Freedom of Expression: 15 years of dancing at Wheaton

  On the night of Nov. 14, 2003, Wheaton College held its first campus dance in history, marking an end to the 143 year ban on dancing. Local and national news networks were captivated by the story unfolding before their eyes; the NewYork Post even wrote about it in their “Weird But True” section, and news of this event somehow managed to make its way to a news channel in Australia.

After over a year of intensive planning by College Union President Bethany Jones, Wheaton College wasabuzz with activity. Media crews hovered around campus and students excitedly made their way to the gymnasium to participate in the historic event.

Despite the commotion that the dance aroused, Wes Carrington, a staff writer for the Record in 2003, reported that, “Wheaton’s first dance was met with overwhelmingly positive reviews from the college community as over 1,200 students crammed into the gymnasium to exercise their newfound freedom.”

Dr. Gary Burge, a professor of New Testament who attended the dance, stated, “I was impressed with our students. The turnout was great, the gym was packed and if anyone within our community — trustees, administrators, faculty, students, alumni — had reservations about dances at Wheaton, those concerns were laid to rest Friday night.”

Today, dance is such an integral part of campus life that most students cannot comprehend Wheaton without it. Hye Rim Ryu, a senior at Wheaton and a member of the dance group Rampage, says, “To me, I don’t think Wheaton would be the same — I wouldn’t have had the same experience — if dance was still banned.” She says that as an international student from Bolivia, it has been hard for her to connect with other students, but dancing has helped her build relationships with other students.

She joined Rampage her freshman year and felt embraced. Ryu said that currently, “There are a lot more [dance] groups being formed. There’s adance ministry now on campus, Zoe’s Feet. And a lot more students are willing to participate at dance events and groups or things like that.”

Ry believes that dance is slowly becoming a larger part of the Wheaton experience. She continued, “Even if students don’t dance, they go to things like [the] Talent Show and Air Jam, and they see students perform, and it’s become part of a whole community activity.”

Junior Jeremy Moore, known for his skillful and energized performance in the Talent Show, said that he grew up in the Church of God in Christ, which encouraged dancing.

Moore remarked, “When you feel the Spirit, you dance.” He said that he’s been dancing ever since he heard music, and he mainly does freestyle and hip hop with his friends. Though he doesn’t typically choreograph his dances, he is grateful to dance with people who have that skill.

Moore said about his dancing abilities, “All glory to God for giving me these gifts and abilities.”

Jill Kuhlman, a senior who hosts the Instagram account “@some_friends_dancing,” said that she first learned how to connect dancing with her faith when she joined Zoe’s Feet as a freshman. Kuhlman said, “It really just sort of changed my life.

Just thinking about how I could ask the Holy Spirit to move through me, just like you can ask the Holy Spirit to give you words to pray or just sit in stillness and hear from the Lord. I also learned that my body’s a temple of the Holy Spirit, and I could ask to pray through the Holy Spirit with my body.”

Zoe’s Feet taught her a concept known as “dancing in tongues,” and she learned how to move even without choreography. At first, she didn’t completely understand the concept, but now she’s very passionate about it: “I honestly believe it —  totally believe it — and I take it super seriously.”

In her interview with the Record, Kuhlman said, “It’s normally so much less pretty than trying to dance by myself. When I ask the Holy Spirit to move through me, it’s really weird looking, but it feels like a really awesome way to pray. Anyone can do it — you can do it!”

Kuhlman started the “@some_friends_dancing” Instagram account with her friend and Wheaton grad Rebecca Watkins after reading the book “A Sacred Shift” by Marlee Grace. Every day for a year, Grace posted a video of herself dancing. Kuhlman and Watkins were inspired and thought, “Well, nothing is stopping us from doing this — let’s do it, too!” So, as part of a New Year’s resolution, the two friends decided that every day for a year they would post a short video of them dancing on Instagram.

