The Embodiment Project.
Two years before I came to college, I was telling myself and everyone who would listen that I wanted to dance. Ever since the small amount of dancing I did in color guard junior and senior year, I was hooked: I wanted to dance. Most people I told this reminded me of my brief stint of dance classes when I was four and five… I hated it. Even at four, while the rest of my classmates were thrilled, I didn’t understand the point of dancing on stage dressed up as Baby Bop from Barney, or tap dancing nuns, or Pocahontas. It didn’t have meaning for me, and I could never remember anything I was supposed to be doing onstage, so basically I just stood there under the stage lights tried to do what everyone else did. But years later, at seventeen years old, I knew there was something more to dance that I wanted to explore.
Two years ago I got my chance when the college offered its first-ever dance classes. I can still remember the first day of ballet so clearly… I woke up two hours early and was outside Sean’s door, dressed for class, twenty minutes before we needed to leave for class. (Welcome to ball-et!) I could hardly contain my excitement. I had been waiting for this opportunity for four years, and had spent the entire summer eagerly waiting for the first day of class. I had dreams of ending up in beautiful pink pointe shoes several years into the future, and however impractical this dream seemed to me, (and believe me, it did…) I simply didn’t care. I was ready to learn everything I possibly could about this thing called dance that I had been waiting so long to explore.
I remember the first time we did balancés, and how this was the first movement that I really connected with. I loved how flowy and light they felt, like I was gliding across the floor. I would spend each of our movement meditation/mission moments doing balancés over and over, loving how graceful they felt. I think this was the first moment I felt like a dancer.
The next semester brought with it new adventures in the form of an abandoned honors thesis, tap dance, show dance, and Oklahoma!, as dance challenged and changed me in ways I could never have dreamed. My entire audition process for Oklahoma! was mainly centered around intense stage fright, particularly of singing by myself onstage. But the dance audition put me back onstage in a place I was comfortable- moving, expressing without words, through rond de jambs and my favorite balancés. While the role of ballet Laurey, from understudy to the real thing when I was presented with it, felt completely out of my league, it turned out to be exactly what I needed at that time. A chance to stretch my ideas of what I was capable of, to connect with the theatre and dance families that I was already close to on a whole different level, to experience the magic of connecting with an audience, and to build the strength I needed to make real decisions in my life about what I wanted to do and where I wanted to go. It was here, in this process, in the crazy months of stretching beyond my limits, in trying, failing, and trying again to learn things I never dreamed I would be doing, in learning to work with every single person onstage and offstage and relying on one another, and in gaining a very slight understanding of how dance connects us to one another and helps us to express volumes without a word, that I found the courage to apply to Teach for America.
The summer after my first year of dance brought the magic of modern dance through classes at the Chi-MAC studio, which took everything I knew about dance at that point, turned it upside down, and made me fall even more in love with it. I loved the free, flowing, catch-and-release movements we learned in my very first class with KC, (I still remember the sequence we did), and how there was no expectation for me to do anything exactly “right”. The essence of the movement was in my expression of it, and I was free to explore within the movements. And just when I thought dance had completely blown my mind, I the semester began, and with it, dance appreciation.
Here a small group of us, guided by Jess, were able to discuss and explore this thing we call “dance”, and what it means to us, art, society, and the world. I began to make connections between two of my passions: teaching and dance. I could see movement as expression used constantly by the students in the autistic support classroom where I was teaching, and was inspired by my students’ abilities to use movement to express what they had no words for. This was the link I had been trying to find, a way to connect the two biggest parts of my life and use each to inform the other. Fueled by this inspiration, I followed through with the decision I had made in the spring and applied to Teach for America, confident that my interest and intent to connect the arts and education to bring learning to life for my students would help me to meet the challenges of the adventure I was hoping to embark upon.
As a class, we then examined and brainstormed ways to break barriers through dance, and created the college dance, a dance we planned to spread campus-wide in order to unite our entire student body through one song and one dance. At the same time, as we headed into choreographing for the winter dance concert, I found myself needing dance to help me to break barriers of my own. After coming out of a less than healthy relationship, I turned to dance to explore and deal with things I simply did not have words for. Working collaboratively, Jess, Tommy and I were able to choreograph a piece that did exactly that, with movements that allowed me to both process everything that had happened, and begin to move forward. Here, I learned the power of using movement as a means of processing things we cannot verbalize.
Spring semester brought even more exciting adventures, all beginning on the same day. Our hard fought for pointe technique class began, on the exact day that brought news of my acceptance into Teach for America with a placement in the Mississippi Delta. And so, as I began to process this new path I was about to take, I attended class with my dance family as we all began this new journey of dancing en pointe, working (and occasionally commiserating) together and strengthening our bodies for the coming challenges that would accompany those beautiful pink shoes I had been dreaming of since my very first ballet class on campus. I will probably never forget the day I drove to Philly for my first pointe shoe fitting with Jennifer and Jess, or how excited I was the first time I walked over to the bar and rolled up to full pointe. This was what I had been dreaming of since day I walked into my first dance class, and probably even before. And even though I would wake up each morning after class the night before with feet that seemed to ask “what on Earth could you possibly be thinking?!”, I was (and am) completely in love with my beautiful pink shoes and everything about dancing in them.
My last dance concert on campus meant working on two pieces that I had been looking forward to for quite awhile: a trio with Kate and Kristine, and an eight minute instrumental duet with Sean. Both pieces, though completely different, along with a piece Jess choreographed for our pointe class that told the story of our class, and our now well-known One Tribe dance, felt like a perfect reflection of everything I had learned over the past two years. The beautiful, graceful technique of ballet, paired with the determination, concentration, and attention to detail required by pointe; our growing abilities to express emotions, thoughts, and ideas through movement and connect to each other and an audience with those movements; dance as process; dance as exploration; dance as celebration; dance as reflection, dance as connection. I could not have imagined a more perfect expression of such a life-changing journey that is only just beginning, or a more incredible group of people to share it with than my dance family, a group of people with some of the biggest hearts and kindest souls I have ever encountered.
On my very last day on campus senior year, I walked all around campus, taking the usual path I had taken so many times over the past four years. I found myself in the grotto, the place where I had played piano for numerous outdoor masses over the past few years. I knelt down on the ground in front of the gate that stands in front of the altar, intending to say a prayer asking for the courage to follow the path I have been shown, the one leading me halfway across the country away from everyone I love and everything familiar, to a classroom full of kids who need a teacher. Instead, however, I found myself putting on an instrumental song that came into my head, and dancing the words that I simply could not form. In my last few hours as an undergraduate student on the campus that has grown so dear to my heart, and before embarking upon a journey full of uncertainty, I learned about another form of dance: dance as prayer.
Looking back, I know I have only just begun to learn about and explore dance, but I am so grateful for the incredible journey it has taken me on over the past two years, and for all that it has taught me. I am also incredibly excited to continue this trek, and to continue to learn and grow through this thing called dance that has become such a huge part of me. Here we go!