Graduating senior Eli van der Rijn is a double major in international literary and visual studies and biopsychology. In his academic career, classes that stood out include a Spanish class on the Argentine short-story writer Jorge Luis Borges and Experiments in Physiology, a class that gave its students a certain amount of freedom, as they designed their own experiments. Between classes, van der Rijn helps students better their writing skills as a writing fellow. This semester, he assumed the leadership role of head fellow. After graduation, he will take a position as a research assistant at a neurobiology lab in Boston.
However, a critical part of van der Rijn’s time at Tufts has been his participation in Sarabande, a dance group that combines contemporary, ballet, jazz and modern dance styles.
Van der Rijn started dancing when he was two years old with his older sister, Maddy. He stayed at a dance studio, participating in their competition team for a handful of years. He also supplemented his skills with school musicals. When he was 16, he began studying contortion at a youth circus. It was a pre-professional training program in which van der Rijn was given the opportunity to perform on exciting platforms. He did a gig at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and another with a professional cabaret.
His reasoning behind auditioning for Sarabande was rooted in his desire for a team environment –– contortion, mainly, is a solo practice.
Van der Rijn went to an open class with his sister Maddy, who, as a senior, was already involved with the dance teams at Tufts. She was the director of Spirit of the Creative, another dance group at Tufts which focuses on hip-hop and jazz. So she knew a lot of members of Sarabande. He thought, “What’s the worst that could happen?” before his audition, knowing little about how Sarabande would intertwine with his college experience.
The dance team consists of around 20 members.
“We have a pretty tight community. … All of this year, any waking hour that people exist, there has been somebody in Sarabande in the [Mayer] Campus Center, sitting at one of those tables,” van der Rijn said. “People just hanging out. That sort of community is very present and very social.”
Rehearsals for the team are geared toward an end of the year performance. All members have the chance to choreograph a dance and each dance is given an hour of rehearsal each week. Sometimes, the choreographers who run the practices will switch things up, choosing to lead their dancers in an improv workshop.
“There’s one dance that’s required of everybody. It’s our finale: the ‘All Sarabande Dance’ that’s choreographed by all of the seniors together,” van der Rijn said.
Most members go into the team with studio training and experience with competition. “It’s a very familiar environment to us, … and it’s nice to continue that sort of routine,” van der Rijn said.
With that, van der Rijn explained, “We’re people who have had no free evenings for the majority of our lives.”
Consequently, when their semester show comes to an end, they find themselves floating strangely. Van der Rijn outlined this feeling with an anecdote. After their April show, “Chrome,” one of his housemates (also in the performance), came into his room and said, “I don’t know what to do. I am so bored. I have tried on all of my pants, and I have looked at them in the mirror, said, ‘huh,’ and then put them away. That’s where I’m at.”
When asked to reflect, van der Rijn said, “Let’s start at the beginning.” In March 2020, the group had most of their dances choreographed –– they were about two weeks from tech week, and then everyone was told to go home. “We said, ‘You know what, we want to do a little show because we’re this far into the semester.’” So they did. It was a little clumsy with no lights or costumes, but the group came together before they all left Tufts’ campus.
In the fall of 2020, Sarabande approached the year with a mindset of choreographing dance videos. Van der Rijn noted that adjusting to the new format was a process.
“It was crazy … but we pulled things together,” van der Rijn said. “We were really excited, and we were about to go into filming.”
However, in November 2020, as COVID-19 restrictions increased, many students left campus for a second time before Sarabande’s dances were filmed.
“Spring of 2021, we were very exhausted and tired of not getting to produce anything, [any] final product,” van der Rijn said.
Instead of practicing and preparing for a show, the team just had open rehearsal slots. Members could use the time as they pleased. Either a dancer would lead a combo, hold an open class or concoct a different, fun idea.
Finally, in spring 2022, Sarabande got its April show, “Chrome.”
Van der Rijn choreographed a dance. He decided on the James Blake song “When We’re Older” (2020).
“[Blake] is all of a sudden harmonizing with himself in 12 ways. It’s very loud and powerful,” he said. “It’s [this] moment of the song that made me choose the song.”
Van der Rijn remembers the first practice when he saw his dance fully.
“Seeing it, for the first time, that big moment that I wanted to happen … it had the impact I was going for, and all of these people were moving together but differently. It was pretty crazy. And then I watched on repeat for three hours,” he said.
Another impactful Sarabande moment for van der Rijn was performing the senior dance. Each show, the seniors will choreograph and perform their own numbers. Van der Rijn and his friends invented a song mashup with funny soundbites and clips of popular songs, which accompanied their on-stage performance.
“All of a sudden, the adrenaline took us. … We did that [dance] harder than we had ever done it before,” van der Rijn said.
For van der Rijn, after devoting close to 11 hours a week to Sarabande, discovering his friends and housemates within the group, it’s difficult to think that this chapter of his life may be coming to a close as the semester ends.
“This is probably the end of my career as a dancer. I’ve been dancing or doing things for so long, and it’s a new stage of my life where extracurriculars are a lot harder to do,” he said.
More specifically, van der Rijn will miss the creative freedom, leadership and ingenuity Sarabande encourages.
“I’m really going to miss the opportunity to dance and also the opportunity to choreograph,” he said. “That’s something that’s been really awesome and crazy from my experience in Sarabande –– my ability to set choreo and make visions happen on other people.”
In a final reflection, van der Rijn described the community he will leave in a few weeks.
“It’s a place where upperclassmen share [advice] with underclassmen; … so much of that exchange happens there,” he said. “We get to welcome new people in and have to say goodbye to old ones.”
But from talking to van der Rijn, it’s clear that saying goodbye means so much more than just leaving: It’s the passing on of a legacy to another generation of Tufts dancers.