Carolina Vibe dancer reminisces during “bittersweet” final show

By Jamey Cross

This was it.

Twelve years of practice. Twelve years of sweat and tears. Twelve years of passion.

Abby Britt’s 12 years of competition dance was coming to a close. She walked on stage and felt ready to dance with some of her closest friends for the last time. Trying to stop her emotions from overshadowing her performance, she took a calming breath.

Breathe in. Out. Dance.

Carolina Vibe, a contemporary dance group of about 30 young women at UNC-Chapel Hill, put on their spring showcase Saturday, March 30. The group worked on the number all year, perfecting and choreographing. It all came to life in Memorial Hall for hundreds of audience members.

Whispers filled the auditorium in the minutes before the lights lowered, signaling the recital was about to start.

Adorned in springtime dresses and collared shirts, friends, family members and dance fans came together for the performance. Store-bought flowers were sprinkled throughout the audience, ready to congratulate the dancers.

The support of friends

UNC-CH student Alexandra Smith rested a bundle of daisies in her lap. She was in the audience to support her friend and co-worker Hannah Snow.

Snow introduced Smith to Carolina Vibe, but Smith knew little about the group before meeting Snow at work. They work at the Target Starbucks on Franklin Street.

This was Smith’s first time attending one of the group’s showcases, and she was excited to see Snow dance. Snow is passionate about dance and uses it to work through her emotions and channel her creative energy, Smith said.

“She’s got such a bubbly, fun personality, so I’m really excited to see how that personality shows in her performance,” Smith said.

The curtain raised

Four silhouettes sat on stage. Alicia Keys’ “Fallin’” blared through the auditorium. The stage was dark, but their figures were backlit. They began to dance. 

The team took the stage for a sultry routine, wearing white button-down dress shirts and black undergarments.

Song after song, more dancers joined the performance. Applause and shouts separated each routine — jazz, ballet, hip-hop.

Kelly Davis, a Carolina Vibe alumna, served as the master of ceremonies. Carolina Vibe is an organization that brings students together through dance, she said. The group hosts monthly social events for members to connect.

“These young women are truly very exceptional, and the bond they share through dance is powerful,” Davis said. “But also the friendships and support along the way make this group just really outstanding.”

Brandon Britt, Abby Britt’s father, sat with his wife and daughter, ready for the show to begin.

“I’m always excited to see her dance,” he said.

The last performance

But this performance is different, and he had thought about that simple fact on the hour-long drive from their hometown, Fuquay-Varina, North Carolina. This would be Abby Britt’s last performance with the group she’d grown close with over her undergraduate career at UNC-CH.

“This showcase is a little more special since she’s a senior and this is kind of our last opportunity to see her dancing in a group,” Brandon Britt said.

Since she was 5 years old, Abby Britt danced competitively. She began dancing at a studio in her hometown. Through elementary and middle school, she took lessons, participating in recitals and some competition dances.

In high school, Abby Britt began taking dance seriously. She joined her high school dance team and found a larger studio. She danced competitively with both teams. When she came to UNC-CH in 2015, she knew she wanted to dance on campus so she could continue to grow as a dancer.

Carolina Vibe holds hour-long practices twice a week during the year. But as they get closer to a performance date, they add an hour to each practice. In four practices, the dancers learn an entire routine and move on to another. The group performed 21 routines at Saturday’s showcase.

After auditioning for a spot on the Carolina Vibe team four years ago, Abby Britt said there was one way to describe her final showcase: “It’s bittersweet.”

For the final group dance, the six graduating seniors took the stage one last time.

Dancers express their different styles

Abby Britt said the group’s president, Hailey Blair, had the idea to have each of the seniors perform a solo in the group dance. Each of the seniors performed her solo while her five teammates watched from the stage, arms intertwined.

“We all come from different dance backgrounds,” Abby Britt said. “And we wanted to show that and highlight that. We’re individuals, but we have all come together in this collective group.”

Abby Britt said the seniors had been on the Carolina Vibe team for at least three years, so they spent lots of time together. Getting to dance with them one final time was special to Abby Britt.

“We’re all just really proud of each other,” Abby Britt said

Abby Britt walked off the stage with her fellow dancers with nothing but pride in her heart. While her dance career was coming to an end, her connection with these women wouldn’t go anywhere.

“Dancers just have a unique bond that I can’t describe,” Abby Britt said. “We all just get each other, and that’s what’s kept me going.”

For four years, she’s grown as a dancer and woman with the support of her Carolina Vibe team. Abby Britt said that being able to share her passion for dance with others has been a blessing.

“As much as we are a team, we’re a family, too,” she said. “I’m very lucky to have been able to be a part of that.”

Edited by Victoria Young and Erica Johnson

UNC-Chapel Hill graduate to pursue Broadway dreams

By Madeline Pennington

“I just knew that if something didn’t change I’d kill myself.”

Mckenzie Wilson, 23, remembers this moment like it was yesterday.

With a one-way ticket in her pocket and a floor to crash on in Manhattan, Wilson boarded a plane at the Charlotte Douglas International Airport.

