Conservatory Life

September 7, 2009

Keeping up with Mimi Liu is no easy task, especially on Wednesdays, when her schedule has her flying from pointe to African dance class. Even though it might seem Mimi is just another class-happy dancer, her schedule is no coincidence: This diverse and dance-heavy day is a normal part of the higher-education approach she has chosen—the conservatory.

For Mimi, a ballet dancer, the Boston Conservatory program fit her goals. “A conservatory concentrates especially on dance; you get to hang out with dance majors, which creates an intimacy that a regular college doesn’t offer,” Mimi says, 21, now a senior. “It feels like a company, which prepares me to experience a taste of the professional life.”

But before your dance-desiring heart leaps to this choice, make sure you consider all of the options. To start, check out the key differences between a conservatory and a college dance program: At a conservatory, the total number of students in the dance program often ranges from about 80 to 100. And, most of your classes are in your major, which as a dancer means dancing for most of the day, often up to six or eight hours including rehearsals! Less choice will be available for the few liberal arts classes you will take, and they will most likely be directly relevant to your life as an artist. Within the larger conservatory setting, everyone will be a musician, an actor or a dancer, so you’ll be fully immersed in the arts. And there probably won’t be a football team!

On the flip side, in a dance program at a college or university, you can often double major or minor in dance and will complete the usual liberal arts requirements. Depending on the institution, the arts community size may vary, and it will be up to you to get involved in the arts activities available.

Both are fantastic options and work well for different dancers. But if full-throttle intensity is your goal in a dance program, a conservatory might be worth seriously considering. To get a better look inside conservatory life, DS walks through a typical week with three dedicated conservatory students.

Boston Conservatory: Mimi Liu

The Boston Conservatory was the first school in the United States to offer a professional training program with equal emphases on ballet and modern dance and was founded in 1867 by violinist Julius Eichberg. Classes in hip hop, tap, musical theater and cultural dance styles further diversify the program, which is located in the heart of Boston. Currently directed by Yasuko Tokunaga, Boston Conservatory offers a BFA.

Mimi describes herself as a ballet dancer but is interested in all kinds of dance. A natural performer, Mimi knows how to shine on stage and also prides herself on her ability to pick up different styles quickly. “I hope to dance in a ballet company when I graduate,” she says. “After that, maybe I will try a modern company.”


9:00–10:45: Ballet

11:00–12:10: Modern Partnering: “I’ve learned to trust my partner, take responsibility and deal with my fears.”

1:30–3:00: Horton Technique: “It’s very lyrical and fluid, but also concentrates a lot on dynamics and musicality.”

3–5: Rehearsal: David Lichine’s Graduation Ball, Antony Tudor’s Continu, Psalm by José Limón

5:00–6:20: Liberal arts general studies: “Right now it’s the French Revolution.”

6:20: Dinner and homework


9:00 a.m.–10:00 a.m.: Alexander Technique: “It’s about finding your awareness of your habits and how to inhibit them in order to dance and live with less tension.”

10:00 a.m.–11:30 a.m.: Ballet

11:30 a.m.–12:30 p.m.: Pas de deux, Balanchine’s Tchaikovsky Pas de deux

1:30 p.m.–3:00 p.m.: Horton Technique

3–5: Rehearsal

5:00 p.m.–6:20 p.m.: Laban Movement Analysis: “This is such an interesting class. You learn all about the efforts and how you organize yourself in space.”

6:30 p.m.: Dinner and homework


8:00 a.m.–9:30 a.m.: Ballet Pedagogy: “If you ever want to teach, you have to know all the terms!”

9:30 a.m.–11:15 a.m.: Advanced Pointe: “I put my pointe shoes on every day whether I have pointe class or not. I need to push myself.”

11:30 a.m.–12:30 p.m.: African Dance, tap, hip hop, musical theater, or yoga depending on the semester.

1:30 p.m.–3:00 p.m.: Modern with Tommy Neblett: “Neblett’s modern class focuses on being grounded and free at the same time. Using your plié is a big thing for Tommy, and you should never hold back in his class.”

3:30 p.m.–5:00 p.m.: Laban Movement Analysis

5:00 p.m..–7:00 p.m.: Choreography: “I choreographed Pick Me, a piece about six dancers auditioning for a company.”

7:00 p.m.: Dinner: “I live in an apartment, but I’m on the meal plan because there’s no time to cook.”


9:00 a.m.–10:00 a.m.-Alexander Technique

10:00 a.m.–11:30 a.m.:Ballet

11:30 a.m.–12:30 p.m.: Pas de deux: Balanchine’s Tchaikovsky Pas de deux

“Balanchine’s choreography is so surprising and musical. The challenge is really to make it look like a breath of air. The pose in the end is my favorite because I would have never thought of it.”

