Body Talk: Communicating Through Dance

by Alice Zhang | 10/24/18 2:20am

Dance and theater have spanned across multiple cultures, and their use as forms of expression has pervaded history.  Whether it be a vivid tale of the Second Liberian Civil War turned alive by the Dartmouth Theatre Department  or dances showing off the Soyeya African Dance Troupe’s pride in their heritage, movement has a unique way of expressing emotion and serving as a method of communication. 

Jessica Weil ’21 has been dancing since she was 3 years old. Weil is part of the dance group Sugarplum and has recently started a tap dancing club on campus.

“I love controlling my body in a way that it can express emotion or a story,” Weil said. 

Weil believes that different styles of dance allow a dancer to express a different portfolio of emotions.  Out of all the different styles that she is familiar with, which includes contemporary, jazz and ballet, one of her favorites is tap.

“For tap, I really like the rhythmic aspect, and I really like how you can literally just tap your feet and express emotion,” she says. “It’s so weird, but that’s what happens, depending on how fast you’re moving or I guess the complication of the rhythms you’re doing.”

Aside from tap, her other favorite style is contemporary because of the depth of emotion it is able to convey.

“I just like being dramatic, and that’s one of the dance styles where you are allowed to be the most expressive, and it’s usually easier to express dramatic things like angst than it is like joy just because you have more freedom of movement when you are depressed,” she said. “I don’t know why that is.”

Her love of expression may impact the songs she chooses to choreograph Sugarplum’s dances to. 

“I really like songs that [feature] a really talented vocal singer and a couple instruments, because for some reason that expresses for me a lot more emotion and is focused on the talent and the raw feelings of the song,” Weil said. 

A defining part of Weil’s identity that influences the way in which she choreographs is her love of freedom. “Everyone should be able to do whatever they want and feel whatever they want,” she said. As a result, a lot of her choreography for Sugarplum features dancers spreading out their arms and taking up a lot of space. She also believes her love for freedom in movement and expression influences her choreography be more flowy as opposed to hard hitting.

Overall, Weil believes that dance has impacted her everyday life.

“I think dance makes me a lot more comfortable with my body, and the space that it takes up, and using that space and my body to express things that I’m feeling or to grab people’s attention,” Weil said.

A notable way in which she applies this newfound comfort of expression is during her involvement in the START program, a program in which Dartmouth students visit elementary schools in the area and teach them science by using the arts.

“A lot of the times I’ll raise my arms and make myself look bigger or jump around to be excited,” she said. “I think when your body is doing those things, it tells the people watching you more about what you’re feeling and what you want them to do than your words can.”

Jelinda Metelus ’22 grew up dancing in her room. She found dancing to be a stress-reliever and appreciated how she could let her body have control. Eventually, she had the opportunity to take hip hop and swing classes at summer camps and officially started taking dance classes in high school. Now, she is involved with the Ujima Dance Troupe. 

Among Metelus’s favorite styles are jazz and hip hop. She believes that her love of hip hop is tied closely to her identity as a person of color.

“Typically black people aren’t ballerinas, and are probably more seen as, like, aggressive and rough, and if you look at me, I’m definitely not a prima ballerina,” she says, “So maybe subconsciously that’s how I got into hip hop, like watching videos and being like, ‘Wow, I want that swag.’”

Metelus is fascinated about the universality of dance. This revelation came to light during a trip to Colombia this past summer, when a group of dancers started dancing around her as she was eating a meal. 

“Everyone says dance is a universal language, but seeing it in action [in Colombia] was really cool,” Metelus said. 

In addition to dance, Metelus was also involved in theatre in high school. She first developed a love for theatre when she saw her sister in “Hairspray.” At her high school, theatre was very competitive, but she got into the musical her freshman year. 

According to Metelus, the main difference between theatre and dance is a greater sense of freedom and a decreased sense of pressure. A lot of the pressure that comes along with dance is due to her racial identity.

“When I’m dancing I’ll feel more pressured to be exact ... because people will judge people on whether they can dance or not, especially if you’re black ...  [because of] the stereotype that all black people can dance,” Metelus explained.

In theater, however, she feels less pressure to be perfect because she feels more disconnected from her identity.

“In theater, I’ll still put pressure on myself, but I’ll feel more free to do whatever because I’m a character,” Metelus said. “At the end of the day, I’m not myself, but in dance, you’re yourself. It’s you doing that.”

Alex Soong ’21 has had much less dancing experience than Weil and Metelus, as he has only started dancing this term with a Zumba class.  Prior to enrolling in the class, he enjoyed doing a little dancing at parties but had no formal dance experience.

Soong says that he enjoys collecting inspirational quotes and that one of his favorites is “Life begins where your comfort zone ends.” Embodying this idea, Soong decided to sign up for Zumba.

“Zumba has really provided an energy and a vibrance in my life that always improves my day no matter how I’m feeling before,” Soong said. “It’s really helped me become more confident and positive, and it’s showed me the importance of really just embracing myself.”

One of his favorite things about Zumba is that it gave him an outlet for expression that he does not get to experience in his day-to-day life. As a potential Romance languages major, he also enjoys the Spanish music that his instructor plays during the class.

“[The music] really resonates with me because I’m very interested in languages and cultures around the world,” Soong said. “I really enjoy listening to the Spanish [songs] and adding some of them to my own playlist as well.”

In the past, Soong has also engaged in karate and figure skating. He believes that all these activities have influenced his identity. 

“I like to live with vibrancy and passion and curiosity, and all of these have really accentuated how I like to embrace the unknown and try a lot of new things,” he said. 

Whether or not we engage in dance or theater, at the end of the day, we all express ourselves through our movements.  Just as Metelus recognized on her trip to Columbia, expression through movement spans across a variety of cultures. Here at Dartmouth, this form of expression occurs in many forms — dance, theater, martial arts and many more.