Duke University to Offer the Dance MFA We Need Right Now

Where success will be measured by positive social change, not just reviews.

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May Day Celebrations at Duke University. Undated photo: Duke University Archives via Flickr Creative Commons.

Next fall, as many as seven graduate students will move to Durham, NC, as the inaugural class of Duke University’s two-year MFA in Dance: Embodied Interdisciplinary Praxis. If this program had existed in 2001, I would have applied; that year, I traveled overseas, to East London, to serve as a youth worker and community-based artist while earning a post-grad certificate in Youth Arts Practice from Goldsmith’s College. It was there that I stumbled on a magazine ad for Columbia College Chicago’s then-new Master in Arts Management: Arts in Youth and Community Development program and its full-ride fellowship. And that is how I moved to the Windy City. While that program was well-designed, with a paid internship and inspiring coursework, it was two years of my life with limited “embodied experience” in dance — and today, the program no longer exists as it did back then.

“Study-In” in President Knight’s office to protest segregated facilities used by Duke organizations, such as dances held all-white country clubs, Nov. 13, 1967. Photo: Duke University Archives via Flickr Creative Commons.

Looking closely at the terms used in the title of Duke’s new program reveals its distinct nature: “embodied,” as in experienced in the body, concrete and real; “interdisciplinary,” as in relating to more than one branch of knowledge; and “praxis,” as in action. Hence, the Dance MFA inaugural cohort at Duke will experience “embodied knowledge and practice-led movement discourses in the service of the society.” I beamed when I read that. I’ve been a dauntless advocate for expanding the potential of social-practice arts into the field of dance since my blog post, “Am I a Dancer Who Gave Up?,” went viral in 2013.

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Colleges and universities have brought me to speak to their students about the theoretical foundations of this work and to show examples of what social-practice, a common term in the visual arts and performance art, looks like in dance. To the students, I explain the concept of social interventions through the medium of dance and offer examples, such as helping refugees with healthy resettlement and social integration through dance performance projects; calming tensions in neighborhoods of distrust and division, pre- or post-conflict, through collaborative dance; or building opportunities for cultural entrepreneurship in dance with individuals experiencing homelessness. The best definition of social-practice I’ve come across so far is by Randy Kennedy in The New York Times in 2013.

Known primarily as social-practice, its practitioners freely blur the lines among object making, performance, political activism, community organizing, environmentalism and investigative journalism, creating a deeply participatory art that often flourishes outside the gallery and museum system. And in so doing, they push an old question — “Why is it art?” — as close to the breaking point as contemporary art ever has.

Through campus visits and exchanges, I’ve seen the next generation of dance leaders craving activism, altruism and artistry in the name of racial and cultural equity, cultural diplomacy and social justice through dance. The new program at Duke, which launches in fall 2019 and is currently accepting applications, celebrates this ideal.

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Having been inspired by this next generation of dance leaders, I publish an annual list of degree or certificate programs, opportunities and resources relevant to social-practice. Duke’s new program is a great addition to my list. Aiming to foster impactful research and innovative practice in dance, note Duke’s program tagline: “equipping the imagination for social transformation.”

Duke Gay Alliance-Carolina Gay Association Dance flyer, ca. 1980s | Photo: Duke University Archives via Flickr Creative Commons

Duke’s curriculum is intersectional and transdisciplinary: each student synthesizes information and experiences for their journey. Its design is 44% interdisciplinary study electives, 31% artistic research, and 12.5% each of theory coursework and thesis elements — including research, writing, and a public project (e.g., performance, exhibition, installation, site-specific, social choreography, etc.). Students may also pursue a graduate certificate in social entrepreneurship and/or a certificate in college teaching.

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Duke’s faculty is also poised to deliver first-rate scholarship to the MFA Dance program, from African-American dance studies to applications of modern Sikhism, from contemporary folklore to Indian dance-theater, and more.

In an email, Sarah Marie Wilbur, Assistant Professor of the Practice of Dance at Duke and a member of the university’s Institute for Brain Sciences, shared this with me:

As a choreographer and dance scholar who studies dance institutions, labor, and funding, I am fiercely dedicated to supporting Duke MFA graduate students in understanding their infrastructural inheritances. My teaching and mentorship connects students’ cultural values and identities to histories of checkered support for dance and the arts in the US to help them to better situate their contributions and locate collaborators — in and far outside of conventional arts contexts — who also share their values.

Students Against Sweatshops Demonstration, December 4, 1998 | Photo: Duke University Archives via Flickr Creative Commons

Wilbur’s email points to one of the big questions around social practice and activism in dance: its relationship to the recognized expectations and aesthetics of the ballet and modern dance base of the “Western academy.” In other words, when we talk about “embodied interdisciplinary praxis,” do we depart from technique training and dance scholarship? Or is it all intertwined limbs of the same tree?

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Duke Modern Dance Group, 1956. Photo: Duke University Archives via Flickr Creative Commons.

Duke University is well-positioned to advance this area of inquiry, too, as its MFA degree program gets underway. In 2019, for example, Duke will begin a three-year partnership with American Ballet Theater. And, of course, since 1977 Duke has been home to the esteemed 85-year-old American Dance Festival (ADF), founded by the likes of Martha Graham and Doris Humphrey.

Leah Cox, who holds the position of Dean of ADF, recognizes the importance of Duke’s new MFA in Dance on the campus that the programs share. Via email, she made this observation:

The MFA’s emphasis on all forms of dance and movement practices make it a site for the convergence of difference and the emergence of new ideas. We at ADF know the profound value of embodied praxis and are excited to be part of the MFA as a site for creating and sharing the knowledge generated by each cohort of students.

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One of the most interesting quotes I received on Duke’s new Dance MFA came from Michael Kliën. A founding member of Germany’s Institute of Social Choreography, he arrived at Duke in spring 2017 and is director of the new program. He said:

We wanted to create a program open to all approaches to, and expressions of, movement that interrogates artistic practice in light of its social context. By calling into awareness that our dances are always deeply entwined with their context calls for an awareness to potentially dream up new ideas, new ‘social technologies,’ that resonate into society.

Kliën’s statement continued:

We expect students to identify daring and ambitious projects — in conflict resolution, health, equality, etc. We expect that exposure to, and deep immersion in, other fields of knowledge will inform and strengthen artistic practice, rather than distract from it. We aim for great artists, activists, scholars, thinkers, and doers to graduate from [the program], who are primarily unconcerned with the arts-market, but rather with the implications of their work in society at large.

Duke’s MFA in Dance is positioned to be exactly what the next generation of dance leadership deserves — where the success of their work is measured by positive social change, not just reviews. The application deadline is Feb. 15. I can’t wait to see how it develops.

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Shawn Lent
Shawn Lent moves this world as both a program manager and a social practice dance artist, with experience from a field in Bosnia to a children’s cancer hospital in revolutionary Egypt. She is a U.S. Fulbright Scholar and UNAOC International Fellow, and has spoken at the University of Maryland, Universal Exposition Milan, TEDx Shibin El Kom, Sandbox Industries, and Commencement for Millikin University. From 2013-2015, Shawn served as the EducationUSA Egypt Coordinator for AMIDEAST and the U.S. Department of State. In 2013, her blog post "Am I a Dancer Who Gave Up?," went viral. Shawn holds a Masters in Arts Management from Columbia College Chicago and a Post-Graduate Certificate in Youth Arts Development from Goldsmith's College.