Professional Career vs. Collegiate Path after High School

Professional Career vs. Collegiate Path after High School

We will be discussing with Emily Bufford* the advantages and disadvantages of pursuing a professional career immediately after completing high school versus following a collegiate path.

 Welcome to Beyond the StEPS

We are aware that at this time of the year, our graduating seniors are deeply reflecting on their next moves, if they haven't already. There are various factors to consider, such as costs, rationale, career aspirations, and personal objectives. Emily, being a seasoned dance educator, has a wealth of knowledge and expertise to share, and I am thrilled to engage in a conversation with her and gain insights from her perspective.

There is a lot to cover in this conversation, as my perspective on this topic has evolved over time. If you had asked me about this five or ten years ago, I would have strongly advocated for going to college. However, given the skyrocketing costs of higher education and the commercialization of dance, it's not as clear-cut as it used to be. There are now numerous ways to participate in the dance industry, even if you're not performing on stage. Thus, we're excited to explore this topic with Emily and get her perspective on when it's appropriate to transition from studio life to the next phase of a dancer's journey. Many performers or athletes struggle with deciding between pursuing a professional career right away, where they can see immediate progress and financial rewards, versus going to college. When Emily was last on our show in 2018, she emphasized the importance of emotional maturity as a critical factor to consider, even beyond performance skills. We look forward to hearing her thoughts on this topic.

Emily: Definitely, I still strongly believe that emotional maturity plays a crucial role in a young dancer's decision-making process when it comes to their dance journey. It's important for them to figure out what they want to pursue and what their dreams entail. Additionally, the relationships they have built and networking opportunities available to them can also be significant factors.

One of my former assistants, for instance, attended a dance program for her freshman year, but later realized it wasn't the right fit for her. She decided to pursue her training in a different way, actively training in New York City, where she now works. Similarly, my own dance career unfolded in a similar way as I moved to New York City for school, but not for a dance degree. I knew that I didn't necessarily enjoy performing myself but loved the aspect of putting others on stage and watching them shine.

I was mature enough to recognize that pursuing a BFA in dance, which typically focuses on performance, wouldn't align with my career goals. It's important for young dancers to have the wherewithal to understand their strengths and weaknesses and what elements of dance they hope to pursue long-term. Spending a significant amount of money on an education in a field that doesn't align with one's career goals isn't necessarily the best decision.

Many young dancers also benefit from having relationships with higher education educators, which can guide them toward a college program or simply training in a different way that better aligns with their goals. For instance, growing up in a dance studio provided me with a different perspective compared to training with teachers in New York City. Local dancers in cities like New York, Los Angeles, and Dallas often have established relationships with people who can help guide them to make informed decisions.

Ultimately, I believe going to school is beneficial, but if performance isn't a dancer's primary goal, they can consider studying other fields like business, journalism, or pre-med. There are many career paths available to dancers, and it's important to find the one that aligns with their strengths and goals.

Apolla: When considering emotional maturity, it's important to keep in mind that some students may not have experience living independently and may struggle with basic life skills. This can be particularly challenging when moving to a large, expensive city like New York or LA, where the pressure to succeed is high and the cost of living is steep. Longevity in a dance career requires taking charge of your own career and not letting external factors dictate its trajectory. It's essential for young adults to be prepared for the pressures of daily life, including paying bills and covering basic necessities, on top of their training. Whether a student should head towards college or pursue a professional dance career is a significant decision that should take into account emotional maturity and readiness for the demands of independent living.

Emily: I believe that another aspect of emotional maturity that should be considered is whether the individual is capable of being accountable for themselves, especially when it comes to attending dance classes regularly. Can they handle going to ballet class three or four times a week, modern class three or four times a week, and their elective, such as tap or street styles, a few times a week? Will they be dedicated to showing up consistently? If they recognize that they may struggle with self-motivation, then they may benefit from being in a structured dance program where attendance is mandatory and grades are impacted by missed classes. Some driven young dancers may not require this type of incentive and are already self-motivated. Nonetheless, it is crucial to consider all factors, including emotional maturity, when deciding whether to pursue a professional dance career or attend college.


