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Nittany Dance Project Creating Supportive Community Through Creativity & Performance

When Penn State student Diana LoPiccolo decided that she wanted to fulfill her dream of leading a dance team, her time as a student had almost run out.

Though LoPiccolo was a member of Penn State Dance Alliance (PSDA), she wanted to teach others. Her mother owned a studio, she was pursuing a degree in dance, and it had always been a career goal to be a dance teacher.

Despite knowing that her time in Happy Valley was limited, LoPiccolo took the leap anyway and began Nittany Dance Project in the summer of 2021.

Looking toward the future, LoPiccolo asked fellow PSDA dancers Olivia Brown and Paige Aita, who were juniors at the time, if they would be interested in joining her team and helping out with the 2021-2022 season. As dancers for nearly their whole lives, Brown and Aita were thrilled to join the new group, which was soon dubbed Nittany Dance Project.

Despite a membership of about 15 members on the team who were ready to dance in the fall of 2021, unexpected issues with a faculty advisor created a significant setback in becoming a recognized organization. In the 2021-2022 academic year, Nittany Dance Project only performed at THON 2022 — but that’s a pretty good place to start.

LoPiccolo graduated from Penn State in 2022 and left Nittany Dance Project in the hands of Brown and Aita, who chose to become co-presidents of the team. Since they had little time to actually run the club last year, it was difficult to figure out what exactly needed to be taken care of, but the co-president leadership style worked well for the duo.

Aita takes the lead on choreography and organization in rehearsals, while Brown deals with behind-the-scenes administrative items, such as setting up auditions for new members, finding performance opportunities, and communicating with other organizations.

This year, the team grew to around 20 members, and that was after auditions that brought out 40 dancers. Essentially all team members have prior dance experience, and auditions, which are held only in the fall, ensure that potential Nittany Dance Project dancers understand the terminology, skills, and attitudes that allow them to collaborate on the team.

“Auditions is, I feel like, a little bit more technical,” Brown said. “We don’t really use technical terms throughout practices and stuff, but we’re kind of talking more in dance terms at auditions.”

Courtesy of Nittany Dance Project

Throughout the year, the dancers typically participate in hour-long practices three nights a week. Many of Nittany Dance Project’s members are also in other dance groups, something that Aita and Brown encourage.

For the past several months, Nittany Dance Project has been engaged in a variety of events. It performed at the Homecoming Talent Show, THON Showcase, 100 Days ‘Til THON Celebration, the Performing Arts Council talent show, and THON 2023.

Aita and Brown never had or created a schedule for those events. If they saw something for the group to perform at, they would apply or audition and quickly get the team ready, a process that repeated throughout the year.

“I think it’s a good thing that we were busy and always preparing because we had so many more opportunities, which was really cool this year,” Aita shared.

Since THON 2023, Nittany Dance Project has been gearing up for its annual showcase in mid-April. The dance team will perform all of its past dances from events this year, which are exclusively jazz and hip-hop compilations.

Additionally, anyone on the team can sign up to choreograph and perform a dance. These innovative performances aren’t limited to a certain style, so audience members can expect to see contemporary or even ballet.

“We have 11 girls who wanted to make their own dances and then people can sign up for which ones they want to be in,” Brown explained. “A lot of freshmen want to choreograph, so it’s going to be really cool.”

Courtesy of Nittany Dance Project

Dance teams are not uncommon on Penn State’s campus, but Nittany Dance Project prides itself on multiple things that make it stand out from the rest. It is the only group on campus that performs in both styles of jazz and hip-hop; all other groups stick to one of those styles or don’t perform them at all.

The group also remains just the right size for every kind of stage that Nittany Dance Project performs on in order to foster a team culture.

“We really wanted the girls to want to come to dance and genuinely have fun. Even with the choreography and picking the music, we try to include as many people as we can,” said Aita. “Everyone kind of feels like they’re part of it and actually contributing and they made it as well, instead of us just telling them and designing everything for them.”

Brown and Aita, who are both about to graduate with degrees in public relations, are thrilled to have the opportunity to continue dancing. Both spent all of their childhoods in competitive dance, which they expressed is drastically different from the environment of Nittany Dance Project.

Neither Brown nor Aita wanted to pursue a career in professional dance. However, after graduating high school and coming to Penn State, it was strange to simply quit dancing altogether since they had done it for upwards of six days a week for 15 years.

The co-presidents explained that it was almost like a revelation to discover that dancing was something that they could do for fun without the added stress of competition.

“Competitive dance was very strict, whereas this is so collaborative. I know for pretty much everyone on the team, dancing is like their stress reliever. [Practice] is the one place we could go for two hours of the night to just have fun with each other and do something that we all love together, and I think it’s pretty awesome that we all share the same passion,” said Brown.

Courtesy of Nittany Dance Project

So, what’s next for Nittany Dance Project? Nothing but growth.

Following Brown and Aita’s graduation in a few weeks, new leadership will take over and continue building upon the strong foundation that’s been built in the past year. The team wants to keep getting its name out to students and the local community through even more performances in the upcoming academic year.

You can check out Nittany Dance Project’s last performance of the year at 3 p.m. on Sunday, April 16, in the Flex Theater in the HUB. Doors open at 2:30 p.m., and tickets are $5.

Nittany Dance Project will hold auditions at the beginning of the fall 2023 semester. For updates on the team, follow its Instagram.

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About the Author

Haylee Yocum

Haylee is a senior studying immunology and infectious disease. She is from Mifflintown, PA, a tiny town south of State College. She is fueled by dangerous amounts of caffeine and dreams of smashing the patriarchy. Any questions or discussion about Taylor Swift’s best songs can be directed to @hayleeq8 on Twitter or emailed to [email protected]

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