This Dancer's Tribute to a Loved One Has Stayed With This Teacher for 15 Years

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I'm standing in a dark theater wing on a Saturday in March doing the usual—emceeing at my dance competition and watching countless young ladies in baby-doll chiffon dresses with rhinestone-choker necklaces dance about love gone wrong.

And next up: a 12-year-old without a professional costume or makeup, obviously a novice, and she's looking pretty ordinary. She takes the stage. I look out at her for a moment and figure she's got about two minutes left, so I do something like take a sip of water or tie my shoe or look down at my notes. For some reason, I glance back out at her and...BAM! That child is dancing like there's no tomorrow. What's up with her? I can't look away as she works herself into whirling, pulsating vapor. What she lacks in technique, she is more than making up for in...gosh, what is that? Guttural, undulating, raw, razor-sharp intent.

Something washes over me, and I begin to connect the dots.

Her dance ends, and she is running offstage straight toward me. I somehow have the presence of mind to open my arms, and she falls into them sobbing and wraps herself around me, like she can no longer hold her own weight. I'm supposed to go out and announce the next dance, but I can't move with her in my arms, so I just hold her. In a few minutes, her mom shows up backstage, peels her away from me and carries her off.

I look at my paperwork and see her name is Lydia, and the name of her dance is For Shelly. Her mom finds me later that day to apologize on Lydia's behalf. She explains that Lydia and her cousin Shelly were both hospitalized on the same day with a mystery illness. Lydia survived. Shelly didn't.

I've seen many a dancer perform a tribute to a loved one, but never quite like that. Not even close. Lydia choreographed that for Shelly and needed a place to dance it. So, there she was, at a dance competition. Talk about a lamb among...can I say it? Well, no. I'll let you fill in that blank.

I never saw Lydia again. She must be in her late 20s now. I think of her so often, send off a little prayer to her, tell her she has so enriched my life and that I have never again seen anyone dance with that kind of power and dedication and strength of spirit. And I so very often whisper a thank-you to Shelly for standing in the wings with me that day and making me look back up.

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Cynthia Oliver in her office. Photo by Natalie Fiol

When it comes to Cynthia Oliver's classes, you always bring your A game. (As her student for the last two and a half years in the MFA program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, I feel uniquely equipped to make this statement.) You never skip the reading she assigns; you turn in not your first draft but your third or fourth for her end-of-semester research paper; and you always do the final combination of her technique class full-out, even if you're exhausted.

Oliver's arrival at UIUC 20 years ago jolted new life into the dance department. "It may seem odd to think of this now, but the whole concept of an artist-scholar was new when she first arrived," says Sara Hook, who also joined the UIUC dance faculty in 2000. "You were either a technique teacher or a theory/history teacher. Cynthia's had to very patiently educate all of us about the nature of her work, and I think that has increased our passion for the kind of excavation she brings to her research."

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