The gap between ‘the dancer’ and ‘the dance researcher’

Earlier this year, Kate Maguire-Rosier (an ECR community member) approached me (Anja) in a theatre foyer. I was a bit stunned to see someone from our mostly virtual community in the flesh, but absolutely thrilled to have a chat about the network, ECR life and, of course, dance! I asked Kate to share a bit about how she is navigating her multiple dance identities in post-PhD life. 

One day in 2013, I was invited by my sister’s friend – emerging artist Georgia Cranko – to be her support artist in a program for emerging Australian dancers. And the world opened up. For the first time, I was in a creative space with practitioners who communicated in sign language, pole-danced with one upper limb, or thought through giggles and bodily contact. I realised the difference that bodyminds makes constitutes an aesthetic feast for the art world – a gift, and therefore also, a weakest link. I was attracted to research on disability, an identity category, I once read, which is the marginalized of the marginalized, partly for its plethora of paradoxes like, for instance, a wheelchair-user’s simultaneous hyper- and in-visibility. I’m nondisabled and use this negative qualification to highlight my lack of lived experience. Specifically, I research the work of Australian dancers with disability, an area which exquisitely undermines dance’s traditional ontological status. Though I identify as a disability ally, I make a distinction between the ‘social benefit’, and the artistic value of this work. As a scholar, I am interested in the latter.

As a trained classical dancer, I approach movement with discipline and tenacity but I’ve long been tempted by anything that undoes ballet’s imperatives – perfectionist technique, the sylph figure, femininized expression, its assumed luxuries of disposable money and time. For something completely different, my aunt took me to a West African dance class by a Guinean teacher and I began training and performing in Ghanaian, but mainly Senegalese ‘sabar’ dance. I even travelled to Dakar to contextualise this newfound movement practice. In my (ongoing) journey to shake ballet out of my system, I’ve taste-tested an orchestra of styles from Armenian folk, Margaret Barr’s dance drama, Hawkins technique, Bodyweather, Cuban Afro-contemporary to reggaetón and I’ve just returned from Jamaica where I underwent a three-week dance intensive in the aggressively sexual style that is dancehall. Now, late at night, partly to feel free, partly to bemuse others or simply spite the world, I dancewalk home from the station, work, a show, my class… That’s me, ‘the dancer’.

In somewhat of a parallel, as a theatre tragic, I have been attracted to experiencing more contemporary, grounded, raw, social and different dance that blends form, skills, concepts and bodies. I have been enamoured by Kate Champion’s dance theatre for years. Same, same, but Different (2002) is one of the most profound experiences I’ve ever had. Nigel Jamieson’s Honour Bound (2006) critiquing the imprisonment of Australian David Hicks in Guantanamo Bay likewise resonated deeply. At Jacob’s Pillow where I interned for the 2009 season, I remember Groupe Emile Dubois’ Des Gens Qui Dansent and noting, for the first time in my life, older people dancing professionally. For me, at the time, it felt revolutionary – weird, wonderful, curious but mainly, powerful. I was thirsty for more.

And so, I do duets with the dance sector. For work, I find myself teaching in higher education, doing arts administration and management as well as a lot of unpaid labour in the form of research. Outside of work, I continue exploring ways of moving. Today, there is a gap between me, ‘the dancer’, and me, ‘the dance researcher’. Being in an audience enables me to dream of bridges between the two. Part of me would like to reconcile the two identities because somehow, it feels like I hold a secret otherwise, as if I’m unfaithful to my two disparate approaches to dance. Another part senses the gap might be beneficial: Keeping my ‘practice’ separate from my ‘work’ means I do not have to force-fit my art into an economic outcome and means I enjoy dance on my own terms. Don’t mix personal with professional, right? With an economic recession looming, and further austerity measures forecast for both the arts and higher education, this seems sensible, advisable. But maybe, one day…

Dr Kate Maguire-Rosier, who recently obtained her PhD in Australian dance and disability from Macquarie University, co-convenes the IFTR’s Performance and Disability Working Group. You can read some of Kate’s research here and here. She also has a blog where she posts responses to live theatre.

A surfboard, flamingo, and balancing two career foci

ECR Community’s very own Anja Ali-Haapala is three years into post-PhD life. She shares her perspective on continuing to undertake scholarly research as an independent.

I am an independent dance researcher. I am also an independent dance practitioner.

When I was undertaking my dance training, I didn’t have a research practice: no distractions. When I was doing my research degree my dance practice took a bit of a backseat: a compromise, but manageable. Now that I am out in the world and away from the comforts and structures of the university environment, I am trying to continue developing both of these practices simultaneously: difficult.

