Dance With Me

March 20, 2014
James Helmsworth
4 dancers perform wearing bright colors
Sam Brown ’13 with And What!? during their fall showcase. Photo credit: Kaïa Austin '16

B.J. Tindal ‘16 thought he might have to hang up his tap shoes. An avid tap-dancer since age 12, when he'd applied to colleges, he didn't take tap into consideration. The implications of that only dawned on him later. “When I was done tapping at my old dance school, I thought, “I don't know if I'm going to be able to have a chance to do this again,” he says.

When he arrived at Oberlin, however, Tindal was surprised to find that he could keep tapping, after all. Though Oberlin's dance department has no formal tap program, the tradition thrives thanks to ViBE Tap, a student-led tap dancing group. Since joining the group, Tindal, now a sophomore, serves as the group's chair.

ViBE Tap is just one of a handful of student-led dance groups active at Oberlin, which include And What?!, an audition-based hip hop dance team; Koreo, a hip-hop fusion dance troupe; Umoja, a step team; and ViBE tap's sister organization, ViBE Jazz. Each group performs a number of times throughout the year, and all appear together in the Student Dance Showcase, which takes place every spring.

Oberlin boasts a rich tradition of dance. Contact improv, a type of dance that explores movement based on physical interaction, was first performed in 1972 by Oberlin students in a piece called Magnesium by visiting artist Steve Paxton. Oberlin’s dance department has produced a number of esteemed dancers and choreographers, including Nancy Stark Smith’74.

Augmenting the dance department's already plentiful offerings, student-led groups provide an opportunity for students of all different experience levels to try out a variety of styles. “There's room for all different kinds of groups and different kinds of invitations to people,” says Professor of Dance Ann Cooper-Albright, who serves as faculty advisor for these groups.

Ambre Dromgoole ‘14, co-chair of Umoja, echoes that sentiment. She describes the student-led dance groups as “diverse,” and says that “they bring different cultural aspects to Oberlin's campus that may or may not have been there had a student not stood up and said, 'Hey, Oberlin needs this.’”

Dromgoole's own experience with dance at Oberlin serves as a perfect example of this action. After auditioning for And What!?, she and a couple friends began discussing how Oberlin should have a step team. Step, a type of percussive dance style in which participants make complex rhythms with their hands and legs, had been hugely popular in her hometown of Nashville, Tennessee. Her friends discovered that a student step team had existed, but was dormant at the time. They reactivated Umoja's charter, and invited Dromgoole to join. Though she had no previous step experience, Dromgoole quickly took on a leadership role with Umoja.

Other students bring years of experience into their student-led groups. Sam Ferguson ‘16, chair of ViBE Jazz, performed with a semi-professional Irish stepdance troupe for a number of years. When she got to Oberlin, however, she says she was ready to try something new. Having limited experience with jazz dance, she decided to audition for ViBE Jazz. “I was ready to broaden my horizons a little bit,” she says. So far, she's been successful; in her tenure with ViBE, it's incorporated a variety of styles into its repertoire, recently putting on a show with a TIMARA major that saw its members exploring different forms.

These kinds of collaborations are typical for Oberlin dance groups. Last year, Umoja collaborated with Oberlin College Taiko, a student-run ensemble that plays traditional Japanese drums. In the fall of 2013, Sam Brown ’13, a member of And What?!, invited members of Koreo and Umoja to perform with her ensemble in a number of pieces that she choreographed.

Student dancers say this collaboration is critical to creating a strong sense of camaraderie between dance groups. “What I like about the past semester is all the different student groups were together,” says Chelsea Cross ‘15 co-chair of Koreo, the hip-hop fusion group. "It means a lot for different dance groups to perform together, to support each other, to form this community."

Brown's show, “Finding Myself Underground: Choreographic Reflections of Hip-Hop Dance in South Florida,” explored the evolving nature of hip-hop dance, which she had been highly involved with as a teenager in Southern Florida. The show, along with a paper on the same topic, was Brown's capstone project for her Africana Studies major with an emphasis in fine art, which she completed in December 2013. “Oberlin helped me bring my home experience into an academic context, in a way that was scholarly, in a way that was critically engaging and challenged me a lot,” she says.

Other students find themselves entering academia via dance, as well. Tindal, the ViBE Tap chair, has also engaged in scholarly research about dance, spending winter term 2014 investigating tap's roots in cultural exchange between African slaves and Irish servants early in the United States' history.

Still others are using it to look to the future, as student-led dance groups offer students a chance to take on the organizational hurdles and logistical challenges of running a performing arts group.

Maura Sternberg ’14 says that the leadership position she's taken in And What?! has helped her prepare for a career in arts administration. “There are lots of things that my fellow leaders and I do that are part of arts administration work, which is kind of the other way to get a job as a dancer,” she says with a laugh. "I feel like And What!? is my baby."

But before Sternberg leaves Oberlin, she has a hurdle to clear. She has to put together And What?!'s spring show, which will double as her senior recital for her dance major.

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