Graceful: An HBCU Dance Story


Check out our first HBCU Pulse e-book free of charge, entitled Graceful: An HBCU Story by Fort Valley State University Author & P.H.A.S.E.S Dancer Jehnivia Cleveland. “Graceful” is an episodic book series and this first episode is entitiled “Different Enviornment”. Enjoy and, if you attend Fort Valley State University, make sure to come out to the Benedict vs. FVSU game in the Health & Physical Education Complex starting at 6:00 PM! 

Episode 1: Different Environment

Janelle Carson

It’s my last semester and I can’t help but reminisce on my journey to joining S.H.A.D.O.W, also known as the Laketon State University basketball dance team. I was so excited about transferring over from Gilliard University, a PWI in Bartley, Georgia, but it just wasn’t benefitting me. My passion was dance. I had an odd feeling approaching my audition at Laketon State. I wasn’t really nervous but I wanted to make sure that I was prepared. If I wanted to make the dance team at an HBCU I had to make sure I was on the top of my game.

At Gilliard, I tried my best not to overthink the auditions. When I walked into the Gilliard Basketball Arena my mind was at ease. Then, I saw the crowd of people that were sitting in the bleachers around the arena. I even saw some of the people I knew from around Gilliard. I started to feel sick. I kept thinking about what happen if I messed up. Would they laugh at me? What if I ended up stumbling and someone put me on Snapchat? What if it went viral?

I walked over and signed in and got my audition number. I then went over to the place where the other girls trying out were. It was silent. We barely even looked at each other. The judges would call us out to do our routine and then say, “Thank you.” They wouldn’t even look us in the eye, too busy tallying up points on their sheets.

My audition number was #7. When they called my name, it’s like I reevaluated my whole life. I thought about how I fell in love with dancing at a young age. I thought about how I always wanted to join a dance team but procrastinated every year auditions opened up when I was in high school. I thought about how I wanted dancing to be my career one day. I thought about how I wanted to be a dancer for a professional team like the Atlanta Hawks in the future.

Thinking about my dreams and my journey put me at ease. I went out to the center of the court and set it off. As I did my routine, I saw that the judges couldn’t take their eyes off me. Was I messing up? They could be looking at me thinking at how clumsy I was. I can be that when I dance sometimes.  Still, I moved to the beat as the song played out loud. In my head, I counted each move, making sure I remembered the routine. I wondered if it was noticeable that I was overthinking it, but I continued to move gracefully.

As I performed, I wondered if the judges could tell I was nervous. I still continued to move gracefully but I was cautious. My fear was starting to come back. Doubt was creeping in my head at every turn.

“What I I slip and fall?”

“What if I didn’t kick high enough?”

“What if they just don’t like me?

But, as I continued to move, I noticed that one of the judges had their eyes locked on me. He was staring at me more intensely than the others. When I was done, I saw him nodding his head as I walked off. I don’t know if he did it by mistake or if he really liked my performance. He nodded though. I guess he did like my performance. I made the team after all.

Three years later, I became captain and was at the top of my game. It was amazing. In my time at Gilliard I gained confidence in myself. I knew that I was good at dancing. When the end of my third year came, I knew it was time for me to transfer. Gilliard was my comfort zone and I needed a challenge. That made me even more excited about trying out for S.H.A.D.O.W. at Laketon State.


It was one fateful day in October that it was finally time for me to step up to the challenge of trying out for S.H.A.D.O.W. I walked into auditions at Laketon State University’s Wodell Gymnasium. There were only two judges and a room full of people. One of the judges was Destiny Neal. The Destiny Neal! Destiny was a graduate of Laketon State and a choreographer in Atlanta. She’s dances at award shows and she’s choreographed for some pretty big time artists. Destiny was goals for real!

