JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Belhaven University dancers will take the stage at the Kennedy Center on Saturday, in the National College Dance Festival — an achievement the dance department chair says is like making it to basketball's Final Four.
It's a first for the Jackson-based university, which is among the smallest participating at the annual festival.
"It's enormous, it really is," Belhaven University dance department chair Cynthia Newland said. "I've compared it to the Final Four in basketball. You go through the collegiate elimination process, and top-performing teams make it to the big time."
Belhaven student dancers have participated in smaller American College Dance Association (ACDA) regional festivals for the past 12 years. There, 12 works are selected for a gala, and next, two of those go on to the national level. Belhaven University will represent the South region, along with the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley.
"It's incredible," said Arianna Marcell, 21, who just graduated in May. She recalled their excitement at every stage: "'Wouldn't it be amazing if we got to the gala? Wouldn't it be amazing if we made it to national?' The real gift is getting to dance with these people again."
Eight students made the trip, with a ninth as an understudy helping with costuming and staging, plus two faculty members.
Belhaven University is among 31 colleges and universities from across the country in ACDA's national festival in Washington, D.C., which started Thursday. The Belhaven dancers will perform Saturday in the Terrace Theater at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, for an audience of about 1,000.
"The festival highlights the ongoing American tradition of dance as a medium to grapple with pressing social issues," ACDA Executive Director Diane De Fries said in a release. "Other dances delve into the nature of human relationships and interactions, or explore pure movement" with exciting, varied choreography and "often ferocious" dancing. Works performed at the festival were chosen for artistic excellence by nationally recognized adjudicators from ACDA's 12 regional conferences across the country.
"It's just such an honor, and very humbling ... just to be in such a historical place" and on such a prestigious stage, said Sarah Allen, 20, who'll be a senior next semester. "It's definitely such a big step, being able to put it on my résumé and have this opportunity."
Belhaven dancers will perform "I Am Not a Plastic," by internationally recognized Korean choreographer Sung Yong Kim — a piece set on the dancers in January. Contemporary, abstract and edgy, the dance offers glimpses of relationships, reiterating that "we as humans are living entities ... we're not plastic. We have life, we have breath, we have purpose. We have a need to love and make connections with other humans," Newland said.
Dancer McKenzie Williams, 22 and a recent graduate, has worked with Kim on trips to South Korea in 2014 and 2015, and hailed his works' innovative movement and emotional and artistic expression. "In this piece ... it's really incredible that he formulated the movement and the choreography to fit each personality and individual — unique and representative of who we are and believe we are, not just as movers but as human beings." Its freshness is renewed each time, with dancers finding freedom and new discoveries in the piece, intertwining faith and expression. The dancers, she said, have an "unreal bond" she can see becoming lifelong friendships.
"To be able to be onstage and do this work is such an honor, and even more important, sharing the stage with them."