The Oberlin Stories Project

On performing with Oberlin’s female and trans* hip hop dance group And What!?

Isabelle Harari ’17

“Our identity as dancers makes sure our audiences leave with material to ponder, discuss, and continue to engage with after our shows.”

Hip-hop dancers at rehearsal

I got rejected from several a cappella groups at Oberlin. Four times to be exact, over two years. Now to you, the stranger reading my story, maybe that’s only kind of sad, mostly because it doesn’t break your heart. But to my old friends, nosey family, and overly supportive high school community, hearing that I got rejected four times didn’t make sense; in high school I ran my a cappella group, produced two CDs for the group, and performed enough to win awards. My life was a cappella. So you can imagine those four rejections shocked me even more than my old friends, nosey family, and overly supportive high school community, and left me feeling stuck in limbo. The past four years had been a comfortable conversation in the world of a cappella—but these rejections made it stop. I realized that I missed not just singing with a group instead of alone in the shower, but being in a setting where I had the skills necessary to do well. I longed for the applause that I knew would come once I performed; in high school, I was a big fish in a small pond. But four rejections cut off the comfortable conversation, leaving me to be challenged and grow in a new dialogue, giving me a different perspective on the world.

Any Oberlin student will tell you that on average their peers are involved in 4-6 extracurriculars or communities beyond their academics. So, naturally, if I’ve reached my senior year with a new view on life and better earned confidence restored from what I lost in rejections, chances are that it’s due to a diverse collection of experiences throughout college. The spring of my third year was the first time I truly realized the profoundly positive and long-term impact that collection of experiences would have on the rest of my life. That awakening came from Oberlin’s female and trans* hip hop dance group, And What!?.

I grew up dancing, but because singing was my forte, I never gave much thought to my identity as a dancer. I was a singer, first and foremost. But And What!? is a dance group that thinks critically about our social and political surroundings, our debt to the historically black art forms of hip hop music and dance, and our responsibility to mindfully fill our performance space. Our identity as dancers makes sure our audiences leave with material to ponder, discuss, and continue to engage with after our shows.

I’ve learned that this collective commitment to intentionality is a common trend among Oberlin groups. The spring of my junior year, amidst a turbulent campus climate and political turmoil, the theme of our semester show was EmpoWer: Reclaiming Our Bodies. The process of working on this show demanded regular emotional and physical commitment to rehearsing the choreography and connecting with each other as womyn. Through this semester, and culminating in our show, I began to learn the power of my body and the power in my own self. I began to learn about self-love.

That first weekend in May, the show touched hundreds of audience members but, admittedly, the performance weekend itself was not as lasting an experience as the feelings and lessons I left with. Together with 15 other dancers, each member of our group explored the blessings and societally-imposed consequences as being female-identifying individuals. By the end of the semester, I reflected back on the people I had met at Oberlin so far and felt an overwhelming sense of gratitude for being in a community that could allow me to learn about self love and empowerment, about intentionality, about taking up and giving up space, about shared experience attributed to a person’s body. Because of my time at Oberlin, I will always remember my ability for self love, the connection to the womyn I danced with in college, and the ways I learned how to listen. Yes, I got rejected from a cappella groups at Oberlin four times, but with that conversation stopped, this new conversation started. And this one never stops.