It was under the pink cherry blossom trees on North Campus that Salem State alumna Angelina Benitez surprised her partner, fellow alumna Rebecca Lang, with an engagement proposal. Rebecca, wearing a rainbow-striped dress, excitedly said yes.
“I think my initial reaction was, ‘whoa, is this real?’” said Rebecca. “And then as reality sunk in, I was just really excited and emotional in that moment.”
For these two Vikings who met in the dance program at Salem State, the timing felt right. Rebecca, raised in Weymouth, graduated in May 2021 from the Salem State School of Social Work with her master’s degree. She now works full time in addiction recovery with adults. Rebecca first earned her bachelor’s in social work at Salem State in 2019, as well as a minor in the university’s music and dance program.
Originally from Lynnfield, Angelina graduated from Salem State in 2018 with two degrees: a Bachelor of Arts in world languages and cultures with a concentration in Spanish, and a BA in dance. She works as a freelance artist and part-time administrator at Salem State’s Center for Creative and Performing Arts. Both Angelina and Rebecca also work as part-time dance teachers.
It was in Salem State’s dance program and Repertory Dance Theatre group where the two found not only each other, but themselves.
“I definitely feel that in my time at Salem State, I really developed into the person I wanted to be, in terms of the support from professors and the adults in my life at that time,” Rebecca said.
“The friend group that I was able to find through the dance program there, and the social work program too was very supportive...helping me develop into my professional, but also personal self. And I felt like me and Angie were just kind of experiencing that together through Salem State.”
Rebecca and Angelina now live together in Salem, at the apartment where they first kissed during a social gathering with friends from the university’s Repertory Dance Theatre group.
Between dance classes, rehearsals, walks to Forest River Park and dates at Front Street Coffeehouse, their relationship blossomed. The two even created a dance together in 2017 titled We are. Angelina said the project taught them how to better communicate with one another. The dance also caught the attention of their professors, who noticed the couple’s great chemistry.
“That dance really helped build the foundation of [our relationship],” Angelina said. “The challenge was two artists having such different ideas, and how do you do that respectfully without hating each other? And I feel like that started to translate into communicating with each other.”
Throughout her time at Salem State, Angelina also created two dance pieces about her identity that explored queerness and the stages of coming out. Both Angelina and Rebecca are proponents of inclusivity for the LGBTQ community and other marginalized groups.
Rebecca said though spaces are becoming more inclusive, it is important that community members “continue to fight for your voice to be heard.” She added, “Don't become complacent with the changes that have been made.”
Angelina echoed the sentiment: “Make sure to use your voice to reach out more broadly, if you can,” she said. “If you have a good grasp on speaking for yourself in your small community, extend it to speaking for yourself and others with fewer privileges in the wider community.”
For Angelina, the topic is personal. It was with the support of Rebecca and friends that Angelina came out to her family at Salem State. The moment occurred in the lobby of the Sophia Gordon Center – a special space where she often performed dance and expressed her identity. Though it was challenging at first, Angelina said her family has shown a lot of growth and support over time.
“That is another reason why I wanted to propose on campus,” Angelina said. “So many significant events happened there.”
Though they are not rushing to select a wedding date or venue yet, Angelina and Rebecca think the place where their relationship first began would serve as a fitting location: “We love Salem, and we have such a connection to it,” Rebecca said. “So that is in our forefront.”
Angelina’s choreographic skills came in handy as she planned a romantic surprise proposal for Rebecca. The two spent a special day in Salem visiting their favorite spots – the rainbow benches in downtown Salem, Forest River Park; what Rebecca called “areas that are symbolic of our getting to know each other and starting a relationship.” They were photographed along the way, too, since Rebecca was under the false impression that they were helping friend and photographer Olivia Moon with a photo project.
It wasn’t until they reached the cherry blossoms lining the path in front of the Sullivan Building that Angelina proposed, and Olivia photographed the big moment. Angelina said the beloved North Campus spot was not only symbolic of their relationship, but reminded her of a favorite line in “Every Day You Play,” a poem by Pablo Neruda:
I want to do with you what the springtime does with cherry trees
“I've always thought of her, and us, when I pass cherry trees,” said Angelina. “It just felt right.”