1:30 p.m.–3:00 p.m.: Horton Technique

3:00 p.m.–5:00 p.m.: Rehearsal

5:00 p.m.–7:00 p.m.: Liberal Arts


8–9:20: Ballet Pedagogy

9:30–11:15: Advanced Pointe

11:30–12:30: African dance

1:30–3: Modern Technique: “I’m done early on Fridays, so I try to schedule a rehearsal for my choreography or do homework.”


“I take open class at Boston Ballet to stay in tip-top shape. I also rest, relax, watch movies, get ice cream, go to the library, shopping, do laundry and do whatever else I need to catch up on!”

University of North Carolina School for the Arts: Emily Nicolaou

The dance program is one of five arts schools that make up the University of North Carolina School of the Arts (UNCSA), the state’s only public arts conservatory, based in Winston-Salem, NC. UNCSA, founded in 1965, is known for its high school and college degree programs. Under the direction of ABT principal Ethan Stiefel, the UNCSA dance department gears its program toward the demands of today’s dance world. Students choose between ballet or contemporary majors and can earn a BFA or an Arts Diploma.

Emily Nicolaou, 20, graduated from UNCSA’s high school program and liked it so much she decided to attend the college program. “It’s great because I can graduate in three years,” she says. At 5′ 9”, Nicolaou finds her height an advantage (“I’m good at traveling!”). After graduation, she heads to Europe, where her family lives, to audition for several contemporary companies.


8:00 a.m.–9:00 a.m.: Foundation of Western Thought

9:00 a.m.–10:00 a.m.: Art History: “It’s great that we get all of our academics done first thing before we start dancing.”

11:50 a.m.–1:20 p.m.: Modern Technique

2:00 p.m.–3:30 p.m.: Dance and Music Perspectives: “This is a great class. Right now we are learning about Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers! We do music on Mondays, dance on Tuesdays, and Thursday is both.

3:45 p.m.–5:15 p.m.: Ballet for Contemporary Majors

5:15 p.m.–6:15 p.m.: Composition and Improvisation

7:15 p.m.–9:45 p.m.: Rehearsal: “We learned Lar Lubovitch’s Marimba. Scott Rink, who set the piece, said if we’re not completely exhausted by the end of it, something is wrong with us. We never leave the stage and it’s all counting. I write it all down in my journal to get it in my brain. It’s not all flowing. It’s a mixture between intricate patterns and dynamic movement.”


8:30 a.m.–10:00 a.m.: Kinesiology: “Kinesiology develops our understanding for the ‘biology of movement’ as we delve into every joint and muscle action of each muscle. Also, it’s essential these days to be able to use the correct terminology of the body during classes.”

11:50 a.m.–1:20 p.m.: Modern Technique with Brenda Daniels (Cunningham), Sean Sullivan (Limón), Dianne Markham (Alwin Nikolais, Murray Louis) or Trish Casey.

2:00-3:30: Dance Perspectives

3:45 p.m.–6:15 p.m.: Rehearsal

7:15 p.m.–9:45 p.m.: Rehearsal


“I call it Madness Wednesday!”

8:00 a.m.–9:00 a.m.: Foundations of Western Thought

9:00 a.m.–10:00 a.m.: Art History

10:00 a.m.–11:30 a.m.: Modern Technique

11:30 a.m.–12:30 p.m.: Modern Partnering

2:00 p.m.–3:30 p.m.: Ballet

3:45 p.m.–4:45 p.m.: Composition and Improvisation: “I choreographed an eight-minute piece to live music by my high school friend, Sam Owens. Since I’m at a conservatory I found string players to play live. Another big composition is the Pluck Project. We choreograph solos on ourselves with the idea of ‘plucking’ all that we have learned to create a dance. Then we perform those in NYC at the Merce Cunningham studio!”

5:00 p.m.–6:00 p.m.: Acting: “We are working on a crisis scene. It’s really fun. We act out scenes without much planning.”

6:00 p.m.–7:00 p.m.: Dinner

7:15 p.m.–9:45 p.m.: Rehearsal


8:30 a.m.–10:00 a.m.: Kinesiology

11:50 a.m.–1:20 p.m.: Modern Technique

2:00 p.m.–3:30 p.m.: Music and Dance Perspectives (music & dance history)

3:45 p.m.–6:15 p.m.: Rehearsal


8:00 a.m.–9:00 a.m.: Foundations of Western Thought

9:00 a.m.–10:00 a.m.: Arts History

10:20 a.m.–11:50 a.m.: Modern Technique

11:50 a.m.–12:50 p.m.: Ballet

3:45 p.m.–6:15 p.m.: Rehearsal

7:15 p.m.–9:45 p.m.: Rehearsal


Sometimes we have rehearsals on Saturday. Sundays are for sleeping in, grocery shopping, laundry, homework (our academic teachers load us up on that), seeing a movie, hanging out with friends and maybe taking a walk in the park. There’s not much time to go out at night and most of my friends are dancers, so we have the same hectic schedule.