Her mom didn’t support the idea, but Wilson felt stagnant after her sophomore year at UNC-Chapel Hill. She needed something to change. She was sure of one thing: her love for theater.

Wilson’s life is defined by moments of becoming herself. As an actor, director and person, she hopes to make people feel capable, curious and safe. She uses theater to encourage others to reflect on themselves. Along the way, she hopes to tell her story as an actress and director.

Wilson embraces her weirdness

From the moment she learned about Broadway, Wilson dreamed of Manhattan. Her mother described her as a ham and encouraged her to act in middle school, but Wilson didn’t pursue the art until eighth grade.

Wilson was an off-beat tween. She ignored what others thought and reveled being the quirky girl at Charlotte’s Ardrey Kell Middle School. After joining theater, she transferred to Northwest School of the Arts for high school.

She spent a week at the arts school. Every student was the quirky kid, the drama nerd or the off-beat one. Kids broke into song at a moment’s notice. It was exactly what Wilson thought she wanted.

Something about her week at that school made her shrink. She wasn’t special. She was just another student — a talented student, but just a student.

When Wilson transferred to Ardrey Kell High School, she entered traditional high school culture. She dated a nice Christian boy, kept her grades up and won homecoming queen. She put the quirky girl to bed, but her love for theater wouldn’t sleep long.

At the end of ninth grade, she directed her school’s production of “Romeo and Juliet.” But this wasn’t a run-of-the-mill production. It was Romeo and Juliet with a touch of voodoo culture and a few ghosts here and there.

Wilson embraced her weirdness.

When she graduated high school, Wilson led the school’s theater program. Though she jokes about the size of her ego then, Wilson felt confident about her ability to act and direct her peers as a high school senior.

How to love UNC’s drama department

She wasn’t out of the woods yet. After two years studying communication and dramatic arts at UNC, Wilson lost herself.

She couldn’t connect with her busy professors. She didn’t love UNC’s department of dramatic arts. She felt hopeless as a student and a person. She wondered if UNC was the right decision.

Wilson told her woes to a professor who made her feel special. Julie Fishell, a graduate of The Juilliard School and former professor of dramatic arts at UNC, gave Wilson the advice she needed.

Fishell saw the fire in Wilson’s eyes after class one day. She encouraged Wilson to continue acting, go to a city and soak up the city’s energy.

With a newfound determination, Wilson left for New York City in June 2016. While there, she took what she calls “Clown Classes,” which were unconventional acting classes which got people out of their comfort zones to reflect on the past.

Despite entering the city with no money and no plan, Wilson felt rejuvenated when she left. She said things cosmically aligned that summer. She reignited her love for acting and UNC.

She was grateful for her experiences at UNC that she would’ve missed at a conservatory. She recognized how UNC molded her into a tenacious artist who created her path instead of following others’ footsteps.

Her summer filled her with enough life to keep going. In 2018, she graduated with a bachelor’s in communication and dramatic art. She stuck around Chapel Hill where she found herself for the third time in her young life.

“Our Place” teaches Wilson about the present

In October, Wilson returned to UNC to direct Terry Gabbard’s “Our Place” for the student-theater group, Company Carolina.

The show held a special place in Wilson’s heart because Gabbard was the high school drama teacher who first helped her reclaim her weirdness. Throughout high school, Gabbard became a father figure to her.

Wilson used her experience directing “Our Place” to wrestle with post-graduation limbo. It was a battle between being unsure of her life’s trajectory and being anxious to leave Chapel Hill. She felt nostalgic for the good times past and anticipation for the future.

However, “Our Place” taught Wilson to live in the present.

Gabbard came to see the closing show, and Wilson says that full-circle moment gave her the closure to build her future.

Wilson will move back to Manhattan in June to focus on acting while daylighting as a barista. While there, she plans to apply for master’s programs in directing at Yale University, Brown University and Columbia University.

She doesn’t want to worry about her future though. The majority of her time in college passed in a blur because she was too anxious about the future.

She focuses on her health and happiness, using her opportunities as a director to encourage others to find themselves.

She is sure the next time she stands in Charlotte Douglas International Airport with a one-way ticket to Manhattan, she won’t be escaping anything. She’ll fly confidently to her future.

Edited by Erica Johnson

When buying ice cream supports kids battling brain cancer

By Molly Horak

Allison Nichols-Clapper frantically rushed into the room. Her body racked with fear, but she pushed the feeling down. She needed to be strong.

It had been a few days since she had last seen Howell Brown III. He was a regular where she worked at Maple View Farm. When she received the call letting her know that he was in the hospital, she dropped everything.

This was it.

She met Brown several years earlier after working with Kids Path, a hospice for terminally ill children and their families, and Sam’s Wish Fund, a program that grants wishes to terminally ill children. A mutual friend introduced Nichols-Clapper to Brown, who was living with stage four brain cancer.

The two instantly clicked. They spent holidays together, ate ice cream together at the store and were even invited onstage together at a Kenny Chesney concert.

And suddenly, they weren’t. Brown died in August 2017. It was one week shy of his 15th birthday.

“When he passed away, I felt so broken-hearted,” she said. “There were times when I didn’t want to get up and get out of bed, but I knew that I had to because that’s what he would have wanted me to do.”

