Sarabande Dance Ensemble is a student-led dance collective founded in 1982 that focuses primarily on contemporary, jazz and ballet. The group differs from the nearly 20 other dance groups on campus with its diverse and modern stylistic range, and his engagement in an original choreography. Her performances and rehearsals are directed and staged by student choreographers who have the freedom to incorporate their individual styles into their pieces.
“We choreograph… and we have about ten hours of rehearsal every week,” Helen chwe, a Senior in Sarabande, said of a pre-pandemic semester. “But in those ten hours, there are ten dances, and you can choose how many dances you want to do… so you can choose your engagement.”
Saraband gives many students their first opportunity to choreograph, either by leading open classes or by putting together a complete piece. Dancers can realize their own artistic visions, which hasn’t always been possible for students training in a dance studio, according to Chwe.
“Being able to do something that is student-run and super independent, [where] people do exactly what they want to do, it allowed me to relax ”, Chwe said to play with Sarabande. “It was still a show, but it was a lot more fun, because… your friend is choreographing something.”
Sophomore Hana Tzou said she enjoyed learning from her classmates Saraband members in a collaborative exchange of movement and technique. Before signing up for Tufts, Tzou has danced in the same studio since the age of three and has developed a solid foundation in ballet, tap, jazz and contemporary dance. She described her training as having been quite conservative. Through Saraband, Tzou said she was exposed to more experimental dance history.
“It’s really fun to try a new style on the body and learn different shapes that you can create”, Tzou said. “And it really broadened my dance practice. I think I feel a lot more comfortable dancing in a new style, or even just dancing in my own body because I’m in Sarabande… It really broadened my horizons on what dancing can be like.
The pandemic strikes
In March 2020, just a day after the university announced its decision to close the campus in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Saraband held his last performance on stage in person. Chwe described it as memorable and bittersweet.
“I think a lot of people loved how confusing it was because it took the pressure off of a good performance,” Chwe said. “It was kind of like everyone had stopped caring about dancing and really rocked and danced for friends… None of the dances were over, but everyone gave their all.
According to Chwe, tThe rising seniors of the club took advantage of the summer to deliberate on what Sarabande would look like during the 2020-2021 school year, given the restrictions imposed by the pandemic. The club has made its management structure more horizontal; he went from two presidents and smaller sub-committees to an equal sharing of responsibilities of the six senior members of the club. As co-chair of the interpersonal committee, Chwe is responsible for planning social events and mediating conflicts between members.
Building a community
Organizing social events requires caution regarding virus safety and finding community within the social scene in Tufts were especially tough for many early years. Chwe said Saraband managed to plan small group hangouts during class years, or the dancers have a coffee or relax together.
For freshman Emma Olshin, bonding with other early years was one of her favorite parts of her life in Sarabande. Olshin described how the new members praised and decorated a room at Barnum Hall as a surprise birthday party for another member.
“We were sending photos to the big [groupchat], and [the upperclassmen] were so happy that we were all becoming friends… Even though we have joined together under strange circumstances, we are all close and they know Sarabande’s future is secure in our hands, ” Olshin said.
Tzou echoed a similar appreciation for the authentic community and like a family atmosphere she found inside Saraband as soon as she joined.
“I [immediately had this] a whole network of men from the upper class, and even former students who just contacted me and who said to me: “Anything you need, come see us, we can help you” ”. Tzou said.
Before the pandemic, dancers often spent time in a off-campus home that has been passed down through generations of Sarabande members and served as a safe place for members to go whenever they want.
“The people of Sarabande are not only my dance teammates, they are also my best friends,” Tzou said.
Sarabande also held weekly conversations about the intersections of running and dancing. Chwe said his group last semester discussed the oppression of black voices in dance, particularly regarding the implications of the exclusionary story from ballet.
Olshin added that she appreciated the value of such discussions.
“[It’s important] to educate us on the issues of discrimination in the dance world, because there are a lot of them – especially in ballet, which we have all done at some point in our training, “ Olshin said. “So I think it’s really cool that people are motivated to learn more, and I’ve certainly learned a lot from that so far.”
Adapt to performance in the event of a pandemic
Typically, Saraband, which is made up of no more than 20 dancers, organizes recruitments and hearings at the start of each semester. Last fall, after conducting a series of virtual auditions, which required three separate video submissions, Sarabande welcomed in the first five years and one in the second year in its group among the more than 20 people who auditioned. Chwe noted that the group did not anticipate as much interest and that compared to previous years the addition of six new members was relatively large.
Since Sarabande can’t stage a full show in person this year, she has adapted by adopting video performances. Their last performance, “Fluorescent,” was a 34-minute compilation of 10 dances choreographed by different members of Sarabande. Each dance was performed with a different style and mood thanks to a variety of video editing techniques. Some dances were performed outdoors by masked and socially distant members, while others consisted of reconstructed segments of individually recorded videos. According to Tzou, the university imposed stricter regulations while the group was filming for the performance, which resulted in a variation between playing together and alone.
For Tzou, transforming his shared dormitory in a suitable space for dancing was a source of frustration.
“The only thing a dancer needs to dance is space,” Tzou said. “What was taken from us was really difficult for me.”
When possible, the group organizes rehearsals Jackson Gym, reserved classrooms or outside – even when temperatures drop. Even then Tzou added that the lack of access to mirrors, as is customary in typical dance studios, presented another difficulty.
“I feel a lot more comfortable in my body and I trust myself more when I can see myself in the mirror”, Tzou said. After two semesters, Tzou said she had gotten used to dancing without a mirror, relying on her instincts and comments from the choreographers to guide her.
According to Tzou, performing in pre-recorded videos gave the choreographers more freedom to experiment by engaging with a new medium, incorporating camera movements and cuts to transition between formations or add extra textural quality to the performance.
Even so, for dancers, there is a lot to be missed in the experience of performing on stage.
“Everyone at Sarabande was kind of brought up for the stage,” Tzou said. “I know the majority of people really miss the performing aspect, because there’s just something so exciting about going on stage, your friends are in the audience, they’re cheering you on. This adrenaline rush is so good. “
All members of Sarabande have the chance to choreograph. Even new members, like Olshin, had the opportunity to choreograph and teach open classes. Olshin says she especially enjoys that the open classes gave her the chance to share smaller combinations of choreography without needing to create an entire three-minute routine.
“I teach more technique… I do things on the floor or a workout or stretching, or I could do a little combo – I can really do whatever I want,” Olshin said. “People are ready for anything. People can come, they can’t come, it’s very relaxed this semester.
The laid back spirit of Saraband continues to maintain itself as creative and collaborative dance collective who supports his dancers, many of which come from competitive dance backgrounds. Tzou and Olshin entered university with the intention of continuing to dance; everyone researched all the active dance groups at Tufts and felt drawn to Saraband. Chwe, on the other hand, had initially considered taking a step back from dancing, who had consumed a large part of his late childhood, but she eventually felt compelled to join Sarabande after attending an open class in her first year.
“I think they do a really good job of drawing on everyone’s skills, never forcing people to do what they’re not comfortable with in dancing, but also putting evidence what people are really good at, ” Tzou said. “It’s super collaborative. It really is wonderful.