Combining athletics and art: Dance majors talk challenges, discipline

dance class

Students in a ballet class stand in fifth position. Many dance majors spend around five to six hours a day dancing, said senior dance major Vickie Roan. Photos by Max Weirauch

By the time he was in sixth grade, Drew Gliwa had already planned out his life.

An aspiring professional dancer, Gliwa said he had to confront junior high bullies and harmful gender stereotypes. But Gliwa didn’t let this affect him, he said, and he remained determined to make it in one of the most competitive industries.

“Growing up, it was like if you don’t play football, and you dance, you’re gay. So I (experienced) a lot of bullying,” Gliwa said. “I didn’t let it affect me, because I already knew who I was.”

Gliwa, now a senior dance major at Chapman, said it wasn’t until his last year of high school that his peers began to take his dream seriously.

“I decided to graduate early. That’s when everyone from my (high school) started to respect my dancing,” Gliwa said. “All these people that were so mean to me in junior high were like ‘Drew is my best friend.’”

Amy Magsam, a freshman dance major, said she faced similar obstacles. Prior to attending Chapman, one of her friend’s parents questioned her decision to pursue a career in dance.

“(My friend’s) dad asked me ‘What are you majoring in?’ And of course I answered with ‘Dance,’” Magsam said. “His immediate response was ‘But that’s not all you’re majoring in, right?’”

This answer didn’t shock Magsam, she said, because it’s something she’s heard before. Olivia Liberati, also a freshman dance major, said while the dance industry is cutthroat, she was inspired by one of her instructors in Michigan who still teaches ballet at 90.

“The dance industry is so competitive and jobs are minimal,” Liberati said. “A lot of people argue that it’s not a lifetime career and you can’t dance forever, but my dance teacher back home was 90 years old and she still taught me ballet every day.”

Gliwa said college dance programs are different from college sports because of the dancers’ year-round schedules.

“We take our bodies to the limits consistently,” Gliwa said. “Sports teams, their seasons might be four months, but then they have these eight months (where) they might have to go to the gym, but maybe an hour a day. We are here year-round, constantly pushing ourselves.”

Vickie Roan, a senior dance major and copresident of the Chapman Dance Alliance (CDA), said, while it depends on the person, many people don’t take dance as seriously as other athletic pastimes.

“(Dance) is definitely not taken as seriously (as sports),” Roan said. “There’s definitely a larger percentage that doesn’t necessarily understand what we’re doing.”

dance class

Chapman dance majors port de bras during rehearsal Oct. 4. Chapman’s dance department offers two majors, a bachelor of arts in dance and a bachelor of fine arts in dance performance.

Magsam said the skills she has learned in the dance program are invaluable, and it disappoints her when she is confronted by people who don’t take the major seriously.

“You learn so many things in the dance program that are immeasurable to what you could be learning elsewhere,” Magsam said. “It’s very discouraging to have people look down on you and have to prove to other people that what you’re studying is valuable.”

Julianne O’Brien, head of the dance department at Chapman, said although she has never heard of professors at Chapman not taking a student’s major in dance seriously, it’s important to educate people about the dance program, as the skills learned in the dance program can be applied in various professions.

“Dance education trains disciplined, creative, collaborative citizens who can excel in a number of fields,” O’Brien said in an email.

Magsam said different aspects of dance make it both an art form and a sport.

“There’s the competition world, which I think would definitely qualify as a sport,” Magsam said. “However, ballet is technical and hip-hop is more movement-based and stylistic, so they both can be amazing but you can’t really place one over the other as more important. In that aspect, it’s an art.”

Dance professor Mark Harootian said he doesn’t believe dance is a sport. Rather, he said, it’s a complex form of communication. Unlike many athletes, dancers must perform with ease and without showing discomfort or physical exertion, he said.

“Dancers, in a way, are a hybrid form of athlete. They can easily contest the endurance of a track runner, sometimes even harder,” Harootian said. “To call it a sport would do it a disservice. It gives the wrong impression of dance.”

Dance majors at Chapman take part in a rigorous program, spending hours practicing and rehearsing for shows, Roan said. She said she spends about 30 hours a week dancing.

“I would say the average Chapman dancer is probably dancing five to six hours a day Monday through Thursday or Monday through Friday,” Roan said. “Unless you have a dancer in your life or you’re friends with a dancer you don’t really understand how serious it is.”

Harootian said it is smart to consider other career options in addition to dancing professionally. Most dancers don’t want to face the fact that it is physically impossible to perform professionally for their entire lives, he said.

“At some point (dancing) has to stop. And what are you going to do afterwards?” Harootian said. “It’s imperative for every single professional dance performer, any student that is pursuing a professional performing career as a dancer, to consider this and to really take action about that so that it’s an easy transition for them.”

Harootian said he encourages his students to pursue a professional performance career in dance, but only if they are truly dedicated.

“If they really love it, not like it, then go for it,” Harootian said. “It’s so unique, it’s so special, it can only be done at a certain period of our lives.”

Everyone can benefit from watching and recognizing dance, whether it’s a ballet show or supporting Airbands, Roan said.

“I encourage everyone, especially non-dancers, to just see as much dance as possible,” Roan said. “I really think it will change their perspective on what it means to be a performer and really inspire them to pursue their own passions.”