Oberlin Blogs

Swing, Swang, Swung

February 18, 2018

Ruth Bieber-Stanley ’21

I ushered in my weekend with a small, dance-related existential crisis. As I was sitting in the science center on a couch reading about Lancelot, you know, as one does on a Friday afternoon, my friend Olivia showed up and decided it was time to show me some dance videos. Specifically, two pas de deux from Macmillan’s Romeo and Juliet ballet. I don’t really have the words to describe how beautiful these scenes were (one was the balcony duet, the other the crypt scene, for those familiar with the work). The two dancers were so fluid it looked as though they were melting into each other, and the emotion on their faces affected me in the way that only non-verbal performance can. I got really emotional. I remembered just how much I miss performing and being on stage. In high school, I was an apprentice in a local ballet company in my hometown of Albuquerque, and I usually performed in three full scale professional productions a year. I knew that when I got to college there was no way dance would ever be the same in my life, which I thought I had accepted and processed by now. I knew that dance would still be in my life, and that my performance hiatus was only temporary. Last semester I took Contemporary III, which was a really fun and challenging class. I learned a lot, but this semester the class didn’t fit in my schedule. I had planned to perform this semester, in the department show. But finding performance opportunities has been harder than I anticipated, even though there are a lot of dance things a-happening on campus. I auditioned for one person’s junior show, but the choreographer was only choosing one dancer, and I didn’t get the part. I wasn’t upset. I was glad for the experience, and the audition was different from any I had attended before. Some of the things they made us do during the audition would have made me cry out of frustration and anxiety a few years ago, but they didn’t this time. I’m proud of how much I’ve grown.

However. I still haven’t lined up any definitive performance opportunities for this semester, and honestly I’m not sure there will be any. And watching those beautiful ballet dancers up on stage reminded me just how much I miss it all. I feel like something is missing right now, and I don’t know how to fix it. I feel like a huge part of my identity is gone, because before college so much of who I was revolved around my dancing. My entire life was school, homework, dance class, rehearsals, and eventually, performances and shows. I’m not used to being just a student. Sure, I can be dedicated and passionate and get good grades, but so does everyone else here. I don’t feel special, which makes me sound incredibly selfish when I actually write it out. But dance used to make me feel special. Now, instead of saying, “I’m a dancer,” I just say, “I dance.” Dance in my life has gone from noun to verb, being to doing. And that’s really hard to grapple with. I know that college is a time of reshaping one’s identity, I just didn’t know it would be this jarring and something I would have to confront this actively. I was relating all these feelings to a friend of mine, and he said, “It’s like you’re in an awful limbo.” He was right.

For anyone reading this and getting awfully depressed (Hi, Mom), all the above isn’t to say that I’m unhappy. Most of the time, I feel amazingly fulfilled here at Oberlin, busy in a good way, and filling my time with enjoyable and meaningful activities. I have friends who I love and who love me and who are always willing to listen. My family is just a text or a phone call away. But this weekend I was thinking a lot about how much I missed certain parts of my old life.

And then there is swing. I hadn’t done much swing dancing before coming to Oberlin. I learned jitterbug in seventh grade PE, which is neither a good time nor a good place to learn anything, and I went to one bizarre swing dance at a friend’s mega church, before which I said to my dad something along the lines of, “Is bailing right now and going home and eating m&m’s straight from the bag an option?” It was a memorable experience, if not the most comfortable. Then I got to Oberlin and signed up for the Intro Swing ExCo, something I had planned to do as long as I knew the class existed. For those readers who don’t know, the Experimental College (ExCo) is an organization on campus that makes it possible for Oberlin students to teach classes for credit (usually one or two credits, or not-for-credit) to other Oberlin students. I went to the classes and dances pretty frequently, and found them immensely enjoyable. They always put me in a better mood. This semester I’m taking Continuing Swing to learn even more! It’s a blast, and the community is really nice and welcoming, which is great because going to a social dance space can be really intimidating.

This weekend, amidst my existential dance-begotten angst, there was a swing workshop. The Oberlin Swing and Blues Society brought in two instructors and there were classes and dances all weekend (for free!!). Miraculously, I managed to get all my homework done on Friday, so between Friday night and Sunday afternoon, I spent 9 hours swing dancing, about 4 hours a day!! My feet haven’t hurt this much since high school, or maybe since last summer when I walked 20,000 steps once on hard cobblestone streets in Spain. I had so much fun, and I’m sad the workshop is over. In addition to attending these workshop classes, where I learned SO MUCH (seriously, I feel like a whole new dancer), I got to teach one of my friends the basics of swing this weekend. He did really well; I taught him about three or four weeks of intro ExCo material in only one hour. Seeing a big smile spread across his eyes and face when he did a step correctly or understood a concept about rhythm or musicality brought me so much joy, and I was even happier when he told me he liked swing and wanted to do more! Dance has become social for me in a way it never was before. While I had lots of close friends in my company at home, some of whom I still consider my best friends in the world, dance wasn’t exactly “for fun.” Yes, performing was fun, but sometimes the last thing I wanted to do was spend 4.5 hours at my studio on a Wednesday taking classes and rehearsing for the Nutcracker (you know, hypothetically). Now, most if not all of the dancing I do at Oberlin is “for fun.” Last semester, dance became more about me, and less about the audience or other people. Now, I feel like it’s transitioning back to being about other people, which I think is good for me. I love teaching my friends how to swing dance, and I love the feeling of switching partners each song and getting used to someone’s rhythm and unique style. I am also still working with Girls in Motion, an after-school dance and movement program for girls in the Oberlin public schools, this semester as a co-instructor of the affiliated ExCo (stay tuned for a post about that at some point!). This too is a way for me to keep dance in my life, even if it’s not as a performer.

Long story short, I’ve swing, swang, swung myself into a radically different dancer identity. It’s never easy to deal with big changes, and it’s still sad at times that dance in my life isn’t the same as it was, and that it probably won’t ever be the same again. But I’ll be darned if I don’t lindy hop and swivel my way into a brand new relationship with dance. 

Responses to this Entry

You are still the most beautiful dancer I have ever seen. I am always amazed that I am related to someone that can be so beautiful and graceful as you. Even more amazed at the determination and hard work that goes behind it. Enjoy your swing dancing but beware. Opa will have you teaching at Echo this summer!

Posted by: Diane Nieber on February 23, 2018 7:27 AM

Hi Ruth,
I enjoyed your comments about swing dancing, and we must do some more the next time we connect. I gather you like lindy hop, which I used to do. I still do some lindy, but I am not allowed to hop because of my leg neuropathy. Getting old is not for sissies!
Good luck this semester. You seem to have a good balance between your classes and other pursuits. In house cleaning I found some German books for you which mother took back to ABQ.

Posted by: Herman Bieber (OPA) on February 23, 2018 9:46 PM

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