Apolla:  I recall being a compact, energetic and fiery dancer who loved to perform. However, when I moved to LA, I was told to calm down and find the pocket. It was a big adjustment for me because I was used to hitting every beat and being very flashy. They wanted me to be more musical and find a balance. It made me question who I was as a dancer without my usual performance style.

Emily: It can be challenging for young dancers to transition from the informative and competitive age range to the next stage of their development, which is more self-reflective. This is because the qualities that were once important may not serve them anymore, and they have to be willing to evolve into their next self, which can be emotionally challenging. However, this experience is beneficial as it allows them to step into their artistry better and into a larger pool. It's important to shift the focus from what they can get to what they can contribute, which requires self-awareness, maturity, and emotional evolution. Young artists need to be open to evolving and being generous in their contributions.

Apolla: Let's transition to a related topic - the idea of pivoting. At Apolla, we emphasize the importance of being adaptable and ready to pivot multiple times in our journey. We often advise our students that they don't need to have everything figured out right now and that they can change their minds and pivot as needed. With that said, do you think it's feasible to start a career and then switch to a higher education program or vice versa? Or do you believe that having a resolute goal is the better approach?

Emily: As someone who works with young and aspiring dancers, I feel fortunate to be in a position where I can guide them through important decisions such as auditioning for high school or college dance programs. It's crucial for young dancers to know that pursuing dance isn't the only option available to them, and that they can explore different paths that bring them joy. It's also important not to pigeonhole oneself into a particular style or program without doing thorough research on the program's curriculum and alumni success in the field one wants to pursue. The ability to pivot and change course is a valuable trait that should be considered before even auditioning for a program. Some programs may not allow transfer students, which is a potential drawback, but if a program isn't the right fit, it's important to consider other options. Taking a leave of absence or finding a different program that aligns with one's goals and aspirations are also viable options. The ability to pivot requires a willingness to reassess one's choices and make necessary changes, which can lead to a successful and fulfilling career in dance.I'm hesitant to name a certain program since I don't want to give preferential treatment to one over others. However, there is a program that many ballet dancers in New York City participate in, which can be done entirely online from anywhere. Dancers of all ages, including those in their 30s and 40s, can enroll in this program to obtain their degrees. This illustrates that one can change course and pursue new opportunities at any point in their life.

Apolla: Before we transition to the next segment, where we will discuss the advantages and disadvantages of both approaches, I want to share that even after being in the industry for 33 years, starting my dance career at the age of seven, I never imagined that I would co-found a compression sock company specifically designed for dancers, let alone become its CEO and appear on Shark Tank. This was not part of my plan.  I believe that every experience I've had has contributed to Apolla, and I still get to be surrounded by and work with incredibly talented individuals in the dance industry. Thus, there are many ways to stay involved and make a difference, even if your career path takes an unexpected turn. While I always thought I would be on stage, I am still impacting the industry I love, albeit in a different way, and there are numerous opportunities available like this.

We’d like to delve into the pros and cons of each direction because I understand that's why many people are here - to gain insight into Emily's perspective. Both directions have their advantages and disadvantages, and neither option is a one-size-fits-all solution, as you mentioned earlier. Let's explore the advantages of pursuing a college program route by highlighting one or two pros.

Emily: There are benefits to pursuing dance through a college program. One major advantage is the presence of a peer group, which can be lacking when pursuing dance in a big city. The support system that comes with growing up with peers in the studio can be recreated through the large community of peers in college. Being surrounded by 40 other young dancers, all with the same responsibilities of showing up for class at a certain time and performing together, can provide emotional support and a sense of camaraderie, which is an important aspect of the dance industry. This is why having a built-in peer group is a significant advantage and the first pro of going the college program route.

