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Artist of the Week: Lizzie Agyei on Dance as Identity

9 mins read
Mairo Yamano // The Phoenix

Though she didn’t start dancing officially until high school, Lizzie Agyei ʼ25 first fell in love with dance when she was little, through her family and Ghanaian culture. 

“I have a very musical family in general. Like my mother used to sing songs to [my siblings and me] when we were younger. She actually has a song made for each of our names to spell our names out,” Lizzie explained. 

Lizzie’s dance style is uniquely her own, heavily influenced by African dance, which is her favorite kind of dance to participate in, and inspired by other types, such as hip-hop and modern dance.

“[African Dance] is just very high-energy, for one. And the technical requirements are very different from Western-style dances. It pushes me more emotionally, spiritually, and physically, I find. I just like the feeling that comes from African diasporic dances or dances based in African diaspora. I like the emotion that comes from them. I like that sense of community that I find in them. African dance is a very community-based style. It’s kind of a second conversation. So the dance form is a connection between the dancers, the drummers, and the audience watching.”

On campus, Lizzie has choreographed and performed two personal pieces so far. Additionally, she choreographed the musical “Heathers,” which was performed in Upper Tarble in Spring 2022. 

According to Lizzie, the most challenging thing she’s done was her first personal piece, which was about slavery from the perspective of the people left behind. 

“I knew going into it that it would be a bit difficult because it was a piece about slavery. But I think the full impact of that didn’t really hit me until I put the chains on for the piece … They were really heavy duty chains, and putting the chains on was also emotionally burdensome because of the emotional impact of my piece for me … I was so focused on the technical aspects of it, I didn’t even take a moment to just stop and focus on the more emotional part of it until I put those chains on really like a week before the performance,” she said. 

Even in the present, Lizzie’s mom is a part of her dancing. For her second personal dance piece on campus, Lizzie danced to her mother telling a story passed down through their culture. 

“A big part of a Ghanaian culture is how we pass down stories in history … and so for that dance piece, I actually had my mom record herself telling one of those stories, and I danced to that as a piece, and it was just a way for me to combine my oral tradition with my personal dance style.”

Lizzie’s third personal piece is currently in progress. Though choreography was a part of the process in all of her pieces, “Heathers” did not engage Lizzie’s desire to dance. 

“Hopefully, my next piece will be an African dance piece that really portrays my Ghanaian roots. So just coming of age or coming into myself as a Black woman or just as an immigrant in the United States, quite frankly.”

Lizzie’s journey to being the dancer she is now, however, wasn’t easy. Even today, people of color in the dance world are the minority. 

“My main struggle with dance still is, and always has been, my body image. Or like, how little representation there is in the dance world. People like me, whether they be my body type or just Black women in general in the dance world [are uncommon]. It was interesting to hear about Black women becoming Prima ballerinas in dance companies and stuff like that. That’s a very recent thing. And I found that [another one of my] struggles with dance is with having my specific dance form recognized as a dance form, because African dance is a very recent dance in the United States,” Lizzie shared. 

Lizzie grappled with the fact that she often stood out in a sea of people that looked otherwise relatively homogenous.  

“For a long time, I struggled with how I viewed myself in the dance world and [even] recently. Sometimes I question whether I belong … in the dance world because of how I look. Most of those issues, they quiet down over a while but they start to rear their head. [This happens when I’m] dancing in a group of other people who don’t necessarily look like me, but look like each other. It becomes like a bigger and more prominent issue in my head because I’m like, do I belong here? I just remind myself that I have fought hard to get here. So I do belong here,” she continued. 

Lizzie has tried many different forms of dance throughout her education so far. Every style left an impact on her, whether it be African Dance or Ballet. 

“For a long time, I thought [dance] was just a hobby, right? Because my culture is very strict when it comes to what you can do for your future … I’m still getting immersed in dance, and I still get immersed in the idea that dance could be more than a hobby for me. I find that the best way for me to really just explore myself as a person is through dance, like dance is my safe space … it lets me exist for myself,” Lizzie shared. 

For Lizzie, dance is where she belongs, something she can call her own. 

“I find that oftentimes we exist for other people. We exist for our families, for our parents — I exist for my siblings a lot of times. But I find that for me, dance just gives me a place to just be me and just live for me, without any outside influences on who I am. I found that dance has become a way for me to just be at peace with myself. It’s a way for me to just kind of reassure myself that no matter what happens, I will always have this one thing that keeps me going no matter what.” 

But dance isn’t just a safe space for Lizzie. It’s also a protest.

“Dance, to me, had such a strict ideal for what it should look like so I felt like I didn’t belong in the dance room. It took me a long time to be like ‘I actually don’t suck at dance.’ It became like a form of protest for me … Anyone can dance if you want to; dance isn’t just for one person. I am allowed to be proud of myself because I had to work hard to get here.”

If you’d like to see Lizzie’s third piece performed, she will be performing it on stage during the dance concert on the LPAC mainstage in November.  

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