SHEBA's founders brought new dance styles to Dartmouth

by Jenny Che | 11/21/11 11:00pm

by Douglas Gonzalez and Douglas Gonzalez / The Dartmouth

One of SHEBA's first performances was held in Fall 1995 at midnight on Webster Avenue, surrounded by an audience of both students and police cars. After failing to obtain enough space to perform in Kappa Kappa Kappa fraternity, the hip-hop dance group had decided to move outside.

"Six people came with trucks, turned on the headlights and we danced in the street," Jamelle Thornton '97 said. "Suddenly we had a huge crowd."

It wasn't long before Hanover Police joined as well.

"When they came, the crowds started chanting, Let them dance, let them dance,'" Thornton said. "It was such a great feeling to have that kind of support."

SHEBA which stands for Strictly Hip-Hop Expressions, Beats and Art was formed in Summer 1995 by Shelley Liebsch '97 and Jennifer Echlov '97, who wanted to bring to campus a modern dance group that had broad appeal.

"At the time, hip-hop was the newer dance movement, it was following on toes of J. Lo and different MTV videos," Liebsch said. "We wanted to have a different outlet on campus."

Other dance groups on campus at the time were more formal and did not offer the freedom that the founders were looking for, according to Echlov.

"We wanted to create something for the school and for ourselves that incorporated expression and fun," Echlov said.

Because the founders were leaving after Summer term for their off-terms, leadership was handed to Thornton, Mikey Wilson '97, Tanielle McBain '96 and Michelle Villalobos '96.

The directors, who were primarily familiar with street dancing, sought to recruit a diverse group of members who brought dance experiences ranging from hip-hop and cheerleading to jazz and ballroom.

"When we got together to figure out what to do as a new dance group, we just meshed everything together and it turned out really well," Wilson said.

SHEBA was a "hodgepodge" of members who often didn't have extensive training, Karen Hung '99 said. The range of experience that the dancers brought helped to create a constructive atmosphere. The group also included members from all backgrounds, from New York to Los Angeles to inner city Chicago, according to Erin Kanter '00.

"The overarching feeling was that we were all very, very passionate and wanted to make something that was lasting," Thornton said.

One challenge that the original members faced was finding new music beyond what was being played on campus, according to Kanter.

"We'd go back for Christmas break and come back with bootleg tapes tapes, not CDs of different rappers to dance [to] and make routines," Kanter said. "It was very viral, very underground. We made it from the streets but not the streets of Hanover."

Creative differences were usual, as is the case in any performance group. Debates arose between the leaders, who had different visions about whether to stay raw and urban or to move to more mainstream styles.

"Our difficulties were also our biggest strengths, having this mix of people who had all [sorts] of ideas about what style and what dance we should do," Wilson said. "It wasn't a fight, but a tug of war, and we ended up doing everything without stepping on anyone's toes."

SHEBA was the first of its kind on campus and one of the few student dance groups at the time. Other groups on campus focused on ballet or were run by the dance department. Ujima, a dance troupe primarily focused on hip-hop, had started in 1985, according to Ujima's website.

SHEBA had to be "scrappy" in its early days in seeking out venues.

"Our first show, we had to put on a boombox in a frat and start shoving people out of way to make room so we could perform," Priscilla Kam '98 said.

The group was part of an urban surge that grew across campuses, one that adopted styles that were radical and drastically different from what had come before.

"I'm a real fan of big crunk dancing, really fast hip-hop movement, with every type of arm and leg movement that you can think of," Wilson said. "People said they hadn't seen that before, and it was what I was doing normally."

The radical style, now considered mainstream, was seen as "raw and dirty" then, Kanter said.

"My parents came up to one of my shows and my dad had to leave it was really raunchy," she said. "It was awkward at the end of freshman year when [former College President James Freedman] invited us to perform at his holiday party and we were trying to figure out what was socially appropriate."

In 1997, the student dance group Fusion was founded to blend the boundaries between various dance forms, including jazz, hip-hop, lyrical, ballet and modern. Some SHEBA members said they felt Fusion was formed in reaction to SHEBA.

"When Fusion came along, I remember feeling very threatened," Wilson said. "Our stance was being the only [dance] group on campus, and we did set out to distinguish ourselves, be the biggest and the best."

SHEBA's popularity grew significantly in a very short period of time, and soon the group was booking performance spaces in Collis and opening for rap trio Run-D.M.C. in 1998. The group would later open for hip-hop company Rennie Harris Puremovement in 2001 and rapper Busta Rhymes in 2002.

"As we got more popular, we [achieved greater] notoriety, and it became bigger and more professional," Wilson said. "It's one thing from banging your way into frat to selling out shows and getting invited to other schools."

While SHEBA had annual Collis shows, their other on-campus performance venues diversified, as they also danced in Webster Hall, now Rauner Library, and Moore Theater.

"It changed a lot in [my] four years, it was very well established on campus," Erin Fuse Brown '99 said. "Our performance senior year on the Moore stage was sold out, and that was unthinkable freshman year, when we were begging frats to let us perform on their muck-covered floors."

The group's techniques and artistry became more polished and sophisticated as SHEBA's popularity grew. SHEBA's current members have continued to hone their skills, according to Fuse Brown.

"I've seen the YouTube clips, and they're doing a great job of carrying it on," Fuse Brown said. "They're more polished and creative than ever."

Current members remain passionate about SHEBA, Thornton said.

"What I love about the group is that the spirit is very close to the spirit we had originally," Thornton said. "The camaraderie is there, the willingness to do something different, and it's something very personal to them."

Current SHEBA directors Michelle Lee '12 and Hilary Nguyen '12 said that the group members' primary goal is to push themselves to their limits as artists and integrate new elements into the dances rather than rely on SHEBA's status as an established group on campus.

"One of the biggest challenges is keeping everything new and fresh," Lee said. "It's just about the audience [seeing] something brand new every time they see us. We're pushing our boundaries and making sure everything has a new creativity to it."

The founding members said that they continue to keep in touch with each other even 15 years after graduating.

"I don't think any one of us would hesitate to call one another even if we haven't talked in two years," Kam said. "When we go to weddings, it's like, Uh-oh, SHEBA's here.'"

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