I was overwhelmed when I got to Yale as a freshman.
I’d entertained the fantasy of being a college student there when I was a high schooler on campus to compete in a debate tournament. I remember sitting on a school bus, staring out the window, and falling in love with the trees, their bright, brilliant, shimmering green. It’s a color you don’t see in Florida. I remember wanting so badly in that moment, a pure pang of wanting to be here.
I also remember the pang of despair and hopelessness mixed in with that wanting. What were the chances? I’d spent high school browsing a horrible website called College Confidential and scrolling through endless lists of numbers and “hooks” and special awards that I didn’t have.
I didn’t really believe that I could get in. There had been a rumor circulating in my high school, at the time, that someone had thought they’d gotten in because there had been a glitch on the admissions page that accidentally showed them the famous singing bulldog way before actual decision day.
When I caught my glimpse of the singing bulldog page, I immediately hit the back button before the page had even finished loading, thinking it had to be that glitch, not allowing myself to believe it. When I logged in again, I was brought directly to the actual letter that had my name on it. So I missed the singing bulldog.
My brother came into my room that day and asked, “Why aren’t you like really happy right now?” because I was sitting in my bed, staring blankly at the screen, not sure how I was supposed to react.
I arrived at Yale in the midst of a literal hurricane (Irene), and also a hurricane of emotions, and the eye of my storm was namely angst and fear. My high school relationship was on a downhill and there was a huge learning curve in this strange new world.
Everyone seemed to somehow already know how to personally obtain and drink alcohol and down shots, how to make new friends and meet new people instantly (my suitemates came back home at night counting all the new people they had met), how to go out to parties on weekend nights and how to flirt with attractive people. Friend groups were forming and photos that screamed ‘omg college the time of our lives!!!’ were being sprayed all over Facebook, and I still had no real friends and had stayed in two weekends in a row.
Things weren’t much better on the academic front. I was enrolled in the Directed Studies program, a freshman year humanities program, and I sat at the shiny seminar tables mostly watching the clock, class time running out, and panicking about the fact that I had nothing whatsoever to say or contribute to the conversation and no good ideas at all, and feeling very much like the least creative and least thoughtful and least well-read student at the table. I spent the entire first semester of classes in silence. My literature professor asked me why I never said anything in office hours. I mumbled something about being intimidated and he kindly told me that it’s always scary at first, but the more you do it, the less scary it gets. Which was easier said than done, and I still couldn’t do it.
And then there was the extracurricular front, where people all around me could sing and dance and act and write and had been doing these things for years in high school, and now here they were auditioning for a cappella groups and comedy groups and dance groups and big theater productions and writing for the Yale Daily News and applying to be on the staff of the prestigious literary magazine.
What was I doing? Who had let me in here? What were they thinking?
In my journal freshman year, I wrote down a list of all the extracurriculars I was considering. After a long list of publications, I also wanted very badly to be able to participate in a performing arts group. Writing was the only art I had any prior skill in, and it was lonely — mostly faceless exchanges of text over email with some editors. I wanted to belong. I wanted the feeling of working in concert with a team of people to create something bigger than me.
My only option, it turned out in the end, was Danceworks, the non-audition dance group, and it seemed, the only non-audition anything.
It was a completely new experience for me. I found myself shaking out of nervousness at my first totally informal midterm showing, even though I was only participating in one number of the show. I remember sitting in the wings at my first show feeling too self-conscious to scream and cheer and be silly like all the other dancers sitting out there.
Cheering and screaming obnoxiously is a hallowed ritual of Danceworks shows. As Co-President later in my senior year, it became my duty to deliver the President’s Speech following the opening number:
“If you haven’t been to a Danceworks show before, you should know– Danceworks shows aren’t really like other dance shows. We do things a little differently here. At other dance shows, you might be expected to sit quietly and clap politely… but at Danceworks, we feed off your energy and we want to hear you screaming your loudest. If you see your friend, if you see something you like, just shout it out, as loud as possible! Let our dancers show you!”
This is always Danceworks’s cue to scream as loudly possible.
“Okay, now audience, you try, on the count of three: 1, 2… 3!”
The audience yells and hoots. The co-presidents make a little face, shake our heads, ask the offstage dancers hiding: “Hmm, did you hear anything Danceworks? Do you think that was loud enough?”
Danceworks shouts no.
“Okay audience, let’s try again, louder this time, ready… 1, 2…3!”
The audience yells louder, with joined in by Danceworks, the entire theater erupts in a roar. You laugh, smile and say, “Thanks, enjoy the show!” and walk offstage as the lights dim and the next set of dancers takes their place on the stage.
At my first show, I sat in the dark, chilly wings in shy silence as my fellow dancers hollered and cheered and screamed beside me, unsure of how to participate, not sure if I had it in me to be loud like this.
But as the show went on, something clicked: hey, if everyone else is doing this and also being ridiculous, I can’t be that much more ridiculous if I yell a little bit too.
So it was at the end of my first semester of college in the wings of my first dance show that I finally felt comfortable raising my voice. When it was my turn to perform, those cheers and screams from the sidelines buoyed me. No matter what I did on stage, even if I messed up a move, forgot the choreography, was off count, was not in the right position– my dance family and the audience were still cheering for me and having a blast doing it. There was no way to mess up.
Those deafening cheers and that unconditional love pulsing in the air at each show began to dispel the storm within me.
I found underneath the eye of fear and angst my true core — of joy. The pounding bass matching the thudding of my heart, my body melting into the music I loved through the choreography I had learned, the flashing, colorful lights mirroring my internal state.
I became known for the “Claireface” — my inability to make any other facial expression except a ridiculous grin while performing. But I couldn’t understand how you could not smile while dancing. It was euphoria. It was love. It took up so much space that it pushed everything else — the fear, the self-consciousness, the anxiety, the worry — out of my heart.
Dance taught me to stop thinking about what the audience and everyone else were thinking about me and to lose myself in that love. To embrace and be proud of those feelings and the weirdness, wildness, and craziness within me, to feel comfortable putting my self in its most visceral form — bodily — on stage. To just do and express what I felt because I had love in my heart and by my side.
What I found in my self through dance diffused into every other aspect of my life. I became more comfortable speaking up in class and in public, voicing my opinions and thoughts, less afraid of reaching out to new people and offering them my full kooky self, and letting my weirdo private self become the same person as my public self. I trusted in that core of joy I had uncovered.
And I got addicted to that feeling. Of melting into the music, of being able to channel my emotions through my body, of realizing that my body was this thing that was also a part of me and connected to my inner core as much as my mind was.
One dance in my freshman fall became two the next semester, and then three in the next, to five, to seven, and almost ten by my senior year, co-choreographing two pieces and a smattering of interludes, and becoming media manager, publicity chair, and finally Co-President.
I was obsessed. That feeling. I wanted everyone else to feel it too.
In my senior year, two freshmen approached me in the bathroom before their first show, expressing their nervousness. I saw myself as a freshman again, shaking in fear at midterm showing, and hesitant to cheer even from the safety and darkness of the wings of the stage.
“Don’t worry, I still don’t know the choreo, and I always mess up! Just have fun with it!” I said.
But there was so much more I wanted to say. Joy! Find the feeling! Lose yourself in the music! Then nothing else matters. I hope all of you know what I’m talking about, I hope all of you find that here!
I wish everyone could find that!
It was this sentiment from which Chromatic was born, and it is the force that drives each class, what we dance for every time. Joy. The feeling. Losing fear, finding your realest self and your inner core, and taking that self beyond the studio, toward adventure, always dancing.