It seems that Naya Samuel ’14 knows everybody on campus. During our walk from Usdan to her house behind Pine Street, she waved to no fewer than 22 people passing on the sidewalk or driving by in cars. Still, though, this DanceLink Fellow refused to believe that she was a big deal.
“I think people just see me because I work at WesWings,” Samuel said.
On the grassy knoll outside her cozy and secluded three-story home, we sat down to chat about popping and locking, fetching coffee in Brockport, NY, and “So You Think You Can Dance.”
The Argus: What do you think makes you a WesCeleb?
Naya Samuel: Whoa. Okay, I wasn’t ready for that. Honestly, I think it’s just because I work at WesWings, and people see me when I take their order. That’s it. [Laughs.]
A: How did you get involved with dance at Wesleyan?
NS: Well, I knew I wanted to dance at Wesleyan as soon as I got here. I just wasn’t sure if I wanted to be a major or not. Halfway through my sophomore year, my friend Kelsey, who just graduated, convinced me to check out the major, and the rest just kind of fell into place. The major’s pretty small, so you have more opportunities and more options to make bigger pieces without anyone being worried about the length of the show.
A: Do you remember the first dance class you took here?
NS: Whoa! Yeah, I took Hip-Hop II, by Clyde Evans. And it was incredible. We were learning popping and locking and stuff from the ’70s that no one does anymore, but it’s crucial to the hip hop that we do now.
A: What else are you interested in?
NS: I don’t know. What else do I do here? I kind of just dance and work at WesWings. Yeah, dance kind of consumes all my time here. Because, apart from the major and shows and whatnot, there are the student-run dance groups that I’m in. I’m in Fusion and Precision, so there’s an extension of dance in that part of my life–the optional part–and then I also am running Burlesque this year, which is also obviously dance-related, so it extends out to that part. It just kind of disguises itself in different ways in my life, but it’s pretty much all I do here.
A: How do people react when you say you’re a dance major? How did your parents respond to it?
NS: I think my mom is happy that I’m majoring in something else too, honestly. I’d say there are mixed responses to it—some people are really positive, because they like “So You Think You Can Dance.” Some people are confused by the dance major, and some people don’t take it that seriously. But I do, so I guess that’s what matters.
A: Do you watch “So You Think You Can Dance”?
NS: I’m not a big fan of “So You Think You Can Dance.” Don’t get me wrong—I enjoy it when I do watch it, and I think the people on there are really talented, but I think it’s such a one-dimensional view of what makes good dance, and it promotes the view of commercial dance as the only acceptable form of dance. It does some work against the whole profession moving forward and becoming mainstream.
A: What forms of dance are you primarily interested in?
NS: Here I mostly do modern and hip-hop, but I’ve done West African and ballet, and a hodgepodge of things. I figured out I wanted to start dancing senior year of high school, which is pretty late, so as soon as I figured it out I just took as much as I could in as many different genres and hoped that somehow that would make me catch up faster—just being versed in more styles. I used to take Afro-Brazilian Samba a lot, which was fun.
A: What did you think of ballet?
NS: Well, I knew I needed it. It’s like the ABCs of dance. No, that’s not what I meant to say. I understand how important ballet is, so I wanted to have some kind of a grasp on it, and get some of the vocabulary, because that’s used in all different genres, not just ballet. But I think it can be a little constraining, and uptight. But it’s beautiful, and I really like it.
A: About the DanceLink fellowship [for which there was a summer internship with a dance company, followed by an ambassadorship at Wesleyan this fall]: Were you dancing? Getting coffee?
NS: Well, the first month was a combination of dancing and getting coffee. I went upstate—the company is Doug Varone and Dancers, and I went with them to their annual workshop, which is in Brockport, which is about six hours away. So I lived up there with them for a month, and in the morning I got to take classes and in the afternoon and night I became staff. And then when I got back to the city I helped them out in their New York office, which was filing. Lots of filing.
A: Did you learn a lot about dance?
NS: Yeah, definitely. The classes were really incredible, and the company is only eight dancers, so everything was really intimate, and they were so open and eager to share the knowledge that they had. A lot of us were also seniors, or had just graduated, so we were really nervous about what role dance would play in our post-college life. So they were really focusing on those kinds of questions and giving us that kind of advice, which was awesome. It was like a how-to guide.
A: So you think you’ll dance after college?
NS: Yeah. That’s a tricky question that I’m still debating. Definitely whatever career I go into will be in the dance world, at least I hope. I’m not sure. Dancing in New York City is tough. It’s definitely tough. I’d like to, though. I’ll definitely take classes no matter what.
A: So you’re working on a thesis this year? Any ideas?
NS: Well, I guess I’m still in the clarifying process, and really articulating what I want to do. But at this point I think I’m working with John Berger’s “Ways of Seeing.” I’m looking at our different perspectives—literally, as in the way you see me when you see me dancing on stage, and if I happen to catch your eye in the audience what I think of when I see you—and then of the flip side of that, where it’s what your gaze is, so what standpoint you’re coming from and how that’s affecting what you can see. So yeah, we’ll see how that goes.
A: For dance majors, are theses written out or danced out?
NS: Both. It’s a two-semester process. You make a dance each semester and at the end you write your thesis. I guess you should be working on it the whole time, but it’s due at the end.
A: Do you usually choreograph by yourself, or do you bring in help?
NS: I like to make a lot of pieces with the dancers once I have them, because I think that nobody knows somebody else’s body well enough to make movement for them without them actually doing it.
A: One last silly question: How has your dance training informed your social dancing? I mean, you have all these dance moves, and then when you go to parties is something else expected of you?
NS: You mean like grinding? [Laughs.] It haunts me. It really haunts me. I feel like I sometimes do feel shy to dance at parties—and sometimes I totally don’t, don’t get me wrong—but sometimes I feel like, “You guys are expecting a thesis, and I just want to dance to Jay-Z.”