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Start with a stance that points the heel of one foot toward the middle of the other. Stand up tall, your back slightly arched. Stride forward with a “high-confidence walk,” says Safiya Miller ’09. “Your body is moving fluidly—no stiff arms. No choppy walks or high knees, either. It should look natural. Have a controlled gaze: pick a spot in the distance and focus on it.” Voilà! You are walking the walk of a runway model. Miller was set to do just that at this year’s Eleganza show, late in April before about 2,000 spectators at Bright Hockey Center. “There’s an element of mystery to modeling that attracts people,” explains Morgan Radford ’09, another of the show’s models. “They wonder, ‘What is she thinking?’”

 
Photograph by Tiffany Hsu
 
Lean on me: Lauren Westbrook ’07 and Mark Marynick ’06 at the 2006 Eleganza show.
 
   

Held annually at Harvard each spring since 1995, Eleganza differs markedly from commercial runway fashion shows, whose mission is to sell a particular designer’s product line. Eleganza is a show about style, where 45 male and female Harvard undergraduates (chosen from about 200 who auditioned this year) strut their stuff and dance in a wide range of outfits donated by several designers and stores. It’s elaborately produced—with lighting, stagecraft, hip-hop music, Jumbotron projections, spirited performances, and some superbly choreographed dancing.

“Everything we wear is very edgy and very hip,” says Radford, “and you can wear these clothes off the catwalk.” Sponsored by Black Community and Student Theater (BlackCAST), a student organization that promotes involvement of African-American undergraduates in theater, Eleganza is a one-night performance showcasing an international cast of black, white, Asian, Native American, Indian, Caribbean, and Latin models, among others. It has long been known as one of Harvard’s sexiest and most entertaining evenings.

“It’s the combination of dancing, modeling, and acting that produces such a high-energy environment,” Radford explains. “For one night, Harvard students are models,” says former Eleganza model Amanda Brown ’09, who, with Alexis Maule ’08, produced this year’s show. “In real life, we’re so far from being models!”

Perhaps, but for two hours they do a fair simulation. Preparations begin with fundraising and sponsor-seeking a year in advance (Morgan Stanley, Microsoft, 85 Broads, Red Bull, Liz Claiborne, and the Cambridge boutique Mint Julep were among this year’s angels; Harvard insures the clothes), and intensive rehearsals follow the February auditions. Models, of course, must look good, but “Presence and energy have so much to do with it,” explains Elena Abrosimova ’09, this year’s creative director. “You need the confidence and charisma to go out there and entertain thousands of people.” Model coaches from John Robert Powers were hired to work with the performers.

Varsity athletes of both sexes often appear on the runway, showing off bodies that are, naturally enough, in superb condition. For example, brothers Desmond and Brenton Bryant, both defensive ends for Harvard’s football team, were set to take part in this spring’s show, with Desmond ’08 returning from 2006. “I like being in front of big crowds,” says Brenton ’09.“I’m used to it because of football.”

 
Photograph by Tiffany Hsu
 
Sultry stances: in the foreground, Tiffanye Threadcraft ’07 (center) and Lauren Westbrook pose and preen in last year’s show.
 
   

This spring’s “revelry”-themed show had four segments, each with its own fashion director: Rio’s Carnaval, with samba music; the American South in the 1920s and 1930s, with jazz; the New York City underground scene, with punk and funk; and European high-fashion clubs, backed by techno. A sequence required a minimum of 20 models, with each appearing twice for at least 40 “looks” per segment, or 160 to 200 looks in the entire show. Eleganza gives the audience an eyeful for its $12 admission.

Though Eleganza is completely nonverbal, the group “scenes” do have narrative elements. The choreography and pairing of models celebrate diversity and interracial connections, both sexual and otherwise. “No one sets out to make a conscious social statement,” Abrosimova explains. “Instead, we focus on creating something provocative and playful.”

Since its founding, Eleganza has been outgrowing its venues, moving from Cambridge Rindge and Latin High School to House dining halls to Lowell Lecture Hall and now Bright. Most of its budget, which exceeds $25,000, goes for sound and constructing and lighting the 40-foot runway and a 48-foot-wide stage. Any profits are donated to the Center for Teen Empowerment, a Boston youth program.

Interest in “hot fun” as well as hot clothes seems on the rise at Harvard. Katiti Kirondé ’79, a senior designer at an international clothing retailer, says that in her undergraduate days, making theatrical costumes was her only outlet for apparel design. “There was an anti-fashion feeling,” she recalls. “There was a kind of snobbery—you were a lightweight if you were that concerned with fashion.” For the last two years, Kirondé has helped Eleganza with resources and ideas, and on the day of the show, she irons clothes and helps dress the models. “People have decided,” she says, “that it’s OK to be smart and also be chic.”

~C L.