because they all watch each other struggle and grow. They share in it,” Graduate Director Donna Faye Burchfield says. She calls the Friday showings the “meta-course” of Hollins’ curriculum—the place where students connect their work to something larger than a class assignment.

“When you’re trying to show undergraduate students all of the ways that modern dance can exist, the grads are sort of the soothsayers—the embodiment of everything that can be,” says Burchfield. “We really rely on the grads to extend dance. They are our link.” DT

Alyssa Schoeneman is pursuing a BFA in dance from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a master’s degree in journalism. She was a 2009 summer intern at the American Dance Festival.

Originally published in Dance Teacher , February 2010