Degrees of Dance: Motivations for Pursuing an MFA or PhD

By Kate Mattingly

January 1, 2015, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

As university dance departments require that applicants for teaching positions hold terminal degrees, artists and writers are negotiating different paths to obtaining MFAs and PhDs. Interviewing five artists and scholars who have obtained or are pursuing terminal degrees revealed both opportunities and obstacles that can be part of these paths. When I sat down with Amara Tabor-Smith to discuss academic degrees, one of the first topics that came up was real estate. In many ways this was a fitting start to a conversation that explored the interconnectedness of teaching, performing, creating and learning, as well as the political, social and economic concerns that are entwined with these pursuits. Tabor- Smith is currently enrolled in the MFA low residency program administered by Hollins University, and her decision to pursue a master’s degree is related to changing landscapes both within and outside of academia. As a long time resident of the Bay Area, Tabor- Smith is keenly aware of the “radically shifting” neighborhoods that are making this region nearly unaffordable for artists: “Some folks are managing it due to a great housing situation, or their landlords are accommodating and love them, but it all comes down to housing…. Getting this master’s degree opens doors so I may be able to live somewhere more sustainable.”

Equally important to Tabor-Smith are the opportunities that Hollins’ program gives her to interact with and be inspired by fellow artists. “I love the collective learning process that you only find in classes, whether inside or outside of university settings,” she says. “That for me is important: it’s performative, kinesthetic, and about community. In the environment of Hollins, which is intimate, I have been given an opportunity to grow and learn and live and eat and study and struggle—together and independently—and being forced to navigate when things get uncomfortable is possible with this smaller group of 50 people [total in the MFA tracks] and 9 or 10 in my year.”

Hollins offers three different tracks to MFA students who range both in age and experience, and students gather for eight weeks during summer months. During these sessions, students are in residence at Hollins for five weeks, followed by three weeks in Frankfurt, Germany, at the Forsythe Company Studio and the University of Music and Performing Arts in Frankfurt. Tabor- Smith says her coursework has been “fruitful,” with an emphasis more on writing, theory and criticism than practice. “Because I’m someone who loves practice and can’t get enough tools, skills, perspectives, methodologies, I want to be exposed to as much as possible. Part of why I decided to get this degree was because I was getting jealous of my students who have opportunities to study with choreographers and who are immersed in a learning process. Universities offer environments that are homes to delving deeper; they are hubs for process.” Tabor-Smith teaches at UC Berkeley and recently received a permanent lecturer position which means her place in the department is secure, similar to a tenured professor, but without a professor’s benefits or status since she does not hold a terminal degree.

Sima Belmar, a doctoral candidate at UC Berkeley, says dance departments often misunderstand performance and practice as forms of knowledge. Belmar adds that pedagogy is part of a dancer’s life and to consider someone with a degree, compared to someone without, as more worthy and valuable, is a mistake: “It is a fundamental misunderstanding of a life spent in dance.” Belmar has an MFA from University of Wisconsin Milwaukee (also a low residency program), a master’s of arts degree from Stanford in Russian Literature, and spent nearly a decade as a Bay Area dance critic. She says she decided to return to graduate school for her MFA, but “I had no intention of becoming a choreographer. I went to school to see what it was like to be a choreographer. It was so fun and reinforced that I am not a choreographer. It is not my mode of expression, but then life took a different direction in a weird way. I was living in Italy, and realized I always went to school when I didn’t know what I wanted to do.” She chose the Performance Studies program at UC Berkeley because, “I was thinking about going to grad school to write about dance and I thought then that Dance Studies was too insular. I discovered Performance Studies by reading Andre Lepecki’s book On the Presence of the Body.

Belmar imagined that the PhD could bring “some kind of stability: a tenure track job at the end of the line. Plus being funded for 5 years is a modicum of stability [at UC Berkeley, doctoral students receive a funding package of $19,600 annual stipend/salary and a $3,500 summer stipend]. For dancers a PhD is an opportunity to go deep into thinking about dance, performance, bodies, and to engage with young people. You are not going to get the tenure track job without an advanced degree unless you have ‘the pedigree’.” By “pedigree,” Belmar refers to extensive professional experience as a choreographer (choreographers such as David Rousseve, Joe Goode, Tere O’Connor, Bebe Miller, David Dorfman, and Susan Marshall all have been hired by universities) or as a dancer with a widely- known company.

Tabor-Smith has had an extensive career as a performer with major artists on the west and east coasts: from Ed Mock to Jawole Willa Jo Zollar (Urban Bush Women). “I started dancing full time with Ed Mock when I graduated from high school and at that time I was also doing theater. This is one reason why I question undergraduates getting a degree in dance. I wonder, ‘what are you going to do with that dance degree?’ An undergraduate degree doesn’t translate into teaching jobs. Since I don’t have an undergraduate diploma I chose Hollins’s MFA program. Otherwise I would have to spend eight years completing my undergraduate and graduate studies.”

