Netherlands Dans Theater

Over the weekend, I had the opportunity to watch Netherlands Dans Theater perform. Based at The Hague in the Netherlands, Netherlands Dans Theater (NDT) is known for being one of the best contemporary dance companies in the world. This concert lived up to that reputation and more.
Originally, the company was founded in 1959 by Benjamin Harkavvy with the intention of breaking from the Dutch National Ballet, which is more focused on classical dance. This new company wanted to focus more on using classical ballet as a foundation for exploration and development of new ways of moving. Since their founding, NDT has grown into a powerhouse company in the dance world, featuring a main company, a second company, and various training programs for pre-professional dance students.
Today, NDT performs extensively in their home country as well as internationally. Their focus today, in the words of current artistic director Paul Lightfoot, is still “artistic creation, not just choreography.” Their main company is made up of twenty-four dances from around the world, and the world’s best choreographers strive to set work on the company. On Friday and Saturday night, Ann Arbor audiences had the opportunity to see the company perform a triple bill, with two works by NDT’s resident choreographers Paul Lightfoot and Sol Leon, and a third by Crystal Pite.
Performing to a sold out Power Center audience, NDT amazed, inspired, and transcended. They were both accessible to audiences that normally watch dance and also challenging to those who are accustomed to being audience members. They embraced physical beauty and virtuosic performance qualities while telling complex narratives and portraying difficult emotions. This performance was intensely important because it showed how necessary dance is in storytelling. These artists are from all over the world, and yet they were able to convey a message to everyone in the audience—everyone speaks body. Everyone moves; therefore, everyone dances, at least a little bit. NDT’s movement was otherworldly, but their storytelling was intensely human.

Reasons to Love Black Panther

Recently, I had the opportunity to watch the movie Black Panther. I am an avid fan of all superhero movies, so I was especially excited to watch this one. I had already heard great reviews from my family and friends, and it truly did not disappoint. Here’s why:

1.) There’s a believable villain: in many superhero movies, the bad guy’s character is simply that: bad. There’s so backstory, no reason, he (or she) is just a bad person. However, in Black Panther, the antagonist gets a backstory that is fleshed out, believable, and humanizing. It was refreshing to see a villain portrayed as a human.

2.) The women. T’Challa might be king, but the women that surround him are equally as strong and powerful. From his sister and mom to his all-female squad of warriors, the women in Black Panther are not afraid to be confident. They are unapologetically excellent at what they do, and while they do fall in love and have lives, they are individual beings all on their own.

3.) The diversity. Seeing a movie with a cast made up of primarily people of color was so needed and so amazing. It’s said over and over again that it’s important to see more diversity on the silver screen, and its true. To see a superhero and his team as a group of people of color was very empowering.

New York City Ballet

Over spring break, I had the opportunity to watch New York City Ballet perform an evening of George Balanchine’s work set exclusively to Igor Stravinsky’s music. The program featured four works and lasted about two and a half hours.
New York City Ballet is one of the foremost ballet companies in the world. They’re known for their speed and neoclassical style, and the majority of their company members train at the School of American Ballet before joining the company. Being able to watch them perform was breathtaking. With each step they took, they exuded lightness, brightness, and virtuosity.
So often, concert dance proves to be inaccessible to most mainstream audiences. The dance doesn’t always have a narrative or an easily understood meaning or moral. Often times, there are no words, leaving movements up to the interpretation of each audience member. Coming to terms with this kind of ambiguity and lack of a “right” answer can be difficult for new dance audiences. However, I think that New York City Ballet did a great job of bridging the gap between new and old audiences. Their work was both accessible to a first time viewer (my mom) and complex. Their casts featured well established and prominent ballerinas such as Tiler Peck and Megan Fairchild, as well as several corps de ballet members and soloists.
This concert made a big impact on me because it was so heart warming to be sitting in the audience of a sold out Koch Theater in Lincoln Center. It gave me a feeling that no matter the political environment, the arts were still alive. There are still people willing to do the work as well as people who are invested in supporting the arts. There was still a community of people who believed in the arts, in the hope and joy they provided, and that was the best part of the concert. The dancers transcended the outside world-they gave hope and happiness to the audience.

