When on the UC Berkeley campus, it is impossible to not be aware of the large and thriving community of dancers that exists at this university. Every day you can find dance teams holding practices on Lower Sproul Plaza, choreographers collaborating in the windows of Eshleman Hall and organizations promoting their workshops and showcases on Sproul Plaza. Whether you are involved in the dance community or know very little about it, there is always more to learn about the countless dance organizations that are working and creating here. While it would be impossible to speak with representatives from all of the dance organizations on campus, I spoke with a few of them in order to hear about their experiences as student-dancers and get an inside look at the vast dance community. Ryann Hirt, a sophomore intended dance and performance studies and anthropology double major, told me about her experience in Ballet Company at Berkeley. Senior molecular and cell biology major Jesse Pei-Yi Chen, who is graduating this semester, discussed her involvement in multiple dance organizations such as AFX and [M]ovement. AFX member Sharon Li recounted her experience as both a dancer and an architecture major.
The Daily Californian: What dance group are you involved in, and what is being a member like?
Ryann Hirt: I’m a part of Ballet Company at Berkeley, which is such (an) amazing ballet company here. I began with them fall semester of my freshman year, so I’ve been with them for four semesters now. And this semester was the first semester that I became co-stage manager for the company… I’ve had to do a lot of renting equipment and making sure that the equipment is ready for performance and that everything’s OK.
Jesse Pei-Yi Chen: I started dancing spring semester of my freshman year back in spring 2015. That was my first time dancing, ever. I joined AFX and had a really good time being on my first-ever training team. That’s why I came back for more. I’ve been dancing almost every semester since then.
Sharon Li: I’m not (on) any dance team right now because I did one semester and one summer, both with AFX. I was on a training team because I’m very beginner. It was super fun. I loved it so much. I really regret stopping this semester because of two aspects. People usually go for the social aspect because it’s a big team and you meet a lot of people there. I also just like dancing. Moving around just makes me feel better, and because I’m an architecture student I usually don’t have time to go to the gym, so practice is a way to help me to move around more.
DC: What made you want to join your dance organization?
RH: I’ve been dancing, specifically ballet and tap, since I was 2 years old in a small LA studio. Since I’ve been doing it for 15-plus years, I figured when I came to college I wanted to continue dancing, and that’s what inspired the major aspect. I realized that (the Department of Theater, Dance, and Performance Studies) doesn’t really have any ballet classes. I saw that the ballet company was having auditions, and I was like, you know what, why not try it? Miraculously, I got in, and I continued with them and I love it. The girls are amazing people, and it’s just an amazing club to be in.
JC: I wanted to join because I saw one of my friends performing at one of their biannual showcases. I thought it was really fun to learn how to groove the music, which I already do, but I don’t look good. I feel really self-conscious about it when I dance at a house party. I think it’s good to know how your body can move. It’s a form of expression.
SL: I joined because ever since high school I wanted to do something like dance, but it was not in my comfort zone. I prefer staying indoors, and I’m on the more quiet side. My friend really pushed me. He did AFX before and said it was super fun and that the audition is just for you to be more comfortable performing in front of others. It’s not a real audition. You just need to go and everything will be fine. So he just dragged me along and it was really nerve-wracking. I messed (up) a lot, but I got into the team and I was really happy. My journey with dance started freshman year, spring semester.
DC: What do you think about the larger dance community at UC Berkeley?
RH: When I came here and I saw all the teams practicing outside, it kind of surprised me on how many people dance here on campus. So many different majors and backgrounds, so many people are involved in hip-hop or in tap and contemporary and different, other dance forms. That shocked me because in high school I was one of maybe three dancers who actually dedicated time outside of their studies to dancing. Coming here and seeing such a huge student population in dance, it empowered me. I have people of the same history, the same passion, same love. It’s taught me so many different things. I would go to Danceworx and [M]ovement showcases. What I was taught in ballet is that you sit quietly in the audience and you don’t clap, but here it’s so different. People are shouting, calling your name, they’re whooping. This is a different form of encouragement. Tt makes you want to continue (dancing).
JC: I’ve been on several different dance organizations, and so far I think that (the) Berkeley dance community is a pretty welcoming community. You can always find an organization that caters to your dance style, your time schedule or how you vibe with different people.
