As summer ends and we think about classes to shop and reunions with friends, we may also think about how to re-engage with Harvard after a summer away. I’ve been away for over a year on my gap year, and during that time small things calcified Harvard’s image in my mind as a gloomy place. Out of the Harvard ecosystem, many friends felt safe to confide in me the depth of their struggles and loneliness. I talked with friends about the toxic environment in Winthrop House last semester under the leadership of former Winthrop House Faculty Dean Ronald S. Sullivan. And I scrolled through the anonymous grim confessions on the Harvard Confessions Facebook page of students feeling unappreciated and unsupported. Harvard exists to serve its students, but sometimes that’s hard to seriously believe.
My answer is different this year than in years past when friends ask me how I feel about returning to campus. I tell them: this time, I’m collecting armor. During my gap year, I wrote down and sought out lessons about myself to remember when I returned, accruing an arsenal of stress-relief coping mechanisms. But my most cherished tool in this stockpile was one I never expected.
During my gap year, I started to dance Gaga.
Gaga is a movement language (as opposed to the rigidity of a dance “technique”). My instructor, Danielle Agami, who started training professionally at 18 under the founder of Gaga, Ohad Naharin, defined Gaga as using imagery, fantasy, and storytelling to practice our sense of humor, sense of self, and sense of composition. In class, people respond to visceral instructions like “imagine you are inside a balloon” or “your body is filling up with warm water” with free-flowing gestures in a mirror-less, judgement-free room. A key concept in Gaga is floating — resting the body with a “reasonable” amount of gravity while layering flow and softness. Agami carried floating naturally in her everyday posture and I try to mirror that in my own posture, holding my body with awareness and a little tension, a little softness.
The best part dancing Gaga is that my body’s rigidity from training as a swimmer for 15 years feels liberated. And when I unleashed my body, my mind followed. Instead of the paradigm of athletic training — when the mind believes, the body achieves — Gaga imagines the channel of mind and body as a two-way street. Another dancer I talked to, Laurienne Singer, agreed with me. She employs Gaga as a dance therapist for elder patients with debilitating diseases. Many of her patients experienced trauma at a young age and forced themselves to ignore it. Now when they are old, their past trauma is all they feel. She sees that paralleled in our modern metric-obsessed internet age, where people sit hunched over computers, never asking themselves how their gut feels. Though we are reaching pinnacles of discovery and innovation, we grow increasingly ignorant of our own machine. In her view, the body is our best teacher.
To Agami, Gaga fulfills this basic human need. It makes people feel that they’re reaching their full potential as a body, a human, and an animal. Gaga lets people feel legitimacy to be themselves. While dancers twist and explore their bodies, hopefully they’re reminded that their bones and flesh and skin (common guiding words in Gaga) are all they really own as humans. After this realization, the next step is to learn to derive pleasure from the body and to truly cherish it.
How different this is than on campus where my friend — now in graduate school — once remarked to me she felt like a “floating head.” That’s the reality in competitive elite environments: students overload back-to-back meetings, pull all-nighters, self-medicate, watch hours of Netflix, and scroll through Instagram. Out of boredom, fear, or fatigue, we mindlessly but desperately clutch anything that staves off introspection, feeling, vulnerability, failure. The pressure — the norm — of sacrificing ourselves in pursuit of immediate success enables us, so that most of the time we ignore the vehicle of our bodies and lose perspective.
Gaga pushes against these pressures by encouraging personal evolution and developing a long-term relationship with the body and its injuries. The overarching goal of this changing, evolving dance form is to help dancers research their own changing, evolving humanness. In Gaga, you’re not looking to achieve; you’re looking to experience.
I will remember this mantra into September, along with a Gaga technique, in times I am overwhelmed: feeling my spine and grounding myself. “Gaga is research of the questions: ‘What do we need?’ and ‘How do we get what we need?’” Agami asked, expectantly.
I left Harvard because I only saw the bad in it. But no one should return to Harvard with that mindset. Every time we come back, it should be with a renewed commitment to making the best of our time there. These lessons are bright kernels I bring back to campus (along with a commitment of taking Gaga classes offered at Harvard). Gaga is part of my arsenal for returning to campus, but I invite you to consider how and with what you will arm yourself with. For me, Gaga will sharpen my intuition for uphill battles of relentlessly curating activities and relationships that are worthy of my time and cutting out what isn’t. It will help me navigate questions between changing my attitude versus Harvard as an institution. Alongside writing papers, I will also carve time to research my imagination and my dreams.
But most of all, I will return with Agami’s wisdom imprinted in my mind — to create my own reality within Harvard: “You know the truth inside. You’re not the institution… You can give respect to the name and if they’re smart — which there is a chance they will be — they’ll learn from you.”
She ended with a light flick of her wrist. “And that’s the evolution of the institution.”
Jerrica H. Li ’21 is a Comparative Literature concentrator in Adams House. Her column appears on alternate Wednesdays.