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Meet the Inaugural Cohort of Duke’s MFA in Dance

Published By Duke MFA in Dance
Published on: October 2, 2019

Central to Duke’s new MFA in Dance: Embodied Interdisciplinary Praxis is the integration of intensive dance and movement research with study across disciplines.

The students of Dukes first MFA in Dance cohort pose in a group on a carpet.

The students are just as unique—and inspiring—as the areas of intersectional research they are undertaking.

“As the director of the MFA in Dance: Embodied Interdisciplinary Praxis, I am especially excited to welcome our first cohort. These students were carefully selected based on their potential to develop dance as a transformative social force. They operate both within and outside of the narrow boundaries of the arts world. I am proud that our cohort’s diverse approach to dance will provide an excellent ground for all of us at Duke Dance to move, research, and create.

Alyah, Courtney, Ayan, Juliet, Courtney, Ife, Namajala, and Susan speak to my conviction that dance is the art form of the twenty-first century. Dance reworks experiences and challenges through the body for new realities to emerge.

On behalf of all our faculty, we are excited to support these students as they emerge as pioneers in their fields.”—Michael Kliën, associate professor of the practice of Dance and director, MFA in Dance: Embodied Interdisciplinary Praxis

9 women sit on the floor in a circle, listening to a speaker.
Group photos by Robert Zimmerman. All other photos courtesy of the individuals.

Alyah Baker

I have spent the past three decades exploring various techniques with a focus on classical ballet. I have trained and performed with the Raleigh Dance Theater, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, Joffrey Ballet of New York, Richmond Ballet, and Oakland Ballet. I graduated from Duke University with a BA in sociology and a minor in dance. After college I taught and performed with various companies and choreographers in Oakland, CA. In addition to being a dancer, I am an entrepreneur and a community activator with two businesses.

“I’m interested in studying how accessing and honoring embodied knowledge, particularly within marginalized communities, can empower folks while also helping to eradicate negative stereotypes and stigma.”

I love ballet. But ballet has a real and widely documented diversity and equity issue. I believe a lot of this stems from how and to whom this dance form has traditionally been taught. During this program, I will be researching various somatic practices alongside more traditional dance forms in hopes of developing alternative pedagogical approaches to ballet. I’m interested in studying how accessing and honoring embodied knowledge, particularly within marginalized communities, can empower folks while also helping to eradicate negative stereotypes and stigma.

Courtney Crumpler

Coutney Crumpler
Photo by Helena Cooper.

I lived in Brazil for six years after graduating from Princeton, and I danced much more in streets and social settings than in studios. I learned to dance on stilts and performed in carnivals and at many protests. I worked with community organizations and observed practices of resistance to forced evictions and police violence, and I eventually began working at a social mobilization network.

“I want to promote art in public spaces as a response to polarization and fragmentation in our society, and use art to cultivate community, shared experiences and dialogue across differences.”

My approach to the MFA will combine stilt walking in public spaces in North Carolina and in Brazil; embodied research into what serves life in the communities I am a member of; a regular listening practice; dancing with the amazing Duke Dance faculty; and coursework in anthropology, public policy, romance studies, and literature. I also want to promote art in public spaces as a response to polarization and fragmentation in our society, and use art to cultivate community, shared experiences and dialogue across differences while proposing individual and collective transformative processes. I aim to investigate the levers of community organization and social change present in Brazilian cultural manifestations, as well as related forms that are at work in North Carolina.

Ayan Felix

“Not only are we provided with the space at Duke to create our own change—with the MFA program title ‘Embodied Interdisciplinary Praxis’ we can fully realize our vision as one force of body, mind, and soul.”

My areas of interest are based in: the historical trauma across generations; use/creation of public spaces as a black femme; and space as a tool for wellness. Ultimately I wish to combine modes of movement and clinical psychology.

I applied to the MFA in Dance to be in an area with a burgeoning network of social and physical movers who not only want to grow with their craft, but also aim to challenge the contemporary ideals of success and the dominant narratives. This program has the space to stretch the limits of what I have been exposed to by the western concert dance world. Not only are we provided with the space at Duke to create our own change—with the MFA program title “Embodied Interdisciplinary Praxis”we can fully realize our vision as one force of body, mind, and soul.

