Arts, Arts Features

Showdown 2021: Dance Groups Step Up Despite Pandemic

Students gathered on the lawn in front of 2150 Commonwealth Ave. on a sunny afternoon in March of 2020 as music blasted from the fourth story window of one of the rooms. Some students clustered together on the stone amphitheater seats, others sprawled out on the grass, and several residents even gazed out their windows, all cheering on a flock of dancers congregated in the center of the lawn. The dance groups took turns revealing the sets they had been training tirelessly to perfect for the past few months in preparation for one of the largest Boston College events on campus: ALC Showdown.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, BC shut its doors just weeks before Showdown, BC’s biggest dance competition of the year. After BC students received an email informing them that in-person courses were canceled for the remainder of the semester, in a matter of a few hours, dance groups rallied together for one last performance of the year, and for seniors, the final performance of their BC dance careers.

Student dancers threw together an impromptu mini-Showdown, initiated by the Synergy Hip Hop Dance Company. Seven teams, including Full Swing, Dance Organization of Boston College (DOBC), UPrising, On Tap, Fuego del Corazon, Phaymus, and Synergy, all performed at the last-minute event, which drew a large crowd of BC students.

“It was an extremely, I guess, unifying moment,” Gia Kang, president of Synergy and CSON ’21, said. “For not only the teams, but I feel like for BC as well because Showdown is such a huge event to come together for dance and for music.”

The teams scrambled to find speakers and lights for their makeshift stage. When it started to get dark outside, the students surrounding the stage held up their phone flashlights. Dancers rehearsed the steps they had only recently learned and threw on their costumes for the first time. 

“None of us had a finished product,” Kathryn Giordano, president of UPrising and MCAS ’21, said. “None of us were done with our sets, but nobody really cared. It was just about the fun experience and about, you know, supporting what we’ve worked for so far and not caring if you made a mistake.”

Although dance groups pulled off a modified Showdown event last spring, there were doubts that such an event could be held this year due to the pandemic. But over this past winter break, Synergy remained hopeful that the new semester would include some form of a Showdown event, so it started planning its theme and routine. The Synergy board worked together to select songs and started crafting its choreography. 

The team received the good news that its planning would pay off when the Office of Student Involvement (OSI) and AHANA+ Leadership Council (ALC) told club presidents in early March that they were planning a Showdown event. When the teams received an email on March 9 from Sasha Severino, assistant ALC director and MCAS ’21, containing plans for the event, dance teams sprung into action to plan their performances.

“We were so excited because it [seemed like they had] been thinking about this for such a long time,” Kang said about the group’s initial reaction to the announcement. “They had, like, a lot of solid ideas that I believe would really be possible for Showdown to happen.”

On April 25, the dance teams participating in Showdown will perform in Alumni Stadium, livestreaming their choreographed performances to students across campus. The event will be free to all BC students, but there will be a fee required for non-students who tune in. Since Showdown is usually a ticketed event, ALC is planning to fundraise by selling t-shirts featuring the dance teams’ logos.

But, putting on the event this year has posed particular challenges for its hosts. Normally, the event is a joint effort between ALC and UGBC’s Diversity & Inclusion division, but this year the event is entirely ALC’s responsibility. In collaboration with OSI, ALC has been working to determine how Showdown will take shape this year.

Currently, ALC is planning to livestream performances to several viewing locations across campus for students to watch on projectors, but these plans have not been made official yet. Due to safety restrictions and equipment limitations, organizing Showdown has proved to be much more complicated than in previous years. Considerations for outdoor staging, lighting, and broadcasting coupled with social distancing concerns and capacity restrictions have added an extra layer of planning to one of the biggest events on campus.

Chinenye Ugocha, director of ALC and MCAS ’21, said she hopes audiences will appreciate the sense of perseverance within BC’s dance community which Showdown is intended to highlight.

“Showdown could be definitely a way for us just to showcase how much we’ve gone through and how much we’ve been able to persevere … ” Ugocha said. “I think this would be a definitely a great event to see how dance teams have been able to work together through all this.” 

In past years, teams kept their performances’ theme and music closely held secrets, and the anticipation for the competition built as practices ramped up. This year’s Showdown, however, will be a dance showcase instead of a competition. The teams agreed to set aside the competitive aspect since they have limited time to plan and there is restricted studio space available for practices.

During a normal year, Showdown would entail a packed Conte Forum with 8,000 filled seats, a gigantic stage, booming speakers, and the sharp energy of competition in the air, with 14 dance organizations vying for first place. 

“When you’re on stage you can only see the lights, you really can’t see anything else,” Giordano said. “It feels like you’re just in … a galaxy of lights and noise, and it’s a really beautiful experience that I know is like one of the coolest of my life, having like thousands of people watch while we’re on this big stage for something that I care so much about and worked so hard for.”

In the weeks leading up to Showdown, most dance groups ramp up their practices, sometimes doubling their hours per week and even meeting every day, as UPrising does for what it calls “hell week.” Staying for practices until 3 a.m., members struggled together to produce an impressive performance as dancers bonded and the team fostered a family dynamic.

