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The MFA in Dance
Creating dance is challenging, exhausting and, ultimately, extremely rewarding work. The Master of Fine Arts in Choreography and Performance is designed to focus on the art of expressive choreography and meaningful performance. The degree program is much more than a schedule of classes and a thesis. It is an opportunity to secure two years for concentration on choreographic study and development. Much of the exploration happens in the formal classroom, but resources abound in the talents, energies and minds of peers, the Five College dance faculty and the academic and creative communities in the Pioneer Valley.
- Two-year coed program.
- Accepted students are awarded a teaching fellowship (tuition waiver and competitive stipend).
- Specialization in choreography, creative process, performance, improvisation, pedagogy and theory.
- Additional courses on dancefilm, dance science, music in choreography and contemporary aesthetics.
- Elective courses in the arts, humanities and social sciences from the rich liberal-arts curriculum of Smith College and the Five Colleges.
The Master of Fine Arts in Choreography and Performance is designed to focus on the art of expressive choreography and meaningful performance. It is the belief of the department that thoughtful choreography and engaging movement are vital parts of our society and culture. Dance should contribute to an understanding of the issues that face our diverse population.
The MFA is offered through the Smith College Department of Dance and the core theory courses are taught on Smith's campus. The dance program at Smith, however, is part of the Five College Dance Department and most Five College dance faculty members participate in the teaching and advising of graduate students. The MFA in Dance is a two-year residence program; we do not accept transfer credit.
The master's program is designed for students who prefer to work in an intimate environment with a small group of peers in order to maximize the growth and development of their interests and potential. Unique to the Smith MFA program is that all students are teaching fellows: all MFA students teach the equivalent of three studio courses per year. Thus we are interested in students that have some teaching experience or skill.
As a teaching fellow, all MFA students receive tuition waivers for all but one of the required graduate courses. Every teaching fellow is also paid a monthly stipend.
It is strongly recommended that all dancers come to Smith for an audition in order to see the college and facilities and to meet the faculty. Dancers who request a teaching fellowship must audition at Smith and meet the faculty.
The Five College Dance Department combines the programs of Amherst, Hampshire, Mount Holyoke and Smith colleges and the University of Massachusetts Amherst. The faculty operates as a consortium, coordinating curricula, performances and services.
The department, formed for the mutual benefit of all member institutions, supports a variety of philosophical approaches to dance and provides students an opportunity to experience a wide spectrum of performance styles and techniques. The faculty operates as one department, unifying its educational mission to include a well-balanced curriculum emphasizing a broad integration of technical, creative, historical and analytical aspects of dance; a wide variety of philosophical approaches to teaching; diverse course offerings enabling students to experience numerous performance styles, techniques and theoretical perspectives; and shared resources that provide a rich artistic and scholarly environment.
The collaborative structure of the department provides a large and diverse community of colleagues with whom to share pedagogic as well as artistic perspectives. Students may take a dance course on any of the five campuses and receive credit at their home institution, and course offerings are coordinated among the campuses to facilitate registration, interchange and student travel. The Five College Dance Department is a nationally recognized model for excellence in dance in higher education.
The mission of the MFA program is to foster the study of choreography and performance from a critical perspective that holds dance as a mode of research, means of expression, tool for interpretation of the human experience and practice of engagement with the world.
The program promotes the acquisition of choreographic tools, performance techniques, creative process methods, dance production skills and teaching methods informed by theories about dance, the body, aesthetics, design, creativity and pedagogy. The curriculum positions choreography and performance as forms of critical inquiry.
The program nurtures pluralist aesthetics by supporting students in the exploration of their own artistic interests and the development of an original voice in choreography. It prompts students to articulate their artistic identity as much in their choreographic production as in the analysis and self-assessment of their work in speech and writing.
It offers technique training in modern and postmodern dance, improvisation and contemporary ballet. Moreover, it comprises specialists in choreographic methods, creative process research, design thinking, music/sound for dance, dancefilm and digital technology, theatrical production, kinesiology and somatic science, dance pedagogy, dance history, cultural studies, writing and qualitative research methods.
