Tips & Advice

Surviving – and thriving! – in the first semester of college dance

college dance

Imagine that it’s the first week of September. You’ve set up your dorm room, memorized your class schedule and have your dance gear in order. You’re feeling ready to take on your first semester of college dance! Or you might be feeling so nervous that you’re sick to your stomach. Or somewhere in between. However ready (or not) you feel for the first few months in a university or conservatory dance department, there are likely challenges and joys that you’re not yet aware of. Read on for tips on how to make the most of it, to set yourself up for success in your time there and beyond!

#1. Take care of your body, mind and spirit.

You might be sick of hearing about the importance of eating right, getting enough sleep and keeping strong social ties with loved ones, but it’s even more important in the first semester of college. You’re facing many unknowns, with the support systems you’ve always relied on (such as family and old friends), likely not as close as they always have been. Temptations of late-night partying, academic demands leading to all-nighters and less-than-stellar food choices (read: “the freshman 15”) can all reek havoc on your body and your energy. Your new dancing schedule could be more rigorous than what you maintained in high school, so you might need more rest and (on the other hand) daily caloric intake than you did then. Listen to your body’s unfolding messages, and give it what it needs so that you can dance your best.

Pay attention to your emotional needs as well. Homesickness, depression and anxiety are fairly common amongst first-semester university students. Seek out trusted friends and family members to talk to if you begin to experience emotional hardships. Many colleges also offer free or low-cost, confidential counseling to all enrolled students. There’s no shame in seeking professional help, just like you’d see a doctor if you broke a bone. You don’t have to feel alone…because you’re not!

#2. Don’t get stuck in the dancer you think you are.

Hannah Ziegler Herman (center, as Snow Queen) with other members of George Washington University's Balance, a ballet-focused student organization. Photo courtesy of Ziegler Herman.

Hannah Ziegler Herman (center, as Snow Queen) with other members of George Washington University’s Balance, a ballet-focused student organization. Photo courtesy of Ziegler Herman.

College dance departments are an amazing place to explore and refine your identity as a dance artist. But that can’t happen if you cling to how you envision yourself as a dancer now. “Leave your dance identity at home – ‘I’m a bunhead’, ‘I’m a competition kid’, ‘I’m a Broadway’ baby’,” advises Whitney Fetterhoff, BA in Dance from The George Washington University (GWU). “You have the chance to start over again without any expectations of the kind of dancer that you have to be.”

At the same time, do dress the part for the class that you’re going into so that you don’t stick out like a sore thumb, and then feel uncomfortable. “You don’t have to show up to your first college modern dance class in pink tights, leotard and hair in a bun,” says Hannah Ziegler Herman, a dance minor at GWU. It [could be] a dead giveaway that all you’ve ever done is classical ballet.”

If what you’re dancing is indeed a departure from what you’re used to, it’s okay to find an outlet that keeps you connected with your comfort zone. For instance, join a hip hop campus group if that’s what you mostly danced before you started a predominately contemporary/post-modern program. “Find a balance between the old and new,” recommends Rick Westerkamp, BA in Dance at GWU.

#3. Let yourself explore your art form, and take advantage of every opportunity.

Don’t be afraid to try something new, “fail” (which can be quite subjective, anyway), and then try again – because that’s how we grow as artists. “Let go of the idea that you’ll look stupid if you go outside your comfort zone, because you’ll be pushed and you’ll be a better performer for it,” says Kayla McAlandin, BA in Dance at GWU. Every class, every rehearsal and every audition can be an opportunity for that kind of growth to happen. On the practical side, take advantage of as many of those things as you can in college, because classes especially “can get really expensive outside of the college world!” points out Zeigler Herman.

It’s also an opportunity to delve deeper into who you are as a person, through exploring your art form. While that continues far past your first semester, it begins (or gets blocked, depending upon your openness to it) in your first semester. “Find ways of seeking dance in new ways,” advises Sarah Broder Wilson, BA in Dance at GWU. “It’s not always something to do, or accomplish, but it might be an incredible way to find yourself again in the midst of all the changes in your life.”

Whatever you might find, or be, or do, or dance, your first semester is the time to set yourself up for success for the rest of your university/conservatory experience (and beyond, in some ways). That being said, if it turns out to be a rough time for you, all is not lost. You have a lot of time to learn from any missteps and turn things around for the better. Most of all, just try to enjoy the chance to dance another day, another month, another year. Just have fun and let the creative process of yourself as an artist unfold!

For more of Dance Informa’s tips on making the most of your first semester of college dance, click here

By Kathryn Boland of Dance Informa.

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