UB senior dancer Farrah Thompson dances toward graduation
With her hair in a bun, a slight southern twang, ballet shoes tethered to her backpack and a smile on her face, senior dance major Farrah Thompson is about to jeté across the finish line.
Though she has 16 years of formal training, Thompson has been dancing for as long as she can remember. At age five, she twirled around her home in Hickory, North Carolina on tiny 'pointe' shoes made out of tissues and paper Dixie cups.
Seventeen years later, Thompson is preparing to enter the ‘real world’ as a professional dancer. Her final performance at UB will be in the senior showcase on Sunday in the Katharine Cornell Theatre in the Ellicott Complex. Studying and choreographing at UB has allowed her to experience the dancing world and given her access to prestigious intensive programs in New York City and across the United States.
In the intense and sometimes ferocious world of competitive dance, Thompson’s faith has kept her grounded. A raised Lutheran, Thompson considers her faith to be one of the most important parts of her life. She said she is always looking for ways to incorporate her faith into her dance. Her favorite style of dance is performance because it allows her to express herself and fill the spiritual void created by her busy schedule.
“[In] the dance world, you do have to be selfish because you have to go to class [and] take time away from your normal daily activities,” Thompson said. “Even if you don’t go to church, and if you don’t read the Bible … if you’re sending that message that you know God is our Father, that he’s our protector, he’s our shield, he’s our healer ... we can show that message to other people and spread that awareness through dancing. [If] I can be that light for other people, then that’s what I want to do.”
The little dancer
Like many other little girls, Thompson wanted to be just like her big sister.
At age six, she, like her older sister, decided she wanted to take dance lessons. Her parents enrolled her in their local dance studio, the Ann Freeman Dance Academy. There she began ballet classes, where she learned the basic techniques she needed to move on to other forms of dance.
Plié-ing at a bar she could barely reach, she thought: I love this.
Eventually, she moved on to learn tap, jazz, modern, contemporary, lyrical, hip-hop and pointe – “Pretty much everything,” she said.
By middle school, Thompson knew she wasn’t just trying to be like her sister anymore. Dancing was her passion – what she wanted to do for the rest of her life. She danced through high school, competing, performing and improving her technique.
Growing up in the competition world, she learned not only how to dance her heart out, but also to connect with other dancers and work as a team.
According to Thompson, judges would come up to her after competitions, telling her they thought she had potential and asking her to come dance in intensive programs.
“If you’ve seen ‘Dance Moms,’ I hate the way they portray [the competition world],” Thompson said. “The good part is you get to make connections with other dance professionals [which] is really important in the dance world.”
Her hard work paid off when she won Miss Dance of North Carolina in 2009 when she was 16.
With victory under her belt and a passion that would only grow stronger, Thompson continued her studies, attending various dance companies’ intensive programs, including the Dance Masters of America Student Honors Intensive Program at UB, which she attended for three summers in a row during high school.
During this intensive program, she became acquainted with faculty members and fell in love with the dance program at UB. She packed her bags and trekked from sunny North Carolina to the frigid Buffalo tundra to attend the UB Honors College on an academic scholarship.
Daily life as a college dancer
At UB, Thompson auditioned and was admitted into the Zodiaque Dance Company as a sophomore, an unusual feat since as the group is mostly comprised of juniors and seniors.
“What is unique about Farrah is the humanity she brings into both her academic and artistic surroundings,” said Thomas Ralabate, a professor in the Department of Theatre and Dance who runs the Zodiaque Dance Company and has known Farrah since she began summer dance programs at UB seven years ago. “She is a talent that gives back to both faculty and peers … I will miss her sincere spirit in our dance studios and hallways.”
Thompson dedicates her entire life to dance. Her only extra jobs as an undergrad have been a feature dancer in the Wunderbarn IllumiNights Show at Busch Gardens and an instructor of ballet, jazz, lyrical and acro at Miss Cathy’s Dance Studio in Grand Island. She also did a summer internship with RIOULT Dance New York in New York City.
With help from the Honors College Creative Research Scholarship, she was also able to go to New York City to train with Parsons Dance Company, who also gave her a scholarship to attend their choreography intensive.
Though a dance-filled day may seem enviable to the typical college student drowning in a sea of exams and papers, Thompson’s life is far from simple.
On an average morning, Thompson wakes before sunrise and does a daily devotional to prepare her mind before she begins her day at 5:30 a.m. Then she goes to the gym for an hour to warm up her body before a 9 a.m. ballet class. After ballet, she takes a break or goes to a jazz class, then has rehearsals for the rest of the evening. Some days, she spends hours teaching at Miss Cathy’s. What little free time she has she uses to hang out with her friends or do homework – which does come with being a dance major.
One of Thompson’s favorite things to do to relax is have movie nights with her friends. In the dance department, upperclassmen are paired with freshmen to help them get adjusted to college life. Thompson brings her “littles,” who live on campus, to her apartment to stretch and watch movies like The Notebook and Soul Surfer.
This helps Thompson keep a healthy mind, which, along with maintaining a healthy body, she says is one of the biggest struggles of studying dance.
“The dance world does have a certain body aesthetic and you have to take care of your body,” she said “We are judged by the way our body looks on stage. We have to maintain our physicality.”
As a daughter of two nurses and a sister of a physician’s assistant, Thompson wants to help people spiritually like her family does physically.
Self-expression is incredibly important to Thompson.
During her last semester at UB, she ran a workshop in which five undergraduate dancers wrote their insecurities and issues, like anxiety and depression, on their own bodies in black marker and performed a piece she choreographed. Entitled “Graffiti Our World,” the project showed how dance can and should be both expressive and cathartic, for both the dancers and the audience.
Though she ran and choreographed the project, Thompson displayed her kind and compassionate personality as she treated the participants in the workshop as equals, listening to their suggestions and calling them to put their own personalities into the performance.
“I loved that Farrah was open to anything that [we] dancers had to say about the piece,” said Lisa Kaemmerlan, a senior dance major. “She also always encouraged us to put our own dynamics into the piece because we were sharing our whole selves with the audience. The process and atmosphere Farrah created made for a wonderful outcome of her piece.”
Thompson has been in a multitude of performances during her time at UB. Her favorite was “As If By a Spell,” which was choreographed by Kerry Ring, an instructor in the theatre and dance department, and was about coming back to the bar and dancing for the love of it.
“Farrah [is] a beautiful dancer that I have had the pleasure of teaching for years,” Ring said. “I have selected Farrah for two of my own recent choreographic works because of her incredible technique, fierce dedication to the rehearsal process, and genuinely gracious personality.”
Dancing toward the future
Thompson approaches graduation with a plethora of emotions – she is excited to pursue her career in dance, but is also sad to leave her beloved friends and instructors.
This summer, she will return home to Hickory to attend her sister’s wedding. Then, she will continue her career in modern and contemporary dance either by taking an apprenticeship with Ad Deum Dance Company – a Christian dance company in Houston, Texas – or moving to New York City right away to audition for other dance companies.
Her final performance begins at 7 p.m. Sunday. She will be directing the showcase and dancing with the UB Dance Class of 2015.
As she moves away from UB and into the real world, Thompson knows there is a place for her doing what she loves and spreading light to whomever she can.
“Dance brings a message of hope and love and it’s just beauty in motion,” she said. “If you train the right way with the right people, and you work hard, and you have that dedication, and you have that commitment, and you have that passion … there will be a place for you.”
Grace Trimper is an assistant arts editor. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org