The second advantage of attending a college dance program is more relevant to young dancers who haven't yet built relationships with educators or choreographers. Unlike myself, who had the good fortune of building those relationships prior to college, not all dancers have that opportunity. College dance programs offer a chance to form bonds with teachers and choreographers who are actively working in the industry, and those relationships can be invaluable. These connections cannot be replicated, and they may lead to opportunities such as working as an assistant or receiving guidance for furthering one's career. Additionally, college dance programs provide a monitored, safe environment for dancers to fail forward and develop their skills while receiving support from professors and peers. This built-in network serves as a safety net, allowing dancers to navigate the transition from a smaller dance community to a larger one. College dance programs expose students to a new environment and integrate everything in a calmer, smoother way than just jumping into the industry. While not all students may have a positive experience, those experiences may lead to a greater understanding of oneself and what they want out of their dance education and career. Ultimately, these two advantages - the ability to build relationships with educators and choreographers and the emotional support provided by a built-in peer group - make attending a college dance program a valuable experience.

Apolla: What are the advantages and disadvantages of starting a professional career right away, without attending a college dance program?

Emily: One of the main advantages of starting your professional career immediately is the possibility of avoiding or reducing student debt. While some programs offer valuable training and education, they can also be very expensive, with annual tuition fees reaching as high as $70,000 for a BFA in dance. If you or your family cannot afford such expenses without taking out student loans, it might be more financially viable to pursue your own training and jump straight into a professional career. In some cases, you could also consider attending a more affordable college or university, such as a city or state college, which may offer free or low-cost tuition for in-state residents. By saving money on tuition, you could instead invest in your training, housing, and other creative pursuits, such as presenting your own choreography.

One advantage of not going to school for dance is that although schools offer performance and choreographic opportunities, such as for BFAs and BAs, my first performance opportunity for my choreography was at the Steps on Broadway Performance Lab, where I received feedback. However, schools tend to give everything students ask for during performances, such as 18 lighting cues for a two-minute piece, which is not a realistic expectation in the professional realm. Therefore, I believe that this is actually a disadvantage or con of attending a dance school.

Another significant advantage of pursuing a professional career immediately is the opportunity to start working sooner and building relationships with people who are already in the industry. These relationships are not with your professors, but with individuals who are actively working in the field. By working and assisting these individuals, you gain valuable experience and insights into the industry. Additionally, starting your career early allows you to avoid financial struggles associated with student debt and provides you with the chance to establish yourself and your brand in the industry sooner.

Apolla:  Pursuing a professional career right after graduation has another advantage - the opportunity to work with and learn from professionals who are out in the field. While professors in school have their own experiences, they may not be up-to-date with the current industry trends and practices. Building relationships with working professionals and assisting them can provide valuable experience and networking opportunities. However, it's important to understand the differences between learning from professors and learning from professionals in the field, and to be comfortable advocating for oneself and articulating what makes oneself unique. For those who may not be ready for this yet, collegiate training may be a better option. It's also important to note that there are other options besides traditional schooling, such as taking a gap year, working on a cruise ship, or participating in fellowships, apprenticeships, or studio training programs. These are all worth considering when deciding on a path for one's dance career.

Apolla: This is a significant issue because it's something that affected my decision-making process, and I know that many people out there have had their choices disrupted due to parental intervention. So, how much input do you think parents should have when it comes to decision-making? Should parents or loved ones interfere if they disagree with the chosen path, or should they respect the decision of the performer?

Emily: It's a complex issue and there are many factors to consider. Parental involvement may depend on their level of involvement in their child's dance training and financial situation. If the cost of the program is significant and may cause financial difficulties, parents should be involved in the conversation. However, if the child has a reasonable plan and is passionate about pursuing dance, parents should support their decision. It's important to remember that young artists are still developing and making decisions at a young age, so reasonable expectations should be subjective. Ultimately, parents should only intervene if it's in their child's best interest and could cause immediate harm, such as financial struggles.

