University at Buffalo: Reporter

A UB Miss America? We'll know Saturday

Reporter Contributor

Tammy Harris tried six times to win the title of Miss New York. This year, she won, beating out more than 20 other finalists on June 29.

The Williamstown, N.Y., native-a May graduate of UB who is believed to be its first alumna to wear the state crown-has spent this week participating in preliminary competitions in Atlantic City.

If she's named one of the 10 finalists, the former member of UB's Zodiaque Dance Company will find herself Saturday evening performing a contemporary dance to music from the opera Carmina Burana before a national television audience.

Overwhelming? Nah. Tammy's been preparing for this for quite a while.

"I think I appreciate it a lot more because it took six tries to get in," she said. "After I graduated from UB, I put everything else in my life on hold just in case I won."

While she won, she almost didn't make it at all-the cutoff age for contestants is 24, and Harris' 25th birthday is just a few weeks from now.

Winning Miss New York has meant living in special accommodations at the pageant's headquarters in Watertown and a nonstop promotional tour: parades, festivals, golf tournaments, talent shows and guest appearances on radio and TV shows.

"I bring my crown with me when I make an appearance," said Harris. "But I don't wear it much. I don't like to give the impression that I'm above anyone else. I'm just your everyday person who happens to be Miss New York."

Harris credits her experiences at UB, where she majored in dance and psychology, and her close relationship with faculty members Thomas Ralabate and Linda Swiniuch with helping her win the statewide title.

"UB has a fabulous dance program," Harris said. "Especially the professors. I was very shy when I first went to UB, and my professors were the first ones there to help me."

Tom Ralabate is a wonderful choreographer," Harris said. "He's good for me-he knows the pageant system. And he knows me-what I do and what I do well. And professor Swiniuch really helped me come out of my shell. She let me see dance from a whole new perspective-that a lot of it has to do with your mind. Good dancing is not just about what you do with your arms and legs. What's inside is more important."

Swiniuch, associate professor and co-chair of the Department of Theatre and Dance, recalls that when Harris transferred to UB as a sophomore, she was "shy, not sure of her ability.

"For me," she said, "the most wonderful thing to see is how she has grown in self-confidence and assurance."

Swiniuch added: "She has always been a terrific young woman to know; very hard working, meeting her goals. Seeing it all come together for her has been just terrific."

Ralabate, who has choreographed the Miss New York and Miss Pennsylvania state pageants, as well as judged the Miss Georgia pageant, has worked with Harris on the dance she will perform before a national audience if she makes it to the finals.

"It's contemporary dance using a mix of modern dance movement with jazz and European classical ballet, a mixture, blend of different forms," Ralabate explained.

He noted that costume, based on a design used in a Zodiaque Dance Company dance concert, will feature purples and deep reds in line with the religious nature of the music to which Harris will perform.

Ralabate described Harris as "very warm, very giving. She's very easy to like; a very genuine, honest and sincere person. She brought a sense of maturity to our dance company. She was always open-minded and easy to work with."

While at UB and not studying or dancing, Harris found time to volunteer as a member of UB's Student Alumni Board and in the community.

"We're grateful to her for all the volunteer hours she dedicated to our programs this past year-she offered lots of energy and enthusiasm to every project she got involved with," said Debra Palka, assistant director in the Office of Alumni Relations.

"In fact, most of us were not even aware of the fact that she was preparing for the New York State competition because she is so modest," Palka noted. "We found her to be articulate, mature, cheerful and a very well-rounded student."

In addition to her dance performance, Harris will be judged in swimsuit and evening gown competitions and in an interview situation in which she will discuss her "platform." Harris's platform is tolerance for difference-an issue that evolved while she was at UB.

"The whole platform really comes from my college experience," she notes. "I came from a small town, and my first year, I went to college in New York City. It was overwhelming-I had extreme culture shock for a while."

After her freshman year, Harris transferred to UB.

"UB changed that fear. It has such diversity. I really learned how to adapt there." In fact, about a year and a half ago, Harris started a program appropriately called ADAPT, for Accepting a Diverse America by Promoting Togetherness. She had discussions with the Anti-Defamation League and NAFA-the National Association for Fat Acceptance-as well as interaction with the Celebrating Diversity program at UB. On her own, she put together pamphlets and traveled to elementary schools to discuss the issue of respecting differences.

"I know I'm not going to change the world ," Harris said. "But I hope to make a small, positive difference."

When her year as Miss New York (and possibly Miss America) is over, Harris plans to continue school, pursuing a master's degree in theater and dance or possibly social work.

"I may go back to UB for graduate school," Harris ponders. "I'd like to be a director of a dance company."

Of course, nothing is set in stone. "Everything is up in the air for me right now," Tammy Harris continues. "Miss New York opened many doors. I may take a path I never could have predicted."

But for now, America, here she comes.

Visit the Miss America web site.

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