Special to The Swellesley Report courtesy of the Wellesley High School Bradford and Parents of Performing Students (POPS). This is one in a series of POPS senior profiles we’ll be publishing.
Though many claim that dance is not a sport, it actually is. Dance requires a combination of strength, flexibility, and body awareness, but saying that dance is only a sport is still far from the truth. Dance is an art, it is a skill, and it is history. Through it, Fatima Sillah ’23, a dancer at heart from the very beginning, has discovered the beauty of self-expression and identity.
Ever since the age of three, Sillah has been exposing herself to different types of dance ranging from ballet and contemporary to jazz and hip hop. Growing up, her inspiration mainly came from spending time with her brother’s 90s influence, creating Musically and Dubsmash dance videos with friends, and watching TV series and influencers like Step Up, Missy Elliot, LA Playground, and more recently, artists like Tanisha Scott. From a young age, her attention was mainly drawn to prominent Black dancers who continue to influence her dance style to this day.
At family gatherings, others would often say she was the life of the party. Sillah caught on to Afro-dance quite easily while watching her relatives, and that same type of free-flow technique is something she has always carried with her along the way. When it comes to dance, she often lets the music guide her.
“I kind of like to think of a story that I want to tell and then I just move along with the music. And I move my body and I use my facial expressions. And that’s a way of kind of expressing how I feel… definitely don’t think I ever tried to go against the music,” said Sillah.
Currently, Sillah dances both in school and out. She works as a choreographer and teacher for the high school’s shows and performances. Sillah was able to extend her knowledge of dance to her other peers when she helped choreograph the school’s musicals Mamma Mia and Something Rotten, as well as International Night led by Young Ethnic Scholars (YES).
During rehearsal, Sillah relies on both the music and her peers to bounce off her ideas.
Sillah likes to describe it as a “good game of telephone.” First she makes sure she listens to the song multiple times both in and out of school to get a sense of the rhythm, beat, and style. She sometimes looks for advice from YouTube or her friends, but mainly just allows her body to groove to the sound, remembering to stick to the loose but ever present guidelines of the dance.
“She’s very creative… She’s been really good about others messing up and making mistakes, like if I do, she helps me figure out how to fix it. She’s also good at figuring things out especially if you’re having trouble figuring out how to do something and it’s different than what she expected, she’s good at changing around to fit other people,” said Miah Phillips ’23, one of her dance peers.
Dance is all about working around and constantly checking in with both the teacher and student. The back and forth feedback as well as the rerunning of steps or numbers helps to build a stronger foundation for the team as a whole. Only with a solid basis for the moves can the special touches of self-expression and confidence bring the dance to life.
Quite commonly, performing artists may struggle with self-confidence. This is especially true during their early to late teenage years which usually come with a changing body, social awareness, and expectation. However, no matter what a performing artist is facing, there is always room for growth and confidence.
For Sillah, self-confidence was never as much a mental block for her as others. Something she did find growth in was her leadership skills and advocacy especially when working with friends and students her own age. Aside from showing leadership in dance, Fatima also exemplifies her skills in YES, a school club that brings students of all backgrounds together to create a safe space to talk about and combat systematic racism at the high school.
“She’s able to be a leader in a way that she can take charge of a situation especially as needed, but does so in a way that people still feel valued and valuable… like they’re contributing to a part of something and they’re not being told what to do exactly,” said Janet Sozio, a guidance counselor, supervisor of dance at the high school, and director of the WHS Moving Company.
Throughout her experience with dance, Sillah has continuously tried to find a happy medium and balance with sticking to the expectation of how a dance “should” be choreographed based on the music and style versus adding one’s own personal spin on it. Sillah’s strategy is to stick to the beat and music, allowing that to decide first for her how things should work instead of letting her own ideas from before take control of the process. Although all types of dance allow room for personal touch, Sillah finds the most connection with hip hop.
“I feel like it comes the most naturally and easiest to me. I think it’s very easy for me to get the beat and I have pretty good rhythm. And so it’s just more fun to groove to and I can pull as many moves as I want… You can still tell the story with hip hop, but it’s like you can do more isolations with your arms and legs. And it’s just I feel like it’s more energetic and more fun and kind of depicts my character,” said Sillah.
According to Sozio, many dancers and instructors may explore the mixing together of different types of dance such as contemporary with hip hop, ballet with tap, or jazz with K-dance. In fact, a lot of moves belonging to each category of dance are often derived from each other. Although there might exist to a small degree certain stigmas and prejudices among the different dance communities, many modern artists have been attempting to bring them together.
In a modern context, many dance moves are also taken from nature, animals linked to values like strength and courage, or even significant moments in history that can be found in various dances like jitterbug dancing, Indigenous dances, plantation dances, and hip hop culture as a whole representing a modern spin on the Civil Rights Movement.
“Cross culture, it’s big; it’s huge… So it’s really fascinating how each one informs the next generation, so it’s [dance] really rich,” said Sozio.
Looking toward the future, Sillah plans to focus her attention heavily on her major in Biology at UMass Boston in the fall, and hopes to go into dentistry. However, that’s not to say she won’t attempt to join dance clubs and teams in college and continue to pursue and engage in the arts.
“Who’s to say that if I opened my own private practice, I can’t play some music and dance for my patient?… I could be one of them dancing dentists on TikTok, and it’s gonna still be prevalent in my life,” said Sillah.
Article written by Fiona Zhou, WHS Bradford Editor-in-Chief ’24
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