Juliet Irving

I have taken dance classes since I was three but it wasn’t until college that I had the opportunity to really expand my movement practice. I attended Appalachian State University for degrees in dance studies and graphic design. My research focuses on designing experiences and developing some form of methodology for anyone (dancers and non-dancers alike) to partake in. I intend to use dance and movement to manifest the spirit and let go within these spaces. The program’s interdisciplinary focus allows me to explore the integration of dance and my artistic practices. The faculty and resources here at Duke is also partly why I was so excited for the program.

“I intend to use dance and movement to manifest the spirit and let go within these spaces.”

One of my visions is to travel continuing to design these experiences in a multitude of ways and environments for people to become more embodied.

Courtney Liu

I have an interest in the connections between body image, weight, and dance developed over the past 15 years as I trained at the San Francisco Ballet School, diverted to other forms at Duke University, and made my way through the professional world in New York City and abroad.

“I started interviewing professional dancers about a year ago to further understand the role of training in the development of a dancer’s intricate relationship to their body.”

I started interviewing professional dancers about a year ago to further understand the role of training in the development of a dancer’s intricate relationship to their body. My research in its current form will employ qualitative methods (interviews, focus groups), embodied research, program evaluation, and pertinent findings from psychology, education, critical studies of race and sexuality, sociology, history, and anatomy/health sciences. All of this will come together to inform my work writing a manual for ballet instructors that includes aggregated interdisciplinary insights, best practices for the classroom and beyond, and an updated ballet curriculum that reflects the results of the research.

Ife Presswood

I started in Traditional West African dance, and as I continued my dance journey, I expanded my repertoire to include contemporary, Horton Technique, couture/heels, and hip-hop.

“How can we address the needs of plus-size dancers, and allow this body type to be competitive and have longevity in the dance world?”

My focus for this interdisciplinary program involves both kinesiology and humanities. I am studying ways to evolve the scope of how we see dance bodies by expanding the perception of dancer to include “plus-size” bodies, in both commercial and traditional lenses. Furthermore, my interest extends to the total development of the plus dancer: How can we address the needs of this body type and allow for plus size dancers to be competitive and have longevity in the dance world? I aim to create a curriculum and training process that trains dancers—specifically plus-size dancers—for whatever dance endeavor they may decide to pursue.

Naomi “Namajala” Washington Roque

I have a MA in anthropology and youth work. My passion is working with young people outside of school in informal classroom settings such as special workshop series or events. My work with youth is not centered around dance, but it does include movement practices. My research interests include the ways traditional West African dance and music are inherently or intrinsically medicinal. How does West African dance and music do something for the human emotional and spiritual body? How can that knowledge can be used to prepare our young people for life?

“My research interests include the ways traditional West African dance and music are inherently or intrinsically medicinal.”

I plan to develop a program for young people that uses traditional African and African Diaspora movement and music to integrate emotional and bodily self awareness; to teach emotional regulation; to provide tools for coping with difficult situations; to access spiritual knowledge that is dormant in the body; and to improve young people’s overall mental and emotional health.

Susan D. Webb, M.D.

I danced ballet throughout my childhood and into my early twenties.  During my years of medical training, I took up yoga. I began to explore various dance forms and movement methods, both for personal pleasure and also as a professional with an interest in the complex mind-body connection. In a different context from my earlier dance history, I could appreciate dance as a modality with tremendous healing potential.

“In a different context from my earlier dance history, I could appreciate dance as a modality with tremendous healing potential.”

My research goal is to develop a method of movement that will be relevant to a spectrum of physical and mental health disorders, one that may become a foundational lifestyle tool to maintain health and wellness, and one that is accessible to everyone. My personal creative work as well as my teaching explores the human dimensions of medicine and the experience of the healer, while considering myth, duality, and other often-undiscussed themes in the doctor-patient relationship.

I hope to contribute to the field of medicine with the articulation of a relevant movement method—one that will equip the imaginations of undergraduates and medical trainees to cultivate the vision and inspiration needed to humanize and transform twenty-first century medicine.

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