Interpreting Circles


A first-hand account of a contemporary dance class.  

As a senior, I constantly think about all the things I have to do before I graduate and lose all the privileges associated with being an undergraduate. I also decided that I would be a little selfish and do something that I’ve always wanted to try. So what did I do last week? I signed up for introductory contemporary dance classes through the Harvard Dance Center.

When I was little, I had grand dreams of becoming a renowned dancer. However, my parents had different plans for me and sent me straight to the textbooks. I never ended up getting to take dance lessons as a child, and when I came to Harvard, the opportunity seemed to dangle itself before my eyes. Two of my close friends would always rave about the dance classes and overall dance scene at Harvard. Listening to their stories and seeing them put on little routines during our hangouts made me want to get in on that action.

This semester, I put on my big-girl britches and registered for contemporary dance classes every Friday evening. Last week was my first day of dance class. I hadn’t been this nervous to start classes since freshman year of college. Walking into the studio, I could see a couple of the other women stretching in seemingly impossible ways. I panicked; what were they doing here? They should have gone to the more advanced lessons.

Trying to calm myself, I sat on the floor and began to do the couple of basic stretches I knew. About five minutes later, a petite yet energetic man came in with a string of bells. When he went around and welcomed each of us to his class, I realized that he must be Yo-el, the instructor. After making his rounds, he had all eight of us gather in a circle to do warm-up exercises.

First, Yo-el had his assistant play the drums and piano. Next, we began doing warm-up exercises and breathing techniques, which were meant to physically and mentally, prepared us to dance. Next, Yo-el had us pace around the entire studio. He encouraged us to move freely and not think about where exactly we were going. Our pace was to match the rhythm of the background music. As this segment progressed Yo-el had us change directions, elevations, and incorporate other parts of our bodies. I thought, “Okay. This isn’t so bad. I can do this. Dance lessons aren’t so scary.”

But, the next segment was perhaps the hardest part of all. It wasn’t at all physical; it was mental. Yo-el had us lock eyes with another classmate and stare at them for two minutes.  He emphasized that we should emote with our eyes and switch back and forth between looking at our partner and looking “through” them. For me, this was a difficult task; I feel that Harvard kind of conditions students to look away from each other. I know I actively avoid making eye contact when walking through the yard by scrolling through my many-times-read texts. This exercise forced me to look at someone who wasn’t a good friend directly in the face. As uncomfortable as it was, it was refreshing sharing a semi-intimate moment with a stranger.

One of the most freeing parts of class was “interpreting a circle.” Yo-el told us to move across the space using whatever movements we thought most represented the “concept of circles.” At first I was unsure of what to do, especially after seeing the more experienced dancers glide across the studio with sweeping arm gestures. As my group was about to go, I just pushed all other thoughts out of my head, focused on the “ta-ca-ta-ca-ta” of the drums and went for it.

It was so incredibly freeing to just move without judgment. No one else in the class had a wrong or right answer on how a circle is to be performed through movement. I let myself just move through space, allowing my limbs take charge of where I ended up. Before this dance class, I had never felt so unburdened by my own insecurities. I hope to capture that feeling of total body confidence in all aspects of my life.

I felt totally powerful and actually somewhat graceful until Yo-el pulled back the curtains to reveal a giant mirrored wall. Seeing myself move and dance was discouraging. Seeing myself reflected was the first time in the class that I felt like I had ‘messed up.’ I hope by the end of these lessons in November, I am able to look at myself in the mirror and maintain the same freedom to dance I had when my reflection was covered.

The dance lessons that I’ve wanted since childhood are not only teaching me how to dance, but are giving me lessons in building body confidence. I’m not surprised that I’m learning how to reconnect with people, but I’m also learning to reconnect with myself.


Shaquilla Harrigan ’16 ( wants everyone to shut up and dance with her.