Dancing For Degrees: Why Do Students Study the Art?

<i> Anawalt is a Pasadena dance writer. </i>

Last summer, Charo, the bubbly chanteuse from the Las Vegas Strip, pleaded with the dean of the CalArts dance department in an age-old argument that pitted commercialism against art.

“Don’t you know these dancers are stars?” asked Charo, referring to the three students she desperately wished to have excused from CalArts for a semester so they could continue dancing in her nightclub act.

“They were stars when they got here,” replied Cristyne Lawson, the dean. “But they’ll be artists when they leave. If they want to go with you now, they can.”

The students--Sandra and Linda Cevallos and Herbert Sanchez--decided against putting off their studies. They had performed traditional flamenco dance before enrolling in CalArts in 1985, earning about $800 a week with Charo. They decided to wait for graduation this spring to rejoin her.


In the past four years, the number of applicants to the CalArts dance department has increased by more than one-third. If the Cevallos sisters and Sanchez had wanted to leave CalArts, there were plenty of aspiring professionals waiting to take their spots.

“More students are applying, and we don’t have a program that grows larger,” said Kenneth Young, director of CalArts admissions. “Dance has become popular because television has exposed many people to dance, people who would not necessarily go to a live concert.”

Lawson agrees that television has had a strong, but not necessarily beneficial, influence. “The same kind of people that were students 13 years ago,” when Lawson came to CalArts as dean, “are the same students now. The difference is their perception of dance. They’re more familiar with television dancing and aerobics, which give people wrong ideas that dancing is only about personality and fancy clothes.”

Lawson wages her own campaign to strip her students of such notions. Regarding Charo, Lawson was not opposed to the commercial aesthetic of the singer’s act, nor was she against her students earning money. She simply wanted them to consider the seductions of being a “star” and to ask themselves why they are dancers in the first place.


The crisis was easily resolved, said Sandra Cevallos, 24, “because when you’re on the road performing, you don’t have time to take class. And dancers need to take class every day. On stage is where you escape from everything. But in class is where you learn.”

Before coming to CalArts, the sisters were experienced Spanish and flamenco performers but neither had taken classes in modern dance or ballet. They had to relearn how to move, Cevallos said. The result is greater versatility.

Now when she auditions for TV commercials, videos and dance movies--something she and her sister plan to do more of after graduation--Cevallos finds that she is tougher competition to beat.

But by taking modern dance classes and particularly by studying ballet, which is the most disciplined and complex of dance forms, the sisters experienced the paradox that signals the transformation of an amateur into a professional artist: They realized how little they knew.

“Once you think you’ve reached the top and that’s it, it’s all over,” Cevallos said. “The reason I dance is because I constantly feel as if I can’t possibly make it to the top. There will always be more to know. And the reason I dance is still because I love it, because it’s rewarding to make people feel better through dance. The reward is not money.”

“Before coming to school, everything was more materialistic,” said Linda Cevallos, 22. “But that’s not what life’s about. I’ve discovered that what’s important is to know yourself. CalArts has made the difference between doing what other people want and what I want.”

The CalArts program is designed for students who think independently. Unlike a college or university dance department in which the student is also expected to keep pace in math, English and other academic courses, the CalArts student is offered only courses relevant to dance. Such specialization seems to pay off.

An informal survey of university dance departments in Southern California reveals that while CalArts may be experiencing a growth in the number of applicants, since 1981, fewer students in local universities have become dance majors.


“Parents want their children to be more practical. So the incoming students are more interested in practical careers than in self-fulfillment,” said Carol Scothorn, chairwoman of the UCLA dance department, where enrollment is “a bit” down.

“We service many more general university students than in previous years,” said Donald Bradburn, dance lecturer at UC Irvine. “Ten years ago, some of them would have swung over and become dance majors, but they aren’t doing it now.”

Alice Burger, 30, is a graduate student at CalArts who attended UC Irvine as an undergraduate dance major. She has had to cope with parents who felt that dancing was “too ephemeral” to be a serious profession. And when she was in her mid-20s, Burger caved in to the pressure and quit dancing.

“I tried to do something else,” Burger said. “But there was nothing that made me feel I was paying my way on the planet.

“I stopped dancing because dance is frustrating. It’s frustrating not to work enough, to not make enough money to support yourself, to not be able to perform often enough.

“When I was working for an attorney, I was more frustrated with a paycheck big enough to cover everything and have some luxuries,” she said.

Burger knows that she is probably too old to have an extended career as a performer. Like many other students at CalArts, she anticipates becoming a teacher.

“When I was an undergraduate, I would have laughed if you suggested I didn’t want to be famous,” she said. “I went through the whole thing of caring too much about how I looked--how I pulled my hair back, how I did my makeup. But part of maturing is you learn to let go of those things.”


Lawson, who conducts auditions for the CalArts program throughout the United States, attracting students from all over the globe, makes an effort not to overlook technically imperfect applicants. Her deeper interest is in whether they can choreograph. She gives each 20 minutes to make their own dance.

“If they can think on their feet, there’s hope,” she said.

Tomas Mario Tamayo, 25, arrived at CalArts last fall for his first semester as an undergraduate. He had been an architecture student at a junior college in San Diego and had taken only a year of modern dance classes. But his story and enthusiasm captured Lawson’s imagination, and she took a chance.

“I was fed up with sitting down all day at my desk. I’d basically decided to study architecture to please my parents,” Tamayo said. “One day I decided to take a dance class that I’d been observing. My first class I was so confused and stressed, I couldn’t balance on one foot.

“But the concept of spreading my arms and allowing space in--that opened me up. And I realized that being unable to balance had only been a metaphor for what was going on inside. I was imbalanced.”

Tamayo decided to take action and, initially against his parents’ wishes, applied to CalArts. “My parents, who immigrated to the United States after the Second World War, worried that if their children didn’t do American things like football, they’d be deported. Consequently all four of my elder siblings who have artistic tendencies have suppressed them and are miserable. But I didn’t and now I’m happy, and my parents are happy because they see what dancing has done.”

Hiroko Hojo has studied dance since age 4, when her mother led her to a traditional Japanese dance class near where they lived two hours south of Tokyo.

“Since my life memory started, dance is always here,” said Hojo, 30. “I can’t really think not to dance.”

Hojo came to CalArts in 1985, originally as a performer in the institute’s World Music Festival. She hung around the dorms, speaking hardly a word of English, and eventually persuaded Lawson to let her enroll in classes. This resulted in what she calls a “huge shock.”

“I was really impressed because people my age were creating dances. When I dance in Japan, there have got to be certain characters, certain feelings, certain stories,” she said. “Dance is established. But here it’s more like movement for its own sake. It’s not just training for dance, it’s training for life.”

And that, Lawson agreed, is the main purpose of the grueling hours spent in the dance studios at CalArts. “Dance is something you do because you have to. There is no rational explanation. And it doesn’t matter whether the ultimate end is commercial dance or concert dance, as long as the students are acceptable to themselves.

“Because actually when the students leave here, all we’ve been able to teach them is how to work. You don’t teach birds how to fly, after all. You feed them.”