Composition, Creative Process and Dance Production. With choreography as its focus, students take four courses that foster the acquisition of thorough skills in creative process. Additionally, in their first year students give two public presentations of their choreography (the fall and spring grad events). In their second year, they work from summer to spring in the creation of an ambitious thesis project, leading to the presentation of the choreography in our state-of-the-art Theatre 14, with production support of professional level for lights, multimedia, sound, costumes, publicity and recording.
Performance. Live performance is at the heart of the MFA in dance and all graduate students in dance are expected to present mastery as performance artists. As performers, graduate students are cast in the choreography of faculty from Smith and the Five Colleges, having the opportunity to collaborate with their professors in the development of new work. The production of new choreography is a research-based, collaborative endeavor in which faculty and students work as creative partners.
Dance Pedagogy. Graduate students teach three technique courses per year, while receiving instruction in dance pedagogy in two required courses: Scientific Principles in the Teaching of Dance and The Pedagogy of Dance Technique. This combination of hands-on experience, coursework and mentoring is highly desirable in an master's program, as the MFA is a terminable degree in dance and many students pursue it with the goal of leading careers in academia.
Research and Theory. The program's emphasis is on dance research, theory and writing. Two required courses bolster this element of the curriculum: History and Literature of Dance: Research Methods and Landmarks and New Trends in Contemporary Dance. Additionally, two of the thesis’ components, Second Year Summer Research and Second Year Thesis: Production and Analysis, foreground research and writing through the completion of two in-depth papers that, combined, amount to 60 pages.
Prerequisite Undergraduate Courses
The following courses must be completed before the master’s degree is granted:
- 1 course in human anatomy, kinesiology, somatics or scientific foundations of dance.
- 1 course in theatrical design, lighting, stage, costume, or dance production or acceptable documented equivalent experience. This prerequisite may be satisfied at Smith by the student completing two crew assignments (in addition to the first-year stage management requirement).
- 1 course in dance history (comprehensive survey).
- 1 course in the following fields: history, anthropology, cultural studies, research methods, criticism, or aesthetics of dance, theater, music or performance.
- 2 courses in choreography or equivalent experience.
Students must be at an advanced level in one form of dance technique.
Required Graduate Courses
4 first-year technique courses (intermediate to advanced), 2 each semester / 8 credits
4 second-year technique courses (intermediate to advanced), 2 each semester / 8 credits
A student may request to replace one technique class with an undergraduate theory class in a field that is vital to her creative or scholarly interests. One such substitution is allowed each year. A request for this substitution must be made the semester before the class is offered (or the first two weeks of a first year’s first semester). The request should be emailed to the graduate adviser, copying in the full-time faculty. This course may not be used to fulfill a prerequisite requirement.
Students may also substitute a 2-credit repertory course for one of the technique courses as long as they are also enrolled in two technique courses. Interterm repertory projects count toward this substitution only if the workload is equivalent to 40 contact hours or more.
Students must take at least one technique course per year from a Smith dance faculty member and they may take one (but not more than one) technique class per semester from a fellow MFA student.
Students are required to travel at least once to another FCDD campus for a technique class during their first year and are encouraged to travel both semesters if possible.
DAN 505 First Year Performance / 2 credits
First-year students must perform in at least one dance that is choreographed by a Five College faculty member or Master of Fine Arts student.
DAN 507 Production and Management / 2 credits
First-year students must complete a major production and management project assigned by the faculty (usually stage managing a dance concert).
DAN 515 Creative Process and Choreography I / 3 credits
First-year students accrue independent study credit for their grad event choreography through this course in the semester when their grad event piece is not produced in a choreography course (DAN 521 or DAN 553).
DAN 500 Graduate Seminar: Topics in Dance Theory / 3 credits each
- Seminar in Music and Sound
- Contemporary Trends in Dance
- The Pedagogy of Dance Technique
- Dance, Video and the Camera
DAN 521 Choreography as a Creative Process / 5 credits
DAN 553 Choreography by Design / 5 credits
DAN 540 History and Literature of Dance: Research Methods / 4 credits
DAN 560 Scientific Principles in the Teaching of Dance / 4 credits
DAN 570 Second Year Summer Research / 2 credits
DAN 590 Second Year Thesis: Process and Design / 4 credits
DAN 591 Second Year Thesis: Production and Analysis / 4 credits
A concert presentation of dances is required for the degree. There should be approximately but no more than 20 minutes of choreography, with accompanying light and costume designs. Two papers in support of the thesis are also required. The degree candidate will be responsible for the organization of all production aspects of the performance.