Apolla: I believe it's crucial to have an open conversation with your child about the financial aspect of pursuing a professional career. Unfortunately, high schools and programs don't always teach teenagers about the long-term costs of their decisions. Therefore, it's important to start discussing these matters early on. As a parent, you can support your child by expressing your willingness to help, but also by making it clear what you can afford to do. When you present them with their responsibilities, it can quickly become apparent how much work they will need to do to make ends meet. By having these conversations, you can bring reality into the picture and prepare your child for what lies ahead. Ultimately, your goal is to support your child in achieving their dreams, and one of the best gifts you can give them is to encourage them to take responsibility for their financial situation and to help them figure out how to make things happen.

Emily: I completely agree, and I also believe that having an open and honest relationship with your child as a parent is crucial, particularly in situations like this. Not everyone may have that kind of relationship, but it's essential to be forthright with your child if you're unable or unwilling to provide financial assistance. Unfortunately, the reality is that not every aspiring dancer comes from a family that can afford the costs associated with these programs, and it's important to be realistic with your child about the financial implications. If you can't afford to pay for the program outright, you may need to explore other options, such as taking out a student loan. It's important to sit down with your child and go over the financial plan thoroughly. You should create a five-year plan that outlines what happens after they graduate, including how much they can expect to earn and how much of their income they will need to allocate to pay off their student loans. It's essential to remember that after graduation, their training is far from over, and they'll need to continue investing in their education and development to maintain their skills. As a parent, it's crucial to support your child's dreams, but you must also be realistic about the financial implications and prepare them for the long-term consequences of their decisions.

Apolla:  It can be a delicate balance between expressing belief in your child's abilities and being realistic about the financial implications of pursuing their dreams. It's important to communicate to your child that you do believe in them and want to support them, while also making them aware of the harsh realities they may face. By sharing the hard numbers with them, you can help them make informed decisions and prepare for the challenges ahead. So, it's not about not supporting them, it's about being transparent and ensuring that they have all the information they need to succeed. What is one actionable step you can suggest our readers take between now and next week to make progress in this area?

Emily: To make progress on this topic, my challenge to you would be to create a pro-con sheet. If you're a student looking at schools, take the time to sit down with someone, whether it's a parent or teacher, and make a list of pros and cons. Start with the question of whether or not to go to school, and then make a separate list for each option. If you decide to attend school, create a list for the specific program or school you're considering. It's important to consider your long-term goals and aspirations, and remember that they can change over time. By making a pro-con sheet, you can objectively evaluate your options and make an informed decision.

Apolla: It's possible that they haven't even considered these questions yet, so it's crucial to start getting them thinking about it.

Emily: One of the most beneficial practices that I still utilize frequently is creating a pros and cons list. This is especially useful for young dancers who may think they know what they want but benefit from seeing things laid out clearly. By creating a tangible list of 10 items on one side and four on the other, it becomes easier to move forward and take action. I highly recommend doing this exercise with pen and paper rather than using a phone or computer. It may be a classic method, but it's still effective.

Apolla: Your assignment for this week is to create a pros and cons list if you are contemplating a decision regarding your dance education or career, whether it's with your family, studio director, or peers. Write down your goals and aspirations, and use the list to help you make a more informed decision. As always, we have additional homework for you to tackle. We encourage you to try our Steps Initiative, which is a free online resource with five modules covering various topics curated by experts in each field, including racism, gender equity, sex abuse prevention, nutrition, psychology, and dance medicine and science. You can complete the modules at your own pace and establish a strong foundation.

Before we wrap up, can you let our viewers know how they can contact you?

It's been a pleasure being here with you both. If you're in New York City, you can find me at Broadway Dance Center and Steps on Broadway, where I also produce the Young Choreographers Festival. You can also follow me on Instagram where my handle is @ebuffered. If you have any questions or just want to discuss dance, please don't hesitate to reach out. I'd love to connect with you.

**On Faculty at NYC's Broadway Dance Center and Steps on Broadway, "Emily Bufferd continues to impact the New York dance scene." - Emily is the Producer of The Young Choreographer's Festival (YCF) in NYC, presenting #thefutureofdance, and a sought after Educator around the US and abroad. For further info please visit 

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