Familial Bonds

I chose my family. Not my biological family, I’m stuck with them. Although it had taken some time and convincing, I chose my other family, my dance family, my team. I chose their craziness, their humor, their moodiness, and their love. I chose them.
That’s what I was thinking as I stood backstage at the Metro in downtown Chicago. Against a pounding backdrop of heavy bass drops and the cheers of an extremely drunk audience, I stood huddled with my team in a very chilly, very green, and very graffitied hallway. Our excited whispers barely made it to each other’s ears, lost among the profanities in the music and screams of the crowd.
I would have never expected to perform at Urbanite, one of the biggest hip hop dance showcases for collegiate and professional teams in the Midwest. I never would have expected to even be a part of a hip hop crew. Until I joined Dance2XS Michigan, the majority of my dance career had been characterized by leotards, pointe shoes, and tutus. That part of the dance world, the hip hop part, was like the bad kid that I had always been told to stay away from; the kid that cussed, that skipped school, that smoked weed and got drunk on Monday and Tuesday nights. That was hip hop, so I avoided it. On any given night, I was far more likely to be found in a library or a dance studio than at a club or bar. I preferred to stay at the ballet barre, doing the same steps that I had done since I was three years old in the comforting environment of a dance studio. That was where I wouldn’t injure myself for fear of never having a dance career, where I knew all the answers to any question thrown at me. Hip hop, my teachers told me, would just distract me from my goals of being a professional dancer. It was just something people did for fun. However, after being dragged to the team’s auditions in the fall by an overzealous team member I had just met, I found myself alone in my dorm room one night, staring at a congratulatory email from Kendall, the executive director, welcoming me to the team.
My first practice at the Posting Wall, a large hallway in Mason Hall, was overwhelming. Everyone seemed to know my name, and I had no idea who was a new member and who was a 2XS oldie. I was confused about why we had to practice in a hallway in front of anyone who might pass by at ten at night, and very concerned that I was not wearing appropriate clothing for the occasion. Music from several speakers blended together and echoed off the hard tile floors, echoed by the footsteps of other dance teams practicing. Everyone from every team seemed to know each other. Their calls, cheers, claps, even the sounds of shoes being thrown and hitting the floor, a sign of praise for another dancer, peppered the already noisy hallway air. I felt as if I had stepped into a different world. The dance world I was used to was filled with the cold, hard stares of my fellow dancers, trying to figure out how best to best me. This environment, as friendly and comfortable as it was, made me uncomfortable. At least when people were staring me down, all I had to do was stare back. Here, I was expected to do more than just dance. I had to socialize and freestyle and maybe even make friends. Despite my obvious hesitation, the rest of the team welcomed me in with open arms, laughing when I called Paige Mattea, or forgetting that practice started at ten, not nine thirty. I left that first night a little skeptical of what the team was. What was the point of practicing six hours a week? The team was just a student organization. How serious could it be?
Eight months later, to my surprise, I had found a home on the team. I could not have felt more differently than I had back in September. To any outsider watching us backstage at Urbanite, my team and I probably looked and sounded like some kind of insane cult. Without context, our neon colored shorts and pants, food-themed tops, and layers of stage make up, my team looked vaguely like middle school students who had put on their older siblings’ clothing and make up without really knowing what they were doing. Once one did take into account the fact that we were huddled backstage at the Metro in downtown Chicago on a rainy Saturday evening, everything fell into place. We still stood out a little; my bright yellow shorts were a thousand times more eye catching than the other teams’ black, army green, or navy blue attire. If anyone found my outfit strange, however, they did not let on. All the performers in the show were a little bit crazy and very unique, and it was an unspoken rule that we would celebrate each others’ craziness, not stare each other down in disgust.
That morning, on the way back to the hotel after dress rehearsal, my team ran into Dance2XS Purdue, another collegiate chapter of Dance2XS that was based out of Purdue University. Although they had come to Ann Arbor to perform at our Bar Night a couple of times, I did not know anyone on the team, and as we were standing next to each other by the subway tracks, I smiled politely and then looked in the other direction. Once we had all boarded the same subway car, David, a member of 2XS Purdue, started playing music from the speaker in his backpack. About five minutes into the subway ride, members of both teams started dancing up and down the subway aisles, swinging around the metal poles, grooving in the narrow space between the seats. The normal commuters looked on with smiles, scowls, huffs, and laughs. No matter what the reaction, my teammates and Purdue’s team did not care. I did not care. We just wanted to dance together. And we did. We partied it up in the subway until we had to get off, and then we danced in the wind and in the rain for seven blocks until we got back to the hotel.
There was something liberating about just letting go and doing something as personal and as fun as dancing in public, in front of God and everyone. When you watch someone dance, especially when they freestyle or improvise, you can see who that person really is. There is no hiding when you’re just moving for fun to the music, no way to disguise yourself or make yourself someone else. You just move because you’re reacting to the music, to the sights and sounds and smells everything that’s around you, and put it out there for the world to love, or hate, or anything else. Getting to do that with other people who have the same passion and desire for movement is more than just liberating, it’s transformative. When we danced through the streets of Chicago, I felt happier than I ever had than when I landed a triple turn en pointe, or when I got to wear a tutu for the first time.
And why wouldn’t we show off ourselves and our dance? We worked tirelessly at it. Even if Dance2XS was just a student org, it still required at least six hours of practice time a week, and in the week leading up to a performance, my team went through a hell week, when practice starts at eight at night six days a week, and we stayed until two or three in the morning, when everything we set out to do that night gets done. The work that had gone into our Urbanite performance was no different. Backstage, as I looked around at the smiling, nervous expressions of my teammates, I saw that hidden underneath the red lipstick and ear to ear smiles were the dark circles under every person’s eyes that were the product of a long hell week. As they massaged each others’ shoulders and backs I saw the aches and pains of their muscles and joints from long hours of dancing on the hard floors of Mason Hall; I saw the bruises, the tears, the injuries, the stress on both bodies and minds from studying all day and dancing literally all night. But we had done it anyway. I was in awe of the rest of my team; as a dance major, I had pretty much signed up for four years of abusing my body for hours every day. However, my teammates had chosen to put themselves through grueling practices, to make their bodies hurt even if they did not have to. I could have quit and been much less sore and much less stressed. We all could have. However, Dance2XS was not just some other club we were a part of: it was a community. It was our friend group, our social life, our people, our family, much more of a family than my ballet studio had ever been.
At our Thursday night hell week practice, two other dance teams from Michigan, FunKtion and EnCore, surprised us with two boxes of feta bread, two pizzas, and three boxes of doughnuts to congratulate us on making it to the final night of hell week. Then, they watched our set as our first real audience members. As they watched our set, the members of both teams did not fail to scream, cheer, or holler at us. I was surprised not because they were cheering; I had gotten used to the noise. I was surprised because they all knew my name, and they were cheering not just for my team, but for me. Although we fell to the ground exhausted after we ran it, each and every one of us felt satisfied knowing that the members of our extended family had enjoyed our performance.
That same sense of family and community was present at Urbanite, even among teams and dancers that I had never seen or met. At dress rehearsal, all the other teams stood in the house and cheered for each other, throwing shoes when they saw something that they loved, high fiving and fist bumping and congratulating at the end of each set even when someone messed up or fell apart onstage. Before the show started and the club opened, all of us who were performing were already dancing with each other, creating dance circles, or cyphers, and freestyling for hours before our call time. Although some dancers were more advanced than others, all were welcome to show off anyway, even my teammate Emily, whose version of the worm generated loud cheers from the crowd.
When someone asks me what I do in college, my answer is always that I dance. Between my classes as a dance major and practice for Dance2XS, I spend eight to ten hours of my day moving. Recently, when I told my future uncle-in-law what I did in college, he responded with, “Is that really a four year program? Aren’t you concerned that you won’t do anything worthwhile in your life?”
At the time, I was speechless. I laughed off his question and quickly changed the subject. However, looking back at my experience Urbanite, I would argue that what I do for eight to ten hours a day is more than worthwhile. I chose my family. Each and every one of my team members chose to be a part of the team, of the family. We would not spend six hours a week practicing, or push ourselves through hell week and finals if what we did, what we believed in, was not a significant part of our lives. At the end of the day, dance might not seem as “worthwhile” as something like surgery or firefighting or banking. However, dance does more than just make a living for those who choose to pursue it. It serves to bring joy and happiness and satisfaction into people’s lives, a pursuit that I think, more often than not, is ignored in favor of monetary pursuits. However, in dance, happiness is enough.

