Opening Letters

Song and Dance

opening up to Midwestern cultural possibilities

Claire Jeffries, illustrated by Ryan Carpentier |

I transferred from Bethel University in St. Paul, Minn., to the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire this past spring, and I was a little apprehensive about moving back. I have lived in Eau Claire most of my life, and from what I could remember, there was nothing to do. Whenever I complained about this, locals would scold me saying, "Eau Claire is a great place. A wonderful place to raise children." And so, I vowed never to have children, so I wouldn't be stuck here. Harsh? Yes, but I just wanted to get out of Eau Claire. So, when I graduated from high school, I went to Bethel University in Minnesota. I know, Minnesota isn't exactly the cultural hearth of the country (What are they known for besides a terrible football team and an airport?), but it was a step away from my hometown without being too far from my family.

However, Minnesota surprised me. At Bethel, I explored downtown St. Paul, saw plays at the Guthrie, even went to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. It was art and culture that I had never experienced before, and it was intoxicating. As a theater person, I geeked out when we went to see The Merchant of Venice at the new Guthrie. The set was gorgeous, the costumes were imported from Europe, and chandeliers flew down from the ceiling in the opening act. It was a theater person's Mecca. I mistakenly tried to take pictures and was tasered by every usher in the theater. But, besides the public humiliation and minor burns, it was the night of my dreams. So naturally, when I had to transfer to UWEC due to some health issues, I was less than enthused.

During my orientation, UWEC tried to convince me otherwise. They spent a lot of time talking about alcohol. Let's be honest; drinking is one of the top leisure activities in Wisconsin. Californians surf, Floridians golf, New Yorkers mug people, and Wisconsinites drink and hunt. However, the university wanted to stress that there is more to do on campus than drink ... like study on a Friday night. Just kidding, campus administration had a whole list of weekend activities that people could do as an alternative to partying: movies, bowling, Ultimate Frisbee, nature walks, worshiping the Packers - the list was huge. Be that as it may, I was not excited about moving back.

It wasn't until I was forced to go to an event for class that I began to reconsider. I went to see the African Children's Choir in Zorn Arena, and it was incredible! These kids were expressive in their music in a way that we Norwegians could never understand. Not only did they sing with their voices but also with their bodies. With every song, every part of them was moving to the beat. I don't think they knew what to do with us as an audience; they had to practically twist our arms to clap to the beat. These kids weren't used to a group of people who had the same physical expression for when they were happy, sad, and deceased.

During the last song of the show, there was a little girl up front dancing to the music. Her parents were trying to coax her back to her seat, but she would have none of that. She was dancing. I heard a couple behind me whisper, "I wish those people would control their child, it's distracting from the performance." Then, some of the performers from stage hopped down and started to dance with this little girl as the rest flooded into the audience, pulling people up to dance.

Driving home that night, I felt ... new. I guess there's no other way to describe it; I saw a new way to sing, dance, and express. This was the first time I had experienced a new culture, and it hadn't happened in St. Paul, or Orlando, or Canada (they're basically American anyway). It was in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, and I didn't realize that my hometown could rival St. Paul (though it has a smaller airport and a better football team). Eau Claire isn't such a bad place to live after all - I guess I better have some kids or something.