Artists as Researchers: Dancing Through STEAM

Gabby Cooper ’20, Autumn Blamoville ’21, and Akylah Cox ‘21 each boast an undergraduate experience that is best described as “quintessentially Duke”: While students, they split their time between rigorous science classes and equally demanding dance schedules—both inside the classroom and out.

Their academic pathways exemplify the ample opportunities for students who hope to pursue an interdisciplinary education at Duke, and especially one in STEAM, which joins the arts with the traditional study of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). The idea is that students don’t have to choose between being analytical and creative; as these alumnae demonstrate, they can be both.

With the Body, About the Body

Cooper performing during the 2019 Sabrosura showcase.

A dancer since age three, Gabby Cooper knew from the start of her Duke career that she would need to find a way to balance her evolutionary anthropology major and pre-med academic track with her chosen creative outlet.

“When I got to college, it wasn’t really a question of whether or not I would continue to dance as I pursued a career in medicine,” shared Cooper, who also minored in biology and chemistry. “It was how I could make both of them work.”

At Duke, she joined two student dance groups: Momentum Dance Company, which is all-female and multi-style, and Sabrosura, which focuses on Latin dance. Inside the classroom, she always made sure to take one or two dance courses each semester, in addition to helping choreograph dance department performances whenever possible.

Cooper performing a piece by Professor Andrea Woods at the Duke Dance Program’s November 2019 showcase. Photo by Alec Himwich.

On the science side, Cooper shared that she’s had “an internal drive to pursue medicine” since childhood, and her personal experiences helped crystallize this ambition: As someone with parents who are of an older generation than those of her peers, Cooper approached the study of medicine as a way to cope with her anxiety about the inevitably of aging and the health declines that accompany it. She also dealt with a knee injury from years of dance and gymnastics that required multiple surgeries throughout her young adulthood; she was treated by a female physician, who provided her with a role model for her future self.

“Each of my pursuits explore the human body,” she said. “Dance is with the body; medicine is about the body. What I learned in my undergraduate anatomy classes applies to both medicine and dance. Of course, when most people think of dance, they obviously see it as a form of art or a means for self-expression. They think it’s imprecise or abstract. But to me, dance has always been a science in itself.”

Cooper performing a piece choreographed by herself and two other students at the Duke Dance Program’s ChoreoLab 2019. Photo by Alec Himwich.

While medicine has the ability to enrich dance, Cooper pointed out that the opposite is true as well. Her senior year, she took a course titled “Dance Science: An Evolutionary Approach to Functional Anatomy,” taught by Blythe Williams, then an associate professor of the practice in the department of evolutionary anthropology. The class explored a variety of intersecting points between dance and science, including the demonstrated health benefits of the artistic practice.

“I’ve just retired this summer, and am now emeritus faculty in Evolutionary Anthropology. This transition has made me think back on my years working with students and I find that the most rewarding encounters have been with those who are at home in both the worlds of arts and of sciences. Universally, these dancer/scientists tell me that their dance informs their understanding of anatomy and the biomechanics of movement, and vice versa. As a dancer myself, I have found this to be true. When I began to learn anatomy for the first time as an undergraduate student, I felt that I knew the bones and muscles already from my years of dance—I just didn’t know their names yet.”

—Blythe Williams, Professor of the Practice Emerita in the Department of Evolutionary Anthropology

In the time since her graduation in May 2020, Cooper has been working as a clinical research specialist at a Duke research lab focused on pediatric medical genetics. She was recently accepted into UNC-Chapel Hill’s medical school and plans to begin her studies there in the fall. As of now, she’s not sure what she’ll focus on—orthopedics or gastroenterology are possibilities—but she knows one thing for certain: she will only choose a career that allows her to keep dancing.

“I hope I never live a life where I’m not pursuing both dance and medicine,” Cooper shared. “I just couldn’t imagine it.”

A Way Out of the Pathologizing Gaze

Like Cooper, Autumn Blamoville has been dancing since her early childhood, and knew upon her arrival at Duke that she would need to figure out how to best blend her scientific and artistic pursuits. Blamoville credits Jules Odendahl-James, director of academic engagement for arts and humanities, with introducing her to Program II, an individualized degree program that allows students to design a unique course of study. Under the guidance of Sarah Wilbur, assistant professor of the practice of dance, Blamoville sketched out a curriculum focused on the intersections of the arts and healthcare, titled “Integrative Arts and Health: Interventions and Collaborations.”

“I think healthcare can be very dehumanizing for patients when it doesn’t center the person as a whole, but their disability or ailment instead,” said Blamoville, who also followed a pre-med track at Duke. “In my research, I have found that bringing art into medicine offers a way out of this pathologizing gaze.”

