By Shengul Bajrami, 16, University HS
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I'm on the right, performing as a mental patient.

I remember the first time I saw modern dance during a school assembly. I felt confused as I watched the dancers’ goofy moves. They were jumping in the air, knees up, feet flexed and arms curved under their armpits. In my mind, they resembled excited apes. What were they doing? They looked so STUPID! Before I knew it, my friend and I started to giggle. Soon we were laughing, but luckily the music drowned out our chuckles.

Then they did a SILENT dance. Oh no, I thought. I hope I don’t laugh. But as the dancers began hopping from place to place, doing weird positions in the air, I couldn’t help myself. I started cracking up, and soon my friend was snorting with laughter! My teacher, who was sitting behind us, was tapping my shoulder, saying, "Shh! That’s so rude!" Everyone turned to look at us—we were ruining the show!

I feel so bad when I think back on that experience just a few years ago. Having studied dance for a while, I now have a whole different appreciation of it. I’ve learned that dance can open up new ways to say things that can’t be communicated any other way. Dance of all kinds—modern, hip hop, jazz, ballet—has become one of my passions.

When we had to make up dances in my beginning dance class at school, most of the stuff we did was hip hop; stuff like you’d see in MTV videos. When it came to modern dance, we were still in the chuckling and snorting category. But my teacher kept trying to open our minds. She showed us tapes of great choreographers like Martha Graham and Katherine Dunham, two pioneers in American modern dance. Slowly I began to see that a movement could express a feeling or tell a story. Dance is an incredibly versatile art form—it can really say anything you want it to say! As time passed, and my dance teacher taught us about what dance really is and can be, I felt more enticed to show people something new through dance. I wanted to be more than a dancer—I wanted to be a choreographer, calling the shots and inventing the steps.

I created my own dance number

In my junior year my friend and I tossed around the idea of doing a dance to the song "Falling Away From Me," by Korn. The singer goes from loud and angry to quiet and restrained. As I listened to the song, a story took shape in my mind. Two people in a mental institute wish they could express their feelings, but there’s always someone holding them back. But eventually they break free of their puppet strings, speak the truth and kill themselves! I imagined people dressed in hospital scrubs on a dramatic stage lit with red lights—almost like a scary movie. At the same time, I knew it was risky to perform something like that at my school—would my classmates get it? Would they laugh at us?

I spent a couple of days listening to the song over and over and imagining the dance. Within a week, I had choreographed and taught the main moves to six other students so we could show our teacher. Sadly, we had to change a lot of the moves. Our teacher said they were too graphic and violent. Well, of course they were! This is a story of two suicidal people! I had to take out the part where we slit our wrists, and we kind of implied the suicide using dramatic lighting changes. It was still really cool—and definitely the most intense dance I’ve ever seen at University High.

Finally we performed for the whole school. In our baggy green cargo pants with tight black shirts, and freaky looking make-up, we looked like the cast of a horror movie. As we danced, people started calling out to us, and when it was over, the whole audience was screaming and clapping. Afterwards, everyone in my classes was talking about the "Korn kids." We felt like stars—it felt so good.

Then I got chosen to be the student choreographer for the musical West Side Story. Along with helping choreograph most of the dances for the show, I was in charge of three numbers. It sounded simple, and I created routines I thought were really basic. But then the rehearsals began. I had all 50 of the cast members in the gym. I figured I’d start with a simple warm-up step. I stood up in front and showed them the moves. They watched skeptically. Someone sarcastically muttered "Yeah right!"

I gave the count to begin, "5,6,7,8!" They all clomped across the gym floor, concentrating hard to stay on the beat. People were tripping over their own feet, kicking people in front of them and whacking people next to them. Others fell to the ground with a thump. I heard the delicate sounds of cursing along with cries of "Ow! You hit me! Jerk!"

What a disaster!

I helped everyone learn the right moves

Right up to the day of the performance, I was teaching people the moves. Even as they were on stage, I was in the wings doing it, so they could see me if they got lost. But it looked really good in the end—very professional. People said, "It looked like a real Broadway show!" I was extremely proud of my ideas coming to life on stage thanks to everyone’s efforts. At the end of the production, all my "dancers" signed my program, filling it with apologies and "Thank you for putting up with me."

Just as I was starting to feel pretty good about this whole choreography thing, I had my ego taken down a notch at the annual spring dance convention in Palm Springs. To be honest, I thought it would be a breeze. All my friends tell me how good I am, and I guess I started believing it. When we got to Palm Springs, I was unimaginably intimidated when I saw that I had to warm up with hundreds of dancers. It was pretty funny watching them stretch. One would sit upright with her legs opened to more than a straight line; then someone else would do a split, then lay forward while pulling her back leg to her head. Did they have skeletons!? I felt like a churro in a batch of pretzels. And not just any pretzels. The kind with pretty styled hair and designer dancewear.

As I went from class to class, I met lots of the choreographers who were teaching the workshops. I realized that you can in fact make a living from choreography. But at the same time, I could see how many talented dancers are out there. I wondered how many want to be choreographers. I’m really scared! It’s so competitive! That’s one of the reasons my mom doesn’t want me to turn dancing into a career—she says I’ll be a starving artist, working at a dead-end job just so I can pay for classes.

I don’t know what will happen in the future—maybe I’ll get lucky in the world of dance, become a choreographer and get paid for it. Either way, I’m glad I’ve gotten a taste of what dancing has to offer. Dance makes me feel more alive.