A year ago, I wrote a blog post about my experience being a model/dancer for Walk It Out, the largest multicultural organization here at the University of Iowa that puts on a massive fashion show in the spring. I talked about how amazing the community was, how I felt during the performance, and how meaningful the entire process was from start to finish. I truly loved being part of the organization. So much so, that I applied to be a choreographer for the 2023 school year.
I heard back late that summer and was granted the opportunity to be one of two East Asian choreographers. My partner, Phong, and I had all of the fall semester to work on our theme, chose our dances, recruit our models and dancers, and overall prepare for the spring semester where we’d devote our time to learning and perfecting the actual performance. But, before I get into my experience as a leader, let me tell you more about our theme this year.
This year, our theme was Multiverse and each cultural group had the opportunity to produce a fresh take on the word. Early on, Phong came up with the idea of doing a play on the film, “Everything, Everywhere, All at Once,” and while I was reluctant at first, I agreed to it. Little did I know, we would later build upon this theme and would make our performance unique among the other groups.
With our theme in mind, we bounced back and forth between having a model be our “main Joy,” one of the main characters in the film, as someone that would move us through dances (aka universes), if we wanted to have elaborate costumes and makeup, whether or not we wanted to do ten dances or less with the number of dancers we recruited, etc. I’ll admit, we shot our expectations a bit too high, but looking back on it, I’m glad we did. It allowed us to be firm in what we wanted out of our group and how we wanted our performance to go.
Once we figured out the order of the dances, we let the dancers choose which ones they wanted to participate in and set the date for our very first practice. From there, the real work began.
On the day of our first practice, I remember being terrified as I made my way to Halsey Hall. I had never been a choreographer before. I hadn’t even danced on stage until last year. Was I supposed to be firm or should I be that laidback, fun leader? Was I supposed to have a perfect timeline set up? How much agency should I give the team? Was Halsey Hall even open on weekends? Luckily, it was.
But those first couple of practices proved to be mayhem.
There was so much confusion about the time stamps for each dance, discourse between me and Phong about our changing ideas, lack of attendance which set us back multiple practices, and even some budgeting issues which forced us to buy a lot of our props and costumes. There were multiple nights when I came back from practice late and fought the urge to cry because of how stressed out I was. Every day, it felt as if one step forward equaled two steps back, and as we neared the showcase, I wasn’t sure we were stage ready. Considering how prepared I felt last year around that time, it made me feel like a failure of a leader.
But I kept pushing.
I had the team stay late after each practice to catch up, ran through dozens of dress rehearsals, finalized our model walk (literally days before the showcase, we were still trying to figure it out), and we drilled that final group dance to the bone. Thanks to Phong, we got our music finalized, our slideshow completed, and he put together an amazing list of light cues that highlighted our performance to a T. Even though we argued and disagreed on so many accounts, I’m really grateful for all of the hard work he did behind the scenes. This performance wouldn’t have been possible without his creative drive, and I owe him a big thanks the next time I see him.
Before we knew it, the Friday night when all of the cultural groups in Walk It Out came together to perform for each other was upon us. I remember Phong and me being transparent about how we wished we had had another practice or two to prepare, but we were still so proud of the progress we had made. This semester had been a tough one for everyone and we were grateful for all of the hard work our dancers and models had put into our show. We knew we couldn’t have asked for a better group to lead and perform with.
And I’ll admit, I was shocked by the applause and cheering we got from the rest of the organization when it was our turn to perform for them. The love, support, and excitement people had for our theme, dances, and all the beautiful cultural clothes were impossible to ignore. I was insanely proud of my group afterward, and for the first time, I felt confident in where we stood. We were just as good as the other groups and, maybe, we had been on the right track all along.
That night, after all the models and dancers left to get a good night’s sleep before the big day, I, the rest of the choreographers, and our executive board met to discuss the order of the show. Every single group was phenomenal, unique, and sharp, which made finding an order nearly impossible.
But, in the end, it was decided that East Asia would be this year’s opening act. I announced the good news to my group that night even as a whole new wave of pressure set in.
Opening the show meant setting the right tone. If we weren’t hype enough, good enough, or exciting enough, then the rest of the show would reflect our performance. I went to bed that night stressing once again about the progress we had made and whether or not we were truly ready for what was to come.
The next morning, bright and early, we completed our first dress rehearsal on the actual stage. And, as I feared, it was messy. Models were walking up and down the wrong set of stairs, people fumbled their dances, and the main model walk we’d been adjusting for months ran over time.
But I had prepared for this.
Last year during our dress rehearsal, I messed up so many times. I remember how devastated I was and how scared I was for the actual performance. But this year, I knew not to let that get in my head.
After we got off stage, I huddled my group up and took the time to tell them my story. I told them how last year I’d messed up so much and that it’s part of the process. It’s why we run a rehearsal on stage, to begin with.
Together, we re-watched the video, got really nit-picky with the details, and addressed each of the mess-ups and transitions. We were lucky enough that this time around, our executive team allowed each group to do two run-throughs on stage, so for our second rehearsal, we focused mainly on those small details. Because of that, our second run-through went ten times better. I don’t know about the rest of the team, but I know I felt a lot more confident coming off that stage the second time around.
The last few hours before the show were a whirlwind. I went back to my place, ate some noodles, and put on my makeup. I braided my hair the night before and finally let it down, fluffed out the curls, and sprayed a thin layer of hair sprayer to keep them intact. Then, before I knew it, I was out the door and back to the Iowa Memorial Union for the performance.
