LIGHT: A major proposal: expand dance studies at Yale

I almost didn’t choose Yale. When I received word that I’d gotten into Harvard off of the wait list, I was stumped. Harvard had a curricular dance program — no dance major, but at least a long-standing program. Yale did not. Despite my qualms, I followed my intuition and prepared to dive into Yale’s admittedly thriving extracurricular dance scene. My experience is not unique. Each year Yaledancers, the extracurricular dance group I joined freshman year and of which I am now co-president, sets up a booth at the Bulldog Days Extracurricular Bazaar. Each year I meet dancers hesitant to come to Yale, unwilling to sideline their years of intense physical and mental training.

This is not to say that curricular dance at Yale is non-existent. Thanks in large part to Theater Studies lecturer Emily Coates ’06 GRD ’11 — a practicing dancer, choreographer and scholar — there is now an official Dance Studies curriculum within Yale’s Theater Studies department. Coates launched the co-curricular Yale Dance Theater (YDT) program in 2010, putting Yale on the map for programs that emphasize how the physical practice of dance can serve as a research tool. YDT dancers have since performed seminal works by Twyla Tharp and Merce Cunningham, reflecting on our experiences in a blog.

Still, the current state of curricular and co-curricular dance at Yale is far from perfect. Yale has one co-curricular ballet technique class that only began this year; Harvard, Princeton and Stanford all offer at least four classes in varying styles. In terms of quality, Yale’s offerings are on par with these universities; it is in quantity — in the number of technique classes and curricular performance opportunities — that Yale is lacking.

Yale has historically been a leader in the arts. The Schools of Art, Architecture, Music and Drama are among the top institutions in their respective fields, with world-renowned faculty and visiting practitioners. This excellence carries over to their undergraduate departments, attracting some of the most accomplished young visual artists, musicians and actors from around the world. Shouldn’t Yale strive to attract equally excellent young dancers and choreographers? If Yale has excelled as an innovator in these other artistic disciplines, why not do the same for dance?

I propose that Yale offer a major in dance studies. Currently, students may opt for the Dance Studies track within the Theater Studies major, completing a senior project in dance or performance. While they can count the 2–3 dance studies courses offered each semester toward their major, students must take two introductory theater surveys as well as four courses “chosen from four periods of dramatic literature or theater history or from four cultures,” according to the Yale College Program of Study. These theater requirements often dissuade students interested in dance — myself included — as they are not directly relevant to performance studies and focus heavily on the theatrical text. Instead, a dance studies major program would offer courses uniting dance practice — technique, choreography and performance — with written research and analysis. The program would prepare students for postgraduate dance study and for careers in dance performance, choreography and arts administration.

This bold step would benefit both Yale and the status of dance studies in American higher education. Despite its relevance in contemporary artistic practice, dance retains connotations of “physical education” and is not historically considered a liberal art. If Yale, arguably the greatest university supporter of the arts in the United States, were to institutionally back a dance studies major, other leading universities might follow, providing an intellectual dance environment for exceptional students who might otherwise attend conservatory or head straight to a professional career. Accomplished choreographers, performers and dance scholars would also finally have a place in America’s elite institutions of learning. Until then, the administration must face the reality that many young dancers simply don’t choose Yale.

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