It started as a birthday gift for her mother.
When Tierra Foxworth reached out to her classmate Tammaka Staley about collaborating on a dance piece, her goal was simple: to honor her mother by telling a personal story through the power of dance. She never imagined that just a few months later, she would not only perform the piece alongside the best college dancers in the country — but also take home the award for best performance.
This June, Tierra, a dance major, and Tammaka, a social work major (both 2016 graduates), performed their collaborative choreographic work “Curveless Smile” at the 2016 National College Dance Festival, held at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.
It started as a birthday gift for her mother.
Just to perform at the festival is an incredible honor — of 513 works adjudicated throughout the country this year, only 31 were selected. But “Curveless Smile” received even more accolades when Tierra was given the 2016 Outstanding Student Performance Award. Sponsored by the American College Dance Association (ACDA) and Dance Magazine, it is one of only two awards (Outstanding Student Choreography and Outstanding Student Performance) presented to participants in the festival.
“Traveling to D.C. for the first time to perform my own work was a very mind-blowing experience,” says Tierra. “The opportunity to not only dance, but to enter a building that has hosted so many brilliantly talented artists and performances was ultimately a blessing. Unlike any other audience I experienced, an ACDA audience can be especially nerve-racking because the seats are filled with dancers, dance professors, and, more importantly, adjudicators. One thing that helped was to know that my mom had traveled eight hours to D.C. to receive her birthday gift once more.”
“Curveless Smile,” choreographed by Tierra and performed by both Tierra and Tammaka, is a unique piece in that it is an intertwining of two artistic mediums: dance and spoken word. Tierra collaborated with spoken-word artist Tammaka by blending her original poem, “A Black Girl’s Smile,” with Tierra’s original voiceover reflections on her mother’s life. “We authentically created this piece based on our own experiences,” says Tierra.
In March, it was one of two choreographic works chosen from 42 presented at the southeast conference of the ACDA, one of the regional conferences that determine the pieces chosen for the national festival. The adjudicators who selected it described “Curveless Smile” as “…a sophisticated layering of images resulting in a temporal convergence of character image, gesture, and speech that offers a mature statement, directly, but with no sacrifice of complexity.”
Throughout the process, Coker’s dance faculty knew there was something special about the piece. “The dance faculty at Coker are extremely proud of the beautiful work that Tierra and Tammaka created,” says Angela Gallo, professor and chair of the dance, music, and theatre department at Coker College. “‘Curveless Smile’ is a sophisticated work that resonates on a global level with the audience.”
Naturally, they were thrilled when the piece was selected for the national festival. The annual festival presents three programs and features some of the finest dance works selected from colleges and universities throughout the country.
“Performing at the Kennedy Center was intimidating at first, because not only was it a huge prominent theater in a huge city, but I was one of the few students of color showcasing work at the ACDA conference,” says Tammaka. “However, after rehearsing with my partner, Tierra, and after fellowshipping some of the other dancers, I began to feel more comfortable and performed as if I were home in front of people I loved most. Representing my spoken word, my culture, and other creative college students was such an honor and I can’t wait to see how ‘Curveless Smile’ may evolve in the future.”
“This award is by far the highlight of my dance career.”
The panelists for the ACDA/Dance Magazine Awards were Dana Tai Soon Burgess, a leading American choreographer; Jennifer Stahl, editor-in-chief for Dance Magazine; and Lisa Traiger, a prominent arts journalist. When describing why Tierra was chosen for the Outstanding Student Performance honor, the panelists said, “The dancer from ‘Curveless Smile’ for the fearless way she embodied a powerful personal testimony. Her delivery had a vulnerability and openness, creating a genuine theatricality.”
“This award is by far the highlight of my dance career,” says Tierra. “To anyone else it may symbolize a great performance, but for me I think of it as God’s way of telling me that dance is for me, no matter how many pirouettes I can or can not execute. I’m extremely grateful for the non-stop encouragement from the dance faculty and students, my family, and my church family. Without them, the success of ‘Curveless Smile’ would not exist.”
Clearly, Tammaka and Tierra are both gifted storytellers, dancers, and artists. Where they found success was in using their own gifts to create a gift for someone else — for Tierra’s mother, and for everyone who had the chance to witness their powerful performance.