A New Fitness Center, At the Expense of Dancers

Sarah Weiner '24 shares her perspective on the proposed conversion of the Nicholls Biondi dance studio into a fitness center. Without a space to rehearse, Weiner argues that the Amherst dancers and RSOs that rely on the space would suffer incalculably without it.

Vassar College has “Vassar On Tap,” Yale University has “Taps,” and Skidmore College has “The Stompin’ Soles.” Soon, however, Amherst College may no longer have a place where I can tap dance. This realization came after an email from the Office of Residential Life (ResLife) on Feb. 10, which announced that the Nicholls Biondi (NB) fitness studio will be converted into a satellite fitness center — furnished with an elliptical, bikes, a treadmill, and free weights — as a pilot pro- gram. The dancers of Amherst College, including myself and multiple dance groups on campus, are frustrated by this unexpected change, which makes the pursuit of our artistic practice unnecessarily difficult. Amherst has a student body with diverse interests, and in order to nurture those interests, we need spaces that are accessible, flexible, and varied. The transition of the studio into a fitness equipment location goes against all of these needs, and therefore minimizes its potential to serve students.

I have been a tap dancer for almost 15 years. With no tap courses or tap-centric groups on campus, I thought it would be a passion I would have to let go of if I came to Amherst. So last semester, I was overjoyed to reignite my passion by choreographing a tap piece for Intersections Dance Company. All of my choreography sessions and nearly all of my rehearsals took place in the NB studio. It is the only easily accessible space on campus with hardwood floors and mirrors. These features are critical for many types of dance, but tap dance in particular: a hardwood floor is the only type of floor that produces the correct sound quality and keeps the dancers, tap shoes, and the floor itself safe. Mirrors facilitate learning group choreography, dancing in unison, and evaluating one’s own technique and artistry. With the transition of the space into a “satellite fitness location,” as the email from ResLife put it, I no longer have anywhere on campus with the appropriate amenities to support my passion.

Student dance groups, as well as Theater and Dance students, use the Nicholls Biondi Studio, equipped with mirrors and hardwood floors, as a practice and rehearsal space for performances like DASAC's above. Photo courtesy of Amherst College.

My disappointment also follows the week of remote learning that just concluded, during which I depended on the NB studio to participate in one of my Theater and Dance classes. As a student living in a single room that was converted to house two students this year, I did not have the physical space in my room to fully participate in my class. Even though I would not have faced repercussions from my flexible and understanding professors had I stayed in my room, it is my belief — and not an outrageous one — that I should be able to engage in my courses to the extent that I desire. For myself and other students in my class, the studio offered the only way to participate in our movement class.

The reasons provided by those in favor of the transition (including the college and other students) suggest that there are some students who feel uncomfortable using the Wolff Fitness Center in the presence of other students, particularly athletes. In this case, perhaps then the administration should carefully consider the college’s student athlete culture, instead of perpetuating the segregation between athletes and non-athletes on campus.

I digress — my intention is not to dramatize my concerns or throw a pity party for the tap shoes sitting under my bed, because the reality of the situation is that Amherst has an enormous amount of resources that I feel fortunate to have access to. But that is precisely what has confused, frustrated, and disappointed me and the other students who are pushing back against the college’s decision on the NB studio. This resource is a simple ask that has proven to be successful in and critical to supporting a wide variety of student needs, and now it has been denied without consulting the students that rely on it.  

In addition to myself and other Theater and Dance students, three Registered Student Organizations (RSO) have been severely impacted by the transition of the space: African and Caribbean Student Union Dance (ACSU Dance), Dance and Step at Amherst College (DASAC), and Intersections Dance Company. Without the additional studio, these dance groups are rightfully concerned about how they will pull off the sophisticated, student-choreographed concerts they have at the end of each semester to celebrate their hard work. Jonathan Paul ’22 (ACSU Dance) and Alexandra Sala ’22 (Intersections) wrote a compelling response to the college’s announcement, which demands that the administration reverse their plan or provide students with an appropriate alternative, and has garnered over 50 signatures as of the time of this article’s publication. You can read and sign the full letter here.

The letter highlights pointedly that “a lot of these student groups and clubs which use the Nicholas [sic] Biondi space are focused on and filled with members of minority groups on campus.” It follows by arguing that the college has not only deprived minority groups of an important resource, but also blatantly disrespected their role in our campus’s culture: “These performance groups, particularly those who prioritize the voices of minority students, have contributed to creativity and culture on-campus that are frequently showcased by the College – yet our contributions don’t seem to be enough to warrant our inclusion in discussions about the spaces we occupy.”

I wholeheartedly support their call to stop the reappropriation of the space or, alternatively, to “provide us with a functional and equipped alternative to the NB Fitness space.”

I am deeply in favor of providing students with opportunities to exercise how they see fit — but not when it is at the expense of other students or the arts community on campus. With an open floor, the NB studio can support many more forms of exercise —  including dance, yoga, pilates, martial arts, aerobics, and workouts with free weights — than it can when filled with exercise equipment. And for me, as the singular place on campus where I can tap dance, the NB studio supports my prized form of exercise and art and allows me to share it with the campus community.