The Truth About Exams as a Dance Major

December 9, 2019

Towards the end of your first semester as a dance student, you’ll participate in something that resembles an exam. Whether your school calls it a jury, a placement, an evaluation, an assessment, or an appraisal, the structure remains roughly the same: You take class in front of all of your dance professors, they scribble furiously on a clipboard (that you wish you could read), and you wait anxiously for their feedback.

And while that anxiety is totally understandable, it’s typically misplaced. Evaluations and exams aren’t designed to intimidate or scare you, and they definitely don’t determine the entire future of your dancing career. But in case you’re still feeling a little nervous about the whole process, we spoke with educators at three major dance colleges about how you can be best prepared.

University of North Carolina School of the Arts teacher Ilya Kozadayev giving a correction (Peter Mueller, courtesy UNCSA)

What It’s All About

Again, these types of assessments are not going to make or break your dancing career. Likely, they won’t even make or break your college career. The faculty simply use this time as a chance to see how you’re growing and what you’ve learned.

“When the faculty is sitting in the room, think of it as a mini performance,” says Susan Jaffe, the dean of dance at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts. “We’re there not only to give some input, but also to see how much the students have progressed since the beginning of the year.”

Try to remember that there’s a lot to be learned from the exams themselves. Take them as a chance to apply the information you’ve been given throughout the semester.

“It’s really all about how useful it is for you,” says Seán Curran, the chairperson of the dance department at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. “It’s about how you are going to use all this knowledge as a professional dancer, or choreographer, or dance teacher. We’re developing minds as well as bodies.”

Set Yourself Up Right with Self-Care

“Cramming” for a dance exam with extra classes isn’t productive. As dancers, tending to our bodies and minds is just as important as our training. While you should take your studies seriously, nothing should come before self-care.

“You think for a final, all you need to do is study hard?” says Curran. “No, you need to take really good care of yourself. Fatigue, dehydration, and soreness are your enemies. Self-care is as important as studying for the final.”

Make time in your busy day to tend to your own needs. Factor eight hours of sleep into your daily schedule, make yourself healthy meals, and try not to substitute coffee for water (no matter how long your days might get).

Jaffe recommends taking five to 10 minutes each day for a quiet meditation, to help bring down any feelings of anxiety you might have around your final assessments. “I don’t think the stress will ever go away, but it can be curtailed with some self-care,” she says.

Students taking contemporary class at University of North Carolina School of the Arts (Peter Mueller, courtesy UNCSA)

Get Out of Your Head

The real key to success, of course, is your mind-set. If you’re able to approach your evaluations or exams with a healthy, positive state of mind, you’re much likely to be happy with the outcome.

Katie Langan, the chair of the dance department at Marymount Manhattan College, recommends using your performance in your evaluations as a reminder to yourself of your own progress. “Look back at the very beginning of the semester and see how far you’ve come,” she says.

Try to think about your dance training holistically. While exams are important, they aren’t the be-all, end-all. Use your grades and feedback to see how far you are progressing on your overall goal. Then, continue to focus on working towards achieving those goals.

“I always say ‘Process, not product,’ ” Curran says. “I don’t want you worrying about opening night on the first day of rehearsal, in the same way I don’t want you worrying about the final on the first day of class.”