How college dancers can marry their passion for activity

Maria Simpson will never forget to watch Hillary Clinton’s 2016 concession speech on her desk computer as students and faculty crowd around the screen. “People were crying,” recalls Simpson, director of the dance department at Bard College. Several of her students asked her, “Why should I dance now? Shouldn’t I be doing something more ‘seriously?’”

In the midst of a turbulent political climate, racial injustice and a global pandemic, many dancers may find themselves asking the same questions. But rather than abandon the arts, college dancers are discovering ways to marry their schoolwork with activity, using movement to respond to the world around them. “Dancing has always been a radical act, even if it’s covered in gauze and tulle,” Simpson says.

Arts & Activity 101

There are many ways to start diving into activity as a college dancer.

Check out the course catalog. Some universities have begun incorporating classes that incorporate arts and advocacy into their curricula. Bard College has created The Artist as Citizen course, the University of San Francisco offers a major in performing arts and social justice, and Marymount Manhattan College focuses on dance studies specifically for students who want to be active artists.

Focus on your homework. If your program requires you to complete a large project, use it to respond to a social problem through research and action. Or use student choreography opportunities to highlight a topic that is important to you.

Use training strategically. Look for organizations that address social justice topics through the performing arts, and reach out to see if they are hiring interns.

Join a student-led club. At Loyola University Chicago, students formed a dance honor society to connect with their community. From preparing food for local women’s shelters to creating a fund that supports Loyola dancers in need of supplies, the group gives students a channel to integrate their craft with social justice, says Sandra Kaufman, founding director of the Loyola Dance Program.

Mobilize your colleagues. Invite other dancers who are passionate about the same issues to be part of a flash mob group, or book a studio space to start your own dance incubator. An activity does not have to be formal to be meaningful. “It’s finding the margins of where you are and highlighting those places,” Simpson says.

A woman in a sheer blue dress kneels with one leg extended to her side.  Her arms form a V-shape above her head, palms upside down, she stares into the stage light, blonde hair flying.
Sandra Kaufman. Photo courtesy of Kaufman

Know before you go

If you are a high school student and already know that you would like to incorporate the activity into your art form, look for colleges that incorporate this into the curriculum. Read their mission statements. Ask about the type of courses, specialties or clubs offered. Research faculty members to see if they have done any social justice work that interests you.

Searching for meaning in movement

For years, Leslie Morales has danced for pure joy. The Bard College student enjoyed the way dancing made her feel — happy, strong, and understandable — until the pandemic turned her life upside down. At the height of the COVID-19 outbreak, Morales and her entire family in the Bronx contracted the virus and had difficult conversations about vaccine hesitation. “It just got me thinking, why do some people question these things?” she says. This experience led her to investigate medical ethics and the historical moments that made marginalized groups wary of medical treatment, particularly the way poor Puerto Rican women were used to testing birth control pills in the 1950s. Now, Morales is using her advanced project to research unethical medical practices and then express her findings through dance. “The combination of my own experiences and what is happening around the world led me to be more active in my performing work,” she says.

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Andrew Naughtie

News reporter and author at @websalespromo