Sarabande dance group fosters creativity and community, adapts to pandemic

Sarabande members warm up on the residential quad. Courtesty Sarabande

Sarabande Dance Ensemble is a student-run dance collective founded in 1982 that primarily focuses on contemporary, jazz and ballet. The group distinguishes itself from the nearly 20 other dance groups on campus with its diverse and modern stylistic range, and its commitment to original choreography. Its 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 within those ten hours, there are ten dances, and you can choose how many dances you want to do … so you can choose your commitment.”

Sarabande offers many students their first opportunity to choreograph, either through leading open classes or putting together a full piece. Dancers can realize their own artistic visions, which was not always possible for students who train in a dance studio, according to Chwe.

“Being able to do something that’s student-run and super independent, [where] people are doing exactly what they want to do, made me relax about it,” Chwe said of performing with Sarabande. “It was still a show, but it was way more fun, because … your friend is choreographing something.”

Sophomore Hana Tzou said she has appreciated learning from fellow Sarabande members in a collaborative exchange of movement and technique. Before enrolling at Tufts, Tzou danced at the same studio since she was three years old and developed a strong foundation in ballet, tap, jazz and contemporary dance. She described her training as having been fairly conservative. Through Sarabande, Tzou said she’s been exposed to more experimental dance backgrounds.

“It’s really fun to just try out a new style on the body and learn different shapes that you can make,” Tzou said. “And it’s really expanded 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’s just really broadened my horizons on what dance can actually look like.”

The pandemic strikes

In March 2020, just a day after the university announced its decision to close campus in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Sarabande held its last in-person stage performance. Chwe described it as memorable and bittersweet.

“I think a lot of people loved how jumbled together it was because it took all the pressure off of performing well,” Chwe said. “It was very much like everybody stopped caring about dance and really just vibed and danced for friends … None of the dances were finished, but everybody kind of gave it their all.”

According to Chwe, the club’s rising seniors used the summer to deliberate on what Sarabande would look like during the 2020–21 school year, given the restrictions imposed by the pandemic. The club made its leadership structure more horizontal; it shifted from having two presidents and smaller subcommittees to having the club’s six seniors share responsibility evenly. As a co-chair of the interpersonal committee, Chwe is responsible for planning social events and mediating conflicts between members.  

Building community

Organizing social events requires caution concerning virus safety, and finding a community within the social scene at Tufts has been particularly difficult for many first-years. Chwe said Sarabande has been successful in planning small group hangouts across class years, where dancers get coffee or relax together.

For first-year Emma Olshin, bonding with other first-years has been one of her favorite parts of being in Sarabande. Olshin described how the new members rented and decorated a room in Barnum Hall as a surprise birthday party for a fellow member.

“The people in Sarabande aren’t just my dance teammates, they’re also my best friends.”

Sophomore Hana Tzou

“We were sending pictures to the big [groupchat], and [the upperclassmen] were just so happy that all of us were becoming friends … Even though we joined in kind of strange circumstances, we’re all close, and they know that the future of Sarabande is safe in our hands,” Olshin said. 

Tzou echoed a similar appreciation for the genuine community and family-like atmosphere she found within Sarabande as soon as she joined.

“I [immediately had this] whole network of upperclassmen, and even alumni who just reached out to me and they were like, ‘Anything you ever need just come to us, we can help you,’” Tzou said.

Before the pandemic, dancers would often spend time in an off-campus house that has been passed down through generations of Sarabande members and served as a safe space for members to go to whenever they’d like. 

“The people in Sarabande aren’t just my dance teammates, they’re also my best friends,” Tzou said.

Sarabande has also been holding weekly conversations about the intersections of  race and dance. Chwe said her group last semester discussed the oppression of Black voices in dance, specifically concerning the implications of ballet’s history of exclusion.

Olshin added that she appreciates the value of such discussions.

“[It’s important] to educate ourselves about the issues of discrimination in the dance world, because there’s a lot of that — especially in ballet, which we’ve all done at some point in our training,” Olshin said. “So, I think that’s really cool that people are motivated to learn more, and I’ve definitely learned a lot from that so far.” 

Adapting to performance in a pandemic

Typically, Sarabande, which is composed of no more than 20 dancers, holds recruitment and auditions at the beginning of each semester. Last fall, after conducting a round of virtual auditions, which required three separate video submissions, Sarabande welcomed in five first-years and one sophomore to its group out of the more than 20 people who auditioned. Chwe remarked that the group had not anticipated that much interest and that compared to prior years, the addition of six new members was relatively large.

Since Sarabande cannot stage a full in-person show this year, it has adapted by embracing video performances. Their latest performance, “Fluorescent,” was a 34-minute compilation of 10 dances choreographed by different Sarabande members. Each dance was performed with a different style and mood achieved through a variety of video editing techniques. Some dances were performed outside by masked, socially distant members, while others consisted of pieced-together segments of individually recorded videos.  According to Tzou, the university imposed tighter regulations while the group was in the process of filming for the performance, resulting in variation between performing together and alone. 

For Tzou, transforming her shared dorm room into a suitable space for dancing has been a source of frustration.

“The only thing a dancer needs to dance is space,” Tzou said. “To have that taken away from us, for me was really hard.”

When possible, the group conducts rehearsals in Jackson Gym, reserved classrooms or outdoors — even when temperatures dropped. Even then, Tzou added that lacking access to mirrors, as is customary in typical dance studios, has 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 has grown more accustomed to dancing without a mirror, relying on her instinct and the choreographers’ comments to guide her.

According to Tzou, performing in pre-recorded videos has granted choreographers more freedom to experiment by engaging with a new medium, incorporating camera movements and cuts to transition between formations or add an extra textural quality to the performance.

Even so, for the dancers, there’s much to be missed about the stage performance experience.

“Everyone in Sarabande was kind of bred for the stage,” Tzou said. “I know that the majority of people really miss the show aspect, because there’s just something so thrilling about being up on stage, your friends are in the audience, they’re cheering you on. That adrenaline rush is just so good.”

All members of Sarabande have the chance to choreograph. Even new members, like Olshin, have had the opportunity to choreograph and teach open classes. Olshin said she particularly appreciates that open classes have given her a chance to share smaller combinations of choreography without the need to craft a whole three-minute-long routine.

“I’ve been teaching more technique … doing things across the floor or a workout or stretch, or I could do a little combo — I can really do whatever I want,” Olshin said. “People are down for whatever. People can come, they can not come, it’s very relaxed this semester.” 

The laid-back spirit of Sarabande continues to sustain itself as a creative and collaborative dance collective that supports its dancers, many of whom come from competitive dance backgrounds. Both Tzou and Olshin entered college with the intent of continuing to dance; each researched all of the active dance groups at Tufts and felt drawn to Sarabande. Chwe, on the other hand, had initially considered taking a step back from dance, which had consumed much of her late childhood, but she ultimately felt compelled to join Sarabande after attending an open class her first year.

“I think they do a really good job of leaning on everybody’s skills, never forcing people to do what they’re not comfortable with in the dance, but also really highlighting what people are really good at,” Tzou said. “It’s super collaborative. It’s just really wonderful.”