A day doesn’t go by that she forgets to think of Brown. But Nichols-Clapper can’t slow down: There are other children that need her. As a leader for Team Tumornators, a group working to raise money for the Angels Among Us 5K to benefit the Preston Robert Tisch Brain Tumor Center at Duke University, Nichols-Clapper is dedicated to helping children and their families as they battle brain tumors.

Superheroes unite at Maple View Farm

On a Wednesday afternoon, Hannah Riley and her son Ridge Riley walked down the fourth-floor hallway of Duke University Hospital. Chemo day.

Jessie Curtis and her son Brody Curtis also made the trek down the same hallway. Chemo day for them, too.

Both boys suffer from inoperable brain tumors: Ridge Riley is 5 years old and was diagnosed in September 2015; Brodie Curtis is 6 years old and was diagnosed around the same time.

The families connected instantly.

“We were both moms alone in this journey, and we both felt that there weren’t other people who understood what we were going through, who understood the fear of waiting for a scan, the pain of seeing your child in pain or the uncertainty about the future,” Riley said. “No one else really got it. And, having [Jessie] there, we were and are each other’s support systems.”

The boys, along with Jake Ingham, Dominick Lawrence and Brown have become the face of Team Tumornators. Each have adopted a superhero persona to represent their strength as they battle the biggest villain of all: their tumors.

On a frigid Saturday morning in early February, the boys were the stars of the Eat Ice Cream for Breakfast event at Maple View Farm, a fundraising event to raise money for the brain tumor center.

Families, college students and friends huddled for warmth as they waited in a line that wrapped around the parking lot. Children, wearing their favorite pajamas, gleefully pressed their noses to the glass counter, incredulous that their breakfast would be a sundae covered in cereal, donuts and waffles.

Everyone was smiling. The joy in the air was palpable.

“Brain tumors touch us more than we know,” nurse Lucille Rice said.

Arms crossed across her chest, Jan Oldenburg bounced from foot to foot. She did anything she could to stay warm as she stood with her husband and son Thys Oldenburg in the Maple View Farm parking lot. The wait was nothing, she said. She would do a whole lot more to express her gratitude to the research team at Duke University.

In October 2017, Thys Oldenburg was severely injured during a football game at Orange County High School. He suffered a brain bleed. For six weeks, he was in a medically-induced coma.

Thys Oldenburg was treated by the Duke Department of Neurology, Jan Oldenburg said. While not directly affiliated with the brain tumor center, she feels what families are going through and wants to support in any way she can.

“It’s been over a year [since Thys Oldenburg’s injury occurred], but it’s great to be out here supporting a cause so near and dear to our hearts,” Jan Oldenburg said.

A few feet away, just inside the doors of Maple View Farm’s serving parlor, Lucille Rice slowly spooned her sundae as she milled around and chatted with friends.

A nurse at Duke University Hospital, Rice never thought that “brain tumor” would be a word that regularly comes up in conversations. But 25 years ago, a boy in her daughter’s kindergarten class was diagnosed with a brain tumor and began receiving treatment at the hospital.

Her daughter’s friend died at 7 years old. To honor his memory, their elementary school in Durham began participating in the Angels Among Us 5K. For years, Rice said, her family would spend the day with current patients and survivors, showing their support.

Years later, tragedy struck again. Her close friend, Alan Stephenson, was diagnosed with a tumor near his brain stem.

“Brain tumors touch us more than we know—if you had told me 15 years ago that Alan would have a brain tumor in his lifetime, I would have looked at you like you were crazy,” Rice said. “And, then he was diagnosed, and the whole world turned upside down. It was absolutely one of the scariest times of my life.”

Stephenson survived. But, many others don’t.

“I’m one of the very lucky ones. I made it through,” Stephenson said as he stood at the Team Tumornators table in the corner of Maple View Farm’s store. “Now, I try to do all that I can to give back. There’s a long road to go, but every step counts.”

Allison Nichols-Clapper tastes sweet support

Sugar pounding through their veins, kids clad in superhero costumes and fuzzy pajama bottoms wove through the crowded picnic tables. They laughed and smiled. Two professional entertainers were dressed as Batman and Wonder Woman and posed for pictures with event-goers. A group of students from UNC-Chapel Hill passed a football back and forth.

Riley stood, watching her son play with his friends. Seeing the outpouring of support gets her through difficult times.

“It’s days like ice cream for breakfast that get your mind off of it. You get out of the house and are doing something fun,” she said. “Watching your kid smile and play feels so normal for a split second. And, that’s all us parents want, for our kids to be happy and be kids.”

At one point, Nichols-Clapper stepped to the back of the room. Tears filled her eyes. She wasn’t sad, rather she was overcome by the sheer number of people who showed up.

“There was this moment where I felt so overwhelmed but not overwhelmed from stress—the kind of overwhelmed where you just want to run through and hug everybody standing in that line and just thank them and tell them that just purchasing ice cream is such a big thing to these patients and their families,” she said. “Whether they’re there because it’s ice cream for breakfast or they’re there because they know what we’re doing, just knowing that they came means so much.”

Edited by Erica Johnson