On April 20, thousands of eager-eyed pre-frosh will flock to Harvard’s campus for Visitas, the College’s annual admitted students visit weekend. They’ll fill Sanders Theatre for a welcome speech, peruse and wander through the club activities fair, perhaps even crowd in Annenberg for Partytas. But pre-frosh also have the chance to attend one of the biggest events of the year for College students—Eleganza.
Part fashion show, part dance party, Eleganza is young compared to the College’s 382-year-old history. But age hasn’t deterred the show from gaining mass popularity. On its website, Eleganza boasts that it is Harvard’s largest student-run event “with over 50 board members, 60 models and dancers, and a sold-out crowd of over 1,500 attendees each year.”
Eleganza, though, was not always the dance party it is today. Former biology concentrator Chetanna I. Okasi ’98 founded Eleganza as part of Harvard Black Community and Student Theater, an undergraduate drama organization focusing on black theater.
One of the executive directors of the show, Simone E. A. Abegunrin ’18, says Eleganza’s “pillars” have always stayed the same:“diversity, fashion, and community service.” Over time, however, these pillars have taken on different exemplifications in the show. One pillar has shifted away from focusing on race towards a more encompassing definition of the word. Fashion has changed to accommodate the dancing, and community service has expanded to include more than just a donation check.
In 2004, The Crimson reported that Vanessa Tyson, the faculty adviser to the Association of Black Harvard Women, sent an open email that she was “shocked” and “disheartened” by the reinforcement of sexual stereotypes of black people in the show. With risqué clothing and dance moves, Eleganza was starting to shift away from its BlackCAST founding.
Eleganza executive producers and members constantly allude to the diversity pillar when talking about the show. Though diversity in the first years of Eleganza largely meant race, Srinivasan says the word’s meaning has changed to include more groups of people, causing Eleganza to change with it.
“Once upon a time, the idea of diversity was all about racial diversity and that was the only time diversity was usually referenced to and was talked about,” Srinivasan said. “We're now not just only into diversity in terms of race, but diversity in terms of sexual orientation, diversity in terms of walks of life, socioeconomic status, even mentality, and diversity in styles of dance.”
By the time Vivian E. Lee ’14 became executive director, she said the discussion to split Eleganza from BlackCAST had been going on for years. With her co-producer Kelly L. Ren ’15, Lee formalized the split in 2013 and registered Eleganza as its own independent organization. Though she has heard some criticisms of the split, Lee also says the ultimate call for Eleganza to break off was “mutually decided” between Eleganza and BlackCAST.
I think we had all agreed Eleganza had grown to be larger than what it had started, and that was both for the good and the bad.
“I think we had all agreed Eleganza had grown to be larger than what it had started, and that was both for the good and the bad,” Lee says. “The good being it had become so successful, it had become this massive widespread reach across campus. On the other hand, I know there was some criticism of Eleganza forgetting its roots, as it was a product of the black community and the creativity that was coming out of that space.”
Lee says that, while she found it important to respect the origins of Eleganza, she saw diversity on campus better reflected within the new composition of Eleganza’s members, which didn’t involve as many black students as when the organization was founded. Reiterating Srinivasan’s list of other attributes of diversity Eleganza now includes, Lee says she’s proud of the encompassing body and board members of the show.
“If you look at the models and we have and the people we have on our board, we have plenty of black students, but we also have—other than racial diversity—body type diversity with our models, we've been inclusive of the trans community,” Lee says. “We've been trying to redefine how Eleganza is embracing diversity by maintaining the roots of, yes this was founded by the black community and we pay respect to that, but let us create the microcosm of diversity that Harvard is and try to capture that within our community.”
At the time, Lee and Ren didn’t announce the split, aside from the administrative work Eleganza went through with the Office of Student Life. She says it had gotten to a point where people almost forgot Eleganza was part of BlackCAST in the first place.
“Now that I'm thinking about it, I almost regret that we didn't pay a little bit more tribute to BlackCAST, you know, like should we have?” Lee reminisces. “It's something I may have done differently because I feel like it's actually a miss that people don't know Eleganza used to be part of BlackCAST, and I think that's something really important in our history that people need to be aware of.”
I feel like it's actually a miss that people don't know Eleganza used to be part of BlackCAST, and I think that's something really important in our history that people need to be aware of.
Multiple members of BlackCAST’s current board as well as alumni did not respond to requests for comment.
Abegunrin says that today, Eleganza pays tribute to its BlackCAST roots very seriously. Even though many members may not be aware of the institutional memory of the split and what happened in the years leading up to it, Abegunrin says Eleganza members still see racial diversity as a crucial factor.
“For us, a majority of our models still identify as people of color,” Abegunrin says. “That’s something I think is very near and dear to all of us.”
More importantly, however, Abegunrin emphasizes she has been contacting presidents of other organizations to ensure Eleganza is representative of the student body.
“Our models reflect the campus,” Abegunrin says.