A big part of this challenge is that my research and dance practices don’t align neatly. Creating efficiencies is tricky. I research dance audience reception (i.e., receptive participation), while my dance practice is community teaching (i.e., creative participation). It can feel like I’m out on the ocean with one foot standing on a surfboard and the other on an inflatable flamingo. While both are flotation devices, these objects weren’t designed to go together. When the ocean is calm I can find my balance. I’m not moving fast, but I am managing both objects and they’re keeping me afloat. When the ocean swells and a wave of opportunities (that I am extremely grateful for) come along, keeping my balance gets tricky. It would make a lot of sense to put both feet on the surfboard, ride the wave, and let the flamingo go. So far I have chosen to keep a foot on each, so there I am doing a frantic balancing dance on the waves like many independents before me.

It’s not a great metaphor, but the flamingo is my research: it’s slow going, but it makes a statement. As an independent, I don’t get paid to continue my academic investigation. I do generate income from consulting on audience research and evaluation projects for industry organisations, but the scholarly investigation (the original contribution to knowledge stuff) is self-funded right now.

Some elements, like writing, are actually quite manageable. Blocking out one morning each week to write has been extremely productive for me and has led to a few journal articles based on my PhD project. In these cases, I had data and ideas ready to go, so it was just a matter of shifting these into article-sized pieces. Starting new research projects has also been achievable, as the first steps are often to review existing literature, then plan the methods.

Fieldwork, however, is daunting. I’m a qualitative researcher, so I have time and financial considerations relating to recruiting participants, undertaking the data collection, and transcribing (so much transcribing). I keep asking myself: am I really in a situation where I can do this properly and in a reasonable time frame? I will have to get back to you on that one, as I haven’t yet taken the plunge and tried data collection as an independent.

The frantic balancing dance has led to regular cycles of big picture reflection about my interests and priorities (e.g., do I really want to do this?), as well as more pragmatic thinking about how to make academic research fit into my independent career (e.g., committing one morning each week to writing). I haven’t figured it out yet, but I’m optimistic that there’s a way to make it work in the long run. I would be very interested to hear about how other people are managing independent research and balancing multiple career foci.

Dr Anja Ali-Haapala is an Australian audience researcher and community dance practitioner. You can find out more about her work here.

What good can come from an Early Career Researcher Day… EVERYTHING!

In July the ECR Community held a half-day event on the eve of Panpapanpalya Joint Dance Congress in Adelaide, Australia. We asked participant and fellow dance ECR, Peter Cook, to share some of his reflections of the event.

Coming together with fellow Early Career Dance Researchers in Adelaide, as the pre-event for Panpapanpalya 2018, was an embodied stroke of genius. Organising the opportunity to begin pivotal conversations and engage in valuable networking with like-minded colleagues from around the world set the scene for a productive event. The themes of the joint congress perfectly framed the week.

Dance: reminders of our essences, our entries and exits, refining and defining identities in Dance. Nourishing as artists, as researchers, as educators and as colleagues.

Starting the event, we were asked to unsettle the environment and move. Even though it was only a move of locations we altered and (re)established ourselves and each other, physically. The task was to find someone we did not know previously meet, greet, engage and then be prepared to report back on our new colleague’s significant contributions and reasonings behind attending the event. Given the international cast it was easy to find a new and unfamiliar colleague and provided the ground work for networking.  My new buddy and I continued to introduce each other to attendees on behalf of one another, as our identities familiarised, and the network grew.

Gathering: it always becomes a wonderful catalyst for growth to engage in sharing with like-minded researchers and to experience constructive exploration of ideas with openness and safety.

ECR Day at Panpapanpalya Joint Dance Congress 2018

The program allowed and facilitated our networking opportunities by constantly interplaying the roles of audience and participant.  Groups discussed resourcing and aspirational concepts of communicating amongst ourselves and our stakeholders. Despite being an intimate group, we established strong conversations and then transferred our knowledges to a new group as we transitioned to new colleagues. The world café activity continued the theme of moving as we established strong conversations and then transferred our knowledges to a new group.

Generations: we are beginners, experts, leaders but novices, so many roles to consider.

Generating ideas as an early career researcher opened up consideration of mixed career stages often apparent for dance researchers. We often develop into the role of researchers after establishing other careers and transitioning into academia from varying points. The strength of this meeting was the intergenerational presence. It was a theme within the congress and continued to refute the popular views that a dancer’s life is short.  Having representation from varied generations is satisfying, affirming and motivating. It reminds us that dancers also have a voice and that voice has a past and a future. And it is loud and informed, and it collates, creates and disseminates knowledge through powerful paradigms. And sometimes the voice is heard in and through movement. The common language of this congress.

