Long before she came to Princeton, Tula Strong ’15 was a dancer. But until she came to Princeton, Strong thought she would choose another field for her career.
“Princeton gave me the opportunity to turn something that I love into something that is respected in the academic field,” Strong said. “The dance program has brought me confidence that I’m doing legitimate work.” And, she added, “It has taught me how to love learning.”
Influenced by the many South Pacific Islanders in her hometown of Fontana, California, Strong arrived on campus with a background in Polynesian forms of dance. At Princeton, she has built on that foundation and taken it beyond what she ever imagined—learning new dance styles and working with some of the world’s most distinguished choreographers.
Strong, who is the first in her family to attend college, found the ideal framework for developing her dance skills at the Lewis Center for the Arts: supportive faculty; abundant opportunities to rehearse and perform; and the inspiration of cutting-edge choreographers who come to campus as faculty members and visiting artists.
Last summer, Strong was one of three undergraduates chosen to receive the Alex Adam ’07 Award, created in memory of a Lewis Center student. She trained with major dance companies at a succession of workshops in New York. The experience gave her a new confidence: Although she might not have been as advanced as some of the other dancers, Strong realized that she, too, has a place among such company.
“I think if I went anywhere else to college I would not have chosen to dance. And now it’s so vital for me,” said Strong, a comparative literature major who is pursuing a certificate in dance and has begun to develop her own choreography. An “Introduction to Movement and Dance” course she took freshman year “opened up how I see dance,” she said. “You have so much room to create and to bring thought into your work.”
After observing Strong early on at Princeton, Rebecca Lazier, a senior lecturer in dance, could see that “already she stood out as somebody who is bringing forms together in new ways.” Strong, she added, has “this voracious appetite for learning. … It’s been wonderful to see her come to the art form with such a passion.”
In addition to the Alex Adam ’07 Award, which also allowed her to teach Polynesian dance at a high school near Fontana, Strong won the Peter B. Lewis ’55 Summer Fund award in 2013, which enabled her to dance with a hula troupe in California and conduct research on that dance in Oahu, Hawaii.
Navigating an Unfamiliar Environment
Strong landed at Princeton thanks to a counselor who told her about the generous financial aid available at some Ivy League schools. Strong applied through QuestBridge—a program that aims to increase the number of high-achieving, low-income students at elite universities. The University is a QuestBridge partner.
The transition to Princeton, however, was not easy. It felt like “culture shock,” she recalled. Raised by her mother, Strong grew up in a very diverse, working-class community. But she found resources to help her navigate her new environment. She is a member of the Princeton Hidden Minority Council, a student group that includes leaders of the Princeton chapters of organizations that work with first-generation students and those from disadvantaged socioeconomic groups. And she co-founded the Princeton Gates Millennium Scholars, a group for her fellow recipients of that scholarship, which provides outstanding minority students with significant financial support.
A peer adviser in Butler College, she also is the team manager of the cheerleading squad and a member of the student-run Más Flow Dance Company, which performs Latin dance.
Telling Stories Through Dance
Strong has incorporated Afro-Diasporic narratives of minorities into her choreography by “translating” those stories into movement. For example, one dance she created was inspired by a poem about the 1963 bombing by white supremacists of a church in Birmingham, Alabama. Another work drew on memories her mother shared about the Liberian Civil War.
Her current work, motivated by the workshops she attended last summer, explores ways to create an experience for the audience in a nontraditional way—perhaps having her dancers move around audience members. She also hopes to delve into integrating different art forms in her work, such as film, spoken word, and vocal performance. Her senior thesis—a work of original choreography—will be performed next spring in the Berlind Theater.
Strong hopes eventually to earn a PhD that will incorporate her love of performance and her choreography talents.
Photo from Spring Dance Festival courtesy of Julie Lemberger
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