For Dawn Stoppiello, co-founder of New York City’s Troika Ranch, returning to school more than 20 years after graduating from California Institute of the Arts was motivated by a desire for “long term financial stability. I feel like, on every level in Higher Ed., having an MFA is required. What I’m now questioning is my CV that’s 11 pages long with performances and teaching, but not academic elements like conference participation that seem to be important to hire-ability.” Whereas 10 or 20 years ago departments hired artists based on professional work, today’s institutions often require extensive experience plus a terminal degree. Even with these assets, MFA graduates find competition for jobs is extreme, with hundreds of applicants for many positions.

Stoppiello chose the low residency MFA program at George Washington University (full disclosure: I taught several courses for this program, including one that explored communities and structures of support for dance). She says, “I had a very specific plan that I wanted to go to a school that had a reputation I respected and an institution that would totally pay for my degree.”

The Bay Area offers many graduate degree programs, several distinguished by their alternative methodologies and progressive approaches to dance and pedagogy. Sarah Pritchard, a dancer, choreographer, and part of the SALTA collective, chose to pursue her master’s of fine arts degree at the California Institute of Integral Studies (CIIS) where she is currently enrolled in the Interdisciplinary Arts and Critical Inquiry program.

Pritchard’s decision to return to school four years after receiving her undergraduate degree in Critical Social Thought at Mount Holyoke College was inspired by “working full time and needing that extra push to really make my creative practice a priority.” She adds, “Maybe this could have happened if I had more discipline, but I think an interesting question is, ‘how do artists have this kind of time and uninterrupted focus to devote to their practice?’ There are very few opportunities for this exploration and I’m grateful that I’m in school where I’ve seen my practice grow exponentially. I just wish there were ways to do this work that did not also involve massive debt or that were more supported in our communities.”

Pritchard raises an essential point about issues of access and advanced degrees: although some schools offer scholarships, many can generate about $25,000 of debt for a two-year MFA program. For Pritchard CIIS offers an environment that makes this investment worthwhile: “It has been beneficial to hear critique from people outside of dance, and as an interdisciplinary program I am able to work with artists from visual and sculptural art worlds. The program is also unique in that at 27, I’m one of the youngest students. Most of my cohort are in their 40s and 50s. They have had entire careers and enrolling in an MFA program becomes a way to pivot their career focus.” Pritchard adds that another advantage of the program is the coursework, especially classes like “The Politics of Space,” that bring critical theory together with written analyses, discussion, and creative processes. For Pritchard this integrative approach, combining movement with theory and performative work, distinguishes the program from dance degrees that focus on traditional concepts of technique and teaching.

All of the people interviewed for this article described their paths into degree programs as indirect: Randee Paufve says she “never had a design in mind,” yet today her classes and performances have established her reputation as an exceptional instructor and sought-after choreographer. She has served on faculties of UC Davis, University of San Francisco, Saint Mary’s College of California, CSU Sacramento and currently teaches at Shawl-Anderson Dance Center as well as at Marin Academy. Paufve received her BA from Elmira College, her MA in Dance and Choreography from S.U.N.Y. Brockport, and her MFA in Dramatic Arts from UC Davis, and says she ended up in these programs serendipitously—“stumbling through a lot of things”— and basing her decisions to study on a confluence of events: life changes, conducive environments, and supportive and inspiring people like Della Davidson.

Paufve says, “my teaching path was circuitous: my first two dance jobs were running high school dance programs, which I loved. I left mainly because I was offered work at California State University-East Bay and thought this was a wise career path, moving from high school to college level, and that eventually I would land a tenure-track position and live happily ever after. Twenty years—many of these spent adjuncting at colleges and universities—and one MFA later, I am again running a high school dance program. Of course I miss working with college students (a lot!) on a consistent basis, and/but as a half-timer
with benefits, I continue to free-lance teach courses (such as at St. Mary’s College) outside my Marin Academy job.”

She notices that teaching and creating can have a symbiotic relationship: as Belmar says of Paufve, “Randee treats her teaching and her creative process as inquiries into what it means to perform. When I have worked with her, it is the attention she pays to the moment to moment becoming of a movement that is both so rigorous and humble at the same time. It makes me connect my thinking, my writing, and my dancing in literal ways. They are not metaphors for each other.” Paufve’s performances are distinguished by their elegance and clarity, as well as an attention to detail and nuance that make her work evocative and compelling.

While teaching high school students, particularly students who also train at competition dance studios, Paufve finds it valuable to emphasize a student’s choreographic voice and to supplement their physical skills with attention to qualitative decisions. She asks students “what” a plié offers, rather than expecting rote repetitions of steps. Her own experiences reveal that academic settings vary immensely and the tenure-track job may be attractive to some artists, but teaching younger students or working part-time may be most conducive to a healthy and balanced teaching/creating relationship. In 2008, when she completed her MFA, she received seven offers to interview at universities, and attributes her appeal on the market to “a combination of being ‘the right age at 47’, i.e. old enough to be experienced in the professional dance realm, the right degrees, tons of—and a wide range of—teaching experience, as well as young enough for a university to want to investment in me as a candidate.” For artists seeking degrees and employment in academic environments, Paufve suggests finding settings that cater to personal needs: what may be the ideal program or job for one artist could be the least desirable for another.

This article appeared in the January/February 2015 issue of In Dance.

Kate Mattingly is a doctoral candidate in Performance Studies at UC Berkeley.