By Katie Orr
All voices were hushed and eyes were drawn toward the stage at UC Santa Barbara’s Studio Theater. The lights dimmed and black silhouette-like dolls walked out onto the stage. I looked on in awe at the undergraduate UCSB dance majors performing in a student-choreographed modern dance recital. I was then a sophomore but butterflies struck my stomach, reminding me of the nervousness I had felt years earlier before a dance competition. Then I realized I was no longer the one who was looking out into the black sea of an audience, but rather a spectator at a university dance performance.
Years ago, I used to be the one dancing on stage. At six years old, I joined a competition dance team and entered the world of rhinestone-obsessed children whose competitiveness stemmed from their mothers’ desire to win. The hair, makeup, costumes, glitter, and most of all the competition — this is how I came to know dance. Over the years, the pressure from this atmosphere became too much and, at age 16, I decided to stop.
Jump forward to that evening, more than a decade after I took my first steps on the dance stage, whenI sat in the theater as a 19-year-old student at UCSB and admired the dark figures lit by spotlights. I saw dance in its purest form. As it continued, I was no longer thankful to be in the audience. I wanted to move. Little did I know prior to entering the auditorium that this performance would cause me to reenter the world of dance.
I attended this dance concert because of a class I took that quarter called History and Appreciation of Dance, which required students to attend various dance performances. In the class, instructor Carol Press taught that dance is a physical form of expression allowing humans to display their imagination. But, much like a photography, dance combines form, time, and space, and can be subjected to critique from audiences and judges.
Dance competitions like the ones I was involved in have their origins in 1930s depression-era America as dance marathons popped up across the country. Today, the term dance marathon refers more often to a mediocre fundraiser. Dance competitions, on the other hand, spiked in the 90s. From glitter and rhinestones to expensive outfits and crazy dance moms, the world of dance has become its own profit-driven enterprise, spurred on by the race for whose child will take home the crown.
As the performance that night in the Studio Theater continued, my fear passed. I was still seated facing the stage, but something was missing. Suddenly the music stopped. All one could hear was the scuffs of the dancers’ bare feet on the floor, and the huffs of their breaths. It was raw. It was bare. It was pure art.
The sound of the dancers’ feet scraping the floor reminded me of the bruises I got back in my days at the studio when I was too tired to hold myself up from the floor. Their breaths were like my teammates’ and mine when we wanted to cry after being at the studio for an eight-hour day. The space the UCSB students created reminded me of dancing in a big room by myself…lights dimmed…no one watching…just your body and the music.
In that moment, I realized something was missing in my life. I missed dance. Not the competitiveness or whether I was awarded a Double Platinum trophy instead of a Platinum. I missed the art. I missed how my body could take three simple elements of form, time, and space and make it beautiful.
And then, after four years of not dancing, this one show encouraged me to walk back into my old dance studio in Torrance, California. There, I signed back up for the same contemporary dance class I used to love in high school. A month after seeing the show, in the same studio where I took my first dance class, I got to rediscover my passion for dance.
I might have lost some technical skill, with my sub-par posture and no longer perfectly pointed feet. But I gained new insight on life and dance. Watching the UCSB Dance Department show a month earlier had taught me to move for myself and for no one else. That is truly what art is. Self-expression in its most personal and physical form.
Katie Orr is a third-year student at UC Santa Barbara, majoring in Communication.