Arts and Athleticism

It can be easy to think of dancers simply as performers. To most of the general public, the stage is the home of a dancer; it’s the space in which audiences see dancers the most. And it’s such a specific space, one that has been painstakingly groomed and placed to evoke certain feelings, tell certain stories, and convey certain ideas. Dancers are trained to inhabit that space in the most fearless, most beautiful way possible. The image projected to the public is one that has been airbrushed and edited, in a sense.

Society views different subjects and activities in different categories: humanities, STEM, sports, the arts, etc. Our culture likes to separate and categorize in order to define and rationalize all of the different ways we communicate, act, and live. Yet, many things live at the intersection of these categorizations. Dance, for example, is not just a practice in performance, but also a study of artistry, intelligence, and athleticism. To say this, of course, brings up an age old question: are dancers athletes? Can art and athleticism truly be combined?

I believe the difference between art and athleticism isn’t the work that they do. In fact, dancers and athletes do a lot of the same work, physically and mentally. Our bodies are pushed to their extremes: jumping higher, being physically active for longer, turning more, running faster. We spend hours and days and months and years fine tuning our muscles, stretching and strengthening and turning them into precision instruments. We push ourselves mentally to believe that we can do things we’ve never done before, to believe that there is more in us after we feel extreme fatigue, to believe our bodies are capable of so much more than we know currently. The purpose of this work, however, is different: the goal of an athlete is to be the best they can be so their team can succeed and win in the game, match, or competition. The purpose of dancers’ work is to perform onstage, to transcend the fatigue and exhaustion to create something of beauty.

4 Reasons I Love the Step Up Series

Recently, Youtube released the newest installment of the decade-old franchise Step Up. Instead of the traditional movie format, this new online series is released in hour long installments like a television show and focuses on a large group of people instead of a main couple. Although many viewers have given the Step Up movies such acclaim as “cheesy” “predictable” and “awful,” all five (count them, five) movies and this new series are some of my favorite movies of all time. Here’s why:

  1. The original movie was the start of one of the greatest real-life couples ever, Channing Tatum and Jenna Dewan. When I found out they were actually married, my brain exploded. Truly, the cutest love story ever.
  2. The representation of real dancers on the big screen. It’s always refreshing when dancers play dancers in television and movies—they’re not always the greatest actors, but their years of training and hard work always shine through.
  3. The introduction of so many amazing characters: Moose, Kido, Hair, Camille. Each one was so relatable and awe inspiring to a young dancer like me.
  4. This franchise gave me something to grow up with—with each stage of my growth as a person and dancer, there was a new Step Up movie to watch, one that never failed to wow me with virtuosic dancing.