Going into her first year, Lanie Walsh (N ‘23) knew that she wanted to dance at Penn in some capacity. Eager to explore her options, she tried out for every dance group on campus. As a hip–hop/jazz dancer primarily, she wasn’t exactly sure what the experience would be like in each of the companies, but she would soon fall in love with one in particular and learn to call it home.
Before Arts House Dance Company held auditions, Lanie attended one of their open workshops and was drawn to not only their dancing, but to the atmosphere of the company. The combination they performed felt good and she could sense the welcoming love and support in the room. After growing up in a studio her whole life that felt more like a family than anything else, the similar qualities she saw in Arts House drew her in immediately.
Auditions for Arts House reconfirmed this for her when she went in and saw how close all of the members were with each other. “I just wanted to be in that family and be able to be in that tight–knit community,” she says.
Lauren Shanos (E ‘23) had a similar experience. She says, “Basically, I walked in not knowing anything … [but] you could just feel the energy in the room. You could tell that everyone was really, really close and really good friends, and just such a supportive community. And everyone was cheering for each other and cheering for us even though they didn't know us at all.” She also recalls that this was intriguing given that it stood in such stark contrast to the competition dance world which was “pretty ruthless.”
Arts House Dance Company is a student–run dance group founded in 1985. According to their website, Arts House is “known for its strong technique, innovative student choreography, and vivid stage presence, and is dedicated to presenting the highest level of performance and technique at Penn.” In performing contemporary, jazz, ballet, tap, and hip–hop at two annual shows, guest performances, and various campus events, the commitment is demanding for sure. “We rehearse for an hour per piece each weekend and then plus an hour for company meetings ... And then during the week we take a contemporary class on Mondays from Blake Krapels. And then, ballet class on Tuesdays from Fallon Gannon,” Lanie explains.
Yes, Arts House requires long hours of hard work, but it’s much more than that. It carves out an amazing space for students who love to dance that’s not only distinctly unique from the competition dance world that most of them grew up in, but also from the cutthroat environment that Penn often fosters.
This isn’t only evident from watching them perform, but also from talking to Lanie and Lauren—both juniors in the company who have been involved since they were first years. If Lanie could describe Arts House and the people in it in one word, it would be "family." “I feel so comfortable with each person in it ... I think that that comes across in our shows,” she says. Lauren’s favorite thing about Arts House isn’t that she’s able to continue dancing, it’s the people. “That's such a cliche answer,” she says, “but it’s really real ... like it's a family. We spend so much time together, but it's always the best.”
Lanie points out that “after your first semester in Arts House, you can choose to choreograph, and it's pretty important that the choreographer feels really passionate about their song to be able to choreograph to it, so we try to let people really have full artistic freedom on that.” This is more proof of the trust they place in one another as well as the collaborative nature of the shows they put on.
On top of this, Arts House incorporates incredible videos into their shows which allow the audience to become fully immersed in the performance. There's an introduction video which highlights all of the performers, a video focusing on the choreographer before each dance, and a few transition videos.
Arts House Dance Company has an extensive list of alumni who often attend their performances, as well as an abundance of fans. The crowd is always so energized by the show that the excitement in the room is palpable and contagious. When asked what it feels like to be up on stage dancing when the audience is screaming for them, Lanie says, “It's just so exhilarating, rewarding, and it's really cool to have so much positive energy around you ... we can feel it on stage between ourselves, too.” This response highlights how important and positive the group dynamics are in Arts House—the energy that the dancers can feel between each other on stage not only brings them joy, it also brings them closer together.
Here at Penn, it’s easy to get wrapped up in the competitive environment, and people lose sight of the fact that one person’s success doesn’t have to come at the expense of their own. But Arts House Dance Company manages to exist above this. When asked about her favorite thing about Arts House, Lanie confidently responded that “a lot of us grew up dancing under pressure and for other people's approval, and Arts House is entirely run by us … we choose what's important to us, what we want to focus on, and what kind of show we want to put on. So in the end, we have this show, and this dance environment that we created and can be really proud of.” On their own, the students in Arts House have been able to come together and create a welcoming space that differs dramatically from the oftentimes toxic culture seen in the competition dance world and at Penn, and that allows them to lift each other up rather than tear each other down.