“It was heartwarming to have us all go through like the same struggles to make such beautiful products and have such an amazing experience,” Giordano said.

The widely attended event not only allows dancers to share the routines they have painstakingly practiced, but also exposes other BC students to their unique dance styles. The variety of styles teams bring to the stage—from hip-hop to Irish dance—spotlights the diversity of the dance groups on campus and the cultures they present. 

Given the limited time, dance groups have less than two months to prepare with sparse practice time slots available in the Brighton Dance Studios. But not all of the dance groups that usually perform in Showdown will be participating this year, including Females Incorporating Sisterhood Through Step (F.I.S.T.S.), winners of the 2019 ALC’s Choice award which is given to the dance team that best represents ALC’s mission. 

Instead of scrambling to create a new routine and theme conducive to a socially distanced performance, Morgan Montgomery, F.I.S.T.S. president and CSOM ’21, said the group is focused on cultivating its team dynamic by teaching its recent recruits foundational steps and the team’s original style. Montgomery said that with six dancers graduating this semester, the group wants to ensure that the seniors have time to help new members develop their own skills. 

Vida de Intensa Pasión will also not participate in Showdown this year. Sexual Chocolate, Presenting Africa To You, DOBC, and AEROdynamiK did not respond to requests for interviews. 

Caroline Melvin, director of Boston College Dance Ensemble (BCDE) and MCAS ’21, said BCDE is used to preparing for Showdown on a tight deadline. The group often only allots a few weeks to prepare its Showdown performance because the group spends much of the spring practicing for its annual spring showcase. This year, Melvin said the group will start preparing for the virtual Showdown performance after the Easter holiday. 

“[Showdown] gives us the opportunity to appreciate other dance groups,” Melvin said. “We obviously love being on stage, and we love the energy and the exhilaration that comes from dancing … but it’s really cool to be in a space with all the other dancers on campus and all like present our best work and put our best foot forward and just see all the talent that really exists on Boston College’s campus.”

Without social distancing requirements, the dancers of Full Swing would clasp hands with their partners, limbs weaving over and under as they spun across the stage together. But, the members have adapted to the COVID-19 restrictions by incorporating a new solo form of swing for their Showdown performance. The team’s Showdown captains have learned the new style—based on the jive and Charleston dances of the early 20th century—to avoid physical contact and maintain the mandatory 10-foot distance. 

“Swing, as a club, is just happy we’re still doing stuff,” Elyse Gaertner, Full Swing president and MCAS ’21, said. “We’re the one dance group on campus that is solely partner dancing, like we didn’t have anything to fall back on.” 

Fuego del Corazon, another dance group that primarily performs partner routines, has also had to adapt its choreography to abide by social distancing rules—requiring extensive reworking to its intimate Latin dance routines. Although Fuego dancers are used to performing in pairs, Arturo Balaguer Townsend, one of five captains of Fuego and MCAS ’21, said the team is excited to perform its individual salsa routines this year, giving every dancer a moment to “shine” on stage.

 “At the end of the day that’s what we want to do, we just want to dance, whether it’s with somebody or not,” Townsend said.

Boston College Irish Dance (BCID) is also excited to get back on stage. Co-presidents Caroline Conroy, CSON ’21, and Erin McMahon, CSON ’21, have worked to actualize a handful of performances this year, including a prerecorded performance in Robsham Theater for the Boston College Arts Festival and a BCID show to highlight what the group has been working on all year. The two presidents said they are excited to celebrate the diversity of dance on campus through Showdown.

“We’re just excited for the freshmen and sophomores to be able to have a first Showdown,” Conroy said. “I think it’ll be really cool for them to finally have that.”

For graduating members of BCID’s team, McMahon said they’re excited to have one last Showdown too.

Practices in preparation for Showdown look starkly different for all dance teams compared to the past years. Phaymus’ “hell weeks” would demand four rehearsals per week to finalize choreography, hold sound checks, and try on costumes. Limited to two days in Brighton Dance Studios now, Dejah Cosby, Phaymus president and MCAS ’21, said that the rehearsal process feels less intense this year. 

Every dance group has had to vie for limited time slots and space at the Brighton studios. The restrictions require the rooms be left empty in between rehearsals to allow for air circulation. Larger groups have to split up between the three studios and communicate through Zoom as they practice. As Showdown approaches, OSI and ALC are also planning to set up outdoor dance spaces for groups to squeeze in additional practices.  

On Tap co-presidents Lauren Paredes, MCAS ’21, and Anthony King, CSOM ’21, said their team has been practicing since September with the hope that there would be a Showdown event in the spring. King said there’s a good chance even more people will watch Showdown this year since the event is free and virtual, ramping up the anticipation for all dance teams performing at this year’s event.

“To be able to throw something like this for the students that can be this widely accessible, that can be this enjoyed when there hasn’t been much to enjoy throughout the school year is really cool,” King said. “The event’s going to bring together on film so many unique, different groups of people for the BC community to watch.”

Photos by Ikram Ali / Heights Editor

March 29, 2021