I always heard that Destiny was tough. She didn’t play around when it came to dancing and it showed in her approach to the tryouts. It was different from what it was at Gilliard too! All the girls that came to try out were talking to each other. I even had a couple of girls come up and talk to me. Everyone was talking about how they were nervous about tryouts, especially with Destiny being there. It seemed like I was the only one that was unfazed. My confidence was still high from Giliard. If I was the captain down there, I knew I was a lock to make it at Laketon!

After we all did our routines, Destiny and the two other judges walked back into the gym. My eyes were focused on Destiny. She had a serious look on her face with a clipboard in her hand. We all were silent. We knew what was coming next

She walked in front of us and said, “Can I get everybody to line up in the order of their audition number?”

Everyone quickly lined up, awaiting what was coming next.

“I need number one, ten, seven, three, twelve, eight, six, nine, fifteen, and four to step up. I want to thank you all for coming but you unfortunately did not make the team.”

I was shocked. How did I not make the team? I had put in so much work before tryouts. I’d even had previous experience, something I didn’t have at Laketon State. I stood there with a few other girls who questioned themselves and asked what they did wrong. I couldn’t bare to ask. I just knew that I needed to be on the team.

I worked overtime to make sure I was ready for the next tryout. I was committed. I was waking up at 4:00 just to work out. In between classes I was watching different dance routines, even Destiny’s. Then, after my classes, I was back in the gym working. I did that for two weeks until the next tryout came along. Then, Sunday came along. It was time.

I came to the gym early. The tryouts didn’t start until 2:00. I was there at 12:30. I wanted to go on and do my warm-ups. At 1:15, Destiny and the advisor Dr. Peterson walked in. I was in the middle of the floor practicing my routine. I saw them looking at me and I froze. I hurried over to turn off my music. I don’t know why, I just instinctively did it. Destiny came up to me.

“What’s your name?”

“Janelle…Janelle Carson.”


She started to smile. “Haven’t I seen you before Janelle?”

“Yes ma’am you have. I was at the tryout a couple of weeks ago.”

“You didn’t make it right?”

“No ma’am, I didn’t.”

She laughed. “You’re killing me with ‘ma’am’ right now! It’s crazy because I was just in your same spot a few years ago. I didn’t make the team when I first tried out either.”


She nodded. “Yup! It didn’t make sense to me because I’d been on my high school dance team all my four years. I was even captain for two of them. I didn’t understand then but college dancing is a whole different ball game. I was only used to hip hop dancing and Dr. Peterson and the other coaches wanted us to be able to perform in different styles.”

I said. “Wow.”

“You know, you remind me of me when I was on S.H.A.D.O.W.”

I literally dropped my mouth open in awe. “Really?”

She laughed at my reaction. “Yes really! I was ready for my next tryout. I was here before everyone just like you.”

“I really love dance.”

“I can tell. Do you want to pursue it as a career?”

“I do. I want to be a dancer for a sports team one day.”

“I can see it. I really can. As a matter of fact, I want you to go on and perform for me. Since you’re heare early, there’s no point of you having to wait. If that’s ok with you.”

I nodded. She stepped back from me wtith her arms folded. I put on the song I was dancing to and connected my phone up to my Bluetooth speaker. Before I started my routine. I took a deep breath before I started. I tried to push back all my fears. I was nervous, I’ll admit it. I could’t let it hold me back though. I gave the my best performance ever in front of Destiny. I truly left it all out there. Just like the judge back at Gilliard, she nodded.

“How do you think you did?”

I froze in time. “I mean, I don’t know. I think I did pretty good you know?”

She smiled at me again. “Why are you so uncertain in yourself?”

“I don’t know.”

“Well, I think you did a great job! You were too stiff last time. You were way more loose and comfortable. Because of that, I think you’d be perfect for S.H.A.D.OW.”

I immediately looked up at her. “Really?”

“Yes really Janelle! We’re gonna get your confidence up for sure now that you’re on the team. You’re a great dancer and you need to believe it.


Make sure to follow J. Cleveland on Instagram: @niviajay_





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