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Africana studies and theatre, dance: a moving collaboration

Students taking Africana studies courses at William & Mary may find themselves doing more than exploring history, sociology, education, linguistics and other topics through books and lectures. They may also find themselves on their feet -- dancing, acting and otherwise embodying those they are learning about.

“I think it opens up perhaps a missing area in students’ education to really fully engage something in this way,” said Joan Gavaler, chair of the Department of Theatre, Speech and Dance.

Gavaler and three other faculty members in the department are highly involved in Africana studies, developing and teaching courses in the discipline. They recently sat down with William & Mary News to discuss their interdisciplinary work and how their collaborations are impacting not only themselves and their students, but the world as well.

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A history

Professor of English Jacqui McLendon served as the founding director of the black studies program.

“What we envisioned as a group starting out was that we wanted to bring this interdisciplinary work to our students,” she said.

The relationship between black studies and theatre and dance began when Joan Gavaler developed an American vernacular dance course, which McLendon invited to be part of the black studies program.

“If you’re looking at the history of vernacular dance in the United States, you are looking at how people from Africa combined African and European traditions and created something new that became identified broadly with American culture,” said Gavaler. “And if you want to remember that … (the two disciplines) are really identical as opposed to two things that kind of complement.”

A few years after Gavaler developed the vernacular dance course, black studies merged with African studies and the participation of theatre and dance faculty in Africana studies has grown. Along with Gavaler, Leah Glenn, Artisia Green and Francis Tanglao-Aguas all teach in both departments.

The collaboration between the two disciplines is a natural fit, the professors said.

“As it relates to African-American theatre, inherently within that particular tradition is this notion of performance and expression,” said Green, assistant professor of theatre. “It is through Griots (West African storytellers) telling stories before spectators that they were able to try and submit cultural values, a community’s history down to generations to come, and then those generations then passed those stories on, so there’s already an inherent sort of expression within that tradition.”

Theatre gives humanity a chance to experience history, said Tanglao-Aguas, associate professor of theatre.

“Whereas we will encounter sociology, anthropology through the news or through the printed word, what theatre and dance and the performing arts in general afford us as a society is a witnessing, a live witnessing, of that history whereby it is not only intellectual, it is jugular. It’s visceral. It’s right there in front of you and it showcases the possibilities so that we are not dealing with history in the past, but in the present,” he said.

Glenn, assistant professor of dance, said that it would be impossible for her to teach some of the Africana studies courses without including dance, “because movement, drama, theatre is such an integral part of the culture.”

“I just can’t imagine not incorporating that into the interdisciplinary study,” she said.

McLendon agreed, noting that “some of most important literary periods are the periods that incorporate all of these disciplines.”

In fact, one of those periods, the Harlem Renaissance, is the subject of an upcoming teaching project and subsequent course that will be team-taught by McLendon and professors from theatre, dance and music. Within the course, the professors hope to recreate for their students the environment of collaboration between poets, actors, writers, musicians and others that inspired such greats as Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston.

“It’s almost like every class would be a mini-conference or symposium on the Harlem Renaissance,” said Tanglao-Aguas.

Impact on students

Although this approach to teaching may be unique, students often find themselves doing much more than listening to lectures and taking notes in theatre or dance classes that are cross-listed with Africana studies.

Glenn said she often looks for ways to get the students moving, and Green said she does the same in her black drama and the history of the African Diaspora class.

“I thought it was important that all of the students who took that class not only had the opportunity to examine the text critically and objectively and also engage with it on a level of being able to empathize with those characters, but at the same time get up on their feet and actually try to embody them physically,” Green said. “So we spent the last couple of weeks of the semester in rehearsal looking at the texts in a physical way so they had an opportunity to experience it that way, as well.”

By getting physically involved with the material they are studying, students do more than learn it – they begin to own it, the professors said.

“William & Mary, as an environment, is very much a kind of talk-about-it environment,” said Gavaler. “Students are very sharp intellectually, language-wise. But when you add the element of taking something into yourself fully and expressing it through the arts, you get a very different way of learning.”

Tanglao-Aguas, who was the first theatre professor of color to receive tenure at William & Mary, concurred with Gavaler’s assertion.

“When any human being gets to live out a narrative or an activity or a story, it’s an empowering experience,” he said, adding that the newer generation is much more tactile and open to thinking outside of the box.

