Student Spotlight: Richard Stephenson ’12

by Marley Marius | 5/18/14 6:31pm

Richard Stephenson ’12, or “SHEBA Richard” as he is known by some on campus, did not grow up dancing. The North Port, Florida, native’s idea of a “stage” was grass field bookended by yellow goal posts until he arrived on campus as a freshman.

Stephenson had intended to play football for the Big Green, but his passion for the game dissipated after his father passed away the summer before he came to Dartmouth.

“With his absence, football just seemed like something I didn’t want to do anymore,” Stephenson said. “I was like, ‘What am I gonna do?’”

He found the answer at a SHEBA dance troupe show during freshman orientation. Watching the group dance, Stephenson said, prompted the first in what would be a string of “self-realizations” during which he discovered an interest in the arts.

Stephenson started performing in SHEBA freshman winter and has served as the group’s choreographer and director. When he joined the group in the 2008-09 academic year, SHEBA had just one off-campus performance. Now the group competes at major collegiate dance competitions, such as the 2014 “ELEMENTS” contest at Boston University and 2013 “Jam On It” contest at Wellesley College.

In the past year alone, Stephenson co-choreographed a student production of “Cabaret,” judged Dartmouth Idol, helped the admissions office organize a program that invited prospective students to perform during Dimensions and assisted Laure Courtellemont in planning a dance master class for the Dartmouth Caribbean Carnival.

More recently, Stephenson spearheaded organizing Dartmouth’s inaugural Dance Week Initiative, a celebration that will include master classes, barbecues and even a flash mob.

Veronica Burt ’16, who co-choreographed Dartmouth’s production of “Cabaret” with Stephenson last spring, said his work brings campus’s dance community together.

“He always makes you do something full-out,” Burt said. “It’s really inspiring to be around him because he’s working at top quality, and so then it inspires you and forces you to bring that out yourself.”

Mykel Nairne ’16, who danced in “Cabaret” and has worked on other productions with Stephenson, called his drive “really motivating.” Nairne said that Stephenson can pull together a show in just a few hours and convince dancers that such a feat is possible.

“He is like, ‘We’re doing it, you’re going to learn it right now, you’re going to perform it,’ and like that’s the end,’” she said.

Stephenson has never had technical dance training. He tried out groups like Sugarplum and the Dartmouth Dance Ensemble for a term each to help expand his skill set, and he tackles new projects with energy and passion.

A typical rehearsal could start with 30 minutes of formal warm ups including splits, push-ups and hip exercises, after which he will teach a choreography, Stephenson said. He will have an idea of what he wants in mind, but tweak choreography as the group learns and practices, he said.

Usually while he teaches he will also sing, which he said helps dancers to understand the connection between their bodies and the lyrics. He also makes sounds like “Zom HA!” and “Tiggy twiggy HA!” that he thinks can explain a movement.

Stephenson said he is inspired by scenes and experiences from his life.

“I truly believe that in every interaction with people and with everything you do in life, there’s something to learn from it,” he said. “My dance is really a summation of everything that I’ve been through, everything I’ve done.”

Stephenson described dance as having a therapeutic quality. He said his involvement in the arts has helped him to stay happy and process traumatic experiences in his past.

While students are always coming and going between terms, dance has remained a constant, he said.

“The most important thing that I’ve learned being an artist at Dartmouth is that it’s important to just sort of be yourself,” he said. “The more you can react to situations as honestly as possible, the happier you are, the funner you are, the more people will accept you with no fake pretenses.”

Nathaniel Graves ’13, who has worked with Stephenson to produce Dartmouth Idol and plan the Prospie Artist at Dartmouth program, described Stephenson’s “can-do attitude” and authenticity as deeply moving.

“His whole life is a song, is a dance, which is beautiful to me,” Graves said.

Max Gottschall ’15, musical director for “Cabaret,” said Stephenson has “fantastic and natural” talent. Having taken part in his rehearsals, he called Stephenson a “charismatic leader” and an “absolute pro.”

Despite pursuing a Dartmouth engineering degree, Stephenson said he “without a doubt” plans to pursue a professional career in the arts. “If I had it my way, I’d be in L.A. by the beginning of 2015, just sort of chasing my dreams,” he said.

Stephenson is currently working with Gospel Choir director Walt Cunningham and Hopkins Center student performance program director Josh Kol to plan Hop summer shows like a Dartmouth Idol all-stars concert during Reunions week, he said.

THE FINAL WORD(withRichard Stephenson ’12)

If I could be anyone in the world for 24 hours, it would be: Queen B, Beyoncé Knowles.

I am happiest: performing for a crowd.

If I had to lose one sense, I’d choose: the ability to smell. It’s the only one that wouldn’t affect my dancing. Then I wouldn’thave to smell my funk feet while stretching or the odors produced by my socks after a rehearsal.