Dance degrees focus on more than performance
Ohio State department develops students’ technological skills
A dance degree means learning how to be an entrepreneur, not just a dancer. That’s a core belief of Charles O. Anderson, chair of the Department of Dance at The Ohio State University.
“[When it comes to the degree], we say, ‘dance and…’,” he said. “We have not created a Bachelor of Fine Arts program where we are setting up the false idea that after four years of study, you’ll be able to pay your rent. We are trying to create conditions for our students to understand that their core career path may be in dance, but they should also look at the transferable skills that are developed through our curriculum as a way to sustain themselves.”
Dance performance jobs are few in number and extremely competitive. Many dance majors go on to careers in other fields once they learn about other possibilities.
“Our students are marketable,” Anderson said. “They are not looking at one single aspect of the job marketplace. They’re developing skills that let them audition for cruise ships and Disney while at the same time pursuing classical modern dance forms and emerging technologies that center the body and movement.”
To bolster the department’s offerings, two staff members with these skills were recently promoted to lecturers. Beginning this fall, Jonathon Hunter and Lexi Clark-Stilianos will teach classes that give students firm foundations in dance production and digital programs, respectively.
“I want to empower students to use technology-based applications and tools in the field of dance,” said Clark-Stilianos. “How do you understand digital literacy and digital hygiene? From a creative standpoint, how do you use dance film, sound design and emerging technologies like virtual reality to make art?”
“We emphasize that dance takes more than choreographers and dancers,” Hunter said. “There are other roles that are just as important, like stage managers and costume liaisons.”
Clark-Stilianos has firsthand experience with using the “and” portion of her dance degree. She began her graduate program at Ohio State in 2015, studying dance with a focus on dance technology, choreography and feminist studies. Her master’s degree allowed her to work as an artist and a teacher in Chicago. Like so many others, she lost her job in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic.
It was her familiarity with technology that brought her back to Ohio State. In addition to teaching, she is the adviser and technical director of dance work in the university’s Motion Lab, which is a rapidly reconfigurable, interdisciplinary space.
“I worked there in a technical capacity when I was getting my degree,” she said. “While my background wasn’t in technical theater, I got some of that from my graduate work.”
Now she works with students, teaching them how to use programs like Isadora, a media playback program frequently used in performances.
“It’s important for our students to have access to that,” she said. “Even if they don’t become programmers themselves, there’s a high likelihood that they’ll work in productions alongside this technology.”
Hunter also wants his students to understand what familiarity with technology can do for them. Programs update regularly and staying current can give students an edge in the job market. He is a member of the American College Dance Association’s board of trustees and hears frequently about technology concerns.
“Many [board members] have said they don’t have the ability to stay up to date on these technology changes,” he said, making students with tech backgrounds strong job candidates.
Furthermore, understanding a program allows students to test its limits.
“We can use technology in such cool and interesting ways,” he said. “You have to know what [a program] is capable of to be able to use it for artistic purposes.”
Still, knowing a program inside and out isn’t always the goal, Clark-Stilianos said.
“A lot of working with technology is finding your own answers,” she said. “I want them to know that I am a resource for them but also, they are their own resource. They have forums, there are tutorials they can use to troubleshoot and find their own answers. That is so much of what anyone who works with technology does.”
Self-reliance, problem-solving – these are the skills with which Anderson, Hunter and Clark-Stilianos want their students to leave Ohio State.
“We’ve had so many students come through the program and realize that there is so much more to all of this than just the performance parts,” Hunter said. “We want to open up their minds.”
“Those skills are what brought me through [the pandemic],” Clark-Stilianos said. “They brought me back here and into an opportunity to that led to the promotion we’re talking about right now.”