Learning: Sharing stories and experiences supports us to move smoothly on the continuum from teacher to learner and the myriad of places (in)between.

The assembled panel generously offered their stories both, highs and lows. They shared their stories autoethnographically and provided insights into their worlds, practices and understandings and extended this into the possibilities for our success. Perhaps my favourite concept and key take away was provided by Mabingo, who incidentally tried to convince me that Uganda was a suburb of Auckland. His thought resonated through the congress and reminded me of the many identities that form who we are in this early (or is it previous) career.  The teacher, the learner, the choreographer, the administrator, the advocate, the researcher, the writer, the leader, the follower, the colleague and the dancer. “You just have to turn up”. Thanks, Mabingo, I am glad I did and will continue to do so.

Peter J. Cook is a Lecturer in The Arts at Southern Cross University, in the School of Education. His PhD is titled Understanding the choreographic presence in an artful, digital Dance education. You can find out more about his research here

ECR Day at Panpapanpayla Joint Dance Congress 2018

‘We need to talk’: The diverse voices and shared visions of early career dance researchers

In July the ECR Community held a half-day event on the eve of Panpapanpalya Joint Dance Congress in Adelaide, Australia. We asked one of our speakers, Alfdaniels Mabingo, to share some of his reflections of the event.

It is not common for early career dance researchers from different global corners of the world to congregate and share their professional, academic and research stories, passions and aspirations. What was so special about the Early Career Researcher (ECR) meeting, which was held at the University of South Australia in Adelaide on June 30, 2018 is that it made this congregation a reality. What made it even more inspiring is the diversity of stories, expertise, aspirations, and identities that individuals from different countries in Africa, Europe, Asia, South America, North America, New Zealand, and Australia brought to the space and the shared experiences.

Seated amidst a sea of bubbling passions, I kept asking myself: ‘What does Early career researcher mean?’. The answers to this question came from a myriad of voices of fellow ECRers. As each individual introduced themselves, I realised the complexity and depth of what ECR means. The representation was so broad, ranging from fresh Masters and PhD graduates, continuing undergraduate and graduate students pursuing different researches, dance performers and choreographers inquiring about their own practices, dance educators who are experimenting with their pedagogic innovations, and interdisciplinarists whose minds seek to imagine the place of dance in a wide range of other knowledge domains such as health, psychology, peace and conflict resolution, and technology, among others.

Alfdaniels Mabingo

The richness of voices and expansiveness of research interests underscored the centrality of dance and the role of dance researchers in improving the human condition. From the dynamic, intimate and informative interactions that we had, I admired the selfless work that each individual is doing to ensure that dance shapes the future that we all imagine. It was clear to me that the curiosities and practices of ECR are producing visions that posterity will refer back to with pride and gratitude. I was so inspired to be surrounded by and immersed in exchanges that deepened my confidence, pride, commitment, and imagination as a dance researcher, writer, performer, and scholar.

Moreover, the meeting provided a platform for meaningful connections. As an early career researcher from a continent and a race that is on the fringes of dance discourse, I have always encountered the challenge of operating in and as a lonely universe. The meeting delivered the people that I can talk to, the people with whom we can peer-edit our works, the people that I can creatively collaborate with, the people that I can co-author works with, the people that I am keen to learn from and share resources with, and the people that I will be proud to call my lifetime friends and colleagues. The meeting reclaimed me from the lonely universe. My vision that the future does not only belong to us, but it rests in how meaningfully we connect with one another was reaffirmed. It was a meeting for and about the future. The interactions signposted us to many possibilities for our different path to cross. As a fresh PhD graduate, this is the place where I want to be.

As I was leaving the venue for the meeting, I deeply thought about the potential that the ECR platform has to empower and enrich early career dancer researchers. I was envisioning the global connections that the initiative can spark. I felt like emerging from a womb that has immense potential to birth more possibilities. The future will not be defined by how fresh we are as researchers, but it will be determined by how we blend this freshness into constructive connections that will elevate and translate our talents, ideas, passions, and dreams into purposeful and impactful action. As early career dance researchers, we need this space more than ever before. We have it. Let’s occupy it. Let’s make it a beehive of stories, connections, celebrations, sharing, inspiration, and support. Let’s paint it with imaginative energies, creative visions, and critical thoughts. As Barack Hussein Obama said: YES WE CAN!

Alfdaniels Mabingo, PhD, is a scholar of dance education and pedagogy from Uganda, East Africa. You can check out his impressive list of publications here and get a glimpse of his Ugandan dance class below.