When the rest of the Class of 1980 picks up their diplomas today, Elizabeth Wilkerson '80 may be dancing. Two months ago she was awarded a month-long scholarship starting June 1 to study with Twyla Tharp's dance company near Andover, Massachusetts. If the company wants her today, she will stay.
The decision about Commencement will not be a difficult one, for Wilkerson has grappled with the polarities of the dance world and "the Harvard tradition" for four years. Dance is "ultimate freedom," and Harvard is "the epitomy of WASP values," she says. This contrast has led her to contemplate with-drawing from the University twice and to defer indefinitely her acceptance to the Stanford joint JD and MBA program.
Wilkerson grew up in the midst of the "WASP society" of Shaker Heights, Ohio where "knee-jerk liberal" attitudes protected her from "blatant" exposure to racism. Her father is a doctor, her mother has a masters degree and is a homemaker. Being Black presented no disadvantages for Wilkerson. The children took every kind of lesson they wanted--Wilkerson studied ballet, gymnastics and skating--and they were "expected to bring home A's."
The supportive home environment built up the self-confidence that Wilkerson now exudes. "I grew up thinking I could get anything I wanted," she says matter of factly. When college application time came, she applied only to Harvard, Yale and Princeton. "I was a strong candidate. I used Princeton as a safety." Three acceptance letters proved she did not need a safety.
Although Yale had a tradition of supporting the performing arts, she came to Harvard "because it was considered the best." Another consideration was Harvard's special concentration program, and she planned to create a concentration in choreographic theory.
Wilkerson's efforts to pursue dance her freshman year met with opposition. "For a dancer it was a completely unsupportive environment," she says. Dismayed by the lack of technical ability of the dancers in the official Radcliffe-Harvard dance company, she found release in her classes at the Cambridge School of Ballet. The hours spent at classes, however, contributed to a growing sense that she was "existing outside the University."
Being a Black woman at Harvard compounded her sense of isolation. The first day she was here Wilkerson encountered the type of racist attitudes that in Shaker Heights "were kept quiet," While she waited outside the janitor's room to get the keys to her freshman dorm, another newly arrived freshman asked her if she was the janitor's assistant. "I was shocked--I expected race not to be an issue here," she says, adding that she quickly realized that although Harvard students were bright many "brought their racism with them."
The combination of leaving her supportive home environment and exposing herself to more blatant forms of racism made her increasingly conscious of her race. The University's refusal to divest its stocks, the "abomination of final clubs" and a general lack of University support for the Afro-American studies department contributed to her realization that Harvard was steeped in a heritage and traditions that completely excluded minorities. Her feeling of being "at the University but not of it" was also compounded by being female--"I didn't even know if I was a Harvard or Radcliffe student," she says, adding, "I felt alone and as if I was not welcome."
To escape isolation, she began to identify strongly with the Black students at Harvard. "Minorities here have to question constantly what statement they're making by being and staying here," she says. This common question unites them. Wilkerson answered the question after freshman year by deciding not to return in the fall.
That summer she took classes at the American Dance Festival in New London, Connecticut. The Festival also provided opportunity to audition for professional choreographers and she was offered a role in a touring company. The role seemed perfect for the year off. Wilkerson had already told Harvard she was taking, but the decision to accept the offer suddenly proved difficult. The world of dance seemed limited; dancers only know dancing, she says. "I suddenly felt that I could make Harvard into a place for me."
Harvard proved less easy to mold than she hoped, but she made a self-conscious effort to thrust herself into University life. She and other members of the Radcliffe-Harvard Dance Co. "decided to start over" and formed a new company with new bylaws. She applied for her special concentration. She says both her senior tutor and the head of the special concentrations office laughed at her, but somehow her petition was granted and she officially began a concentration in choreographic theory.
The successful new Harvard-Radcliffe Dance Co. and her concentration reinforced her commitment to dance--a commitment strengthened by her parents funding dance lessons. The summer after sophomore year her parents again offered to pay for a summer of dancing lessons, and Wilkerson left for New York City. "I know I'm very fortunate," she says. "I've always known that when I am dancing I also won't have to waitress six hours a day."
A knee injury that summer jolted her back into dealing with the world outside of dance. The leading dance doctor in New York told her she couldn't dance again. Crushed, she returned to Shaker Heights. "Dancing had always been a part of my life and suddenly it was not longer there," she says.
Back in WASP society once again, she changed her major to economics, and the next summer landed a job at Solomon Brothers, a Wall Street investment firm. On and off crutches most of junior year, she was able by the summer to start taking dance lessons at night after work. That summer she rushed to work in the morning in her pumps with a Wall Street Journal tucked under her arm. After work she would try to "de-bank" herself, changing into sandals and carrying her dance magazines as she rushed off to class.
Both worlds, she says, provided room for creative outlet and both were fiercely competitive. "I was surprised how much I liked Solomon Brothers," she says, adding, "I began to realize that I could do more than one thing well." Solomon Brothers has many more minority employees than a place like Morgan Guaranty she says, adding that besides unconventional hiring policies, Solomon encourages unconventionally risky investments.
Wilkerson talks of Solomon Brothers with enthusiasm, but of dance with passion. "It's like doing nothing else, it makes me feel like singing. I can't really put it into words, but I guess that's why I dance," she says.
Her success at Solomon Brothers led her to apply this fall to both business and law schools. Her knees continued to strengthen, and she kept up classes. Now president of the Harvard-Radcliffe Dance Company, she directed their production this spring. She was accepted to the joint J.D. and M.B.A. program at Stanford, a program that "a lot of people would kill to get into" she says, but Wilkerson did not deliberate long before she rejected the law school and deferred the business school. Next year she will go to New York and try to get a job as a dancer. She will once again have the cushion of her parents' financial support, but she claims dancing is a choice "I would have made anyway." To do anything that excludes dance "is dizzying" she says, adding that although she has fears about being able to "make it as a dancer" she sees herself eventually settling into a career in direction or production. Here an MBA would prove useful, she claims. "There is a genuine lack of expertise in the management end of the dance world."
This decision reflects a balance of the influences in her life and at college. Despite her early years as an ousider, she believes she eventually made the University work for her. Next she will take on the New York dance world, and it should be a good match. After all, she is used to getting what she wants.