'Dartmouth Sings!' event highlighted inclusion and acceptance

by Mia Nelson | 10/30/18 2:05am

An hour before the Dartmouth College Gospel Choir’s performance “Dartmouth Sings!” commenced in Spaulding Auditorium this past Saturday, the eclectic group of students and community members that comprise the choir were passing around brightly colored scarves and laughing. According to seventh-year choir member and commmunity member Mary Ann Stanford, the ensemble is the most “loving family you will ever find.” Directed by Walter Cunningham, the Gospel Choir is a large, non-audition group that is open to both local residents and Dartmouth students.

Choir member Shayla Goldberg ’22 said that “[Cunningham] makes it very clear: everyone is welcome here.” Goldberg, who is Jewish, says that although the group sometimes incorporates Christian theology into their sets, “the messages overall are about unity and acceptance, and those are values I am happy to represent.”

The set list for the performance reflected a similar diversity. An arrangement of Nina Simone’s “Four Women” highlighted the black female experience, and tribute was paid to both Leonard Bernstein and Aretha Franklin. The Bernstein arrangement was performed by the theater department and the Dartmouth Rockapellas, and featured West Side Story’s “I Feel Pretty” mashed-up with the song “Unpretty” by TLC. Aretha Franklin was honored at two points in the performance, first with the Pop Group’s performance of a mash-up of some of Franklin’s hits,“Chain of Fools,” “Respect” and “You Made Me Love You,” and later with a performance of “Natural Woman” and “Wholy Holy” by the Gospel Choir, recognizing Franklin’s indelible legacy on Gospel music. Other songs performed included “Smack Dab in the Middle,” “Oh Happy Day” and “Let Your Spirit Fall Upon Me.”

The choir’s energetic and unapologetically jubilant approach to music moved audience members to clapping, snapping and dancing. The palpable excitement of the group imbued the crowd with a sense of freedom and contagious gaiety. According to choir member Brandy Zhang ’22 , the feeling produced by the choir was “a spiritual experience in a non-religious way.”

Indeed, the choir brings the best aspects of spirituality to their songs: celebration of love, exuberant joy and kindness to self and others. Cunningham has intentionally crafted a space to praise what is good, to lift spirits and hearts. A particularly moving moment occurred during “Stand by Me” when choir member Alexander Cotnoir ’19, whose parents were in the crowd, soloed for the first time to the ardent praise of Cunningham, who emphasized that everyone has a special talent to offer to the world, if they are brave enough to show it.

Cunningham simply makes people feel happy, whether it be through his high-spirited arrangements or frequent asides to the audience. At one point, Cunningham addressed the crowd with “you are not damaged goods. You were created wonderfully unique.”

The show ended with a performance of “This is Me” from “The Greatest Showman,” with lyrics emphasizing the beauty of individuality and the importance of self-love. Cunningham says that the mission of the Gospel Choir is to “[celebrate] diversity and artistic expression with a purpose.”

His message was one that resonated with the community; attendee Joan Marable ’76 said she most admired “the fact that Walt is able to bring all kinds of people together.”

And together the crowd was, as we rose to give Cunningham and his choir the standing ovation they so rightly deserved.