Diversity. It’s one of the most recurring words in the University’s literature. It’s a word thrown around in promotional pamphlets or for applicants to define in their admissions essays. The ‘U’ is home to students from all walks of life, but beyond basic demographics, where is this represented? On campus, as in the world at large, one of the most prominent manifestations of cultural diversity is in the arts — in this case, dance.

“People who are from all over can enjoy this one type of activity,” said LSA junior Jackie Davis, of the Arabian Dance Ensemble. “It’s not limited to a certain type of people … and we get to show off that kind of dance that people aren’t usually exposed to and we can show them how cool it is.”

While history books and classes can educate people about culture, dance is a firsthand way of immersing oneself in those worlds. Dozens of teams at the ‘U’ perform and compete, each as distinct and varied as steps in a dance.

Shuffle, ball change

As of 2000, RhythM Tap Ensemble has been the foremost tap dance group on campus. It’s one of the core groups for Dance Mix, an event that showcases different teams’ dancing near the end of each winter term.

“I think Dance Mix is probably the best show on campus for dance because we try to … include a lot of variety and diversity in the show in terms of different dance styles,” LSA senior and RhythM president Chelsea Kimball said. “I think that we try to show the audience something new every year.”

Since tap requires precision with complex footwork, most RhythM members have prior tap experience.

“There are people who have tapped every day since they were three and there are some people, like me, who stopped tapping once they were in high school and picked it back up in college,” Kimball said. “So most people have had tap experience but everyone has their different levels of experience.”

Though tap is a commonly known style of dance, RhythM dancers keep it fresh for audiences, introducing new generations to the world of tap dance. This includes guest performances with groups like Impact, which fuses popular American dance styles, and the lyrical ballet group, Salto.

RhythM also performs full-fledged collaborative pieces with fusion group PURE Dance Xtreme in the annual PureRhythM show. RhythM performs with other groups in the show, while PURE simultaneously performs in a more noticeably lyrical style.

RhythM also collaborated with musical group Groove last semester.

“That was also really cool because tap dance fits pretty well with percussion,” Kimball said.

The collaborations are among Kimball’s favorite things about RhythM, and in her opinion, the main thing that sets it apart from other groups.

“Our numbers with PURE are … something that we try to always keep in the show,” she said. “I think it’s important and I think the audience enjoys it too because it’s something different. It’s not the same type of number (that people) see from both of us individually.”

“You have to make some compromises to incorporate both styles,” Kimball added. “There are some things that you can’t do in tap shoes and some things that the PURE dancers can’t do. It’s kind of a blend.”

Dance represents a constant to many students involved in campus dance organizations. According to Kimball, it remains a priority to RhythM members as they choreograph and contribute song ideas together.

“I think dance took up most of the girls on our team’s lives before coming to college, but I think it’s still a huge part of everyone’s life,” Kimball explained. “There are a couple girls on the team who still teach regularly at their dance studios that they used to go to. For others of us, we only do the RhythM practices and performances, but it’s still a big part of our college experience as well.”

Connection to classic Indian styles

As for the multiplicity of groups with experienced dancers, another group trying to integrate different styles is Michigan Sahana, which specializes in Indian classical music and dance.

India has eight recognized forms of classical dance that Sahana tries to represent in its repertoire. The group’s goal as dancers is to stick to the traditional techniques and style as much as possible.

“I feel like nowadays in the Western world … the modern Indian styles are coming up,” said LSA sophomore Vertika Srivastava, Sahana’s dance chair. “I feel like in the Western view when they think ‘Indian dance,’ they think ‘Oh, Bollywood.’ And that’s not really what it is.”

“And then also at the University there’s a lot of (Indian) fusion groups,” she added. “We have TAAL, Maya, which are cool … I think a lot of us also do those types of dances. But I think (for) all of us, … our passion lies in retaining the authenticity of the classical forms.”

Indian classical dance forms can be traced back hundreds of years; many find their origins in ancient Hindu stories. Watching classical pieces immediately exposes the audience to characters and themes prevalent in Hinduism.

A topic often discussed at Sahana board meetings is how to keep the dance exciting when the styles have been watched and performed for centuries. At December’s performance, “Satkala,” one of the pieces, blended the styles of Kathak and Odissi. Kathak emphasizes footwork and is performed in large, swirling skirts, while the East Indian Odissi focuses on isolation of the torso.

