How Duke’s Interdisciplinary Dance MFA Is Delivering

An update on the inaugural class of Duke University’s two-year MFA in Dance: Embodied Interdisciplinary Praxis.

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The inaugural cohort of Duke’s MFA in Dance. Photo: Robert Zimmerman.

Not all new programs in higher education meet the expectations of, and preparedness for, incoming students. But in Durham, NC, the inaugural class of Duke University’s sparkling new, two-year MFA in Dance: Embodied Interdisciplinary Praxis — the first such program in the U.S. — seems to be thriving thus far. The first cohort arrived in the fall of 2019; all eight students are now immersed in three of the program’s mandatory classes:

  1. Choreographic Praxis: introduction to the practice and theory of the expanded field of choreography;
  2. Movement Research: individually tailored pathways of embodied study while providing a framework for reflection and discussion;
  3. Theories of Corporealities: theoretical frames for articulating the social, political, cultural, phenomenological, and economic significance of the body across humanities disciplines.

Who is in the inaugural class? It comprises:

  • Alyah Baker — dancer, entrepreneur and community activator with no fewer than two businesses who is developing an alternative pedagogical approach to ballet technique that honors the embodied knowledge of “othered bodies”
  • Courtney Allen Crumpler — researching public art that brings about collective wellbeing and liberation
  • Ayan Felix — combining modes of movement and clinical psychology while searching for methods of acknowledging black femme experiences in public spaces
  • Juliet Irving — focusing on the concept of ache, a manifestation of spirit that occurs through movement, and its application to improvisation and choreography
  • Courtney Liu — interested in the connections between ballet education, body image and weight
  • Ife Michelle Presswood — studying the expanding perception of dance bodies to include “plus-size” bodies in both commercial and traditional lenses
  • Naomi “Namajala” Washington Roque — studying traditional West African dance and music and how they are inherently or intrinsically medicinal
  • Susan D. Webb, M.D. — cultivating a movement method that will be broadly relevant to health and redefining embodiment

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The brief descriptions of the students above demonstrate their fit for the new program and its interdisciplinary heart. Indeed, the program’s interdisciplinary ethos is the chief reason most of the students applied, and why most were selected. Liu explained it to me recently via email:

…I was drawn to the Duke MFA program for the interdisciplinary curriculum it offers. Almost half of our classes are electives which allows each student to craft a unique project and draw their own connections between disciplines.

Liu also provided examples of how the program’s interdisciplinary design is playing out so far: “I am choreographing a dance film for the final project of my Anthropology elective and also working with the social choreography of Ethnography in my Choreographic Praxis course.”

For Irving, meanwhile, the interdisciplinary momentum in the Duke program goes one step further:

The encouragement in the program for interdisciplinary studies is also allowing me to pursue a Master’s certificate in African and African American Studies.

As defined by Columbia University’s Sally Aboelela and others, interdisciplinary research is “any study or group of studies undertaken by scholars from two or more distinct scientific disciplines.” It’s based on a “conceptual model that links or integrates theoretical frameworks from those disciplines.” And interdisciplinary praxis has been important to the dance field for centuries, putting Duke’s program at the center of a long tradition.

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I am myself an advocate for cross-sector approaches and applications, so I also wanted to know if, and how, this first Duke cohort is pushing their work into more trans-disciplinary directions. After all, working in a trans-disciplinary mode may lead to surprising innovations and important applications for Duke’s overall Dance MFA program. In a story that I wrote on the program for the CFR last year, faculty member Michael Kliën told me that they 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.” A trans-disciplinary approach may be key to that effort: Duke already has a Transdisciplinary Think Tank Program in Health Equity as well as a Transdisciplinary Prevention Research Center. Both may prove to be good examples, or even potential partners, for the Dance MFA cohort and program.

In an email, Webb gave this some additional thought and explained:

I was drawn to the program primarily by the opportunity to work with Michael Kliën, as he is a visionary thinker and choreographer. I look forward to continuing to learn from Michael.

Liu added:

The resources at Duke are absolutely incredible. The MFAs have had workshops with the Career Center, the Thompson Writing Program, the performing arts library, and more. I’ve enjoyed free food, free events, and free flu shots (woot!).

Liu feels that the opportunities at Duke to perform, choreograph, research and teach are actual and accessible. Webb agrees and looks forward to teaching in Duke’s Reimagining Medicine program, and also to growing as an engaging and inspiring teacher. Being a physician — specifically, a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst — she says her capacities as “an observer of people and their patterns” are helping prepare her to take advantage of the opportunities that the program offers.

Duke’s program is therefore proving to be good for the students I spoke with, as they advance toward positive and informed social change.

The Duke University MFA in Dance: Embodied Interdisciplinary Praxis is now accepting applications for Fall 2020.