Ayan Felix MFA in Dance ‘21: Dance Performance As a Social Movement

This is part of a series commemorating the inaugural cohort of Duke’s MFA in Dance. Learn more about the program and its 2021 graduates here.

Ayan Felix explores identity and sexuality as a route to creating inclusive immaterial space wherein Black femmes are self-possessed agents acknowledged for defining the multiplicity of their worlds through movement, self-worth and community building.

Ayan brings humor, radical imagination and whimsy to a conversation of Black life while demanding we attend to the need to continue spaces and places for people who must be constantly vigilant against acts of violence, absence and dismissal. Ayan’s work disrupts erasure and risks enacting presence to claim futures for Black femme possibility and very real being.

—Prof. Andrea E. Woods Valdés, Primary Advisor


A photo of 7 figures in a circle looking down into the camera. They are Black people and are dressed in black to various degrees with black masks. Their faces and necks are replaced with an image of a tree line.


Ayan investigates digital and physical space-building through movement practice to reflect on how Americans in the United States who identify as genderqueer, non-conforming or femme establish networks of Black and gender-affirming spaces in and out of their performance communities. This research is heavily inspired by Afro-diasporic speculation and contemporary social justice organizers who build worlds through subaltern modes of communication buried under neoliberal capitalist structures of oppression.

In exploring their own creativity amongst others by making literal and figurative space, Ayan speculates on how homebuilding and caretaking as developed in Black feminist traditions can reimagine dance productions in ways that seem post-capitalist and sustainable.

As such, their practical research is geared towards exploring the transience of location and gender and recognizing when patterns of behaviors create itinerant spaces that are based in principled struggle, as written by N’Tanya Lee and LeftRoots. Ayan’s work moves among collaborators, and their work strives to practice toward Black queer futurity. They ask: what are the processes currently converging to prepare a space for us?

Thesis Advisory Committee: Prof. Andrea E. Woods Valdéz, Barbara Dickinson, Anne Maria-Makhulu

Thesis Project

Ayan’s outward-facing project was a drive-in experience to give them and participants time to sit with their transitions, using cars as a safety measure and a vehicle to their shared destinations, goals and dreams. The multimedia event was held at sunset on March 26, 2021, at Duke Campus Farms.

As they watched the nearly-full moon crest, they asked of what use is gender if it is not flexible and how can we arrange ourselves to allow for a future where gender and sexual fluidity is understood as natural. This performance was also an experiment in how live dance performance can still exist safely. It is also a section of a larger series to consider different ways dance performance rooted in Black queer Southern traditions and aesthetics can be useful in transforming our world away from anti-Black racism and patriarchal violence.

About Ayan Felix

Ayan Felix is an MFA in Dance student researching how physical and social improvisational practices interact in spaces that affirm Blackness and gender fluidity. Their most resourced practice is site-responsive, using improvisational styles based in modern/post-modern dance, physical theater, house and majorette training that they learned over years of experience in Texas, Pennsylvania, and now, North Carolina. They look to continue teaching and learning afro-diasporic improvisational styles following graduation. Ayan is also a facilitator working to bring somatics to community-based social justice organizations that focus on abolition.

Ayan’s research relies on multidisciplinary collaboration to choreograph worlds that blur the line of audience-participant, performance-practice and artist-organizer. By approaching dance performance capaciously as a type of social movement, Ayan seeks to understand how to produce performance spaces that are ethical and prioritize our material and immaterial needs.

They have studied at Franklin & Marshall College (2016) as well as SUCHU Dance/Jennifer Wood, Dance Afrikana, Pilot Dance Project, and Jhon R. Stronks. Their solo works have been presented at the Houston Fringe Festival, Barnstorm Dance Festival, Archway Gallery’s 2018 exhibition on Silvia Pinto Souza’s Dwellings (2018), Houston Kuumba festivals, and with Core Dance via The Field NYC facilitator training. They were a ’18-’19 Dance Source Houston resident artist. Their work has pivoted in the past 3 years to focus on social activation which allowed them to engage with the Design Studio for Social Intervention, Acorn Center for Restoration and Freedom out of Georgia, and other community-centered organizations in Durham and Houston. They are also a Duke GradEngage Fellow for Spring 2021. Their favorite seasons of the year are crawfish and fig.

“My love is too Saturday nite to have thrown back on my face.” —Ntozake Shange