Though the forms and styles have been adapted over time, the stories behind them tie modern dancers to ancient traditions.

“We’re living in this Western world where there are … different cultures all around us,” Srivastava said. “We don’t all have a class to go to in order to learn about these stories. Through dance … you’re just forced to understand these on a new level when you’re asked to portray it through your face, through your body. And every part of your body has to be feeling the emotions of the person you’re trying to show.”

Acting out the stories of ancient Hindu texts with expressive dance gives dancers a direct connection to characters and situations they might otherwise have difficulty understanding.

“I feel like that makes you connect so much more, even if you don’t believe in it,” Srivastava explained. “I have Christian friends who do Bharatanatyam who are equally good, and I don’t think there’s any correlation … in that moment when you are dancing to this music and you’re expected to be another person. I feel like in that moment, you have to believe what you’re doing.”

“Those little moments, they add up,” she added. “And it’s this connection you have with this classical form.”

Belly dancing for one and all

While Sahana appeals mostly to students of an Indian origin, Jackie Davis said the Arabian Dance Ensemble provides beginner lessons for students from all over the globe.

“We don’t have any international students that have joined,” she said. “I’m not sure why. We get people from all over the U.S., like California and Chicago, and we just all found the group and liked belly dancing.”

Routines are set to traditional Arabic music and use recognizable movements such as shimmying and figure eights. Dancers wear scarves and coin belts to accentuate the hip movements.

Davis believes that the diversity of its members makes the Arabian Dance Ensemble’s routines easier for the audience to connect with.

“It is harder to connect when it’s belly dancing just because it isn’t as mainstream,” Davis added. “Something like hip hop is really easy because it’s so integrated in our culture today … I think it’s nice that we can expose a dance that isn’t typical to people and maybe hope that it would be easier to connect with it.”

Davis feels that the ensemble’s work is even more important given the recent negative attention to Arabic countries in the media. Oftentimes, such artistic aspects of the culture are overlooked in light of the global political climate.

“Especially with everything that’s happened nowadays, … here is something interesting and good that you can see about this culture,” she said.

The art of Congolese dance

One of the youngest performance groups on campus is Amala, which performs Western African dance, mainly of Congolese influence. The word amala means “grace” in Igbo, a Nigerian dialect.

“The goal of Amala is to let our campus as a whole see the type of dancing that is done,” LSA sophomore Karen Coker said. “They can see the culture of West African dance and music and see how exciting and fun it is. When we perform, we’re able to show … a bit of our culture. You can enjoy the experience and also learn more about it.”

Coker added that dance is a form of expression and that African dance culture, for most audience members, is different from anything they have seen before.

“I guess with Amala, you don’t have to be African. When we’re dancing, the people who are watching are people who would want to dance. It’s like, ‘You can do it too. You don’t have to be African in order to learn to dance, to learn to do what we’re doing.’ ”

Amala aims to promote what Coker described as “self-love and pride and unity.”

“In Amala, not everyone is from the same region,” she explained. “People in Amala are from Nigeria or Ghana or Cameroon or the Congo. The mission with Amala is to promote pride for our different countries and where we’re from and our love for ourselves and to show how united we are, coming together.”

The African continent is diverse in itself, with dozens of countries and subcultures. Coker believes that Amala showcases how people from these different backgrounds can enjoy themselves together and be proud of where they are from.

Dance also provides Coker and her peers with a respite from academic life.

“I joined second semester of freshman year, so it was really helpful. It was … a good stress reliever, just having something fun and being able to meet new people,” she said. “Now I always look forward to going to practice … after classes and everything, I’m able to go and just have fun.”

The arts promote culture and diversity, but with dance, simply viewing the art form is not enough. Dancers sometimes engage with foreign concepts and must actively seek cultural enrichment.

“I feel like anyone can dance. You just have to practice,” Coker explained. “You have to practice and get good at it and be excited. If you have the passion and the excitement to learn how to do it, then you’ll get it.”

“You don’t have to be African in order to do African dance,” she added. “I guess that’s part of diversity because with that you’re … immersing yourself in that culture even if you’re not from there. It doesn’t matter where you’re from or what your culture is. It’s just about enjoying the dance.”

There is no dearth of cultures and ethnic groups to choose from at the University or ways to actively engage with diversity. Dance is one such form — a way of learning about other cultures even if one is not part of them.

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