Cultural groups perform in between Eleganza’s three scenes. One tradition today that alludes to Eleganza’s past as part of BlackCAST is its closing act, performed by the Black Men’s Forum Step dance group each year. Abegunrin says BMF is really “educational” for Harvard students unfamiliar to that style of dance. Though the board has discussed closing the show with a different act or having senior models in the last number, Green thinks BMF Step should stay.
“They always close the show, and it's kind of like a ‘throwback’ to BlackCAST,” Green says.
Lydia Tahraoui ’19, a past executive producer, says though members of the show are proud of Eleganza’s roots.
“As an organization, that's obviously something we're very aware and very proud of, our origins as a show that was put on by BlackCAST and produced by them,” Tahraoui says. “And that's something that is a really critical and really pivotal part of our history.”
Three years after the inaugural Eleganza, Okasi, the founder, wrote in an email to several student organizations that she was disappointed to see the show she founded become increasingly sexualized.
“The show has sunken to brow-raising depths and it seems that the only thing that remains constant is the desire to be even more raunchy and pornographic than the year before,” Okasi wrote at the time.
By 2002, Eleganza had gained the rowdy, party-like vibes for which it is notorious today.
Marian H. Smith ’04, a model in Eleganza that year, said in an interview with The Crimson at the time that “the drunker you are, the better we look.”
Members of the show today do not deny Eleganza’s sexy side—they embrace it.
It kind of opened my eyes to kind of how 360 Harvard is.
“During the day, people are bouncing around to academic things, to sports games, arts things, and then you go to Eleganza, and you see this whole other side of the student body that's kind of confident, sexy, and really cool,” Lee says. “It kind of opened my eyes to kind of how 360 Harvard is.”
Especially for newcomers who have images of Harvard’s staid academic reputation in mind, Eleganza is eye-opening. Ever since Eleganza’s premiere in 1994, it has fallen on the same weekend as the prefrosh visiting weekend in April. Danielle Green ’20, current co-director of the fashion board, says Eleganza erased the studious-only perceptions of Harvard she had at the time.
“I had never visited Harvard before, so I wasn’t sure if it was going to be very nerdy,” Green says. “It showed a different side of the school—the fun side, the sexy side.”
Green said when she saw the dancing and models she knew she wanted to come to Harvard.
“Eleganza made me want to come to Harvard,” Green says. “I think a lot of people who are involved in Eleganza would say the same thing.”
Year after year, members of Eleganza gush over how seeing the show as a pre-frosh inspired them to come to Harvard.
Indeed, Green is not alone.
In 2009, Nicholas J. Navarro ’11 told The Crimson he was inspired to attend Harvard by Eleganza’s “commitment to diversity.”
Nonetheless, throughout its history, Eleganza has faced criticisms from some students who feel the diversity in terms of gender and sexuality is not enough.
In fact, just last year, Eleganza elicited displeasure from the campus during their casting process for including a casting call that included the phrase, “Ladies, bring your heels!” Critics at the time saw the phrase as an instance of adherence to traditional gender norms. In response, Eleganza co-hosted a town hall with Identities, another fashion show on campus, to discuss making the events more diverse and inclusive.
But this was not the first hurdle Eleganza had faced in diversity in sexuality and gender. When Srinivasan produced the show her senior year in 2014, she wanted more gender fluidity. The year before, four people carried out a male dancer—who was wearing six-inch heels—to the stage. Srinivasan recalls the moment as “incredible,” and the crowd went crazy. She wanted to cross the boundaries of gender norms a less pronounced statement her year. That year on stage, girls danced with girls, and guys danced with guys.
“Yes, this is normal, this is okay,” Srinivasan says of the choreography. “Sexuality didn’t need to be this big flashy thing, but it is part of everyday.”
At Eleganza, models and dancers are one. Though it started out as a small fashion-focused show in a dining hall, the show has grown to emphasize dance. Lee says through her years at Harvard, she saw a continuing progression of Eleganza becoming “very, very dance heavy.”
The models don’t just improvise on stage, though. Eleganza’s board includes scene directors, tasked with coordinating the looks with the steps.
“The scene directors are usually poached directly from organizations like Expressions, and we find people who have very specific dance background to choreograph the scenes,” Lee says.
This balance comes with a cost—sometimes, the choreography can pose a challenge for the fashion pieces. Lee, who served as a member on the fashion board before she became executive producer, remembers the challenge that difficult choreography often posed for the dancers.
“We get some very extravagant pieces and tight pieces that can be really hard to dance in,” Lee says.
Green, who’s currently the co-director of fashion, enjoys the challenge of finding pieces that are both fashion forward and still allow for flexible movement of the dancers. This year, Green says the fashion board got 20 sponsors and a total of over 200 pieces, as opposed to three sponsors last year. She says she tries to find clothing that does not inhibit dancers’ movements and boosts their confidence.
“When you look good, you dance even better,” Green says.
Lee says that, from her pre-frosh days in 2009 to her senior year as executive producer in 2014, the show became even more dance-based, and “a lot more extravagant.” She says the choreography and frills of the show give Eleganza the unique identity it has on campus.
