On the Thursday evening of Spring Fling, a dozen Penn students and I gathered in the Emily Sachs Dance Gallery in Irvine Auditorium. We didn’t come to pregame the concert; we came to earn some street credit from the crew of Strictly Funk.
“I’ll try to be less fierce today,” said Engineering senior Joe Forzano as he surveyed the group, offering a much needed disclaimer to us wide-eyed Funk wannabes who had showed up to take his master class.
Starting mid-April and continuing until May 6, Strictly Funk has been offering free master classes a few times every week, each taught by a different member of the dance group. The classes are meant to be a fun and pressure-free place for anyone to learn to dance.
Ninety minutes later, however, the group of 25 was all but heaving as Forzano led them in the choreography to Busta Rhymes’ “Why Stop Now” for the final time. Some shook their heads and laughed in admitted defeat as they watched him deliver the routine perfectly yet again, despite being drenched in sweat.
“Wow, I have newfound respect for dancers,” said College freshman Maleeha Haneef as she walked out of the studio.
When Forzano auditioned for Strictly Funk as a freshman, he didn’t have formal dance training. He did, however, have the on-stage charisma and distinctive personal dance style that the team looks for.
The avant-garde fusion dance group, which was formed in 1997, is eclectic in every sense of the word. The company, with its members hailing from all Penn undergraduate and graduate schools, is part hip hop, jazz, freestyle, lyrical, breaking, locking and funk.
“Funk has no limits,” its mission statement reads.
Forzano had overcome some limits of his own by his first show.
“I was humping some girl on stage in front of her grandma, which totally put me outside of my comfort zone,” Forzano said, detailing a particularly memorable dance number. “After that though, I could do anything.”
College senior Gabby Abrishamian-Garcia, who danced jazz and ballet in high school, could relate.
“I’d never danced with guys before,” she said. “Plus, it was hip-hop.”
Abrishamian-Garcia, who was trained to be very sharp and precise in her dance movements, was told she needed to loosen up when performing. She didn’t mind.
“When you’re really passionate about dancing, you want to entertain” she said. “You want the audience to appreciate your dancing.”
College senior Meiling Tan, who served as Strictly Funk chair this past year, added that what appealed to her about Strictly Funk was its emphasis on experimentation in choreography and dance.
“It’s awesome for small, female dancers on Funk to be able to dance really big and with a lot of swag,” she said.
“We’ll do anything that any choreographer brings to the table,” College sophomore Tanya Thanawalla added.
It was the end of College junior Sam Burwell’s master class and the lot of us booked it out of Pottruck Health and Fitness Center to gain some fresh air after another intensive dance session. For Funkers, however, rehearsal was just starting.
Depending on the proximity of rehearsal to Strictly Funk’s annual fall or spring show, the members can spend anywhere from seven to 12 hours a week choreographing and practicing.
All the time they spend together not only helps them improve as dancers, but also grow tighter as a family.
At the beginning of their second semester on Strictly Funk, the new dancers, or “Strictly newbies,” are christened with personalized nicknames chosen by the group.
“When I was a freshman, I was so shy,” Forzano said. “The only thing I would ever say during rehearsal was swear and throw around f-bombs when I would mess up.”
That’s how he received his Strictly nickname, “Strictly F-Bomb,” Forzano explained.
“The upperclassmen like to make jokes or puns based on them. It’s meant to make us laugh,” said Thanawalla as she giggled, fittingly demure about the backstory of her nickname, Strictly Wallflower.
“The way I can feel comfortable around this group of people has brought out my personality and helped me break out of my shell,” said Engineering and Wharton senior Joon Kim, teasingly called Strictly Fresh because he is known to wear a suit for Funk’s guest performances. “I’ve definitely opened up emotionally.”
Forzano believes it is Strictly Funk’s diversity of style and crew that makes it unique among dance groups at Penn.
“It’s bizarre to get a group of two dozen very different people to fall in love with each other,” he said. “I think it makes for very fun and entertaining performances.”
“This is serious, we’re gonna make you funk with us! We’ve got a badass attitude, ’cause Strictly Funk is in the mood!”
In the pitch dark of the Iron Gate Theatre in late March, the audience waited with bated breath as this Strictly Funk chant — a tradition before every performance — reached its climax. Fans who had been to previous shows knew that the chant meant that the show’s dynamic opening dance number was about to begin.
For the dancers, the chant was a way to get rid of jitters.
College freshman and Funker Kanad Ghosh recalled feeling the gripping stage fright in the dressing room before his first show.
“Once we started doing our chant, though, there came a moment of clarity and confidence,” he said.
“We just leave it all on stage — the nervousness, the sweat,” Thanawalla added. “Then, it’s just me and the dance.”
By the last night of his fall show, Ghosh was enjoying the bright lights, the frenzied energy backstage and the love from the audience.
“After the Saturday show, I was thinking, I won’t mind having a Sunday show,” he said. “It was like a high.”
For current Funkers, the adrenaline rush keeps them returning to perform year after year.
Thanawalla, who is studying abroad in Cape Town, South Africa, next semester, knows her leave is temporary.
“Where am I going to go?” she asked. “Strictly Funk is home for me.”
For the seniors, the mark Strictly Funk has left on their Penn experience cannot be overstated. Many are committed to not give up dancing or their friendships.
Kim, who will be working in banking in San Francisco, hopes to come back to as many Strictly Funk performances and functions as possible.
“The experience will definitely continue to resonate with all of us,” he said.
Tan, who has accepted an offer at Google in marketing in New York, is already planning to coordinate dance classes with seniors in the area, but admitted that “performance opportunities will be harder to come by.”
“Wherever I end up, I will definitely take dance classes or join a casual crew,” Abrishamian-Garcia added.
Forzano, however, still entertains notions of starving and struggling to be a dancer.
“My hope is that if I just keep dancing, keep practicing, I can at least dance on the side,” he said.
College and Engineering junior Victor Garcia, the newly elected chair of Strictly Funk, acknowledges that losing the 10 seniors, a “dynamic presence on Funk,” is daunting, but added that the team won’t be weaker, just different.
“The personality of our shows changes depending on the dancers in them,” he said. “I’m excited to see how Strictly Funk continues to develop and grow.”Comments powered by Disqus
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