Athletes and Aesthetes

Campus dance teams train and compete to sharpen their tools of creative expression

Whitney E. Adair

Campus dance teams train and compete to sharpen their tools of creative expression

There is no “competitive dance” tab on the Harvard University Athletics website home page. Click around a little, though, and you’ll eventually find the Crimson Dance Team (CDT) and the Harvard Ballroom Dance Team (HBDT) listed among the club sports—along with figure skating, capoeira, and Harvard’s own Quidditch team.

Technically a fictional sport—sprung from the pages of J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter” series—Quidditch earns the same designation as the two competitive dance teams, both of which straddle a curious line of their own. Instead of facing Quidditch’s problem of self-identification with the real or the magical, however, tension for the dance teams exists in their classification as either sport or art.

The teams have the best of both worlds: they receive funding from the Department of Athletics, yet practice at venues supported by the Office for the Arts at Harvard. Their craft involves rules, competition, intense training, self-control, and teamwork—like many other sports—while also allowing for self-expression on a more sophisticated level than pure competitive drive. The Crimson Dance Team and Harvard Ballroom Dance Team fuse athletic competition with artistic interpretation, in a unique hybrid of art and sport.

OFF ON THE RIGHT FOOT

While dance groups abound at Harvard, only HBDT and CDT focus on competition. Harvard Ballroom began in 1990 to fill a gap in the dance community. “Our mission is to spread the art of ballroom dancing in a social and competitive way,” says Marco F. Perez-Moreno ’11, president of HBDT.

Throughout the year, HBDT team members learn the 19 dances that comprise the four World Dance Council categories of style: International Latin, International Standard, American Rhythm, and American Standard. Dancers work to become proficient in these groupings through training and the two to three annual competitions HBDT attends as a team.

The slightly-newer CDT was founded in 1995 to offer the opportunity for jazz and hip-hop dancers to demonstrate their skills not only in performances but also against other schools. According to CDT co-captain Ashley R. Prince ’11, competition pushes dancers and encourages progress the way performance might not. “In competitive dance, you have the opportunity to really assess your own skill set and techniques, whereas when you put on a show, it’s just fun to perform,” she says. “On CDT, you get to grow and see concrete improvement.”

CDT competes at the Universal Dance Association College Dance Team National Championships in Orlando, Florida, in addition to performing at men’s and women’s basketball games and exhibition shows. Their choreography mostly focuses on jazz and hip-hop, but they performed pom—a style of dancing similar to cheerleading—when they competed at the National Dance Alliance Championships in years past. Despite their practice of pom, CDT members insist that their craft differs from cheerleading in method.

“In cheerleading the technique is tight with the motions, which is where we overlap the most,” says Mary Caroline Szpak ’11, Prince’s CDT co-captain. “We both generate spirit, but it’s on different terms. Cheerleading is more classified as a sport, but with dance it’s more like a sport and an art.”

The two groups share a desire for competition and also a basic language: ballet. “You can’t walk until you crawl, and you can’t dance until you learn ballet. It’s the foundation of everything,” Szpak says. “The connection between ballet and dance team is like with the alphabet: once you have the letters down, you can make any word.” This dance alphabet leads to the diverse styles CDT performs, and just as with a spoken language, it’s easier to make the sounds if you’ve been exposed early. As a result, the team encourages its dancers to take ballet classes if possible.

Ballroom, too, depends on ballet for its foundation—but the former diverges from the latter in one critical way: the relationship to the floor. Ballet dancers stay lifted up off the floor, making minimal contact with it and absorbing any impact into the muscles so the moves remain graceful and quiet. Ballroom dancers strive for the exact opposite: they push their weight down into their muscles and make contact with the floor. Still, both depend on graceful elevated arms for the entirety of the dance, which means strong shoulder muscles are essential.

ONE STEP AHEAD

Once the foundation is laid, the teams undergo a process akin to a visual artist picking and priming his tools as they prepare for competition. CDT first chooses a choreographer based on an intense selection process. “It involves watching more YouTube than you can imagine,” Prince says. The captains then suggest music and a theme to the choreographer, who comes back to the team with a set two-minute routine. Even so, the members sometimes tweak the piece to fit their vision and showcase their dancers’ strengths. A winning routine is often a trade-off between performing advanced moves and fitting the team’s skill level.

Rehearsals of the piece span around two months, after which the dancers focus on cleaning and editing the routine so that everyone has the exact same timing and precise movements. Intense daily practices lead up to Nationals, which—according to the captains—are similar in atmosphere to the competitions portrayed in the 2000 film “Bring It On.”

HBDT’s training comes in mastering the “syllabus,” which supplies a framework for dancers to move up the ranks as they satisfy bronze, silver, and gold level “figures,” or skill levels. Three professional coaches teach dancers at the syllabus stages until they become proficient enough to dance at a more independent “open level.” These coaches typically create the syllabus-level routines, but some partners choose to choreograph themselves with moves that fit their stages.

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