Educating Artists at Sam Houston State University

The Department of Dance at Sam Houston State University has been helping students grow as thoughtful, well-rounded artists for decades.  The curriculum has been carefully built to help students discover and express themselves creatively while developing technical skill.  Nearly constant performance opportunities throughout the school year allow dancers to mature as performers. The World Dances recently spoke with Dana Nicolay, Professor of Dance at SHSU. He is also the Artistic Director of Nikolay Dance Works and formerly danced with the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, Houston Ballet, Contemporary Dancers Canada, and Space/Dance/Theater. Nicolay discussed the philosophy and pedagogy of SHSU’s dance department, the value of university dance training, advice for dancers, and more.

What do you consider the value of university dance programs?

I have mixed feelings there. When I was in ballet companies (although I do think this is changing), they didn’t want to me to think too hard. They wanted me to do what I was told and do it really well. What I like about dance at the university level is that we’re helping young people come into their own maturity as artists. We’re not just changing their physical skills; we’re changing their perspective about what it means to be an artist in the world today. The world is changing so fast and there’s so much going on. There’s a lot to be said about it. Young students coming through the university system are learning about the technical qualities of dance, learning how to use their instrument. But they’re also learning to look at the world and develop ideas to share about it. That’s something the university dance experience really offers—it helps you gain a broad perspective in liberal arts and develop the physical, technical, and compositional skills to create art that speaks to people.

Your students enjoy so many performing opportunities. Many of the performances are entirely student-managed, from production to publicity. Can you address the philosophy behind this?

As a growing artist and young adult coming into the world of dance, you have to be able to present strong work and know from the inside out what goes into that—choreography, what it takes to light it, how to draw an audience. All of that is essential. Some of our students are going to get into well-established companies or end up on Broadway, but most students will be involved in dance on another, more independent level. Most artists can’t rely on a large organization to take care of all the moving parts. They’ll be generating and responsible for the whole product themselves. They need the full perspective of how the product is made. 

What drew you to SHSU?

I remember being in grad school and seeing students from the SHSU dance program at an American College Dance Festival. I was just so impressed by who they were as people. I think there were something like 64 pieces being presented and there were a lot of programs there with much bigger names than SHSU, but two of the pieces by SHSU made it to the gala. What really impressed me was the genuine humanity inside the dancers that they were able to present onstage. Other schools had better technique, maybe more sophisticated attitudes or choreography, but there was genuine heart in these artists. That’s what drew me to SHSU, that inherent human aesthetic. You teach the craft, help the dancers to know their body and grow into their expressivity, but also you help them stay in touch with their own being and heart. That way, when they create art—or if they go in an entirely different direction—they’re using the training and vision we help them build to help them for the rest of their lives. I hope that continues to come through in our program.

How does a university program evolve to reflect changes in the dance world?

I think that hip-hop, contemporary, and different forms of urban dance are essential movement languages that are current and spreading. There’s a whole issue of synergy.  My background isn’t in those languages, but we give our students the tools to explore and create in these languages. For example, the SHSU Indian Student Organization presented some classical Indian and jazz fusion dance. It’s really interesting to see how dancers coming from these different cultures draw in other influences, meld them, and move it all forward together. We don’t institutionalize that, but because of our many performance opportunities and the students’ creative autonomy, we encourage them to explore and push influences, vocabularies, and composition in their own ways. We want to give the students enough skill to use that vocabulary creatively to make interesting, relevant statements.

What do you look for at auditions for hopeful students, and how many students do you accept each year?

We require some technical preparation that students come in with, definitely. But what we really look for in auditions is sort of this certain “je nais se quoi.”  You watch a person dance and see something real there, and that’s the thing we pursue. Even as our technical standards rise, if we see an intelligence or an innate movement quality, we try to work with that.

We typically have three auditions per year. About 240 people audition, of whom some will be repeats. We offer admission to around 50 students and usually about 30 end up accepting.  We have around 110 students in the department, including 15 grad students. It comes to about a 30% acceptance rate.

Please tell us about your company, Nicolay Dance Works? 

Nicolay Dance Works puts together repertory programs or I’ll generate new works with them or through the university. I’ve been choreographing here for 30 years. I just want to get my work out there. Many of the dancers are students or former students. We present the work in showcase performances and on tours. I hope the dancers get good artistic experiences from my work and our interactions together. I really love working with the dancers. They’re great.

What advice would you offer aspiring dancers?

You’ve got to believe in yourself and at the same time cut yourself no slack. You don’t have time to think that you’re already good enough. You need to keep making progress towards a standard, and that standard has to be one of your own making. It’s key that this not come from anyone else. If you’re trying to please your teacher or choreographer, you’re insecure and uncertain all the time. You have to cultivate your own vision and pursue it with total dedication through the pain, through the frustration, all the time.