Hilary (or ‘Lent’) Term can be bleak with its freezing weather and public examinations, so the 7th Annual Varsity Dance Competition on Sunday, at the start of Oxford’s Fifth Week, was a high spot of energy and warmth. This year, Oxford University Contemporary Dance (OUCD) was host to Cambridge University Dance Competition Team (CUDCT) for the event in St John’s College Auditorium, which buzzed with chatter as friends, families and dance fans crammed in. There were tantalising glimpses of competitors, with hair ready dressed and costumes concealed by their team tracksuits, and the audience was bursting with excitement by the time the Presenter, Leah Aspden, took the stage to open the match.

Varsity Dance pits each troupe against the other in seven categories: Tap; Jazz; Solo/Duet/Trio; Contemporary; Street; Ballet, and ‘Wildcard’. The winner must take at least four of them, and both teams were clearly ‘in it to win it’. Supporters cheered them on, whooping at virtuosic feats and applauding wildly after each dance. The judges sat alone and slightly apart from the tumultuously enthusiastic audience in their reserved row of seats, and without knowing which team was which, used clear scoring criteria to award marks for choreography, technique, performance and execution.

Cambridge fielded the larger troupe, with 40 dancers to Oxford’s 32. Overall the standard was universally high, and both teams included individuals with distinctive technical skills (tap and pointe for Oxford; lyrical and gymnastic ability for Cambridge). Entry to the teams is by audition, and the teams train in dance forms ranging from Ballet and Tap to Hiphop and Heels. (Ballroom, or DanceSport, organises separately, and has its own clubs and Varsity Match). The competition tests capabilities in at least five essentially Western dance forms (although Jazz, Street and Tap are also manifestations of Black culture), and the performances were remarkable, considering that dancing is something that Oxbridge students do in their spare time.

Most of the dancers performed in several categories, which made maintaining the stylistic distinctions between the different genres even more challenging, particularly where the choreography itself included steps derived from an alternative dance discipline, reflecting a blurring of distinctions between dance forms seen today both in society and, sometimes, on the professional stage.

Meaningful competition requires measurable material that can be evaluated against objective standards, and when Dance becomes an ‘aesthetic sport’, it throws into clear relief the tug-of-war between virtuosity on the one hand, and communication and dramatic motivation on the other, which has exercised theorists since at least the time of Jean-Georges Noverre (1727-1810). Yet how else is Dance to gain respect, prestige and funding in universities such as Oxford and Cambridge, where it is not generally recognised as either a vocational or academic discipline? Oxford University does not even have a dedicated dance studio.

The choreographers’ inclusion of flips, fouettés, and splits was as thrilling as the double Axels and Salchows in a figure skating routine, but I enjoyed most the dances in which technique was subservient to expression, such as CUCDT’s tap routine, choreographed by Téa Ryan and Niamh O’Shaughnessy, which was both humorous and had an unexpected Hispanic flavour. However this was a competition, and one team had to come out on top. When OUCD won its fourth category (Ballet, impressively danced on pointe and choreographed by Elizabeth Lee to Rachmaninov Prelude no.5), we knew that Oxford had won. But it was only by a hair’s breadth. The three very experienced and rigorous judges (Nicholas Minns, Stephanie Ross, and Susie Crow) admitted how tightly balanced some of their decisions had been, and gave the teams thoughtful and considered feedback with practical suggestions; for example, recommending the use of front-of-stage microphones to pick up the sound of their taps next year.

The afternoon was an overwhelmingly friendly and happy occasion. Both troupes were generous in their applause for each other, and although the competition was very much about the teams rather than individual dancers, Balliol’s Cameron Tweed, who won the Solo/Duet /Trio section with his tap solo ‘Treasure’, deserves a ‘shout-out’. Cambridge took a few moments to present their own society’s trophy to dancer Josh Aderanti, awarded in memory of Robinson College student Alana Cutland, and fittingly designated the ‘Joy of Dance’ award. The overall organisation was a formidable achievement, spearheaded by Darcey Bowling, OUCD’s Varsity co-ordinator, with impressive front-of-house and technical teams. It is not possible to list here all the dancers named in the stylish programme designed by Varvara Kisselev, but I must mention the Captains: Miranda Conn and Darcey Bowling for Oxford, and Sophie Gibson and Poppy Wager Leigh for Cambridge.

Maggie Watson
15th February 2023

Find out more about Oxford University Contemporary Dance here, and about Cambridge University Dance Competition Team here