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.