A Love Letter to the Muses of Dance

At the activities fair my freshman fall, I sidled up to the tables for the dance groups on campus. One group required auditions; the other, Terpsichore, didn’t.

I’ve wanted to dance ever since I was a little kid, but didn’t have many opportunities. I hadn’t danced a step since the Creative Movement class I took when I was six. I had used up all my stores of bravery on a very unsuccessful a capella audition. I was afraid of the posters, really afraid in a way that I was finding difficult to mask with effusive bravado. I’ve already mastered the ability to fail at something I don’t particularly care about (and avoid trying too hard at things to keep my expectations low).

Failing at something that you really, desperately want to be good at is crushing. And I really, really wanted to dance. I came to college needing desperately to convince myself that I could move past the shortcomings that I had struggled with in high school. I needed to know that coming across the continent would be worth it, that I would not hinder my own growth. I put my name down on the mailing list for Terpsichore and loudly urged my friend to join with me.

At my first rehearsal I gazed big-eyed around a circle of the nine coolest women I had ever seen in my entire life. The choreographer, a lithe gymnast with intimidating poise and perfect posture, had us introduce ourselves. She then demonstrated the first few movements of the combination (A combo, I learned, is not only a type of pizza at Costco but also the word for a phrase of dance movements). She moved with a liquid grace, a deliberation that felt for each beat in the air and moved keenly to strike it. “See?” she asked when she saw on my face that I absolutely, most definitely did not. “Your arm is sharp– yes, sudden, when you hear the beat. One, two, three, four.” She snapped her fingers in rhythm. I stayed with the dance.

I learned to think about my body in a way I never had before in my life. I learned that when you focus on what your feet are doing, you tend to forget to move your arms. I learned that the way you hold your fingers changes the tone of your entire body: outstretched, sharp blades, gentle ballet fingers. I learned about the concept of lines, of imagining the shapes that my limbs were forming. I learned that you have to dance with your head and neck: they can’t just sit there. I learned that you can be corrected over and over on the same thing that you simply cannot fix, and that it doesn’t make you feel bad, just more and more determined. I learned that when you finally nail something you’ve been struggling like mad with, the feeling of accomplishment and the choreographer’s smile carries you through the whole week.

It turns out that standing in the wings waiting to go on stage for your first performance ever is so terrifying that you want to throw up. Even though your fellow dancers gave you all their kindest advice and smiles and did your makeup for you, it’s an intensely personal experience. Standing in the dark on shaky legs, I was sure that I would forget everything. Instead, the opening beat of Believer by Imagine Dragons thudded around me like war drums, so loud that I could feel it in my chest and through the floor under my bare feet. I stepped forward on the beat as I had drilled a hundred times. A wild exhilaration and fear filled me, so strongly it felt like I would boil over. When we left the stage I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry or run until all the adrenaline was gone.

At some point in the semester that followed, the time that we spent together changed. I did three dances and learned that different choreographers teach differently, dance differently, help me grow differently. We became not just group members but friends, and the awkwardness that we had felt at first slowly dissolved (it might have been easier if we weren’t all so damn weird, but I wouldn’t trade it for the world.)

Rehearsal was a little island of peace amid the absolute insanity of Swarthmore. It was a time that I could spend with hilarious, talented, clever, kind people that encouraged me, teased me, pushed me, and supported me. It was also a time that I could spend inside myself, not needing to worry about homework or grades. I could take three full minutes to consider the way I swept my leg across the floor, if I could point my toe just a tiny bit more. I could revel in the reverberating thud as I landed a leap, the warm shock diffusing up my leg. I could inch just a tiny bit lower to the floor in my longed-for split.

That spring, Liz Lanphear  ’19 taught me the way she took a vision and set it to movement. I realized all over again just how incredible it feels to move in a group of people as one organism, to feel your arm lift in perfect synchronization with the others in your peripheral vision. To feel the beat of the music in the punctuating strike of your foot. To feel powerful. Francesca Rothell ’21 gave me a solo and asked for my thoughts on which movements to include. Jessica Yang ’21 showed me the beautiful shapes you can achieve with your arms. On the stage that spring, I felt utterly unselfconscious. I was one of the many limbs of a moving mythical creature, and we knew where we were going.

In the fall we expanded. I was incredibly excited about all our new freshmen, but dismayed to learn that they would ask me dance questions and expect that I knew the answer. I took to introducing myself as, “I’m Hannah and I’ve never danced at all before Terp!” I met several freshmen who had never danced before Terp as well, and adopted them as my own (as well as many others who certainly do have dance training, and are simply a delight). I learned what an absolute joy it is to show a move that I have mastered to a newcomer, and work with them on perfecting it. On at least one occasion, it’s turned out that I was doing the move wrong to begin with and now both of us are. It’s a real bonding experience.

The identity of the group evolved: we are all friends, but there is space for every sort of commitment. Some of us spend hours on Terp each week, while others choose to do one hour of rehearsal for one dance. All are welcome. I’m involved in a lot of different circles on campus, but Terpsichore for me achieves something that none of the others can. It’s a precious community, a stress reliever, a reminder that my body is powerful, a connection to the smartest, kindest, funniest people I’ve ever known.

This semester I’ve had the absolute joy of dancing in the final pieces of the two choreographers that have taught me the most, Liz Lanphear ’19 and Ella Small ’19. Ella, you more than anyone else push me to find my limits. Your commitment to technical perfection, absorption in the music, and acting makes your pieces so stunning and such a powerful learning experience for me. As I walked around campus this semester, I listened to your music and felt the choreography travel across my body, trying to mimic how precisely you dance, the clean sweep of the flowing movement and the resolution of the sharp hit. You gave me a new perspective, a sense of your critical eye. You have a rare and beautiful quality as a teacher in that you can correct me repeatedly and sharply in a way that never, ever feels negative. A couple of times you’ve told me that my problem is in my head: “You know the choreography. Dance like you know it.” I tell that to myself all the time. I want to have those same qualities as a leader in this group: supportive, encouraging, perfectionist, empowering. I can’t tell you enough how much stronger you have made me as a dancer and a person. Thank you.

Liz, you dance like a celestial body with her own gravity. Your choreography is unique and compelling and so, so beautiful. I can’t decide which of your pieces I love the most. Rain Dance feels to me like walking in the Crum, laughing until your stomach hurts in Mertz, dancing in South Carolina along the windy sand. Big God is digging deep, turned inward, isolation in a crowd, and Dog Days is reaching out, lifting up and being lifted. Joyful noise. The Bell Tower is power, collective and individual, not taking it back but having it all along. You make me think about where the movement comes from, the story we are telling, the power we are embodying. You are kind, clever, independent and loving, and you foster all of those qualities in everyone that you touch. Thank you.

If you have ever thought about dancing, if you used to and don’t anymore, if you want to deep down and you’re not sure you have the courage, come by our meeting in the fall. Whoever you are, whatever you want to be, whether you’ve danced for years or never in your life, there’s a place for you here. It may be an hour a week to let go of it all, or it may be the place you meet the dearest friends you’ve ever known. Either way, come. You’ll be welcome.

Terpsichore Dance Collective recruits at the beginning of the semester and performs at the end. A site-specific piece located in the Clothier bell tower, directed by Liz Lanphear ‘19, will be performed on Saturday May 4 at 6 p.m. and Sunday May 5 at 8 p.m. All are welcome to attend.

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