Green said that she’s even had some students say that the classes have taught them more about themselves – even if they weren’t of African-American or African descent.

“To focus your education on Africana studies and the particular disciplines that are inherent in that allows you an opportunity to get in touch with your own humanity, to examine your own identity as well, because on one level we are all connected,” she said. “’I am because you are, therefore we are.’ I think if you want the opportunity to learn more about yourself, that’s a good reason why you should engage in this particular discipline.”

Even those students who major in other areas report gaining much from the interdisciplinary classes, the professors said. Glenn recalled, for example, one economics major who took her vernacular dance class.

“He wasn’t a dancer, but he got up there and he moved and he was engaged in the discussion, and he genuinely enjoyed it,” she said.

Community building

The professors said that working across the disciplines has influenced their own work and has brought the campus closer as a community.

“At first, it was a little startling to me because it’s a big adjustment, but it also means that you keep your own teaching fresh and your own ideas fresh,” said McLendon. “I’m in the process of editing a book, and I don’t think it would be successful if I weren’t able to kind of change with the times, with the methods. People are coming out of graduate school now, and they are not focusing on just one area. They’re coming out and able to integrate many disciplines into their own work, and I think that’s the key.”

Gavaler noted that being involved in another department is inspiring and refreshing.

“I think sometimes we forget that every department and every program has its own culture, its own way of functioning and there’s something very positive about simply being exposed to that second group of people … to remember that the way that the group you are around functions isn’t the only way,” she said. “I’m very fond of both groups of people and there’s just something very positive that happens in me to experience the different energies, the rapport in each group.”

Tanglao-Aguas likened a meeting of Africana studies faculty – which includes professors from history, anthropology, English, linguistics, economics, French, American studies, music, government and women’s studies -- to a family reunion.

“It is family, and it is a community and I think when we get together, it translates to our students,” he said. “Because that’s one thing that we don’t teach our students black and white on the syllabus and that’s community building -- the idea that they see faculty collaborating, even if they aren’t in the same department, even if they aren’t in the same field of study.”

That collaboration is something that made an impression on Green when she was an undergraduate at William & Mary, taking courses in black studies.

“For me, it was a wonderful, refreshing experience to be able see images of myself, my history conferred visually and intellectually,” she said. “It just opened all kinds of doors for me.”

The interdisciplinary work coming out of Africana studies is affecting more than just the students and faculty. Many of the performance collaborations – including a program that Tanglao-Aguas conceived and organized which honored of Rosa Parks, Coretta Scott King and August Wilson – have been well attended by local community members.

Community members themselves have also been collaborators on some of the projects. For example, in 2008, Glenn worked with African and Virginia Indian percussionists from the community to create a dance piece called “Transcending Rhythms.” The piece was accepted to the International Association of Blacks in Dance conference.

“I was able to take the students to that conference, but they really gained a lot from working with musicians from the community as well as collaborating with faculty from the departments,” said Glenn.

Glenn will touch a different community next year when she leads a study abroad program in South Africa, focusing on the history of dance as well as apartheid and the civil rights movement. In addition to teaching, she hopes to also be able to “take some lessons in South African dance and hopefully maybe even teach dance in some of the townships.”

Globalization and diversity

Tanglao-Aguas noted that these kinds of efforts fit into William & Mary’s focus on globalization.

“Africana is really emblematic of a local or American paradigm reaching out into a global perspective, so it’s sort of this nice dish where you can have everything on the plate,” he said.

The interdisciplinary work exhibits diversity at William & Mary on a whole different level, the professors said.

“It provides a model and mentorship for our students to see people reaching for each other, being interested in each other, being curious, wanting to know someone that they don’t know, a culture, a way of life, a way of being,” said Gavaler. “It’s not diversity of let’s have two people who look very different sit next to each other and eat lunch, but rather what is it to think together, to work together and to really be interested in each other. I think that’s what we help model with this program.”

In the end, the professors hope that their work prepares students to be ready for what they will encounter when they leave the College.

“We really are the world,” said McLendon. “This is what the world is, so we want students to know when they go out there from a place like William & Mary that is kind of insular, that this is what they’re going to find and maybe learn something about interacting with people who are different from us.”