The Juilliard School: Norbert L. de la Cruz III

The Juilliard School’s Dance Division, first directed by Martha Hill and now directed by Lawrence Rhodes, was the first to offer training in ballet and modern dance. Dedicated to creating the fusion dancer, students can earn a BFA or a diploma without liberal arts requirements.

Norbet de la Cruz, 21, is a contemporary dancer with a strong ballet base. Born in the Philippines and raised in L.A., Norbet found that Juilliard proved the right place to hone his talents. “I love the meticulous time we spend on our artistry and the quality of movement itself at Juilliard,” he says.


9:00 a.m.–10:15a.m.: Liberal arts: Anatomy, Stage Craft, Humanities: “It’s great to be learning to understand the mechanics of a production. I got to light a show.”

10:40 a.m.–12:05 p.m.: Ballet 5: “Ballet technique, to me, is like brushing your teeth. It’s my foundation. It allows me to go on with my day with clarity in my range of motion.”

12:15 p.m.–1:40p.m.: Modern Class, Taylor style with Linda Kent: “I’m in awe of Linda’s background coming from Ailey to the Taylor Company. Since she was a remarkable soloist, I enjoy learning repertoire in her class of solos, duets and group sections of dances she was featured in.”

1:40 p.m.–2:30 p.m.: Lunch: “I’m on a two meals a day plan, so I either make my own lunch or get something close by.”

2:30 p.m.–3:45 p.m.: Liberal arts: French: “I think it would be handy for me to learn since I aspire to find a career in Europe.”

4:00 p.m.–6:00 p.m.: Rehearsal: Works by Ohad Naharin, Johannes Wieland, Adam Hougland David Parker and José Limón.
6:00 p.m.–8:00 p.m.: Choreography workshop: “There’s freedom to do your own work here. I created a quartet set to Michael Gordon’s music. I am playing with the dynamic of following the music and ignoring it sometimes.”

8:00 p.m.: “I have to run to dinner before the cafeteria closes. Monday night is cleaning night, then homework.”


9:00 a.m.–10:15 a.m.: Anatomy: “Right now we are learning about the shoulder girdle.”

10:40 a.m.–12:05 p.m.: Ballet 5

12:15 p.m.–1:40 p.m.: Ballet Partnering

1:40 p.m.–4:00 p.m.: Lunch and break: “This is a big break. I nap, do homework or laundry and eat.”

4:00 p.m.–6:00 p.m.: Rehearsal for senior production: “Seniors choreograph on us and we light one of the dances, so we have both dancing and technical duties.”


9:45 a.m.–11:15 a.m.: Men’s Ballet II

11:30a.m.–1:00 p.m.: Taylor Modern Class

4:00 p.m.–6:00 p.m.:Rehearsal

6:00 p.m.–8:00 p.m.: Rehearsal for my piece!


9:00 a.m.–10:00 a.m.: Anatomy

10:40 a.m.–12:05 p.m.: Limón with Risa Steinberg, “She’s a great teacher—tough, though!”

12:15 p.m.–1:40 p.m.: Contact Improvisation with Laura Glenn: “We try to make a personal connection with our partners so we have that comfortable quality without fear and tension.”

1:40 p.m.–2:30 p.m.: Lunch

2:30 p.m.–3:45 p.m.: French

6:00 p.m.–8:00 p.m.: Senior Productions: “I was in Spenser Theberge’s [Learn more about Spenser in DS July/August issue!] piece, The Constant Room. He is a Princess Grace Award winner and a great choreographer.”
8:00 p.m.: “Homework and catch up on things I’ve procrastinated on.”


10:40 a.m.–12:15 p.m.: Mens’ II ballet class

12:15 p.m.–1:40 p.m.: Limón with Risa Steinberg

1:40 p.m.–6:00 p.m.: Lunch and break: “With Central Park only two blocks away I try to have lunch outside and take a walk.”

6:00 p.m.–8:00 p.m.: Rehearsal for senior productions


“I sleep in, hang out with my friends and if there’s a party I’m usually there! And I go to church on Sunday.””

Nancy Wozny writes about the arts and health from Houston, TX.