When I stepped back into our dressing room, it was complete mayhem. Everyone was touching up their makeup, chewing their last bites of dinner, and putting on their outfits for some cute balcony pictures. Of course, we timed those pictures, so they’d be during golden hour, and we got dozens of photos as a team, with our friends, and some solo ones where we hyped each other up from the other side of the camera. It was so much fun and a great way to break the tension before we had to gather our things and head backstage.
My team and I quickly placed our props and clothes in their spots with only minutes left until 7:00pm, the official start of the show.
Already, the ballroom was packed, and the voices of hundreds of students, families, and friends echoed throughout the space. Right before it was time to take our positions, I called my team to the very back and we huddled together one last time before we performed. I remember telling them how proud I and Phong were, how we couldn’t have asked for a better team, and most importantly, we encouraged them to go out there and have fun. We broke our huddle, got into our positions, and waited.
Maria and I were the first performers in our show. We would begin the performance with a model walk in our cultural dresses before the first dancers crossed the stage for their all-girl group dance.
From the staircase, I held on tightly to the railing as the executive team welcomed the audience and announced our group. As soon as they stepped off stage, the lights dimmed, and the entire ballroom went black. Then, on the two massive TV screens on either side of the stage, a clip of Evelyn and Jobu Tupaki from “Everything, Everywhere, All at Once,” began to play. The sound echoed throughout the room and then, the clip shut off, the lights turned back on, and I found Maria’s eyes from across the stage.
We nodded, stepped into the spotlight, and officially opened up the show.
I remember the gasp that rippled through the crowd when we stepped into their view. Then, the applause rose as we posed, walked the stage, and then disappeared to change for our next performance. The girls in the girl group absolutely killed their first dance and another clip of Jobu and Evelyn brought us right to our next dance.
I and the other five dancers were dressed as cowboys with colorful flannels and baggy jeans as we strode on stage. We danced, smiled, and gestured for the crowd to keep hyping us up before we slipped off stage again. Another clip of Evelyn and then our powerhouse female duo took the stage for a tut routine that was clean, sharp, and so fast that if you blinked, you missed it.
After that, there were some more clips and modeling before me and Laura glided on stage with our traditional pastel clothes and fans to match. This was my first time doing a cultural fan dance on stage, and even though I’m sure the audience could see me shaking, I managed to get through it with some grace and poise. It was our slowest dance, but one of the most beautiful performances we had in our show. Afterward, we danced our way off stage and made room for the big runway portion which included East Asian cultural wear, modern-day outfits, and more.
While that was happening, I quickly threw on my uniform and snaked my way toward the back of the stage with my bo staff. Last year, I did a katana form, and this year, I decided to use my taekwondo skills once again and bring out my bo staff for a spin. From the cover of the stage, I watched the last of the models as they walked to the exits and waited for my cue.
I remember taking a deep and shaky breath. My hands shook on the staff, my palms sweaty. I checked for the hundredth time that the two sides were screwed tightly together, and I felt that familiar wave of calm roll over me like it always does right before I’m about to perform. Then, the lights cut off, the stage went dark, and I slowly stood from my hiding spot.
From the crowd’s point of view, I was just a silhouette moving backstage, prowling up the ramp with my bo staff at my back, and my hair across my shoulders. I paused at the edge of the stage, waited for my music to roll in, and for the lights to sweep over me. Before I even got to the center of the stage, the crowd was screaming for me.
And, similar to last year, they were so loud that their screams stood over the music, and I had a second of fear that I might miss my cue. But luckily, I got a wisp of the music just in time to begin my segment. The whole thing flew by as I struck, turned, kneeled, and screamed at the top of my lungs. I still have a bruise on my knee from how hard I landed with my final move.
I was brought back to the present and then I was on my feet, bowing to the crowd, and taking off down the ramp again to change into my final outfit for our show.
I changed quickly and had enough time to watch our trio perform. I cheered them on and watched them land each move perfectly in time with the music. Then, the lights cut off, and we scrambled to our places for our final group dance.
When the lights flicked on again and the final song began, we raced on stage and completed our final dance. There were smiles, sweat, and so much joy as we hit our final pose and the crowd’s applause filled our ears. That moment will forever be locked in my memories, even though we had to immediately race off stage, gather our things, and make room for the next group coming in to perform.
But the celebration continued in our dressing room as we cheered for ourselves and I told them that our performance, the thing we’d worked so hard on these past couple of months, was the perfect way to start the show. We set the tone and the rest of the groups that followed matched it to a T. It was such an amazing showcase and I’m so grateful to have been able to see it.
Even more so, I’m so proud to have choreographed part of it.
For me, this experience is even more meaningful knowing that I came into college never having danced before. And yet, I succeeded as a choreographer, dance teacher, and leader, and even though I wasn’t always confident in myself, I’m proud of the way I handled things. I wouldn’t change any of it for the world.
For those of you who are looking to get involved in multicultural organizations on campus, find a community of people of color who look like you, or maybe have an excuse to be a dancer and/or model, I would definitely recommend participating in Walk It Out next year. Recruitment should begin within the Fall of 2023 and if you follow their Instagram page (@uiowawalkitout) all of the information will be right there for you!
My time with the organization has been amazing and I can’t wait to see what ends up happening next. Thank you, guys, so much for reading about my experience. It’s truly been amazing.
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