She turned her attention to classes that approached both medicine and art-making from an interdisciplinary angle; one of those was “Performing Sexual Health,” a service-learning course taught by Keval Khalsa, professor of the practice emerita in dance. After exploring the use of theatre in sexual health education, students create a live performance and workshop for high school health teachers. For her distinction thesis, Blamoville worked with TimeSlips, an organization that uses creative storytelling—spanning dance, music, theatre, and more—to engage and support people living with dementia.

“Dance can offer amazing benefits to healthcare,” she said. “It’s able to bring about improvements that medicine alone couldn’t achieve.”

Blamoville (far right) pictured with Professor Keval Khalsa (center) and her “Performing Sexual Health” classmates.

“Duke University, with its renowned emphasis on interdisciplinary education, attracts phenomenal dancers, some of whom do not see themselves majoring or minoring in dance. Urgently, and in contrast, alums like Gabby, Autumn, and Akylah designed their lives at Duke to keep dance and creative practice at the core of their contributions and learning. Passionate students like these epitomize a growing generation of Duke undergrads who refuse to accept the retrograde assertion that the arts function merely as “extracurricular” or “escapist” amenities. Watch out world: interdisciplinary, arts-based research by Duke’s multi-talented undergraduate dance majors, minors, and Program II candidates is on the rise. Prolific artist-researchers like these three women are powerfully protesting knowledge hierarchies that have, for too long, denied the critical function of creative practice and cultural expression to make, critique, and change the world.”

—Sarah Wilbur, Assistant Professor of the Practice of Dance & Director of Graduate Studies for the Duke Dance Program

At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Blamoville would call her family members who worked in healthcare and listen as they described the difficulty of delivering quality care when everything around them looked so grim. But, she said, she found a silver lining in the opportunity to share her research with them and brainstorm ways to uplift their patients through the arts. If there’s something to be gleaned from this past year, it’s how much we need both wellness and creativity, and how integral they are to each other.

“Dance was my way of getting through the pressures of college,” Blamoville shared. “Even if I wasn’t enrolled in a dance class or extracurricular, I used it as a way to express myself when words couldn’t do that. Movement has always been a form of therapy for me.”

In the fall, Blamoville plans to pursue a master’s degree in medical humanities so that she can continue her research into the collaborative benefits of arts and health, with the goal of providing better patient-centered interventions.

Blamoville dances alongside her fellow classmates in “Artists in Healthcare: Collaborations and Complexities,” taught by Sarah Wilbur.

Creativity, Communication, and Collaboration

Cox worked as an undergraduate research assistant during her time at Duke.

Akylah Cox entered the dance world through a considerably unique gateway: baton twirling. She took a liking to the art form sometime in elementary school and, after a couple years of growing her skills, began taking dance classes to elevate her performances even further. After a couple sessions at a ballet studio, Cox fell in love with the craft; when it was time for her to begin high school, she chose to attend a performing arts school for dance.

“In high school, I started to understand that I like dancing and being a performer, but that I also like creating dance,” Cox said. “I knew choreographing was something I wanted to pursue, and I couldn’t really see myself going into college without dancing at all.”

At Duke, Cox majored in civil engineering and minored in dance. Although her true interest lies in environmental engineering (specifically: water access, quality, and affordability), she liked the breadth of study and adaptability that civil engineering provided her. She also appreciated the flexibility in her schedule, which permitted her to pursue dance academically—a trait that sets Duke apart from other colleges.

“A lot of the other engineering schools I applied to had strict curricula and wouldn’t really allow you to study anything outside engineering,” Cox said. “I chose Pratt because I knew I wanted to explore outside the boundaries of STEM, and the school provided that freedom.”

“To Be Young, Gifted, and Black,” choreographed and danced by Akylah Cox ’21.

In a university setting, the connective tissue between the two subjects began to emerge. When most people make the transition from high school to college, they have to relearn how to study, to think, and to learn, trading in rote memorization and five-paragraph essays for in-depth analysis and problem-solving. Cox explained that she experienced this transition with both dance and engineering: Instead of simply reciting movements and vocabulary words, she needed to understand the topics so fully that she could create her own choreography or conduct original research.

“My high school dance teacher always stressed the three Cs: creativity, communication, and collaboration,” Cox said. “Those were incredibly evident in dance, but they can also be used in any space, and engineering especially.”

Currently, Cox is a part of the Graduate Education for Minorities (GEM) Fellowship Program, which provides funding for underrepresented students seeking graduate degrees in applied science and engineering; this fall, she will attend Northwestern University to pursue a master’s in civil engineering. Like Cooper and Blamoville, Cox shared that no matter where life takes her, “it’s imperative for me to dance.”

“To me, the power of dance comes from the internal healing it provides the artist, and the ability to share that vulnerability,” Cox said. “I think that’s when dance changes from being performative to transformative. In the end, you can’t undo someone who has that motivation behind their dance.”

Nina Wilder is a 2020 Duke English graduate from Raleigh, N.C. and this year’s arts administration fellow at Duke Arts. As a student, she was the editor of The Chronicle’s arts & culture section, Recess.