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Every week brings fresh competition for the Orchesis dancers at Grambling State

New season of ‘Why Not Us’ will show how 40 members audition weekly to secure one of 10 performance slots

When director J’aime Griffith took over Grambling State University’s Orchesis Dance Company last fall, she never imagined her normal, daily pressures would be amplified by television cameras.

Griffith and the dance company will be featured in Why Not Us: Grambling Dance, the fifth season of Andscape’s Why Not Us series, produced by Roadside Entertainment, NBA star guard Chris Paul’s Ohh Dip!!! Productions and ESPN+. Grambling’s segment will premiere Oct. 4 on ESPN+.

“Obviously it was stressful in my first year, and the cameras made it even more stressful,” said Griffith, who danced at Grambling State from 2013-2016 and went on to perform in New York. “So I’ll say that I had fun fulfilling my dreams of becoming a professor and a director of a dance company. But having the cameras there, that was very stressful.”

Regardless, Griffith said it was a great learning experience — after succeeding legendary Orchesis director Dianne Maroney-Grigsby — she wouldn’t trade.

“It was my first season, and I learned a lot. … The dancers definitely challenged me for sure every day,” she said.  “Even though I went to Grambling, it was different being in this position on the other side. I had to relearn the university as a faculty member.”

Orchesis Dance Company was founded in 1948 by Catherine Jones Williams as a school club. But Williams’ ultimate goal was to train dancers aesthetically, which meant teaching all aspects of dance such as ballet, modern and jazz to the students at Grambling State. 

Over time, the group’s popularity grew and it began accompanying the World Famed Grambling State University Tiger Marching Band. The program has since evolved into a full-fledged dance company, which makes Orchesis’ weekly on-field performances unique: Tryouts are held with about 40 members weekly to determine the 10 who will perform.

Orchesis dancers must balance school and the dance company, which holds five-hour practices every night until 9. Because it’s still a school club, anyone can join Orchesis and not be turned away. That means Orchesis sometimes accepts untrained dancers and transforms them into a product that hits the field.

“We have to try out every week because it’s a company and it’s multiple people in [it], so they allow anybody to be in the [group],” said Ebony Crawford, a 2023 graduate who was a co-captain last season. “It can be stressful and it can be helpful at the same time, because just because you didn’t have it last week that doesn’t mean you can’t come in this week and make it, which I love. It keeps everybody on their toes.”

Crawford said there’s also stress “because sometimes we have to learn things quickly, like maybe in less than a week, and perform it to perfection.”

Orchesis performs throughout the year, unlike typical dance groups at historically Black colleges and universities that accompany their bands only during the football and basketball seasons and a few special events, Griffith said.

Much like their director, the dancers had to get used to the cameras in front of them – and grow accustomed to showing their imperfections during practice.

“It was kind of hard because we’re used to just being with each other and then we have people watching us. And then [dancing] is not easy,” Crawford said. “I had to get comfortable with messing up because I am a perfectionist. 

“So being a leader and being a perfectionist, it was so hard because I’m hard on myself. Just knowing that people are also looking up to me and just following behind me, I had to get comfortable messing up and let them know that it was OK to mess up. Like, it’s normal, we’re human.”

The Orchesis Dance Company holds tryouts with about 40 members weekly to determine the 10 dancers who will participate during on-field performances.

ESPN+ Why Not Us: Grambling Dance

Gaja Ford, who also was a captain last season, found the camera crew to be considerate of her time and schedules.

“I liked that they helped us to feel more comfortable, to be able to talk about certain things that were very private and deep to us,” Ford said. “They explored our inner life instead of just exploring dance. They also got to know us as people.”

Viewers will see how Orchesis works to synergize its performances with the band, Griffith said.

“We’re dancing in front of World Famed, who has a lot of energy, so we try to match their energy or even more. We bring beauty [and] grace,” Griffith said. “Why Not Us [will show] the world that HBCU dance lines are just as important as ballet, modern and jazz.

“The style that we do is very unique to the HBCU experience, so it’s going to be just as valuable. We spend just as much time, energy and effort to perfect our craft as other dance genres.” 

Darren A. Nichols, a 30-year industry veteran, is an award-winning journalist and contributing columnist at the Detroit Free Press.