At the end of both semesters of the first year, each student will meet with the Smith dance faculty to discuss course work, choreography, technique, and preliminary plans for the MFA presentation. Faculty concerns dealing with artistic or academic progress will be discussed at this time. Students are notified if they have successfully completed all of the first year graduate requirements.
The application deadline for September admission is January 13, 2021, for all applicants (both U.S. and international).
Due to circumstances related to the COVID-19 crisis, Audition/Interviews for entrance into the MFA in Dance in Fall 2021 (to be held on campus in February 2021) will be by invitation only.
It is imperative that you contact Chris Aiken, Director of the MFA in Dance when you submit your application to the Smith College Office of Graduate Study. (firstname.lastname@example.org)
If invited for an audition/interview and coming to Smith is impossible, the applicant should send a DVD or link of his/her/their performance, choreography, and teaching. The video should include very clear accompanying information. Please note: Audition/interview in person is strongly preferable to video. Applicants who do not audition in person are typically not eligible for teaching fellowships, tuition waivers, and stipends in their first year.
Dance in Performance
Opportunities are plentiful for students—whether majors, non-majors or graduate students—to perform or present their own choreography, either through concerts at Smith or performance opportunities at the other four colleges.
Susan Kay Waltner
Professor Emerita of Dance (2011)
Professor Emerita of Dance and Afro-American Studies (2004)
Ninoska M’bewe Escobar
Nancy Stark Smith
Five College Dance Department Production Manager
Publicity and Production Assistant
Emily Justice Dunn
Dance Costume Designer
Five College Dance Department Assistant Production Manager
Assistant Technical Director
Lighting and Sound Supervisor
Smith has exceptional facilities for dance. The dance department works out of four studios, two dedicated theaters and one informal theater.
The Sharonjean Moser Leeds and Richard Leeds Studio for Dance Research, on the banks of Paradise Pond, was renovated in 2017.
A number of the department’s popular annual events, such as February’s MFA thesis concert, are held in Theatre 14 in the Mendenhall Center for the Performing Arts.
Theatre 14, with seating for 450, has a proscenium stage served by large fly and wing spaces and a hydraulic lift.
Theatre 14 and the smaller, flexible Hallie Flanagan Studio Theatre, are served by a fully equipped scene shop with paint frame elevator, dressing rooms, and professional scene and costume shops.
Classes and rehearsals, as well as a number of dance performances, are held in Scott Dance Studio in Scott Gym, adjacent to Mendenhall Center.
Mendenhall Center for the Performing Arts houses dance studios, faculty offices, classrooms, lighting and set design labs, and the Werner Josten Performing Arts Library.
Mendenhall Center for the Performing Arts was designed in 1961 by architect Helge Westermann, who at the time had just completed work on the Juilliard School of Music at Lincoln Center.
Werner Josten Performing Arts Library is home to an extensive collection of texts, scripts, scores and recordings. Listening rooms and stations are available for student use.
For more than 40 years, the remarkable dance artists pursuing an MFA have enhanced the creative energy of Smith and the Five College Dance Department. Smith alumni have gone on in the dance world to perform and choreograph on national and regional levels. Some have established their own dance companies, and many have become artist-educators in secondary schools and colleges and universities all over the world.
“At Smith, I gained a thoughtful approach to dance—taking nothing for granted. Always addressing the intent and meaning behind movement has made me a better artist and teacher. I learned to work with integrity and with an openness to new ideas and concepts about dance.”
“More than anything, the Smith MFA program gave me a community of other artists to closely engage with and to be challenged and inspired by. I built lifelong relationships with the other students and faculty that are at the foundation of my current creative life.”
Vanessa Anspaugh ’08
“My time at Smith in the MFA program was a crucial time of transition—from my previous training as a scientist to becoming a choreographer. The program gave me the time, space, peers, teachers and resources to explore my artistic voice, and it challenged how I engaged with the world around me.”
Joyce Lim ’97