On National Dance Day, five AU dancers reflect on what dance means to them
Members of the AU Dance Team, American Bhangra Crew, AU Dance Company and AU in Motion reminisce about dancing with their teammates and friends
Alicia Ridgley has been dancing since she was 3 years old after her mom noticed that she had a little groove in her step and enrolled her in classes. At 5 years old, Ridgley entered the world of competitive dance and continued through middle and high school. Now, Ridgley’s doing what she loves at American University, her dream school.
“One of my favorite things about dance is my ability to express myself and not be apologetic for it,” said Ridgley, a sophomore justice and law major. “When you're dancing, it's a way to be yourself fully and connect your body and your mind and your soul to what you're doing.”
This past spring semester, Ridgley took a one-credit course, AU Dance Company, which focuses on improvisation and contemporary dance. Though Ridgley was excited to start her freshman year, she worried that there wouldn’t be many dance or performing arts students to be friends with. But, she said, she found people to share a “bonding experience over a love of dance.”
Dancers across AU’s campus echoed Ridgley’s experiences. Five dancers discussed how dance has defined their lives from a young age and into their time at the University, especially now that the coronavirus has altered their lives as dancers. They shared their stories with The Eagle for National Dance Day, a celebration of dance created in 2010 by American Dance Movement co-founder Nigel Lythgoe and Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.).
Hanging on the wall in Tiffany Gilligan’s childhood bedroom is a pair of glittered and red-painted pointe shoes. She painted them herself when she played Dorothy in her dance studio’s production of “The Wizard of Oz” during her senior year of high school.
“I just remember stepping off the stage the last time and just feeling so happy that that was my last moment. I loved playing that character and dancing with my closest friends,” said Gilligan, a senior CLEG major.
Gilligan also started dancing at 3 years old and soon found that most of her life revolved around dance.
Now, Gilligan dances under the AU athletics department for AU’s Dance Team, which has two major seasons. In the fall, the team performs during the basketball halftime shows, and in the spring, the team trains to compete at the National Dance Alliance’s Collegiate National Championship in Daytona Beach, Florida.
Gilligan loves that the AU Dance Team lets her continue dancing in college, alongside what she calls a supportive group of girls.
“A lot of times there won't be a ton of people at the basketball games, and we joke that no matter what we're doing, this for ourselves,” Gilligan said. “Even when there's not a crowd there, we’re our crowd, and it just feels so good to do what you love.”
During an in-person semester, the AU Dance Team hosts auditions on the first day of classes, which is where Gilligan got her start on the team as a freshman.
This is Gilligan’s last semester at AU, and she said that whatever happens with the AU Dance Team this fall will be her last experience with it. She noted how the season’s operations are still up in the air.
“When we first went online, our coach had mentioned to us that she was trying really hard to work with athletics to get the green light to be able to do some sort of virtual semester,” Gilligan said. “I'm not exactly sure how that would work.”
Since going online, Gilligan said that the team has Zoomed, but she misses seeing and interacting with the team in-person. She also misses having structure in her schedule.
“I've never had a semester where I didn't have to schedule everything around the dance team,” Gilligan said. “I miss the structure [of] being able to just put down my phone, put away my computer and, for three hours, focus in with this one group of girls,” Gilligan said.
Gilligan loves to dance because she can move her body in unique ways that not everyone can. Even while she is physically away from the AU Dance Team, Gilligan still dances.
“If I want to dance around or stretch, my body's always going to have that training in me,” Gilligan said. “I love knowing that.”
During her senior year in high school, Casey McElroy, another member of the AU Dance Team, performed one of her favorite group tap dances at one of her last competitions.
“We put it all out there. After we came off, we were all really happy with how it went,” said McElroy, a junior business administration major. “I remember we were walking back to the dressing room and multiple people that we didn't know from other studios that were there stopped us, and they were like, ‘That was beautiful. We are so glad that we got to watch that. Watching you made our day better.’”
McElroy grew up shy, but she loved how she could use dance to express herself without saying anything.
“[Dance] was a great way for me to be able to perform without getting so stressed out,” McElroy said. “Public speaking when I was in middle school and high school was not for me, so the fact that I could still go out and perform and make people happy was really awesome.”
A dancer from McElroy’s high school dance studio in New Jersey used to dance on the AU Dance Team and introduced McElroy to it on a tour of the University.
McElroy misses the camaraderie of seeing her teammates and friends with an uncertain season ahead, but more simply, she just misses dancing.
“I haven't had the space or opportunity to dance since we left school last semester,” McElroy said. “Being in a small apartment, there's not really a lot of space to move around.”
Mara Greenberg, a senior public relations and strategic communication major, has grown as a leader since joining AU in Motion, the University’s largest student-run dance group. Greenberg is AU in Motion’s current social media and engagement chair, and she was previously its president for one semester.
Like Ridgley and Gilligan, Greenberg began her dance career at 3 years old. She learned ballet, and when she grew a little older, she went to a ballet school but learned that she preferred hip-hop and jazz. Through AU in Motion, Greenberg has learned even more types of dance.
Greenberg said that AU’s dance program felt too restrictive in what was considered dancing.
“I don't really love the structural dance prospect, like you have to dance this one certain way,” she said. “So, AU in Motion gave me the space to discover more about dance and discover more about different styles and creativity.”
Unlike the AU Dance Team or AU in Motion that are still navigating a virtual semester, the American Bhangra Crew, which is performance-based and non-competitive, has chosen to not have a virtual semester.
Priya Aggarwal, a senior School of International Service major and the vice president of the crew, said that this choice hit her a few days into the fall semester after the involvement fair was virtual.
“I was just remembering how past involvement fairs have been for us and how that's when we recruit our other members,” Aggarwal said. “We would have been having tryouts and forming a new team.”
Bhangra is a traditional Northern Indian form of dance that originated in Punjab. According to Aggarwal, the crew creates a space for both Punjabi and non-Punjabi students to come together, create new routines and share their love for dance.
While Aggarwal has been dancing her whole life, she started getting into the art when she was 7 or 8 years old. She began with Indian folk dance, and by middle school, she began doing an Indian classical dance called Kathak.
When Aggarwal was a senior in high school, she hurt her knee and was unsure if she’d be able to do her last performance. She stuck it out, performed and realized that dancing defined her for the last 10 years of her life.
Like Aggarwal, Alicia Ridgley believes that she would not be the same person she is today without dance. She said she believes that if someone wants to dance, they should.
“You don't have to be a prima ballerina to put yourself in dance,” Ridgley said. “So, even if you're starting out later, or you're just too nervous, if they're able to, take the leap.”