When my friend Gigi Pacheco asked me to dance in her senior dance thesis this past summer, I felt honored but also unsure of what the commitment entailed. All I knew was that for three hours once a week, we would meet to rehearse her piece. Gigi was the choreographer, and I was one of her five dancers. And though I didn’t know it at the time, I was also her lead.

Our rehearsals began the first week of fall semester, and almost immediately I felt outside my comfort zone. I had anticipated a certain degree of discomfort that day, the kind that comes with familiarizing yourself with a new choreographic style, or with entering a new space and having to establish yourself as a dancer before a new set of peers. But the nerves percolating through me felt new. Rather than immediately teaching us her choreography, as often happens in dance rehearsals, Gigi wanted us to improv––to understand how we moved, and how we felt comfortable moving. She offered us prompts, asking us to dance with certain qualities, feelings, in mind. She asked us to split into pairs and have conversations through movement, or to improv while never once breaking eye contact with our partners.

These were vulnerable exercises. I stressed over the prospect of improvising new movements for myself, worrying over how I looked, how Gigi might perceive me. But for many of her prompts, Gigi danced alongside us. She introduced herself to us through her own vocabulary of bodily movements, allowing herself to be vulnerable, too. We were the objects of her gaze as much as she was an object of ours. I remember leaving that rehearsal feeling dizzy, disoriented, thinking, what have I gotten myself into?

I had never encountered a dance environment in which I was not positioned within a clear vertical hierarchy. I grew up attending a pre-professional ballet school, where we danced to be corrected—to be transformed by our teachers from pre-professional to professional dancers. Corrections as seemingly insignificant as the placement of our fingertips in an arabesque were moments to relish, moments in which we felt immense support. If teachers asked us to fix problems in our technique, it meant they believed we could.

We hounded support by catering to the opinions of our superiors. The girls who received the most attention in class were usually those who played into their subordination, staying quiet, keeping to themselves, and most importantly, nodding emphatically in response to notes (however brutal) from their choreographers. Corrections felt like things we needed to earn. Acquiring such capital relied on a strict adherence to a hierarchy in which choreographers and teachers held absolute authority over dancers.

Perhaps this was why I felt so jolted by Gigi’s choreographic process. Although Gigi was our choreographer, she didn’t make me feel inferior. Although I didn’t realize it at first, Gigi had opted for a more horizontally structured studio environment. Gigi blurred the traditionally strict bounds between the roles of choreographer and dancers. As a dancer in her own thesis, she occupied both roles at once. But more importantly, she asked us to occupy both roles, too. She often asked for our advice, beckoning us to choreograph sections of her project for ourselves. Teaching me my final solo section, Gigi told me to “let it all loose,” and instructed me to do so until the musical score ended. And she left it at that, relinquishing the movements that would finish her piece, her senior thesis, to me.

Floored, flabbergasted—words could barely describe the intersection of honor and pressure I experienced in that moment. I felt an incessant desire for vocalized feedback from Gigi—for critiques to improve my dancing, or praise to validate what I was already doing, because, in a thesis dedicated to her own life experiences, I felt responsible for doing her narrative justice. My lack of experience with improv only enhanced my craving for her support. But to my dismay, Gigi offered me few notes in our rehearsals. Anxieties multiplied; I had always equated the dancing subject with the subject being judged, and yet here Gigi was asking me to trust myself. She was the first choreographer to ask this from me.

Prior to Gigi’s thesis, I was used to choreographers coming into rehearsals with set ideas and material to teach. I had no say in what I would be dancing—rather, I was expected to learn the movements, and execute them exactly as demonstrated by my choreographer. This was my experience both within my pre-professional ballet school and at Princeton.

My freshman fall, I participated in a staging of Justin Peck’s “Rodeo” for the Princeton Dance Festival. The audition atmosphere for the piece foretold its vertically structured choreographic process. I remember it vividly: standing at a cramped barre with a paper number seven pinned to my leotard, while the guest choreographer stood in front of us, arms crossed, speaking in hushed tones to the head of the Dance Department as he indicated to her the dancers he wanted in the piece.

