“Prepare a three-minute self-choreographed dance to the song of your choice. You will perform your dance in front of the class on the first day of finals week. Best of luck.” That was my final exam prompt for DCE 124: Social Dance. After weeks of preparation, my partner and I were ready. Not calm, but ready: like two seven-year-olds lying in wait on Christmas eve.
After some classmates performed a lively shag to “Build Me Up Buttercup,” my partner and I were summoned to center stage. Our song, “Sway” by Michael Bublé; our dance, a tango cha-cha fusion. Both are admittedly different than the Hora of my Father’s Russian ancestors and the jig of my Mother’s Irish clan. Yet after growing up in the vibrant milieu of Miami — or perhaps intoxicated by the sonorous tones of Bublé’s voice — I approached that dance floor confident in my tango and cha-cha. In full disclosure, the presence and experience of my fiery Colombian dance partner did not lessen my confidence. But that is neither here nor there.
The music emerged. Separated by a chasm of well-trodden hardwood and anchored by our classmates’ expectant stares, we approached one another. Slow, slow, quick-quick, slow. Slow, slow, quick-quick, slow. We met in the center as Bublé finished his lyrically apt third verse:
Other dancers may be on the floor
Dear, but my eyes will see only you
Only you have that magic technique
When we sway I go weak
Our turns were crisp. Our promenades, dreamy. Our swivels, lubricous. The dance crescendoed as the music built. The song’s denouement was to coincide with our big move: a slight split on my part and an aerial flourish on hers. Bublé’s voice swelled, my partner leaped, and I lowered until… (ripping sound effect). My khaki trousers ripped from center seam to rear belt loop, revealing an ocean of red plaid underpants.
My classmates gasped, the room deflated, my professor shielded his eyes, and my college experience flashed before mine. I was transported to my first of many 14-hour car rides from Miami to Winston-Salem. I was confident in my abilities and ready to grace Wake Forest with my talents. No mountain seemed too tall. No river seemed too wide. And no challenge, insurmountable. I felt, in short, like a seed of untapped potential eager to blossom.
Somewhere between Savannah, Georgia and Coosawhatchie, South Carolina, my parents turned down the squawking radio and said they each wanted to dedicate a song to me: a flying playlist as I spread my wings and leaped from their nest. In typical 18-year-old fashion, I sighed, then haughtily obliged. My father played Coldplay’s “Fix You.” My Mom chose “I Hope You Dance” by Lee Ann Womack. I was annoyed.
This was all I could hear:
When the tears come streaming down your face
When you lose something you can’t replace
Don’t let some hell-bent heart leave you bitter,
When you come close to sellin’ out reconsider
Like most young adults straddling the chasmic liminality between childhood and adulthood, I didn’t want to glorify failure or lionize humility. I craved strength. I didn’t want Coldplay’s “Fix You,” but William Henley’s “Invictus” — “I am the master of my fate, / I am the captain of my soul.”
So from day one, I choreographed my Wake Forest experience down to the minutest detail. Mine would be the wardrobe with the most pastels, the résumé with the grandest accolades, and the study abroad experience in the most exotic locale. Yet as I left port and began captaining my ship into this imagined paradise, I came upon rough seas. My ship sprung leaks — lots of leaks, all kinds of leaks. Girls wouldn’t date me. Fraternities didn’t want me. Not even the archery team took me. And even when I managed to patch the leaks, the wind died, and the fog descended.
Maybe the densest fog was the time my friend’s dormant childhood Tourette’s Syndrome returned in the middle of a long anticipated dinner party. To cope, we went for a drive as he managed his episode. We screamed. We cried. We cussed. And then we laughed: the way you do when you fight against an invisible enemy that won’t quite fall, when you find comfort and joy in the face of a friend right there with you in the bloody depths of the foxhole.
Or maybe the denser fog was the day my grandfather unexpectedly died. I was on my journey home for spring break, excited to celebrate my birthday. But instead of reconnecting with old friends, I spent my 21st at his funeral. We wept. We prayed. We remembered. And then we laughed: the way you do when you treasure the sweetest parts of a full — but always too short — life.
I didn’t choreograph these moments. But in hindsight, I wouldn’t trade them — they introduced me to life’s messy dance. There is a temptation to think that we can script each step with precise planning and hard work, that we are the masters of our fate. Yet over the last four years, I have learned that life is full of the unexpected — sucker punches and stalls, failures and flops. I am not saying that striving and success are bad. They are important ingredients in a life well lived. But it matters how we respond to the stumbles, perhaps most of all. Character and grace are forged in this furnace of adversity, where the sweet is mixed with the bitter, and the bitter with the sweet.
So when your best falls short, when the girl or the boy says no, when you spill your coffee, when it’s not just a cold, when the honeymoon is over, when you miss the bus, even when your pants rip… make it part of the dance.
Which brings me back to DCE 124. My classmates gasped, the room deflated, my professor shielded his eyes, and I… we… laughed. We giggled. We grinned. And as soon as we could see clear through our joyous tears, I seized my partner by the hand and we savored the final musical measures. We turned, swiveled, and chasséd. We danced.
Like a flower bending in the breeze
Bend with me, sway with ease
When we dance you have a way with me
Stay with me, sway with me…
So my fellow graduates and the Wake Forest community, I hope you dance.
- 2022: PEARSON
- 2021: ZHU
- 2020: ZHOU
- 2020: KING
- 2020: FRANZESE
- 2019: HOLLIS
- 2019: CARNEY
- 2019: GUERCIO
- 2018: TATICH
- 2018: THOMPSON
- 2017: CABAN-CUBERO
- 2017: LAUGHLIN
- 2017: SILVERGATE
- 2016: FINE
- 2016: MALONEY
- 2016: NAGAR
- 2015: LESSANS
- 2015: SOMERVILLE
- 2015: VANSICKLE
- 2014: HUNTER
- 2014: INCZAUSKIS
- 2014: WASHINGTON
- 2013: COURTNEY
- 2013: GUERRA
- 2013: ZHANG
- 2012: CHEN
- 2012: GARDIN
- 2012: TURNER
- 2011: BERENATO
- 2011: GEDRAITIS
- 2011: PETRASH
- 2010: GIANNONE
- 2010: MINERS
- 2010: RAHMAN