University of Texas at Austin students in When. Photo by Lawrence Peart, courtesy ACDA

Here's What College Dancers Care About Today

What's on the minds of college students today?

I recently had the honor of adjudicating at the American College Dance Association's National College Dance Festival, along with choreographer Dana Tai Soon Burgess and former National Endowment for the Arts dance specialist Douglas C. Sonntag. We chose three winners—one for Outstanding Choreography and two for Outstanding Performance—from 30 pieces representing schools throughout the country. It was a great opportunity to see what college dance students are up to—from the issues they care about to the kinds movement they're interested in exploring.

Here were the biggest trends and takeaways:


They're Addressing Racial Justice Issues

Who R U?, choreographed and performed by Stephanie Banes of Columbia College Chicago, touched on the Charlottesville riots. Photo courtesy ACDA.

From Every^Man (Alright), a powerful solo in which University of Montana student Tsiambwon Akuchu mimes being lynched over and over again, to Northern Illinois University's Enuf, featuring a energetic cast of 11 and music by everyone from Michael Jackson to Common, many works showed how deeply students are engaging with racial justice issues. It was fascinating to see racism addressed through so many different lenses.

They're Experimenting With Complex Design Elements

Umbilic, choreographed by Jared Doster of Sam Houston State University. Photo by Lynn Lane, Courtesy ACDA

Umbilic, which earned the Outstanding Choreography Award, featured a hamster wheel-like sphere that the two performers danced inside of and rode on top of. A prop that could have come across as cliche instead created intimacy between the two dancers through the limitations it placed on them, not to mention the dynamic movement possibilities it allowed them to explore. Other pieces featured a set of barres that dancers climbed on, flashlights that provided the only lighting, and costumes that doubled as projection screens for live video.

They're Telling Challenging Stories

One of the most daring performances of the festival was fleeting things, a duet in which two dancers whispered the story of a boy's relationship with an older man, who seems to have died of AIDS. Though there wasn't much dancing, the final image—of one dancer slowly arching backwards—was haunting. One of the Outstanding Performance winners, Samantha Lin, danced a solo called Shikata ga nai about the Japanese internment camps; "...and I will never, ever let you down." from Connecticut College tackled sexual assault.

They Aren't Afraid to Have Fun

A Bar in Jerusalem, choreographed by Issa Hourani of MiraCosta College. Photo courtesy ACDA.

Yes, there were lots of serious works on the ACDA stage this year. But that doesn't mean no one was having any fun. A Bar in Jerusalem, a duet choreographed by Issa Hourani of MiraCosta College played with witty gestures and partnering. And in Focus, danced by Orange Coast College students, a dancer's inner monologue came to life through the hilarious dialogue and high-energy hip hop of his castmates.

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