UNC students take love of dance to new heights

Jazz, ballet and tap combine for a dynamic combination

Dance, tap, twirl move . . . these are the steps of a group of girls who spend time expressing their talent and performing art. And the stage lights beamed on the faces of some of UNC-Chapel Hill’s elite dancers once again, at their spring showcase last Saturday.

Just two nights before, heavy sweat ran those same faces and dance shoes and socks slipped off of their feet during the final dance rehearsals in Fetzer Gym. Tappers, ballerinas and jazz dancers from the Carolina Style Dance Company practiced the routine “Dance, Dance,  ” their first-ever collaborative dance number.  Tap director and UNC-CH junior Caitlin Hines helped choreograph the piece and said the production was a way to bring all of the dancers together.

Carolina Style currently has 46 members and is the only group on campus that holds separate auditions for their three sub-companies (or forms): jazz, tap and ballet.

Schools with dance majors in NC
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  • East Carolina University
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  • University of North Carolina at Greensboro

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“There are some girls in tap who haven’t met girls in jazz or ballet,” Hines said. “It was a big project, but we all got on the stage at the same time. And we got it together; it was exciting,” Hines said.

The company is also one of the few campus dance groups that can fund a fall and spring showcase. That is due to impart to UNC-CH not having an official program–a frustration of several student dancers.

“I know a lot of people who wanted to come to UNC but didn’t because there isn’t a dance major” said Hines, who has danced with Carolina Style for three years.

“Many people want to pursue careers in dance, and UNC does not push them farther on that path,” she continued. “But I think CDI is working really hard to make that happen.”

CDI or Carolina Dance Initiative is a UNC-CH student organization that works with the dance community on campus in efforts to show the university why a program is needed.

Despite the lack of an official program, Carolina Style still remains one of the most reputable campus dance groups. The group’s advisor Vincas Steponaitis is the father of a former Carolina Style member who danced with the 15-year-old company in its earliest years. Steponaitis, described as a “dance dad” by the girls, assists in formalities and planning, but serves mostly as a supportive outlet because the students are able effectively manage the company themselves. The girls direct, fundraise, choreograph among other duties for the group.

“I am so glad that all of these dance companies exist for us,” Hines said. “Some people have to draw art, some people sing music, but we just have to dance.”

Carolina Style business director Blair Ellis agrees and said not having a dance program at UNC-CH is “sad and frustrating.” She explained that many major North Carolina universities have programs in place.

“It’s a really huge component of a liberal arts community that’s Carolina is missing out on; It’s a huge community of students they’re missing,” she said.

And one of those frustrating parts is that there is no official rehearsal space. Which, according to Hines, can be really stressful and difficult because they must be able to schedule a time that meets their dancers’ availability. Each year, Carolina Style enters a lottery system with other campus groups through the Student Union for room reservation.

Their dancers have about two hours of rehearsal per week for laying down skills and practicing choreography. They prefer a studio with mirrors so they can watch each other and Hines said they only look away from the mirrors for memorization purposes. Last fall, they were assigned Woolen Gym, a practice space that has no mirrors and is frequently occupied by basketball players.

“It was really funny, and I’m sure they were like: ‘What the heck are these crazy girls in skirts and dresses doing throwing themselves all over the basketball court,’” Ellis said, laughing.

“It’s definitely been trying at times but we’ve made it work,” she continued. “And the girls in CStyle are just so committed and love to dance so much they would dance anywhere. We would rehearse in the Pit if we had to.”

This passion is the motivation for many of the girls who started dance as toddlers and haven’t stopped ever since—their passion is an art, but also a sport.

“Everything about dance comes from the core,” Ellis said, who has suffered minor injuries like broken toes.

The small-framed blonde remembers having to condition while taking dance growing up, because of the athleticism and endurance necessary for the activity.

“We work just as hard as athletes,” jazz dancer Paris Scott said, timidly. “Many dance groups are treated more like clubs than as a sport.”

“People should probably take dance more seriously than they do.”

The UNC-CH junior said she has no broken bones from dance, just cuts and bruises. She explained it is less risky than gymnastics but it’s still pretty rough, because dance movements are not exactly what the body wants to do.

Scott joined the group after a freshman year participating with the university dance team because Carolina Style had greater time flexibility.  She helped choreograph a jazz piece for the last week’s show–grabbing inspiration from the TV program, “So You Think You Can Dance.”

As a choreographer, Scott said she has to sit in silence and imagine the movements in her head.

“I could sit here and listen to this song and think of [movements],” she said while music blared from the Pit.

“All choreographers feel scared and vulnerable. Will the dancers like it? Will they understand my vision? Will they express it right?,” Scott said. “The best moment is when you see it done right and people loving it and enjoying it.”

Carolina Style’s student choreographers are chosen on a volunteer basis and are guided by their respective company directors. There was a fair selection of choreographers for the 20 pieces that were performed Saturday.

Senior Amber Roberts also put together a number for the show–a funky and edgy tap routine to hip-hop song, “Headlines” where the girls dawned sporty jackets and sunglasses.

The art part of dance is what Roberts enjoys. In previous years, she danced with Star Heels, but she chose to participate in Carolina style this year because its tap team.

“I choreograph to the combination of beats, not using counts,” she said. “There are lot of intricate sounds, a lot of rhythms you can make with your feet. Not everyone can make a combination and make it sound like music and not just noise.”

For many of the dancers, choreography is the likely path after graduation. Many of them plan to continue the sport by teaching in studios in their hometowns.

Ellis said that the music is always the inspiration and highlighting its different accents and rhythms. It is important, for her, to “see the music through the movement in the body.”

This is the moment when Carolina Style dancers can feel free and leave it on the stage.

I feel like when dancers perform they’re telling stories; they are painting a picture where words are not needed, Roberts said.

“Not everybody can be a dancer. But every dancer is a storyteller.”

This article was reported as a part of the JOMC 256 Feature Writing course at UNC’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication. 

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