For weeks, I spent my afternoons in rehearsals where my sole focus was on what this choreographer thought of me. Every rehearsal felt like its own audition—for different roles within the piece, for corrections, for attention. I remember seniors complaining to me about how toxic the environment felt, telling me, “This is not the environment we’re used to dancing in at Princeton.” And yet, fresh out of high school, the environment cultivated in the staging of “Rodeo” was aligned with the only dance environment I had ever known. I would nod my head yes when other dancers mourned the lack of support they felt within the space. But even this was a force of habit: I was just a freshman, so those senior girls felt like my superiors, too.

However, after spending the year working with Gigi, I’m beginning to understand the salience of these complaints. I’ve realized that the bewilderment with which I initially encountered Gigi’s prompts—her sparse, but positive feedback—was never a product of some disappointment I felt. It was quite the opposite. Never once did Gigi make me feel the incapacitating anxiety I felt constantly before teachers and choreographers as a pre-professional dancer, or as a dancer in “Rodeo.” I didn’t feel the need to prove myself to Gigi. In her framing of improv as a form of self-expression, self-exploration, she demonstrated clear interest in meeting us, not molding us, as dancers.

By incorporating our choreography into her piece, she highlighted a desire for the project to feel as much ours as hers; for us to appear on stage not as bodies executing steps, but as individuals speaking ourselves through our bodies. What really mattered to Gigi was not how perfectly I executed my steps, but how I expressed myself, how I felt, in their execution. And only I could be the judge of that. Indeed, the night before our first performance, Gigi pulled me aside and told me, “The choreography you’re dancing, the story you’re portraying, it’s yours now. I’m giving it to you. It’s up to you who you want to be on stage.”

This sort of support didn’t simply come from Gigi—it came from the sense of community fostered among all members of her piece. We began our rehearsals by engaging in deep discussions about identity, dance, and community, and ate meals together as a group. The meaning and process of building community existed at the very core of Gigi’s thesis, which was motivated by her personal experiences navigating communities as a Mexican-American. To genuinely communicate the theme of community for her audience, she wanted her dancers to feel a sense of community and support with one another.

Moreover, the environment of collaboration and support enabled by Gigi’s horizontally structured choreographic model was as valuable to us as it was to her. In a recent conversation, she explained how it allowed her, as a choreographer, to feel supported. There was something comforting in knowing her dancers “would call [her] out if [she] made a choice that didn’t align with the storyline” of her piece. Because we were all collaborators in the making of Gigi’s piece, we were all embroiled in and responsible for its outcome. I found myself working fervently throughout our rehearsals, not because I wanted to improve my technique, nor because I wanted Gigi, as my superior, to make me feel supported, but because I wanted to support Gigi in the creation of her thesis.

I do wonder how much of my ability to feel supported in Gigi’s thesis was attributable solely to our rehearsal structure. I think of choreographers like Hope Mohr, who champion horizontal collaboration models as necessary for dancers to express personhood, and for dance companies to be truly equitable. I find merit in these assumptions—Gigi’s methods provided us dancers with a level of vocal and physical agency that was more equitable than the dance environments we were accustomed to. And yet, in my eighteen years of dancing, I have only had one experience of the like. I understand that horizontal models are more popular in the field of modern dance, but what does this mean for the realm of ballet? Will equitable environments always be a rarity for us?

Even through my work with the Princeton University Ballet, a dance group with vertically structured rehearsals, I feel comfortable talking to choreographers about discomforts I face. It is precisely because these dancers are my friends, and because I know them as people who value me as a person. I wonder if a similar sense of trust—physical and psychological comfort—could have been cultivated within the context of a staged piece of choreography like “Rodeo.” Had our choreographer asked us how we were feeling, or invited us to be more vulnerable with him—had he even been more vulnerable with us—would we have felt a greater sense of community? Support?

What I do know is that as dancers at Princeton, we are capable of creating dance environments, more specifically, ballet environments, that foster community and are more equitable than those we have come from. Within the Dance department or student-run dance groups, we can make dancers feel heard, supported, as people first.

Participating in Gigi’s thesis has reminded me that I didn’t come to Princeton to dance. I’m dancing at Princeton because it is a form of meditation, self-expression; because through dance, I’ve found enduring communities, best friends. I’ve found a form of movement here that cultivates confidence, rather than stripping me of it. And I’d like to pass it on. I’m keen, like Gigi, to “create a space at Princeton that I wish I had as a child; a space where I feel valued not just as a dancer, but as a person.”