At first, Kuhlman was a bit nervous and embarrassed, but soon she learned to put aside her worries of what people thought, and she found a lot of joy and healing in the process. Not only does her daily dancing bring vitality to her soul, spirit and body, but it also inspires others.

In response to Kuhlman and Watkins’ Instagram account, sophomore Cassidy Keenan, along with her friend Anne Symons, created an Instagram account called “@some_other_friends_dancing.”

Keenan says that dance has allowed her to experience a kind of freedom and allowed her to enter into the presence of God. She says, “I have found one of the best things that [dance] has helped me [with] in terms of my spiritual life is with really specific emotions of grief and anxiety.

[Those] have been the two biggest ones.” She says that sometimes, “you just don’t always know what to say, and there’s so much going on and no way to let it out. You’re trying to connect and you just don’t know how, [so] when you just kind of move, it’s a language of its own; you use your body to try to say things to God that you couldn’t say [with words].”

 Keenan remarked that dance has allowed her to live in the moment and stop worrying about the past and the future. She said, “I’ve never been more fully in my own body.”

Keenan’s main interaction with dance is in Arena Theatre, but she also participates in the Zumba class at Wheaton. Liz Lengel, a senior and one of two instructors at Wheaton, describes Zumba as a “guided dance party.” It is fitness-based and generally includes Latin American and international styles of dance music, as well as American hip-hop.

When asked how dance has impacted her life, Liz said that Zumba is great for one’s personal well-being and that it allows people to “gain confidence in, [the idea that these are] our bodies and movement is not something we should be ashamed of. That’s so pervasive in our culture. Having an outlet like Zumba, I’ve just been able to see so many people come out of their shells and find so much freedom there.”

Liz said that there is “so much freedom in being totally shameless and [thinking], ‘Nope! This is dance and it’s a beautiful thing. I don’t have to be self-conscious about this and no one else should be either.’”

Themes of freedom, expression and confidence rang out in every interview with these dancers. Sometimes dancing allows people to communicate with the Lord and sometimes, as Emma Sholtz, a freshman at Wheaton and member of Swing Club stated, it is simply an “expression of joy and a chance to just relax.”

Even so, the campus emphasis on dance as a worship outlet or ministry can be overwhelming to students who want to pursue dance professionally. Senior Mercy Barrial, who has danced for over 10 years, dreams of opening her own dance studio.

Originally, she told the Record, she wanted to get a degree in dance studies but Wheaton’s liberal arts program attracted her. When she first came to Wheaton, she hoped to join Zoe’s Feet in order to pursue dance on the side. However, she found more opportunities outside of Wheaton. Now, she has been accepted into a professional dance company in Chicago.

“I don’t appreciate how Wheaton doesn’t consider dance to be something that’s academic … in a lot of ways that discredits the value of dance,” she told the Record.

Barrial entered Wheaton with dance credits and wanted to use them but found herself unable to because Wheaton’s conception of dance tends to be “ministry-focused,” and, to Barrial, discounts the value of dance as “an actual art form, like music or ceramics or painting.”

While dance as a ministry is certainly a beautiful thing, Barrial’s story indicates that perhaps Wheaton’s conception of dance has yet to be fully developed.

Whether or not you’re part of a club, dance group or professional company, one way you can participate in dance at Wheaton is through the President’s Ball. College Union member Melissa Montiel says that campus dances are a great way to foster diversity and encourage individual expression. Although she could not give out specific details about the annual dance, she said that they have chosen a venue and posters will be going up this week.

While Wheaton has yet to elevate dancing to an area of academic study, dance as a form of ministry is still a blessing for many students on campus. On Nov. 14, 2003, Wheaton students were given the “go ahead” to start dancing, and they haven’t stopped since. Dance groups have continued to perform across campus, and dance has become a part of life, a way to respond to God, a practice of health and a way to simply enjoy life and build confidence. In just 15 years, dance has gone from being forbidden to being embraced as a way to glorify God and enjoy life and movement.

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