Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

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Performance groups overcome racial boundaries

Her arms punch out like arrows; her eyes and mouth hold fierce. Performing Bharatanatyam, a classical Indian dance, her bare feet stomp hard enough to demolish whole anthill universes. Oh, and her face is white.

Kelly Brown is the first non-Indian member of Deeva Dance Troupe since the group was established in 2000. She’s stomping where no white girl has stomped before.

Other performance groups on campus have surpassed conventional racial identities. Fusion Dance Company, a hip-hop group, has been racially diverse since a white female student and a Latina student founded it in 2003. Northwestern Community Ensemble a gospel choir, was not ethnically diverse when it began 36 years ago, but has incorporated different races in the last six years. Members of both Fusion and NCE said they value their group’s diversity, especially because Northwestern often seems segregated.

Nervous and uncomfortable, Brown nearly ran out on Deeva tryouts.

“I walked into Patten, and I was the only white girl, and I almost walked out,” said Brown, a Weinberg junior. “I was like, ‘I have a lot of homework, and I don’t want to do this.’ My friends were like, ‘Why are you doing this?'”

But Dipika Cherala, a Music junior, Brown’s roommate and an Indian Deeva dancer, told her to stick it out. During the four-hour tryout, Brown and about 45 other girls learned and performed three different dances.

“During the Bharatanatyam, I felt out of place, disrespectful. You never see white people do this dance!” Brown said. “But everyone was really welcoming and helpful. About one-third of us had never learned it, so I didn’t feel as bad.”

Brown iced her sore, callused feet, and returned to callbacks two days later. At tryouts and callbacks, Cherala said, Deeva was looking for girls formally trained and able to choreograph in at least one of the four styles of dancing the group fuses: Bharatanatyam, Bollywood, jazz and hip-hop.

“We choreograph our own performances, so we need some of each style of dancers,” Cherala said.

Brown, who took ballet for eight years and jazz and tap for three years, was one of five new additions to the 12-member group this year.

“It’s not about being Indian,” Cherala said. “We’ve had white people try out before; we’ve never been closed off.”

About 20 blacks, whites and Asians mingled and blended in their black and grey sweatpants during a Sunday afternoon Fusion practice in Blomquist Recreation Center. Kristin Scovic, a white Communication senior and Fusion’s artistic director, said Fusion has been both racially and culturally diverse every year.

“When I showed up at auditions for the first time, there were Indians, blacks, whites, a half-Cuban, half-Swiss,” Scovic said. “This year, with 29 members who all like hip-hop but have different dance backgrounds, cultures and personalities, we also represent a fusion of styles. We looked for that during auditions – for dancers who can grasp the choreography and still add their own style.”

During tryouts, the community ensemble looked for students who, along with being able to carry a note or pitch, have a love or curiosity for singing inspirational music, said the ensemble’s musical director Christine Imarenezor, who is a black Communication senior. Race is a non-issue, she said, though the gospel choir wasn’t racially mixed until six years ago.

“This type of group is typically an African-American student-run group at many colleges throughout the U.S.,” Imarenezor said. “(At NU, too), it was formed by students with the intention of bringing the African-American community together.”

But as the community ensemble became more prominent on campus, non-black students became interested in joining the choir. This year, six of the nearly 40 members of the ensemble are non-blacks.

Christine Byrne, a Weinberg sophomore and white first-year member of the singing group, said she never feels uncomfortable trying out or coming to gospel choir practices.

“Things at Northwestern are so segregated and divided – I like the mix here (in the group),” Byrne said.

Imarenezor said the white and Asian membership in the group proves there are no racial limitations to exploration, especially in music, and it makes the ensemble that much more special.

“Diversity allows us to feel more like a big worldly family,” she said.

Jessica Lane, a black Medill senior and three-year member of Fusion, reiterated that the university seems racially segregated and that the racial mix of the hip-hop group is a bonus.

“The strongest relationships I have with people of other races – beyond the ‘Hi’ and ‘Bye,’ like I actually have their cell phone numbers – come from Fusion,” she said.

While Byrne, Imarenezor and Lane value the diverse friendships Fusion and the singing ensemble offer, Hallie Fishman, a Weinberg sophomore and white first-year member of the community ensemble, said she values the new perspective and “different cultural experience.” Fishman, a non-Christian, tried out mostly because she missed singing, and a friend recommended that she join the gospel choir.

She said she thought the songs would be religious but didn’t realize the group would pray at the beginning and end of every practice.

But, it’s not awkward, she said . Their prayers remind you why they’re singing, Fishman said.

“They really are singing to God,” she said.

Fishman said everyone in the group is welcoming and from the very first practice, she found “hugs are a must.”

During praise reports – when members of the ensemble share something they’re thankful for – and prayer requests, “everyone always listens so patiently to what everyone else has to say, whether they’re thankful for the littlest or the biggest things,” Fishman said.

“It makes me think differently, makes me more thankful for those little things too,” she said.

Brown, the Deeva ground-breaker, has been practicing with the dance troupe for a month. She said now she’s comfortable in the group and ready to reap the benefits. The experience has led to new friendships.

“I get to go to the SASA parties now,” Brown said, as many Deeva dancers are also members of the South Asian Student Alliance.

“As a performer it’s exciting to be exposed to different kinds of dance, to experience others’ means of expression,” Brown said. “Dancing releases something, and I get to learn and share in that experience.”

Since joining Deeva, Brown said she has also learned to push herself when she feels uncomfortable.

“In the future, I think I’m more likely not to be intimidated by being the only white person,” Brown said, “and more likely to try something completely different, way off my radar.”

Reach Amanda Craig at [email protected].

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Performance groups overcome racial boundaries