SL: The Berkeley dance community is definitely huge. One of my friends moved here because he really liked to dance and Berkeley has a great dance community. There are so many teams out there, and everyone is just really good. There’s a lot of role models you can look up to, and they’re not out of reach. They’re just students right next to you.
DC: What is your favorite part about your dance organization?
RH: It’s such a tight-knit community, and we’ve become like family together. My closest friends come out of the company. We can joke around, and we have memories from past semesters. You’re dancing with them, you’re working out, you’re sweaty with them. You’re kind of used to seeing them at what would be their lowest point. It’s a different kind of comfort.
JC: First of all, it’s a good way to work out. It’s a good excuse to get boba right after. It also is a good way to make friends because everyone is there to support you. It’s a ground for no judgment, and you can just be yourself. I also think it’s a good way to challenge yourself. You can always have room for improvement. It’s a really good way of support and a good system for you to always know that there is someone going to be there for you.
SL: The people always want me to go back. They’re super nice, super friendly. They’re all around the campus. You don’t only meet people in your major. Usually when you’re on campus you meet people in the same major as you because you take the same classes or something like that. In AFX, there’s different people from all across campus. You get to meet more people that are totally different from you.
DC: How has being involved in your organization impacted your experience at UC Berkeley?
RH: If it wasn’t for the company, I would probably be holed up in a library or something. The company gives me a good reason to go out and socialize because without them, I’m kind of introverted. To be almost forced to go to class every week, it’s gotten me out of my shell and made me love continually going. It’s also impacted my health. If I wasn’t dancing I probably wouldn’t be exercising that much. Dancing on a daily basis has helped me maintain staying fit and in shape.
JC: It brings me more people to say hi (to) on campus. I’ll see some dancer who’s not even on the same team as me but I’ll know who they are. That brings (me) into the big campus but it feels small for me because I know a lot of people already. It brings me a sense of belonging to this larger Berkeley community.
SL: It makes me think that Berkeley is really warm and welcoming. I have rushed for a fraternity, and it’s just really competitive. People are working really hard and pushing you to work hard. That’s good, but sometimes it’s a lot of pressure. On the dance team, they will understand if you don’t have time for it because a lot of people are in it for the social aspect. It all depends on what team you’re on. The whole, main point is just to have fun.
DC: What advice do you have for dancers looking to join your organization?
RH: Don’t be afraid to put themselves out there and just join because we’re not going to turn away anyone unless there’s a genuine reason. We accept everyone. We have so many different dancers from so many different backgrounds. There’s a couple girls who just started ballet recently, and then there’s girls who have been doing ballet since they were young, and we (have) guys too. It’s so well-rounded that it’s impossible to feel like you would be an outsider in the club. There’s always someone there who would be willing to be a part of your story and be a friend to you.
JC: Don’t be afraid, just join. You can join whether you have dance experience or not. Don’t be afraid of being not good enough because they also are learning at the same time, it’s just that we have different starting points.I think people should never be afraid to reach out.
SL: Definitely do it! It’s super fun. Asking for help is definitely the No. 1, not only to audition. When you’re on the team, ask for help. It can help you improve so much.
DC: What is something you want people to know about your dance style?
RH: I wish that people would see ballet as beyond just being a woman’s art. Growing up, I had so few male dance partners because the stigma with ballet is that the male is too feminine if he’s dancing. Men are being judged because they’re dancing with a bunch of other girls. For someone who is an outsider to this, I wish they would see that it’s not just this art about being pretty and frilly. It’s so much more. So much hard work and strength.I wish people who were outside of ballet understood that.
JC: I mostly dance on urban teams. I want people to learn the background of urban and learn the difference between urban and hip-hop, because hip-hop is a very specific culture that shouldn’t be forgotten. It’s a big thing being ignored in the community, and people use the word interchangeably, which I think should not be OK.
SL: There are all of these other dance communities like Danceworx, [M]ovement. All of them are really welcoming for beginners. The Berkeley dance community is gigantic and it’s really fun and you can meet a lot of new people.
Contact Kate Winterbauer at [email protected]