Celebrating Black History Month at Sweet Briar: Rachel Woods ’20 forges her path

This is the second in a series of weekly profiles celebrating Black History Month at Sweet Briar.

Rachel Woods and Ella Magruder
Rachel Woods and dance professor Ella Magruder

Sometimes, love will hit you when you least expect it. Rachel Woods was in church when a sudden desire yanked her out of her grandmother’s arms and onto the ‘dancefloor.’ She was 5 at the time.

“We had a play at my church, and there was dancing involved. I ran on stage and started dancing with the dancers,” recalls the sophomore from Raleigh, N.C. It’s in her blood — her mother was a dancer once, and so are all of her sisters.

“My family always supported me, even when I felt like I couldn’t do it anymore because I was discouraged,” Woods says. “We didn’t have a lot of money for dance classes, but they always found ways for me to be taught, either in church or through friends.”

Woods has found a similar support system at Sweet Briar, where she majors in dance education. While the campus is “spectacular,” she says, it’s that personal touch she witnessed during a visit that made her want to attend the women’s liberal arts college in Central Virginia. “I loved the dance professors and how personable and caring they were towards their students,” she says. “I knew that if I came here, I would get the same exact experience.”

Three semesters in, she hasn’t regretted her decision. “I really admire the professors — I haven’t had a bad experience with one single professor here at Sweet Briar, even in the subjects I struggle in or do not care for. All of them have so much passion for their subject area, and no matter what, they make me love and understand it, too.”

Rachel Woods and Haylei Libran
Woods (right) and fellow dance major Haylei Libran in class

But Woods says she feels at home not just around faculty. “The community is something that drew me to Sweet Briar,” she says. “There really is a sisterhood here that you can develop with most people — I have, and I’m very grateful for it.”

Virtually everything Woods is involved in on campus has to do with dance — from serving as the historian on the Taps ‘n’ Toes tap club to working as a dance education assistant to choreographing many of the dances for her program. It’s no wonder she has already made great strides towards her goal of becoming a dance teacher.

“I have definitely grown as a dancer here at Sweet Briar,” she says. “I have become more confident, my dancing technique has grown, and I feel I am discovering who I am and my style of dance more because of [dance professors] Mark and Ella Magruder.” A recent concussion forced her to take things a little slower, but that also had its perks. “I’ve discovered things that I like and don’t like as a dancer,” she explains.

According to Mark Magruder, there aren’t enough good things to be said about Woods, whom he calls “an outstanding dancer.” Magruder says Woods “has grown incredibly” during her relatively short time at Sweet Briar: “Rachel is a force to contend with in dance classes and on stage. Her leaps are inspiring — such power and form! She is learning how to nuance her performance, so the subtle moments reflect and magnify her inner thoughts. Rachel truly is a joy to work with: She takes whatever challenges I throw at her, she rises to them, masters them and makes them her own.”

Rachel Woods dancing
Woods floating over a chair. Photo by Andrew Wilds

His wife, Ella, is just as impressed with the young artist’s work ethic and talent. “Rachel is one of the most dedicated and hardworking students I have taught,” she says. “She gives 100 percent in dance classes.” Woods also teaches dance and choreography to ages 11 to 16, and creative dance for ages 4 to 5 for Sweet Briar’s community youth dance program. Her lesson plans for the children are always “fun and creative,” Ella says.

Extra support in the pedagogical arena comes from Mary Tackett, an assistant professor of education. Tackett describes Woods as “reflective and compassionate.”

In addition, she says, Woods is “very thoughtful in class and carefully considers how to practically apply what she learns in her education courses to her own experiences as a dance student. In our introductory teaching course, after I introduced some strategies for instructional planning, Rachel returned to class the following day and shared how she revisited a lesson she planned for students in a practicum component of one of her dance classes, and revised it according to what she had learned in class. This is typical of Rachel. She constantly challenges herself, and she is an eager learner who is never afraid to ask questions. She is kindhearted, and has a strong passion for teaching dance and for creating learner-centered instruction to meet the needs of the students she teaches. She is going to be an amazing dance teacher.”

Rachel Woods and Ella Magruder in outdoor class
Woods (second from right) in a dance education class with Ella Magruder last fall

With so many cheerleaders, it’s easy to see why Woods is thriving at Sweet Briar. But that doesn’t mean everything is perfect all the time.

“Being a black dancer here at a predominantly white school, I have trouble with the fact that there isn’t any African dance class I can take, or even a Bollywood dance class,” she explains. Of course, this is where her support system comes in: “I’m thankful Mark and Ella are the kind of teachers who realize this and try to add as much as they can in a class period,” she says.

And there’s something to be said for having to make things work outside of one’s comfort zone: It forces you to grow, Woods says.

“Being at Sweet Briar has changed me as a person for the better — it is a big cultural difference being here compared to being at home,” she says. “I think it has taught me to understand and look at people in general in a different light. Also, before coming to Sweet Briar, I was a very shy person. Being here has made me stand strong, stand by my beliefs and advocate for myself.”

There’s another thing you learn as a Sweet Briar woman: that there’s really nothing you cannot do if you believe in yourself. “I have always aspired to be in the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater — they are New York-based black company that I saw live in the 11th grade, and I was instantly amazed,” Woods says. “Also, Misty Copeland is my idol.”

Woods at Quad Roks
Woods leads her tap club during Quad Rocks 2017 on campus.

This summer, Woods is taking that confidence to a dance studio back home, where she’ll work as an assistant or a choreographer. She also plans to continue visiting her old high school to choreograph dances for her former dance team. Eventually, Woods wants to teach dance in a public high school, and she plans to open her own studio for underprivileged children who can’t afford dance lessons. “I want them to have the opportunity to discover early if dance is their passion,” she says.

Since that day in church, Woods has known for sure that it’s hers. At Sweet Briar, she also discovered that teaching dance can be as much fun as performing it. And, really, nobody is going to ask her to decide. She has plenty of time to do both — and to dream of all the possibilities that might come her way if she works hard enough.

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