One wall supports floor-to-ceiling mirrors; the opposite floor-to-ceiling windows, through which the gloomy gray clouds reflect the gloomy gray dancefloor. A group of young dancers, about twenty altogether, stretch and twirl. There are giggles and leaps and the hubbub of uncommitted conversation. They wait for the music to start.
When it does, a blaring Brazilian samba tune, the five lines of arms and legs erupt into a flurry of synchronism. Their feet slide, hips wiggle and arms sway, all in time to an unknown clicking. A metronome crying out over the trumpets and percussion.
The source of this clicking, somehow, is human. It comes from the tongue of choreographer Sheron Wray, who commands the room, traversing the dance floor and making necessary adjustments here and there, shouting out encouraging interjections. All the while continuing to click her tongue, to keep time.
When she sees that the dancers have mastered the routine sufficiently, she nods her head, and an assistant turns off the music. Wray, an associate professor of dance at UC Irvine and one of the leaders of local dance programs The Ghana Project and JazzXchange, pauses to recalibrate, with her students’ heavy breathing replacing her metronomic clicks.
“It’s not just an arm gesture, it’s an experience.” Wray reminds, demonstrating the vertical arm sway that the routine requires. Her students study the difference and try to recreate.
“Yes, exactly!” Wray beams, her oozing and elegant English accent echoing across the now-silent rehearsal space.
Born in 1970, Wray’s love for dance began as soon as she “became cognizant of music.” Her parents, originally from the Caribbean, filled the house with music and dance. At any family gathering or celebration, Wray remembers dancing with her mom after dinner, putting on a show for the family.
Often, these dances recalled those her parents learned growing up in the Caribbean. No matter what, though, Wray connected with the music. “I grew up as a listener,” she says.
This yearning to move to music carried her to the London Contemporary Dance School and, eventually, the United States. She had teaching residencies at New York University and Carnegie-Mellon University before deciding to move to California and teach at UCI in the fall of 2009.
Wray notes that she felt comfortable with the student body and nature of the program after being a guest professor for a week in 2004. When she came back in 2009, she found that same passion and energy to learn still engrained in the dance program.
“These students seemed serious in their interest to develop and had the capacity to do that,” says Wray. “What I would bring was relevant to students with those aspirations.”
What Wray brought, however, was much more than a traditional dance instruction. In 2010, she led the Ghana Project, which brought sixteen UCI students from five different departments to the West African nation for a summer of dance, music and cultural exchange. This last aspect, to gain a broader understanding of how West African culture can impact western styles and thought processes, proved to be the biggest payoff of the trip.
“When I took my students to Ghana, they learned to recognize that the Ghanaian style isn’t the way it is in America but can be applied to western dance,” Wray says. “I wasn’t expecting them to experience that as much as they would.”
Shannon Cuykendall, a former UCI MFA dance student, credits The Ghana Project for allowing her to change her perspective as she continues to pursue a career in choreography.
“I went to Ghana looking for answers about the relationship between music and dance,” Cuykendall says.
This is the bigger-picture understanding that Wray hoped for the students she brought to Ghana.
“That’s another gift that dance is — it can really help you understand the culture and the people of a particular time,” Wray says.
Wray hopes to lead another group to Ghana in an upcoming summer, wishing to continue bridging the gap between African and American interpretation of dance and music. For now, however, she finds inspiration in the gray studios at UCI’s campus, where her Jazz Workshop class repeats the curving arm motion over and over again.
“You’re making a half moon with your body,” Wray guides.
She speaks the way someone who has to communicate something as intangible as motion must speak. Wray can turn nuance into visible movements. Verbalize the abstract.
The students understand and crescent moons fill the room.
With a smile, Wray nods her head for the music to resume and she continues to click.