Feb. 3, 2010
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Dance majors step into research roles
SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. - Several Slippery Rock University dance majors are moving to the beat of different rhythms these days. They are researching genres of dance from a cultural and ethnographic viewpoint, gaining valuable experience for a field that increasingly values diversity.
"The requirements for a dancer in the dance world now are stronger and stronger toward multiculturalism," said Melissa Teodoro, assistant professor of dance. "The more a graduate can offer, the better. It is good to expose our students to different ways of approaching a subject and to teach them the methodology for examining a subject."
The dancers are studying the roots of Argentine tango, flamenco and Cajun dance, and the sexuality and gender roles in Cuban dance, to name a few projects. Teodoro and Nola Nolen-Holland, assistant professor of dance, serve as advisers to the student-faculty research projects. Teodoro said students will write papers and present their findings at SRU's Symposium for Student Research, Scholarship and Creative Activity April 8-9 and the 6th Undergraduate Research Symposium at the University of Pittsburgh, sponsored by The Center for Latin American Studies.
"They are not necessarily learning how to do a tango, they are researching it from a broader view," Teodoro said.
Most dance research focuses on choreography and culminates with a performance, she said. SRU dance majors, after picking a dance that interests them, have been exploring the dance's history and the anthropological and sociological factors that gave rise to the dance in the first place, Teodoro said.
"Students are realizing how the dance is part of the culture that it was invented in," she said. "When they look at different aspects of a dance, they learn the structure and how the vocabulary and movement echo certain social, political and economic aspects. The dance they are studying embodies the history of a culture; dance is a non-verbal form of describing the history of a culture."
Julie Akerly, a dance major from Erie, said her research project explores the social roles that were in play in Buenos Aires during the creation of the Argentine tango. She traced the movement back to its roots in the early 20th century, explored cultural and gender roles and examined political factors of influence.
"The dance absorbed movement from many areas of Argentine society and serves as a means to erase some of the social differences and boundaries between social classes and ethnic groups," she said.
A history buff, Akerly said dance is rarely included in history books, not even in art sections. "I hope when I present my research, my audience can see the insight dance can give in a historical context," she said.
She said she chose to research the Argentine tango because South American culture interests her, and she and knew very little about Argentina outside of its contemporary and modern dance companies. "After researching the tango, it was interesting to see the tango's influence in the contemporary dance choreography in Argentina," Akerly said. "I hope to one day get the opportunity to go to Argentina and study this influence on a first-hand basis."
She said the experience of doing research has also given her insight into the importance of dance within a community and helped prepare her for graduate school.
"The SRU dance department gives students the opportunity to acquire further knowledge in almost any dance-related topic with the assistance of a faculty member who will be eager to help," she said. "With a growing department, the faculty has somehow found a way to remain on a personal level with the students and achieve their goal for students to understand dance as an art form. This particular research topic has helped me to find a focus in my future studies in graduate school, and also my insight to the importance of dance within a community."
Teresa DeBacco, a dance and English major from West Sunbury, said her project began with a Google search but has "become kind of an obsession." She is researching Cajun and Zydeco dance forms.
"I wanted to be original, so I typed dance genres into Google and came up with Cajun and Zydeco," she said. "Curious as always, I started looking and found out that they originated in Louisiana as part of the Cajun and Creole communities."
DeBacco broadened her research by exploring the dance form's importance in its native Louisiana and in Los Angeles. She interviewed a dancer in California who has studied both dance forms as part of the Los Angeles community.
"When Cajun and Zydeco dance are performed in their original home, they have a cultural significance about them," DeBacco said. "They are deeply rooted in Louisiana history. However, when they are relocated to Los Angeles, they become less culturally and historically rooted. If you ask a Los Angeles dancer about the history and culture surrounding the dances, they probably won't have any idea how to answer."
Not content with book research only, DeBacco applied for and received a $500 student research grant from SRU that enabled her to attend the Augusta Heritage Festival Cajun and Creole Week at Davis and Elkins College in West Virginia so she could experience the cultures. She has also been studying the differences between teaching "codified techniques" such as ballet and the "social-based forms" such as Cajun and Zydeco.
"Obviously this was a huge leap for me as a dance major," she said. "I've used this research in at least three different classes, and it will probably come into play somehow in my senior synthesis. I think more dance majors need to take the opportunity to explore these different and unique dance forms because our college is in such a small, rural community. What a great way to learn and grow as a dancer."
Teodoro said the dance department wants graduates to be well rounded. "It's getting so hard to find jobs out there now days. The more skill you have at the physical, creative and intellectual level, the more you have to sell yourself," she said.
Slippery Rock University is Pennsylvania's premier public residential university. Slippery Rock University provides students with a comprehensive learning experience that intentionally combines academic instruction with enhanced educational and learning opportunities that make a positive difference in their lives.