Embarrassed. Humiliated. Out of place.
For years, these were familiar feelings for Julia Jaskwhich '02, a white woman from South Carolina trying to learn how to dance. We're not talking about her picking up the shag or putting on tap-dancing shoes. We're talking about boldly going where few Southern gals have gone before, leaving one's comfort zone to groove along to the merengue, negroide, timba and a slew other dances indigenous to African and Latin cultures.
Inspired by an African dance class at the College her freshman year, Jaskwhich decided to make two summer study-abroad trips to see the world and improve her dancing abilities. The first of those trips was to Havana, where she practiced with Cuba's National Folkloric Dance Company. A few years later, she joined a summer study-abroad program to Guinea in West Africa. Even though she had already graduated, she was eager for a "pure learning experience." On those trips, she slowly saw hostile stares from foreigners give way to friendly grins and pats on the back.
"These experiences were perhaps some of the most fulfilling and encouraging I have ever had in my dance career," says Jaskwhich. "Every day in Guinea, members of the surrounding neighborhoods came out to see me perform what I had spent the day learning. At the end of my short and rather unimpressive performance, I was met with cheers and smiles and congratulations, most of which were completely undeserved and overly generous."
Returning to the United States, the modest Jaskwhich founded Buen Ache, an Afro-Latino dance company in Charleston that counts members from more than 12 countries and performs in a variety of cultural festivals. The poise Jaskwhich displays on stage, though, masks the tumult she has endured the past few years, including the death of her mother and surviving bouts with thyroid cancer, which is now in remission.
"Life is not easy," says Jaskwhich. "If you want to make it 'til tomorrow and be successful, you just push through."
For Jaskwhich, who is studying at the Medical University of South Carolina to be a psychiatric nurse practitioner, there is hardly any challenge too daunting. In fact, compared to her health scares, dancing and stage fright seem like minor challenges.
"If I'm afraid, that's kind of irrelevant. I'm still going to do what I think I should do," she says. "Do the things you want to do and don't be discouraged."