Three Black Northwestern students explain their passion for dance and how they follow this passion on a campus lacking diversity.
Ariel Harper, School of Communication 2016 at Northwestern University, has been dancing since she was five-years-old. Her passion for dance started in childhood when her mother told Harper she and her sister needed to have some after school activity. After trying track and field and playing the piano, Harper found modern dance.
“It’s just been something that I’ve always felt like it allows me to be completely be myself,” says Harper.
In addition to being a member of Carib Nation, a campus Caribbean culture group, Harper is deeply involved with Northwestern’s dance program and its productions. She performed in Dance Works, choreographed for Fall Dance Concert, choreographs for the Senior Dance Concert as a part of her Senior Seminar class, and is a member of New Movement Project.
“I definitely like that they [Northwestern dance professors] are trying to make more well-rounded dance artists,” says Harper.
Through her classes and involvement with shows, Harper has gotten the chance to work as a member of the crew, choreograph, dance, produce and make connections with the different groups of people she interacts with. Regardless of the dance program’s networking opportunities and other opportunities for growth, Harper feels like there’s still something missing, something vital.
“I definitely would like to see more diversity,” says Harper. “In the four years that I’ve been here, including myself, there’s been four black dance majors.”
Because the majority of students in the dance program are white, productions lack a diverse cast. Harper attributes this lack of diversity to advertising that doesn’t effectively reach the general public and students of other majors who might have an interest in dance.Furthermore, because the dance program is so close-knit, people don’t feel comfortable auditioning, feeling their chances aren’t good. For Harper, something as simple as a “bigger reach” to people outside of the dance department would lead to more diversity.
The lack of diversity created personal obstacles for Harper. She explained that because there are so few black dancers, choreographers and her fellow dancers have to have a heightened awareness of the roles they give black dancers in pieces.
Harper recalls a particular solo she in which she was to dance to a Grace Jones song infused with a reggae style.. During the dance, white dancers were supposed to dance above Harper as she moved her hips below. As the only black dancer, she felt uncomfortable gyrating her hips on stage with white dancers so high above. Harper expressed her concerns and the choreographers eventually accepted Harper’s recommendation to include two other white dancers.
Looking back at the experience, Harper says, “When you only have one Black dancer on a stage in a cast of other white dancer things can get tricky.”
After graduation, Harper hopes to teach dance, and eventually open her own art center. Harper realizes how fortunate she is to attend a top-tier university like Northwestern, and she wants to give these same opportunities for growth to people who might not be as privileged .
“It’s my way of being creative, my way of getting in touch with my body. And I feel like I get to share a piece of myself with the audience or whoever’s watching,” says Harper. “Everybody has that thing that they know they are supposed to do. And I think dance is just my thing.”
Sterling Harris, Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences student at Northwestern University, has been tap dancing for over ten years. His love for tap dancing started while he was attending the Christian School in Chicago, a private school that teaches kids from preschool to eighth grade.
Different extracurriculars were offered at the Christian School, including martial arts, ballet, and tap dancing. Harris tried almost all of them before deciding tap fit him best. His teacher FaChica Austin-Alderson influenced both the tap techniques and professionals he was interested in most.
“I saw the passion that she had for [tap dancing] and she kind of instilled that into me,” says Harris. “She introduced me to legends like Gregory Himes, the Nicholas Brothers, Sand Man Sims, and other famous black tappers.”
This long-time love of tap led Harris to audition for Tonik Tap, Northwestern University’s only tap dancing group. “It exposes me to a greater variety of tap and I’m learning new styles of tap,” says Harris. “It’s also really cool to have the opportunity to teach other’s my style. Together we all grow as a company.”
Regarding the lack of diversity in Tonik and the Northwestern dance community, Sterling says he doesn’t notice it much. In his opinion it adequately represents Northwestern’s population considering it is a predominantly white institution.
Currently, Harris serves as a member of the group’s executive board. His responsibilities include designing posters and fliers for events, designing the group’s merchandise, managing the group’s Facebook page, running the group’s website, and designing shirts for Tonik shows.
Harris is also a choreographer for Refresh Dance Crew and an executive member of One Step Before. He recently won the National Society of Black Engineers’ Mr. Northwestern pageant, where his talent portion was an impressive combination of tap and hip hop dancing.
He attributes his unwavering love of tap dancing to the creativity it allows.
“You can be the dancer and musician all in one,” says Harris.
Gavin Williams, Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences student at Northwestern University, was greatly involved in extracurriculars at his Fort Wayne, Ind. high school. From diving, speech and debate, tennis, Key Club, National Honor Society, student council, theater, and marching band, Williams did it all.
Although he’s currently a choreographer for Refresh Dance Crew, Williams had no prior dancing experience before joining the group winter quarter of his freshman year. He became interested in dancing, and specifically Refresh, after seeing Refusionshaka 2015.
“I saw them perform and thought it would be fun to do,” says Williams.
After joining the group, the environment and dancers made him want to continue being a part of the Refresh family.
“Everyone interacts as a family. Like if you join the crew you’re apart of the family and you have mentors and mentees and choreographers and exec to look up to. Because it’s a learning environment the atmosphere is encouraging all the time because Refresh is always about growth,” says Williams.
Williams’ favorite style of dance is dancehall, but his time is Refresh has exposed him to many other styles, like popping, waacking, isolation, house, and hard-hitting, that he incorporates into his own choreography. This conglomeration of different styles comes from his ability to be inspired by anyone who he finds exceptional at the style they specialize in, even if their preferred style differs from his own.
A diversity of styles is something he would like to see more off in the Refresh community, along with a more diverse cast. Williams says the diversity of Refresh has become better since he joined the group, but the environment is still more geared toward the Asian members and their preferred style of dance.
“Refresh wasn’t created for black people, not that it was made to exclude them, but it was established as a freestyle urban dance thing. And urban dance is majority Asian,” says Williams.
Williams hasn’t personally experienced discrimination while at Refresh practices, but has witnessed people conduct themselves with a lack of cultural sensitivity toward the black members overall. According to Williams, these members were always confronted about their transgressions and gave sincere apologies.
Williams attributes the lack of diversity in Refresh to a lack of black students at Northwestern overall, let alone black students who are experienced dancers.
“Dance is something not a lot of people feel they can pursue without experience,” says Williams.
Although Williams joined Refresh last year with no experience, dance has still been able to develop into a passion of his during this short time. Williams has quickly developed a deep appreciation for his ability to express himself through dance.
“Dance is one of the purest art forms of expression, You get to experience not only the music but what you are feeling inside you and you can put that into visual movement for other people to see. Dance is the best physical representation of your feelings and your body and how they interact. And being able to express that and teach it to others and learn that from others is a very fulfilling experience,” says Williams.
Williams has taught multiple Tuesday choreography classes during his time in Refresh, choreographed show pieces, and filmed a Halloween concept video this past October.
After graduating, Williams plans to pursue secondary education but is unsure if dance will continue to be a major part of his life.