Somehow, three years after I’ve come to Cornell, I am more confused than ever about what a “community” means. This is not surprising — Cornell, in many ways, has always been a congregation of pieces to me: a campus too wide to grasp, with too many people to meet and too many opportunities to seize and miss at the same time. Going into junior year, these elements seemed to come to a stagnant halt. Being an upperclassman started feeling like I’d been part of the same clubs and organizations all my college life, yet I’d established my roots too deep to find an identity anywhere else.
I decided to quit Cornell’s competitive ballroom dancing team at the beginning of this semester. Or at least, take a very long break from it. Anyone who knows me knows that ballroom and I were a two-in-one deal. All my late nights were spent at Helen Newman’s sweaty dance studio, and between partying or practicing, I would always choose to lug my dance shoes up the Slope. It was the first and only club I joined as a freshman, and I’d even spent a year being the president of the ballroom club, a recreational branch of the team. But the team just eventually lost its magic, as many things in college do — the simplicity of the sport became tainted with unnecessary drama, careless leadership and malicious competitiveness, and I decided I wanted to find a new community. It’s funny how often we complicate something that’s supposed to be simple.
But that’s the whole paradox of clubs, isn’t it — none of it’s really natural. It’s a bunch of people new to an area competing for limited slots, trying to fit into human-constructed social rings where they hope to make friends. From the minute you step foot on campus, you’re force-fed the idea that finding a community is a necessity, and it’s the only way to remain relevant on campus. Freshman year yields a hyperactive frenzy of trying to find your way to every quarter card and onto every listserv, with the eventual goal of making it on an e-board. And ClubFest becomes a Barton-Hall-cesspool of sweat and food samples, with too many Excel sign-up spreadsheets to write your NetID — only to drop most of the listserv emails a month later.
But now, as a junior, I find myself having the opposite problem as I did when I was a freshman: I’m simultaneously young enough in my college life to feel obligated to keep pursuing new organizations, and yet too old to join anything new, because everything else already has an established community. I’ve heard countless times my junior and senior friends saying they wish they’d done more things at Cornell, like joining an a capella group or starting a painting club, but that they don’t feel encouraged to do so anymore. Walking around ClubFest, I realized it had turned from a room where the number of choices looked overwhelming into rows of tables where asking for a quarter card comes with the burdening question of, “How many semesters do you have left at Cornell?”
“As an upperclassman, I now have more questions than answers.” My senior friend told me this the other day, standing by my kitchen fridge. Under fluorescent lights, we both had prominent bags beneath our eyes. Junior year, for me at least, is a time when life indeed becomes a question. Things aren’t so bright and shiny and full of opportunity anymore, yet there is the urge to accomplish so much more with so little time. Leaving ballroom opened a gaping wound and exposed it to the world — I am still so, so young, and I still yearn to do so many new things, yet I don’t know how to proceed. We can rant all we want about the illusion of community, but how much does it actually come to matter over time? A lot.
It was beautiful to me when I asked a senior on the ballroom team why she decided to join this year, and she said she wanted to find a place to just dance and forget everything else. She was looking for a blank slate too, and when her old clubs started weighing her down, she turned to the simplicity of dance. It reminded me that the value of a club can be so fluid — what becomes tainted to one person can still be refreshing to another. Sitting in my friend’s apartment and listening to her, I remembered what it felt like to dance my first time as a freshman — uncomplicated and uncharted, just relishing in the pure joy of moving my body to music.
The illusion of community seems to be deep-set enough where tearing away my team will leave something permanent. But my time at Cornell still feels young enough for it to be worth trying something new. I’m hoping the fear that Cornell’s clubs are “too established” for a junior proves to be a myth. And I hope that, like my upperclassman friends, I too can find a place where I can just dance again, figuratively, and maybe realistically.
Kelly Song is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The Songbird Sings runs every other Thursday this semester.