All the shows on campus have very distinct personas, and Eleganza was one to embrace a more outrageous, a little more rowdy spirit than the other shows.
“Personally, I think it's drawn a larger crowd because it's so entertaining, and it still has fashion elements in it, and it differentiates us from other shows like Identities,” Lee says. “All the shows on campus have very distinct personas, and Eleganza was one to embrace a more outrageous, a little more rowdy spirit than the other shows.”
Abegunrin says that, for the models, even if they lack previous dance experience, Eleganza is just about “getting down.”
“The only thing we keep in mind is that we're a dance organization, right,” Abegunrin says. “That's it. As long as you can move and as long as you look good, that's what we're for.”
Eleganza members do not deny its party side, but have been trying to continue incorporating philanthropy into their goals as well. Eleganza has partnered with Somerville’s Center for Teen Empowerment for at least 10 years, donating all the profits from the show to TE. The center’s stated mission is “to involve low-income, urban youth in helping to solve the most pressing issues in their communities.” Some Eleganza producers, however, felt the partnership was lacking a stronger connection, and solely donating the proceeds each year didn’t feel like it made enough of an impact. When Srinivasan became executive director of the show in 2014, she wanted to turn things around.
“We had a kind of tendency to write a check to the center for Teen Empowerment, but not actually follow up that financial donation socially or with time, which is just as, if not more important, than that financial aspect,” Srinivasan says. “We really, really wanted to—before the 2014 to 2015 show—drive home that element of community service, to say that Eleganza wasn't just a giant dance party, that it was a giant dance party for a really good cause.”
Morgan Buchanan ’19, a current co-director of community service, says visiting the TE center helps Eleganza members break out of the “Harvard bubble.”
“These kids live in Harvard’s backyard,” Buchanan says of the youth in TE.
Abegunrin echoes Buchanan’s thoughts, remarking the awed faces of some of the youth when they step inside the gates of Harvard Yard even though the Somerville Center is just miles away. For the past couple of years, Eleganza has invited TE kids to come watch the show and even perform. Buchanan says this connection helps students “put a face” to the money the center receives. Abegunrin hopes the diversity of Harvard students in the show will inspire kids in TE with new possibilities.
“I think it's very empowering for them to see Harvard students who look like them going out on stage and having fun,” Abegunrin says. “I think it's more than the money, it's coming out here and seeing maybe this is something I can do when I grow up.”
On April 16, 2013, just a few days before Eleganza, two bombs near the finish line of the Boston Marathon killed three people and injured at least 264. For several hours, all of Cambridge was placed on lockdown. The police chased after the two identified suspects, who threw explosives out the window of their car, exchanging fire with the police. As sirens wailed through the streets of Cambridge, Eleganza’s fashion board was caught in the SOCH, taking inventory of their upcoming show. Lee recalls vividly how a girl who grew up in the area started crying. The board stayed in the SOCH while on lockdown. Around three in the morning, the students took taxis back to their dorms.
“We were really shaken,” Lee says. “It was definitely a bonding experience for us, and it definitely marks my memory of Eleganza that year.”
Srinivasan, who was a freshman at the time, says she also remembers how the show was intimately tied to the bombing that year. She says the lockdown leading up to the show was some of the “craziest times” of her life.
“It was one of the craziest things I’ve ever seen,” Srinivasan says. “I walked through Harvard Square and there was no one there. There was not a single person.”
The next day, the University closed and announced Visitas would be cancelled that weekend. While some prefrosh didn’t cancel their travel plans, the Admissions Office called off all programmed activities. Eleganza decided the show would go on.
“We knew that it was something everyone was looking forward to and we had put so much work into it, so the show had to go on,” Lee says. “And it did, and it was awesome.”
Eleganza’s uninterrupted programming reflects the unwillingness of Eleganza members to give up after a year’s worth of work. Unlike other theater productions or concerts on campus, Eleganza is a one-time event. Srinivasan says that, as an executive producer, she drew inspiration from the legacy of Eleganza to push through the difficulties of the show.
“No matter what has come up, Eleganza has always happened and it's always gone on for the past 24 years,” Srinivasan says. “I think a huge part of that is the mentality of the producers, of the models, of the scene directors, of everyone in the show. Eleganza is one of the few events on campus where you work for an entire year for one night—there's one performance and that's it.”
Even four years after the show, Lee considers producing Eleganza one of her biggest accomplishments. Every winter, as Eleganza season arrives, Lee says she waits and checks social media regularly for model pictures and the announcement of the show’s theme.
I want them to be in it. I want it to be around forever and ever.
“I think that's how a lot of the producers feel, which makes me really happy because the community and the legacy still lasts,” Lee says. “The way I think about it is that I hope Eleganza exists forever, so that if my kids are fortunate enough to go to Harvard, I want them to be in it. I want it to be around forever and ever.”
—Staff writer Lucy Wang can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @lucyyloo22