By David Perry
It’s 8:15 on an unseasonably warm winter night in the first-floor rehearsal space in Riverview Suites.
All eyes are on Samantha Girroir.
The junior English major is slapping one hand into the other, keeping time, explaining dance moves. She moves her own body to the music. She counts. “One, two, three, four.”
She punctuates each count with a sharp body movement. Samantha pulls her arms back, twists her waist, moving through the steps, counting. “One, two, three, four.”
She smiles broadly. So does her partner in choreography, senior Ashley Igartua, as she looks on from the sidelines. A dozen dancers watch, bringing Girroir’s instructions to life as Jinco’s song “Tokyo” fills the room.
The fifth time, they nail it. Movements align. The music ends, and bodies come to rest. Everyone cheers.
The ProtoHype dance club is less than an hour into its practice, piecing together a six-part routine. There are six choreographers to design and explain each part. The routine lasts about seven minutes, each section a cog that keeps the piece in motion.
The practices are exhausting. The students get zero credit for it. But you can’t wipe the smile off Girroir’s face.
To Girroir and the 30 members of ProtoHype, it matters. The club offers those interested in urban dance styles — experienced or not — an opportunity to learn and compete in their spare time.
ProtoHype is among the growing number of dance clubs on campus sponsored by Campus Rec's Club Sports Program. The groups span a range of styles, including ballroom, hip hop, contemporary and jazz. Students participate for a variety of reasons — the physical exercise, the creative outlet or the opportunity to socialize and meet new people.
Some, like Dance Team’s Alison Carrier, credit hit shows like “So You Think You Can Dance” and “Dancing with the Stars” for a boom in the interest in dance.
“It’s a really big thing now because of the TV shows, and it’s all over the internet. Celebrities are involved, and it’s popular and appealing,” Carrier says.
Dance Team is the most visible of the campus dance clubs, a baker’s dozen of experienced dancers who perform tight, highly choreographed routines at home games for River Hawks basketball and other events. The group draws 30 to 40 dancers for tryouts, paring the number to 13 for the final squad, which also practices six hours over three nights each week.
Dance Team has grown more competitive since the university joined the ranks of Division I schools in 2013. Last year, the squad hired a coach. The dancers are headed to Daytona, Fla., in early April to participate in the National Dance Alliance’s National Championships, a regular event since 2015.
Carrier, a senior mechanical engineering major, started dancing when she was a toddler. She has never stopped.
Nor has Sonny Li, born in China and raised in Boston, influenced by YouTube videos to take up break dancing in high school. The senior mechanical engineering major is now captain of ProtoHype.
“Being in school, I needed to find extracurricular activities to balance the academic part of my college life. Especially in an area I’m passionate about. You want to find other people as passionate about it as you. That’s the way it is here. And I’ve been given opportunities through ProtoHype — [been] invited to teach Boston workshops and gotten paid for it.”
ProtoHype also requires tryouts, and every now and then, completely inexperienced dancers make the cut.
Like Henry Rolfe, a freshman from Newton.
“Never danced before,” says Rolfe. “But I do have a black belt in karate. Doing that, I built a memory for moves, and maybe that helped. When I started researching UMass Lowell’s clubs and activities, I saw the Urban Choreography Club, and I thought, ‘That kind of sounds cool.’ I had friends in college who were doing dance stuff. I got here and I was intimidated at first. Everybody seemed to know each other and seemed tight. What I came to realize is this is a very nonjudgmental zone. You can express yourself artistically and get some exercise.”
“There’s no backstabbing, no drama,” says Goushi Kubota, a junior mechanical engineering major. “We are here to dance, to have fun.”
ProtoHype has regular competitions with other schools and stages events like the April 15 ProtoCol 2017 at Cumnock Hall. Running from 7 to 10 p.m., it’s the second year of the dance showcase, which brings together dance crews from across the region.
Girroir, the choreographer, says there’s no need to give up dance at college, especially if you are already in the rhythm of the art. The university offers plenty of options.
“If you’re used to doing something for five hours a day every day of the week and suddenly it’s not there, you need to find a way to fill that. It becomes part of your life. A good part,” Girroir says.
And with that, break is over and everyone filters back into the rehearsal space. And a new choreographer joins the action. It’s after 8 p.m., and Sonny Li says he is prepared to keep dancing.
“We need more time,” he says. “It always seems like three hours isn’t enough.”