Oberlin Blogs

A Summer of Movement: The American Dance Festival

August 8, 2017

Teague Harvey ’19

It was on a hot, humid evening when I finally arrived at the American Dance Festival.

Let's recap: Last fall, I took an intro to contemporary dance class, and promptly declared dance as my second major. I didn't have any dance experience prior to coming to Oberlin College.

Last February, I approached my dance advisor and asked her: "What's the most intense summer dance program that I can take?" She said, "Go to ADF!" And well... that was that.

I arrived at ADF late - I had just been in California for my brother's graduation, and so I missed the orientation and the first few auditions.

As such, it was a comfortably familiar circumstance that I found myself in: lost, in a new, unfamiliar environment, with absolutely no idea what was about to happen next. And I couldn't be more happy.

A body in motion stays in motion.

The first day I had at the festival was previewing classes. Every teacher only had 20 minutes to showcase, and we had previews all day, with an hour lunch break.

It was challenging.

As a beginner dancer, I struggled to learn the really short combos that we did. All the teachers used ballet terms I didn't understand to explain choreography, and all the dancers looked like they had been dancing since they were in the womb.

I was intimidated, but it wouldn't last longer than a day, as I quickly befriended people and became comfortable at the festival. And besides, I've learned to no longer be intimidated when I'm surrounded by people better than me - you stand the most to learn when you are the least experienced one in the room.

We could only sign up for three classes, so I chose Hip-Hop, Advanced Modern Technique, and Improvisation for Performance. We had each class for about two hours every Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday. I started my day at 10:40am with my first class and didn't finish my last class until 6pm.

On Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday we had optional 'WFSS' classes - everything from Yoga, to Ballet, to Healing Techniques to Gaga to 'The New Orleans Buckshop', and there were Contact Improv Jams and Open Marleys every Saturday. I also ended up dancing for two student choreographers, and had rehearsal twice a week for each piece.

Let's just say that I slept better than I have all year.

Sunday WFFS tended to be more discussion-based rather than movement-based, as if they were encouraging us to take a rest day.

Naturally, instead of doing that, I went to a local circus school called Triangle Circus Arts, which had an open gym on Sunday afternoon. It allowed me to get my circus and tumbling fix in, and get off campus once a week.

I think it's quickly becoming my favourite pastime to visit circus/tumbling/tricking/parkour gyms everywhere that I travel to.

Now, to conclude this inevitable circus/tricking-related tangent that comes up in all my blogs: I learned that the owner of this school had (among many other things) been a software engineer at Google, which allowed him to complete his dream of opening a circus school.

Somewhere in my brain, a light bulb exploded.

This was huge. I was witnessing someone with such a similar set of passions to my own be wildly successful. I was inspired. I'd never met someone before who'd managed to make both CS and Circus a part of their life outside of Oberlin, and it was like a breath of fresh air.

And soon enough at the festival, being surrounded by incredible and beautiful dancers didn't intimidate me - it electrified me.

Dance like you matter.

Vulnerability is hard. And to dance, especially to perform dance, means to be vulnerable.

For about as long as I can remember, I've been on and off critical of my body (isn't everybody?). 'I have too much torso', 'I'm too heavy to be an awesome tricker or gymnast', or 'I'm not flexible enough to be a great dancer'. As a result, I've struggled to give myself value as a dancer and acrobat. In those times, self-worth and self-love can be incredibly difficult.

But here's the thing: insecurities about your body always stem from comparison, and you can never be someone else. You can only be you.

Admittedly, early in the festival, I felt that familiar pull of self-negativity. I mean, how could the urge not be there when I was literally the least experienced dancer there?

But you know, there's something amazing about movement, and I think I've mentioned it in just about every other blog that I've written. To finally let go and enjoy yourself through movement is a powerful, empowering experience. And when I can adopt that philosophy of liberation, self-love and self-worth come easy.

In the words of one of my teachers at the festival: "Dance like you matter".

Or, in another teacher's words: "Sometimes you just gotta say 'f*ck it', and do it".

...We're artists here.

Dance like it matters.

But there's more to movement than just having your own relationship with it.

Included in part of the festival, we got to see some absolutely incredible dance artists and companies, both well-known and up-and-coming, including Beth Gill, Pilobolus, Sean Dorsey, Paul Taylor, Kidd Pivot, Bill T. Jones to just name a few. We had at least two or three performances a week.

Now, to be sure, I didn't like some of them. Finishing my full day at six hours of dancing at 6pm and then leaving to see a performance at 7pm? That's just a lot to handle. Once or twice early on, I was so tired that I fell asleep in the calmly dark and refreshingly air-conditioned theatres.

However, there were also times where the performances were so beautiful that they left me utterly speechless (in particular, Kidd Pivot's & Electric Company Theatre's Betroffenheit, about sudden tragedy, grief, and addiction, had me absolutely shell shocked. If you ever get a chance, see that show). I witnessed performances that made me laugh, cry, marvel, and continue to wonder at what it means to be human.

There's something that's so inherently powerful about live performance that you just can't get anywhere else, and if you've ever seen a good show then you know exactly what I'm talking about.

And that's precisely why I want to pursue performance art: to make people feel something.

A summer of movement, a summer of joy.

One of the WFFS teachers at ADF told us that "you should not be the same person after ADF. You should be different than you were, and you should be liberated".

You know, I think she was right.

It's so alien now to look back and remember just how intensely depressed I was at the start of this year. I planned my summer to make myself happy, and that's exactly what it did.

This summer, I chose to prioritize myself instead of my wallet, and it was the most fulfilling, engaging, and happiest summer of my life. I highly recommend it.

In the words of another teacher at ADF: "stop imagining what you want your life to look like, and instead start imagining what you want it to feel like."

So what are you waiting for? Go out there and do the thing.

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