Angel Su ’24 on Embodying Art

*Trigger Warning: EDs/restrictive eating.*

I love interviewing dancers. Dance is a medium I can confidently admit to having no ability in – to anyone who has seen me dance, this is my formal apology. That being said, I’m captivated by how dancers create living art with their bodies. So when I found out that Angel Su ’24 was not only skilled in ballet but also hip-hop, I immediately texted her for an interview. To my surprise, she admitted that she initially wanted to become a professional ballerina.

“[Growing up] I did mostly ballet and some modern and jazz occasionally. I took classes at a pre-professional school near my house when I was in middle school and high school. When I got into high school, I went to a ballet academy in Russia. I had done a foreign language learning summer program the summer before and then it was kind of a joint language and ballet program out of the Bolshoi Ballet Academy,” she said. Basically, they asked a couple [of] people if they wanted to study full-time at the school, but I came back early because of COVID. I came back and just took some classes online over Zoom.”

Given that Angel went to Russia for ballet, I was curious about how the experience informed her knowledge of dance. She expressed, “I think for ballet, specifically, Russia’s one of the best countries [for ballet] now, but they’re much more strict in terms of opinion on what people look like. Everybody’s long and thin, which they expect. In general, they were a lot more serious about dance. The school that I went to was a full-time school. You would take class from nine in the morning until 5 p.m. I don’t think it changed my view of ballet. It was just a very different experience.”

While it’s somewhat well-known that ballet has a long history of setting Eurocentric, unrealistic, and unattainable body standards, I wanted to learn more about how Angel navigated dance in an often oppressive environment. To my surprise, she confessed that her experience influenced her choice of major. 

“My art is defining my major. I want to go into clinical psychology, specifically with eating disorders, and I think my experience in ballet and the kind of pressure to look a certain way is in large part responsible for that. I don’t think anybody (in the long term) that I knew in ballet had a normal body image or a normal way of viewing food. In America, you’re not advertising that you’re throwing up. I think when you’re trying to restrict you’ll say, ‘Oh, I’m just gonna eat something at home’ or, ‘I’m just gonna use the restroom real quick.’ But in Russia, it’s a lot more normalized. It didn’t happen to me, but I know someone in a class where her teachers were telling her, ‘Look, if you’re gonna throw up, do it with a buddy and be safe. Go in groups of two or three. Oh, those are the toilets.’ It’s more normalized in a lot of places outside of the U.S. Especially in Asia. And yeah, I think that made me want to work in that direction in psychology.” 

Honestly, I was stunned that Angel continued with ballet. Being a teenage girl with Instagram and TikTok is harmful enough for your body image, much less having your teacher openly endorse bulimia during class. When I asked Angel how she could continue dancing, specifically ballet, after that experience, she said, “It’s just a part of me, no matter what.”

Luckily, at Swarthmore, she’s found a more inclusive and conducive environment for dance. “I think the faculty have been really trying to create a safe space for people. [Senior Lecturer of Dance Chandra Moss-Thorne] said in one of my first classes, ‘If you have a body and you dance, it’s a dancer’s body.’ I think that’s really important and it’s something that she really tries to live by. I’m really just trying to make the dance space less rigid. I want to goof around and have fun, which I think is not always the case in a traditional ballet class setting. But I think it’s really let[ting] me actually enjoy ballet more and not be over-focused on improving. Just dancing for the sake of dancing.” 

I deeply admired how Angel discussed her experience with dance. She admitted that the environment can sometimes be oppressive and that she hasn’t always had a perfect outlook on the practice, but never sounded pessimistic. As always, she beamed like sunshine, emphasizing how positive her experiences have been at Swarthmore. She never needed to rekindle her passion for dance because it was always there, regardless of who wanted to, inadvertently or not, burn out her spark. Her perspective is hopeful and exciting. Rather than quitting (admittedly, as I would have in her place), she has explored more forms of dance and continued ballet. Last year, without any prior experience in hip-hop, she decided to join Rhythm ‘n Motion. 

“I think it’s really interesting because hip-hop has its own kind of technique, and its own kind of body standard. The body line is very different from ballet. I don’t mean how a body looks, I mean how their arms or legs align with the rest of their body. It’s all very different and interesting seeing the core technique shift. In ballet, something really big is holding your upper back straight and it’s very constant for balance, but also posture. In hip-hop, the upper back is also important, but in a different way. You’re more hunched in and your core is more engaged in that way. You’re not pushing your ribs out,” she said.“Sometimes I feel like when I do hip-hop, I still look like I’m doing ballet. I think that’s a challenge and still is a challenge honestly. I spent so long looking at what other people were doing and trying to copy technique. I think that is helpful in hip hop. And I’ve also just been picking up choreography that I’ve never seen before, which is fun.”

Going from a very Eurocentric form of dance to African diasporic dance has also been a significant shift for Angel. When she interned in Kenya last summer for a consulting firm, she learned a lot more about African culture.

“I think that experience, seeing how differently people live, was really eye-opening. It was probably the best study abroad program I’ve ever had. We were all very motivated and [my peers] wanted to work at [the United States Agency for International Development] – they’re all very inspiring people. I feel like I learned a lot more about Kenyan culture and Afrobeats. So I think that also informed my understanding of hip-hop.”

Hearing Angel talk about body lines and movement made me realize why Angel was adamant about continuing ballet. Being a dancer is inherently hard-wired into her bones. As I ended the interview and watched her gracefully collect herself, I understood what she meant. Angel embodies her art and thus is both an artist and the work of art itself. As she thanked me for interviewing her, I said I was the one who should be thanking her. She made me realize that we will always be artists because our work lives on within us. And I think the idea that we embody our art is beautiful.

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