If you hop on the Quad shuttle late enough on certain nights, you—bleary-eyed, sweatpanted epitome of college study habits—might find yourself trying to make sense of a strangely peppy, heavily made-up human hauling a giant suitcase up the bus’s steps.
Your companion is Maureen Tang ’20, and she’s not surprised that you’re staring.
“Sometimes I get weird looks on the shuttle,” she says. “People are like, ‘Why is this girl wearing so much makeup, why does this girl have her hair done all nice? It’s just a Monday night, what’s going on?’”
Tang has grown accustomed to the late-night shuttle etiquette. She makes this trek regularly on her way home from TD Garden, where the Boston Celtics play, and where she performs as a professional dancer for the Boston Celtics.
Hence the accoutrements.
Tang’s odyssey started last year, when she was inspired by Peyton E Peters ‘17, then a senior, who managed to balance life as a student and Celtics’ Dancer. Over the summer, when Tang found herself coincidentally in Boston on the audition dates for the team, she began to speculate: “If Peyton made it possible, then maybe I can make it work as well.”
Tang started dancing at nine years old. She has trained rigorously since then in a mix of styles ranging “from ballet to tap and jazz, lyrical, hip-hop, contemporary, a little bit of ballroom.” So when she walked into the audition this summer, she felt “physically prepared,” as she puts it, to dance at the requisite standards.
But even beyond the technical skills she needed to master for the team, Tang says her particular experience growing up as a dancer prepared her uniquely for the intensities of her job.
“Because my mom was a single mother, she had to work all the time,” Tang says. “So a lot of times at competitions, going to rehearsals and everything, I was very much on my own. And I think that taught me a lot about independence. A lot of times I had to walk to the dance studio to go take class and go to rehearsals, try really hard and find rides to go to dance competitions and dance conventions.
“I think that because my mom wasn’t there—obviously she was so supportive of what I was doing, she loves watching me dance—but because she wasn’t able to be there a lot of times, it taught me how to motivate myself more than anything,” she adds.
Now, Tang finds strength in her personal sense of ambition. She joined the team “because I wanted to challenge myself. I wanted to grow as a dancer. I wanted to grow as a person,” she says. “It wasn’t really to prove anything, it wasn’t so I could look cool.”
Her resolute attitude forms a particular asset given the pressures that come with performing for such large crowds so frequently.
She acknowledges the intensity of dancing for a stadium with a capacity to seat 20,000, particularly since the event can be televised to “millions” more. She admits to getting “really, really nervous” before performances. But “although I do feel pressure,” she says, “I think that comes from myself more than anyone else.”
She also finds her perspective on dancing helpful when grappling with the nuances that can complicate the notion of female entertainment, especially under the gaze of a mostly male demographic.
“This entire experience has made me question a lot, like, standards of beauty, and standards for women,” she says. For Tang, the act of dance in itself is profound—“I feel like when I dance, I’m a storyteller,” she says—but the larger experience of performance is equally personal, even if it inherently requires subscribing to certain standards.
She reflects on the group dialogues that she and her fellow dancers often share after games and meet-and-greets. They discuss their costumes, hair, and makeup, as well as perceptions about their “role as dancers and how we’re perceived by other people.”
“At the end of the day, whenever we have conversations like these in the locker rooms, I feel like we always just come to the conclusion that we do this for ourselves, we’re all here for our own reasons,” she says.
Tang also bonds with the other dancers via the hectic schedules they lead off the court. Everyone juggles multiple identities, she explains. She finds it “motivating to see that all these girls are working full-time jobs, and they’re doing this… and have a whole bunch of other responsibilities, as well.”
Balancing school and dance can require “sacrifices,” she says. It’s during times like her frequent shuttle rides that Tang feels the strain of inhabiting both her identities—student and professional dancer—most acutely. “I feel like I kind of have to act differently in both spaces,” she says. “I’m entering a different world, leaving the Harvard bubble”
But she revels in both sides of her personality, and always has. “Growing up, coming from a low-income background, me and my family often had to move a lot. And there really just wasn’t much consistency in my life,” says Tang. “I think that because I always had school and I always had dance, those two things have always meant so much to me because they kept me grounded, even when everything around me was changing and for me.”
Now that she dances for the Celtics, she’s found herself caught in another kind of liminal space: between two teams she loves. She describes her family as “huge Lakers fans.” So who does she root for when the teams meet?
She giggles, looking a tiny bit guilty.
“The Celtics, of course!”
— Magazine writer Eliya O. Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @eliyasmith.