Three dance PhD graduates on why they went back to school and how it enhanced their careers
Valerie Alpert (left) completed her degree online while working full-time.
It wasn’t until she was in the middle of her PhD studies at University of California–Riverside that Michelle Heffner Hayes truly understood the amount of work she had taken on. “I was reading 300–400 pages per seminar each week while dancing,” she says. “I remember discovering rest rooms—literally small rooms on campus that had couches so students could nap without leaving.”
Pursuing a PhD in dance is not for the faint of heart. Candidates can take from 5 to 10 years to complete their work. Generally, the first two are dedicated to required courses, which focus on dance research and elective work in other departments. Students tend to use their third year for oral and written exams, and the final years for research and writing a dissertation. While some candidates are offered fellowships or stipends, most pay for school themselves.
Yet in light of the economy and competitive job market, more working professionals are heading back to school. They may be looking to delve into dance research, advance their resumé or re-experience the energy of academia. The hard work that goes into a doctorate can pay off in more ways than one.
Michelle Heffner Hayes
University of California–Riverside
PhD in dance history and theory, 1998
Dissertation: flamenco history, theory and pedagogy
After earning her BA from the University of Kansas, Michelle Heffner Hayes went straight to the University of California–Riverside’s PhD program (now Critical Dance Studies). She finished the degree in seven years due to a two-season detour to work as the artistic director of the Colorado Dance Festival. When she wasn’t offered a teaching job immediately upon graduation, Hayes became the executive director of cultural affairs at Miami Dade College, where she curated several performance series, led community engagement, fundraised and wrote grants. “When we had a performance series focusing on Latin America,” she says, “I brought my knowledge in Latin dance forms and used the research methods I learned in school to reach out to under-discovered companies.”
When Hayes was up for a university teaching position, the school was surprised by her ability to lead both dance technique and research courses, such as modern dance and dance history. Today, as chair of University of Kansas’ dance department, she values those same diverse skills in new hires. “As the quality of dance education increases, I see more programs training dancers as scholars,” she says. “Somewhere, that mind and body split has been bridged.”
PhD in dance, 2007
Dissertation: cognition during dance
“Dancers’ lives are full of transition,” says Miriam Giguere, who went back to school to make a career shift. “Mine was from dancer/teacher to teacher/researcher.” Giguere had been running Drexel University’s student dance company and developing curriculum for the school’s BS program. It was then she realized she wanted to truly dedicate herself to teaching at the university level.
Giguere was able to attend Temple while working full-time because it was just 15 minutes away from Drexel. She was granted permission to change her teaching schedule in hopes that she would remain on faculty at Drexel.
Today, Giguere is on a tenure track, continuing her own research while evaluating that of her colleagues. She has been published in the Arts Education Policy Review and the Journal of Dance Education. She is also a regular conference presenter for the National Dance Education Organization (NDEO), specializing in cognitive dance engagement and dance advocacy in public schools. She says one of the greatest values of her PhD is the knowledge she gained not just from her professors, but also from the two peers in her graduating class. “The students were very qualified and had already accomplished some sort of dance or teaching career,” she says. “They were the people pushing me forward, and I still converse with them today.”
Texas Woman’s University
PhD in dance, 2011
Dissertation: digital technologies in dance education
For Valerie Alpert, continuing her education was about re-energizing her outlook on dance. The issue was doing it without sacrificing her current jobs as a dance professor at College of Lake County in Illinois and artistic director of Valerie Alpert Dance Company. Cue Texas Woman’s University: a low-residency program, which she completed online. During the five years it took to finish the program, she only had to physically be in Texas for short periods—the longest an eight-week residency during the first three summers. She says she spent, on average, 25 hours a week on her studies.
Alpert doesn’t recommend the off-campus track for everyone. “There were people who moved to school because they couldn’t organize themselves,” she says. “You have to evaluate your capabilities before you dive in.” Alpert still holds the position she had before her doctoral work. She says her dissertation helped her grasp how integrating technology can enhance her school’s dance curriculum.
For Alpert, furthering her studies wasn’t necessarily about job advancement; it was about continuing her love of academia and reconnecting to her passion for education. “Dance can be very isolating. Your perspective can narrow, and suddenly you forget why you’re teaching and what your principles are,” she says. “A degree can’t guarantee you a new job or position. In the end, you have to do this for yourself.” DT
Photo courtesy of Valerie Alpert