Up the wall

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Student Elle Derwent uses dance skills for rock-climbing hobby



For someone without much arm strength, Elle Derwent excels at rock climbing. Her big secret? Dance training since age 2.

Derwent, a senior geology major at JMU, knew she wanted to make a career out of dance by the time she was in the fifth grade. Her background was in contemporary dance, but she’s had experience with hip-hop and pop.

“Dance was my childhood. I had to miss school, field trips and school dances,” Derwent says. “This is what I was going to do with my life.”

She would spend her summer teaching in LA and by 18, she was going to be signed with an agency, probably doing hip-hop. It was around then that she realized the materialistic lifestyle wasn’t for her. The dancing life was full of politics and cattiness that Derwent didn’t want any part of. She also didn’t want to be injured all the time. According to her, dancers generally have their “hips shot by 30.” Derwent still feels the strains of that passion on her body.

After taking a geology course at a community college in her hometown of Virginia Beach, Derwent found a new passion: rocks.

She wants to use her geology degree to specialize in fieldwork and is focusing on the engineering aspect of geology.

“I am not a huge fan of all the development geologists and engineers have to deal with, but it’s going to happen,” Derwent says. “So, basically, I want to be the modern day Lorax who can reason with engineers and architects, which could be tricky.”

Derwent didn’t start climbing until she was around 19.

“Actually, my little brother, who is 5 years younger than me, kept trying to get me to go with him. Finally, I was like, ‘Sure.’ It was fun and I got hooked on it,” she says.

Her first experience rock climbing was at a big warehouse, Virginia Beach Rock Gym, in her hometown. She could feel the sweat dripping down when she walked into the un-air conditioned building. The warehouse was covered in rock walls and everyone looked like they knew what they were doing, which she thought was intimidating.

Once she began climbing, it was a different kind of workout. Her hands were sweaty, covered in chalk and felt like sandpaper. She used muscles she never had before and she was covered in sores and tears, but she loved it.

“I love solving puzzles and finding creative solutions to problems, so it combines the decisionmaking aspect with physical tasks.”

Her first time outdoors was also a memorable one. She was terrified as her little brother was hanging over the edge of a 40-to-50 foot wall. The Manchester Wall in Richmond was wet that day. In the swampy weather, she wedged her hands in mud, willing her way up the rock and trying to bypass as many slimy creatures as possible.

“It was a rough first time and I was probably more confident in climbing than I should have been,” Derwent says.

Derwent says that she doesn’t have much upper-body strength, so her legs make up for it. All the years of dance helped with that.

“I can raise my knees higher than most people and then I can push the rest of my weight up just like a grand plié in ballet,” Derwent explains. “I’ve learned that weight distribution and technique can make your legs a much more valuable tool than your upper body. Your arms tire out much quicker.”

Music is also essential to Derwent’s rock climbing persona. She listens to fun music when she isn’t taking her climb seriously and more serious music when she wants to concentrate.

As for equipment, there’s a body harness, which is meant to be comfortable and secure. The most crucial is the belay device, which controls the rope and holds all the weight of the climber. The person on the ground and in control of the device has to be careful.

You “literally have someone’s life in one hand,” she says.

Katrina Lauer, an adventure specialist at UREC, echoes Derwent.

“It is a catalyst to unite two people due to the literal trusting of life with another person,” Lauer says.

Derwent has only had a few minor injuries. She has bad tendonitis in her elbows due to overuse, but it isn’t painful, and she once twisted her ankle falling off a boulder.

“One time, I guess someone was new at belaying and I was up at, I guess, 20 feet and I dropped and my toes tapped the floor,” she says.

It took Derwent a couple minutes to climb again.

“The feeling of free-falling down a wall is terrifying.”

Some days, Derwent wonders about what her life would’ve been like if she would’ve stuck with dance. With friends on tour with Chris Brown and Taylor Swift, it wouldn’t be a surprise if she traded her climbing shoes for a pair of ballet slippers.

Sometimes she thinks, “Screw this studying, I could be a professional dancer in LA.”

She hopes she doesn’t regret her choice, but getting to the top of her favorite climbing spot seems to make up for it.

“I usually hold onto the last hold for a few seconds to look behind me and smile,” she says. “Sometimes people are looking and cheering, but I don’t feel any less accomplished if no one notices. I can’t explain how good it feels to just let go and glide down after forcing your body up the wall.”