A dancer since age three, Niya Nicholson ’14 is undeniably passionate about kinesthetically expressing herself. At Vassar, she is a part of numerous dance groups, and also brings her perspective as a dancer to academic, religious, and humanitarian pursuits.
Nicholson is a Psychology major with a double correlate in Africana Studies and Education. She is also pursuing certification in primary education. Heavy academic requirements do not stop her from being a fixture in Vassar’s dance scene: she choreographs for FlyPeople; is Hype’s choreography captain; was a dancer and choreographer in Vassar’s Repertory Dance Theater (VRDT) her freshman and sophomore year; is in Future Waitstaff of America’s upcoming production of Legally Blonde; and is participating in Chelsea Peterson Salhuddin’s independent dance study.
Choreography is an area where Nicholson particularly excels. For FlyPeople’s recent final showings, Nicholson choreographed a piece with Charmaine Branch ’14 titled “LoveCharm”. It incorporated hip-hop, lyrical contemporary, and some jazz elements. And for VRDT’s final show last spring, Nicholson authored a piece called “Jigsaw” to Mozart that represented some of her academic research through dance.
“It was an emulsion of psychology, emotion, and drama, specifically the psychological aspect of schizophrenia. I asked myself ‘how can I infuse this disorder through movement, through the body?’” she said. She also emphasized how dance can be used as a means to communicate ideas—like, but not limited to, the nature of mental illness. “As Martha Graham said, ‘dance is the language of the soul,’” Nicholson noted. Dance is notably not the only language in which Nicholson is fluent—she is trilingual, capable in English, Spanish, and Swahili. This and other elements of her background contribute to her aptitude in dance.
Nicholson is a New York City native, who dances in the footsteps of her mother.
“My mom danced in middle school and high school, and continues to bless my family with her dance styles during family celebrations,” Nicholson noted. And at age three, her mother enrolled Nicholson in dance courses. From then on, she actively honed her skills in ballet, modern, jazz, and African dancing. “I have loved it ever since,” she said.
Praise dancing also is a fundamental part of Nicholson’s dance identity. At her church in New York City, Nicholson is a praise dancer and choreographer. Praise dance is a form of worship that seeks to elucidate the word and spirit of God through the body, and incorporates elements of contemporary dance, modern dance, and ballet. At Laguardia High School, Nicholson was a dance major, studying ballet, jazz, and the Martha Graham technique.
A highlight of her high school career was performing at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel. Six students out of sixty-six dance majors were selectively chosen to perform a ten-minute jazz piece for an international business meeting.
In college, Nicholson has clearly continued to pursue dance with the vigor. Notably, though, she has additionally used dance as a means of activism. She was recently elected as Secretary of the Council of Black Seniors at Vassar, and she is currently the Sociocultural Chair of the Black Student Union.
“One of my roles as chair is to brainstorm arts initiatives for the group,” she said. And related to her education correlate, Nicholson has volunteered at Wimpheimer Nursery School, teaching Kindergarteners and first graders dance lessons.
When she went abroad to Australia last semester, Nicholson studied forensic psychology and criminology. There she helped recent Australian immigrants with English language skills, took courses in Egyptian dance, and also taught two dance classes in an elementary school comprised primarily of indigenous Australians. “Turns out, I had a great deal to learn from the students,” she said. “They taught me invaluable cultural dance styles.”
Although Nicholson will always dance, in the future she hopes to pursue a PhD in Forensic Psychology. She is well on her way to big next steps—she recently acquired a summer internship at the Bluhm Legal Aid Clinic in the Criminal Defense sector at Northwestern Law School, a position usually reserved for law students, not undergraduates.
Nicholson credits dance as a partial reason for her many successes. “As a child I was really shy. I was not able to express myself through words but I was capable of using physicality as a means of expression. Mastering that form of expression made me more confident and sociable,” she said.