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Choreography in the United States: A Comparative Study of Training and Support Systems

Commissioned by The Joyce Theater and Published by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation

In 2018, Callahan led the collaborative design of Dance/USA Fellowships to Artists (DFA), a national program that awards over $1 million in unrestricted support to dance artists. DFA addresses some of the needs raised in this study. Learn more here.


With support from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation (the Mellon Foundation), Callahan Consulting for the Arts (Callahan Consulting) conducted a study for The Joyce Theater (The Joyce) to determine how The Joyce might better support choreographers in developing work of the highest artistic quality. The Joyce and the Mellon Foundation shared this research with the dance field so that findings might inform or improve related programs offered by other organizations. Research explored the professional choreographic training opportunities currently available in the United States through college programs and from other organizations and individuals; the training (or lack thereof) of select choreographers working in the U.S. and the factors that contributed to the development of their choreographic voices; and select training methods in Europe.

U.S. Colleges and Choreographic Instruction

The full report begins with a quantitative look at the major source of choreographic training in this country, to give a broad view of opportunities to pursue choreography within undergraduate and graduate degree programs. The report makes broad projections of the numbers of students entering the professional dance field with hopes of being choreographers. Data came from the Dance Magazine College Guide 2011/2012, with permission. It is based on 132 colleges that pay to list and self-report statistics about their programs, along with limited information on 628 dance departments for which Dance Magazine has contact information. The number of reported dance majors for 120 of the 132 colleges total 8,325 undergraduate majors, and 673 graduate students; adjusting for unreported data suggests that there may be as many as 9,000 undergraduate dance majors attending all 132 colleges. (The number of dance majors at the remaining 628 dance departments is unknown.)

Rough projections of the number of students studying choreography in the U.S. at any given time will provide context for the remainder of this study. Based on calculations in the full report, the number of dance students graduating either as choreography majors or with some amount of choreographic training easily reaches 1,500 per year, and is likely much higher. The fact that this high volume of students is graduating from U.S. colleges, with some proportion of them joining the ranks of the professional dance field as choreographers, has implications for the amount of new choreography being made, as well as the level of competition for resources and opportunities. It also has implications for the support structures that these emerging artists will need, and for artists’ expectations of organizations that provide support.

Literature Review

The Literature Review moves from the numbers into materials from three different types of sources: academia, professional programs that serve the development of choreography, and choreographers themselves. These sources address the ways in which choreographic training is offered within colleges, including pedagogy, curricular standards, and the issues and musings that surround choreographic instruction. The materials are disparate in their viewpoints on the teaching of choreography and related support for choreographers, illustrating the contrasts that exist within the dance field about the topic. Within the training-related materials, there was a stated or assumed set of standards and methods, with recommendations for teaching. In contrast were reports, essays, and a book generated by a set of forums convened by Dance/USA in 2003-2005, in which artists and professors questioned the effectiveness of the existing curriculum, as well as the competing demands on professors at that time. Materials from the professional artists stressed the uniqueness of each choreographer’s working process. Materials from professional programs outline the structure of and rationale for these programs. Regarding textbooks, the general sense was that most of them are not used; books may be proscriptive, or perhaps it is not possible to capture in writing the elusive nature of creating a dance. As a whole, this body of literature presents a paradox: many say or imply that choreography cannot be taught or that the existing teaching methods are not sufficient. Yet no one said to stop teaching it.

Interviews with U.S. Artists and Leaders

This section distills the viewpoints of some of the leading artists and supporters of dance and choreography in the country regarding if and how choreography can be taught; the best ways to support choreographers; and the factors that enhance the quality of choreography. Here the report focuses on the professional field, including the programs and opportunities for artists to learn and develop their craft, as well as the opinions of artists on how they choose to make work. These 25 U.S.-based interviewees include artists, presenters, professors, funders, and arts administrators from service organizations, colleges, national and local arts associations, and funding organizations.

The collective impressions gleaned from interviewees convey their extensive knowledge of and range of opinions about teaching choreography in college settings. A few artists credited choreography classes as providing a way for them to start making work, lauding this early exposure and individual instructors. Most interviewees, however, expressed reservations about the effectiveness of choreographic training in the academy and the outcomes for students of taking such courses.

Interviewees spoke of the degree to which choreographers are self-taught. They stressed that key parts of how choreographers develop artistically are to maintain a regular practice, to collaborate with other artists of quality, and to be pushed (or push themselves) beyond their comfort zones into new artistic terrain. Interviewees generally felt positively about the range of formal training programs within the professional field. Presenters and other leaders in the field who provide sustained relationships to artists as they develop work are also greatly valued. Interviewees discussed at some length their opinions about how the dance field does, or should, talk about choreography and its quality. Strategies such as the assignment of mentors and dramaturgs received mixed reviews; such relationships are more likely to succeed if the artist selects the mentor than if the match or requirement is externally imposed. Although critique is rarely given to artists, interviewees strongly endorsed its need. Some interviewees stressed that artists should continually see the work of other choreographers.

Opinions about funding were particularly nuanced and passionate. The predominant shift to project-based support has imposed upon artists a level of uncertainty that hinders their creative process. The most repeated theme in the discussion about funding centered on fellowships. Interviewees saw a strong connection between providing unstructured funding as the best way, in the end, to support and encourage quality. In these discussions the field’s needs seem to boil down to a few things: financial support in a form that truly supports choreographers, mechanisms to provide feedback, and strengthening the sense of community around space. Across all types of interviewees there was a consistent and resounding cry to build a national program of fellowships for choreographers.

Models from Europe for Training and Support

This section explores some of the structures and formats that are used abroad in training and supporting choreographers for potential application in the U.S. The focus is mainly on the Centres Chorégraphiques Nationaux (CCNs) in France. It is important to note that the CCNs are only one, albeit large, component, in a fairly comprehensive system of support for artists in France—a system that, it must be stressed, is markedly different from that in the U.S. There was a general sense among the leaders of the CCNs that choreographers are not trained per se but instead given opportunities to conduct artistic research. Feedback provided to artists is extensive and regular, coming from both audiences and the CCN leaders.

Assimilation and Recommendations

The report ends with an assimilation of key points and recommendations that came from the research and adds some suggestions for new strategies. 1. A system of unencumbered financial support should be provided for choreographers in the U.S. This was interviewees’ strongest and most consistent recommendation in the study—thought to be the most instrumental strategy to increase the quality of choreography. 2. The dance field should consider the ways in which choreographic training might be improved, either within the college system or outside of it. 3. The field should consider the ways to build a stronger sense of community around dance making. 4. The dance field should develop better ways to provide feedback to its artists, with the goal of enhancing the quality of work. 

Finally, it is hoped that the research and ideas in this report can be used as a basis for dialogue in the field.

To Review the Study: