This year was Eleganza’s 21st birthday. Eleganza was founded in 1994 under the umbrella organization Harvard Black Community and Student Theater (Black C.A.S.T.) as a fashion show. Years later, Eleganza has evolved with a new twist. The show now focuses on charity, with all of its profits benefiting Boston Center for Teen Empowerment, a local organization that provides arts and mentorship opportunities to teens in high-risk areas. Eleganza is also a celebration of diversity—diversity of physical appearances, cultures, backgrounds, and forms of expression. Together, the three pillars of Eleganza are fashion, charity, and diversity. “All three of them are things often talked about here and at every school,” executive producer Preeti Srinivasan ‘16 says, “but I’ve never seen something that brings all of them together in the way that Eleganza does.” This three-pronged mission of fashion, charity, and diversity is perhaps what makes Eleganza such a resounding success, year after year.
Once again, Eleganza was a huge success this year, successfully selling out the entire Lavietes Pavilion with over 1500 students, prospective students, VIPs, and family members in attendance. After a few opening remarks made by the executive producers, the show began with a spoken word piece written and performed by a talented student from the Center for Teen Empowerment. Zuri stood on the stage in an elegant gown, bathed in light before an enormous audience waiting with bated breath. She then launched into a powerful spoken word piece inspired by Michael Brown and police violence against blacks, a stirring piece about racism and cultural appropriation. Her performance elicited cheers of support, claps of agreement, and at the end, a standing ovation from the entire audience.
The spoken word performance framed Eleganza and made it clear that, though this was a fashion and dance show meant to entertain, it was also a celebration of diversity meant to educate and empower. “Eleganza taught me so much about diversity, in every sense of the word,” Srinivasan reflects. “Not just the physical sense of the word, but also emotional diversity—not just how people look, but how they think, act, and feel. I think a large part of that comes from the spoken word portion of the show. I think it’s absolutely beautiful that the show begins with a spoken word performance.”
After the spoken word performance, the music began to play, the lights began to flash, and the models began to strut onto the runway. The show had begun, with all of its components seamlessly working together to create an experience that was both overwhelming and impossible to look away from. The models were dressed in cutting-edge designs from some of the top fashion houses and designers like Vera Wang, Vineyard Vines, Nanette Lepore, Tadashi Shoji, and Kendra Scott. Tightly choreographed, they walked confidently in wave after wave onto the stage and paused at the ends to dance assertively, seductively, and powerfully. In this way, Eleganza blended a classic fashion runway show with a hip-hop and lyrical dance performance, creating a unique artistic experience. “I think there’s no other show quite like Eleganza in that it’s as much of a dance show as it is a fashion show,” executive producer Nancy Liu ‘16 says. “I’ve never heard of anything like it, even at other schools.”
The Making of Eleganza: A Year-Long Process
As a combination of a fashion and dance show, Eleganza requires an immense number of individuals to help organize and perform, this year united under the leadership of the three executive producers: Nancy Liu ‘16, Haylee Smith ‘17, and Preeti Srinivasan ‘16. For the executive producers, Eleganza was more than just a one-night performance; it was a project that they began working on at the beginning of the fall semester, recruiting board members, chose models, spread publicity, and planned logistics months in advance. A year-long endeavor that culminated in one night of adrenaline and joy as all their hard work finally came together, Srinivasan recalls, “When we stood on the stage and looked out at the audience, I thought to myself how incredible it was that we had been doing this for a whole year. It was absolutely magical.”
Eleganza has six boards: Community Service, Fashion, Finance, Production, Publicity, and Scene. Together, the board members work behind the scenes to make this show possible. A major part of Eleganza’s success comes from the production quality, complicated by the fact that the venue is a gymnasium filled with basketball hoops. “The lights, backdrops, and stage—basically all the equipment is contracted from outside,” explains Charlene Hwang ‘18, this year’s production chair. “Even though we use a gym as our venue, on the day of the performance, it doesn’t look like a gym at all. We pull out all the basketball hoops, paper the entire place, and set up backdrops and curtains and everything else that’s been brought in. Even the VIP chairs are rented.”
Eleganza also requires a great deal of paperwork—an aspect of the show that few people realize. “There are a lot of permits involved,” Hwang describes. “We need to fill out licensing paperwork and get approval from the city of Boston, the fire department, and the police. I’ve had to file entertainment licenses and electrical permits. But fortunately, because Eleganza is established, we have people on campus who can help me with all the paperwork.” The extent of the paperwork required for the performance to run goes to show just how much effort is needed behind-the-scenes.
But in the end, the models make this show truly unique. They aren’t just showing off fashionable pieces of designer clothing, they are also strutting and dancing and making this show the dynamic, energetic performance that it always is year after year. Eleganza’s model audition process is highly competitive, with over 400 students auditioning for the 50 model spots. This year, there were some Eleganza “veterans” in the lineup—models who had done the show for two, three, or even four years. But there were also some models who were doing the show for the very first time. One of those models, Mezu Ukah ‘18, did not intend to audition for Eleganza.” Eleganza attracts students from various backgrounds, and although many of the models have extensive dance experience or have done runway shows in the past, many models have considerably less experience. “I had no dance experience coming in, and to be honest, I still don’t,” Ukah claims. “I found the rehearsals challenging at first. I was lost for all of the first two rehearsals in terms of walks. But my scene director Kristen put up videos and those helped a lot.”
The rehearsals for the models are fast-paced, as the models need to learn and perfect a great deal of choreography in a relatively short period of time. The tightly-choreographed walks and dances would not be possible without hours of rehearsals. “Rehearsals start with some walks as a warm-up, followed by a run-through of choreography and some closing walks,” Ukah recalls. “They can range from one to two hours, depending on how much we have to get done. I found the pace of rehearsals to be a little fast at first, but all I had to do was pay more attention and get into it, and now learning new choreography is my favorite part.”
The Community of Eleganza: From Prospective Students to “Eleganza Veterans”
There is, clearly, a lot of time and effort that goes into the making of Eleganza. However, the end result is entirely worth it. “There are prefrosh every year who say that Eleganza was the deciding factor that made them choose Harvard,” Srinivasan says. “Nothing combats Harvard’s stereotypes more directly. We know what our school has a reputation for. At Eleganza, we get to see people who are talented and fierce, and it shows that Harvard students can still be fun and cool.” Liu explains further, “For prefrosh coming in, it really demonstrates the art scene at Harvard on so many levels. Eleganza changes their perception of Harvard as a stuffy place where people study all the time.”
But most importantly, Eleganza is a community for the board and for the models. The community aspect of Eleganza stems from the extensive period of time the board and models spend working with one another. Srinivasan explains, “The two events that market themselves as the largest student-run performances are Eleganza and Ghungroo, and though Ghungroo has a larger cast, we work with people for a much more extended period of time. For that reason, Eleganza becomes such a family, because you become so close to your boards.” Hwang attests to this, saying, “The best part of Eleganza has been meeting so many people I wouldn’t have necessarily met. We started working in October and it was a nice way to branch out early. I’ve really enjoyed the community of people I met through Eleganza.”
The community aspect of Eleganza is strong among the models as well. Liu reveals, “The models are really family. Once you get in freshman year, you come back year after year.” This explains the prevalence of “Eleganza veterans,” models who have come back each year to perform in the show. Srinivasan further explains, “There’s such a community among the models. The upperclassmen really take the freshmen under their wing.” Much more than just a one-night performance, Eleganza is a culmination of a year’s worth of hard work, friendships, and community. “It’s surreal right before the show, thinking to yourself, ‘Wait, this is actually happening right now,’” Hwang says. “I signed up back in October, so the show was always on the horizon, but I still couldn’t believe it when it was just a few days before the show. We ask ourselves if we’re ready, but we never quite feel ready until the day of the show. Until the day of, we think to ourselves, ‘We’re not ready, something’s going to happen.’ But everything catches up so quickly, and everything falls into place. And that’s when I think to myself, ‘I’m definitely going to do this again next year.’”
The show this year was phenomenal, made possible by a community of dedicated individuals, and there is no reason to believe the show next year will be any less remarkable. Eleganza has a bright future ahead, bringing to Harvard many more years of fashion, charity, and diversity.
Image credits: Simone Abegunrin, Harriet Kariuki, and Shunella Lumas
UPDATE, May 4, 1:50 p.m.: Disclosure added.