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UNLV student and professional dancer Tessa Cardwell is making big moves and not just on the dance floor

By Ariana DeCastro
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The 22-year-old journalism major will be going to India to teach hip-hop dance during the summer of 2017. Cardwell went on a mission trip to Africa when she was 15 years old and spent some time teaching dance moves to the local tribes. Now that she is a professional dancer, she will have more to offer.

“I know there are a lot of kids that want to dance and want to have the proper training,” Cardwell said. “Unfortunately, they don’t have the necessary resources to get it. I would eventually like to open a studio in a developing country where underprivileged kids can learn dance without having to pay.”

Cardwell needed an arts credit when she attended Valor Christian High School in Colorado. As a joke, she decided to take a dance class. Cardwell thought she would hate dancing and preferred participating in different sports like basketball, track and soccer.

But she found out quickly she was wrong. Cardwell became the first and only dancer in her family.

“She was really little when I realized that dancing was a natural talent of hers,” said Gabrielle Cardwell, her mother. “Nobody else in our family danced so we knew that this talent of hers was truly a gift from God.”

Hip-hop is her favorite style of dancing and she started out as a breakdancer, popper, and locker.

“I turned out to be really good at it,” Cardwell said. “I never found a passion in anything else until I found dance.”

During high school, Cardwell was approached with the idea of going to Africa on a mission trip and initially, she said no. The idea seemed too foreign to her and she thought she didn’t want to do it.

“With short-term mission trips, a change in perspective and a change in world views is what we want for our students,” said John Deyoung, Cardwell’s instructor. “When she said no, I wasn’t surprised or upset because I knew that she would still get there and experience that someday.”

After declining Deyoung’s offer, Cardwell immediately second-guessed her decision.

“I was driving and I saw a giant billboard about helping kids in Africa,” Cardwell said. “Every time I turned on the TV or the radio, there was a commercial about Africa. Everything around me was telling me that I needed to go.”

Cardwell immediately told Deyoung that she changed her mind. After raising money through fundraisers, garage sales and car washes, she found herself on a plane to Africa with her fellow classmates.

The three-week trip scheduled Cardwell and her classmates to spend half of their time in Kenya to help out in an orphanage. The remaining time was spent in Uganda to help build a medical clinic. When there was time, they danced.

“We taught some of the village members dances that contained repetitive moves,” Cardwell said. “Simple dances that can be remembered easily to a certain set music, like the Macarena.”

A highlight of her trip was meeting Maasai warriors who are known for how high they jump during their tribal dancing. Cardwell enjoyed attempting to jump like the Maasai people and really immersed herself in a different culture, which she ended up doing with dance.

Cardwell trained in ballet, jazz and contemporary to broaden her dance knowledge, which benefited her as a professional dancer.

“When Tessa recognized that she had a gift and a natural talent, her confidence built,” Deyoung said. “Once that confidence was there, things kept getting better for her.”

Cardwell performed with celebrities like singer, Monica Brown, and rapper, Lil Wayne. She even performed with country singer Jessie James during the halftime show of the 2011 Super Bowl playoffs.

“I was absolutely shocked to see her performing on TV,” said Cardwell’s mother. “I mean, there I was, watching my daughter on television.”

While performing next to well-known entertainers may seem like her biggest accomplishment, Cardwell’s true excitement lies in eventually teaching and sharing American hip-hop in developing nations.

“John, my dance teacher from high school, actually bought the house in India that I’ll be staying in,” Cardwell said. “I’ll be there during the summer of 2017, traveling and teaching with him.”

Cardwell will be gone for an expected two to three months that summer. She will be accompanied by fellow dancers who are also Deyoung’s students.

“India has such a darkness to it that really presses hard against people,” Deyoung said. “I would love to see how that challenges my students, especially Tessa.”

Cardwell will teach all genders and age groups within the privileged and unprivileged people of India. She will be exposed to a completely different culture. Although her mother is concerned about her absence, she is very proud of her.

“As a mother, I worry about everything,” Gabrielle said. “But the fact that she is willing to help people at such a young age shows what kind of woman she really is and that makes me so proud of her.”

Going to India will be monumental for Cardwell. Not only will she be able to help another country, but she will also get to teach the dancing techniques she has developed over the years with others and share how dance is more than just about movement.

“I can portray my emotions through dancing and feel better after,” Cardwell said. “I can dance when I’m sad, when I’m angry, when I’m happy, or when I’m stressed. It’s an outlet for every emotion that I have.”

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