Ife Michelle Presswood MFA in Dance ‘21: “Through Her Looking Glass”

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.

The expressive power of Black Women Artists is the life force animating the research actions of MFA candidate Ife Michelle Presswood. A proud alumnus of Fayetteville State, Ife’s contributions to the field of dance are multiple and owe a debt to Black arts activists and predecessors in her home city of Charlotte.

Ife’s dance creation, education and performance draw together African diasporic and Black social dance forms, including but not limited to stiletto and heels dance. Graduate study at Duke has supported Ife’s theorization of Black femme corporeality and has afforded space to de- and re-construct her choreographic and curatorial methodologies.

Ife’s thesis intervention unfolds through the curation of a series of materials that document the making of dance works that protest the reductive social tendency to reduce Black Women to singularity or stereotype. In addition to a documentary film unpacking her workshops with her Charlotte-based ensemble (Ife Michelle Dance), Ife has created workshop outlines, conducted a research study on dance labor and Black arts organizational economies in Charlotte and archived feedback from invited audiences about each of her curatorial efforts.

By invitation, witnesses to Ife’s work are hailed to wake up and recognize the power of Black Women infrastructure through the artifacts of her own creative process. Ife’s artistry exposes the contradictions that Black Women Artists face and champions future investment in spaces where Black femme expression can materialize in its buoyant, brilliant multitude. “Safe spaces,” as Ife imagines and curates them, are sites where dancing matters precisely because it is unavailable for others to fix, capture or sell.

—Prof. Sarah Wilbur, Primary Advisor


Ife’s artistic work is currently centered around the creation and sustaining of “emancipated spaces” that can provide a location for Black Woman Artists to unpack the effects of misogynoir through artistic practice and embodied engagement. Using art-making as a technology to reach the “truest self,” these spaces can further become a site for permission and support of the self-actualization and agency of Black Women artists. Thus, that produced art can render an autonomous revisioning of Black Woman and Womanhood.

Ife theorizes emancipated spaces as both physical and collaborative spaces that allow Black Women Artists to exist fluidly within the facets of their identity and ways of being, without being subject to overt objectification. In examining the potentiality of emancipated spaces as a permissive site for Black Women Artists, she seeks to establish a locale wherein Black Women Artists can be supported (mentally, physically, financially and artistically) as liberated women and muses of (their) art.

Thesis Advisory Committee: Prof. Sarah Wilbur

Thesis Project

Ife’s thesis action is the curation of a documentary dance film entitled: Through Her Looking Glass: Emancipation of the Black Muse. The film follows Ife and dance company Ife Michelle Dance, including dancers Ashlee Brannon, Mia Perry, Kiesha Jennings, Alana Jones and Zuri Presswood as they investigate the residue of their individual and shared experiences as Black Women in the United States and develop an “Emancipated Spaces” as a place to protect and permission the Black Women.

The film is intended to demonstrate how such spaces, designed to acknowledging the Black Woman (artist) as a “truer self” (outside the lens of misogynoir), allows for self-actualization of the individual, valuing a breadth of embodied Black Womanhood and subsequently asserting Black Womanhood as an autonomous, heterogeneous and liberated existence.

Through Her Looking Glass: Emancipation of the Black Muse, An Undertaking of Black Women Artists and “Emancipated Spaces” seeks to explore the creative possibilities of Black Women Artists when disassociated from the stigma of misogynoir. Using closed spaces that protect and permission artistic practice and embodied engagement as technologies to reach the truer self, these spaces become a site to acknowledge and support the self-actualization and agency of Black Women Artists. In doing so, the showing of the produced art transcends the vulnerabilities of experienced misogynoir while making visible the autonomous Black Woman.

Engaging race, gender, and performance theory, this research unpacks the embodied reside of layered structural marginalization Black Women face in the U.S., through curatorial practice, collective artistic process, and embodied offering. In a six-month excavational undertaking, Ife Michelle Dance, an all-Black Woman dance company based in Charlotte, NC explore overlapping spaces: inner space, intersubjective space, rehearsal space, and curatorially intentional public space where Black Women Artists can be supported mentally, physically, and artistically as liberated Women and muses of [their] art.

About Ife Michelle Presswood

Ife Michelle, a native of Charlotte, North Carolina, began her dance training through the North Carolina Performing Arts Academy at age seven. Her training through college (Fayetteville State University/Duke University) in traditional West African, contemporary, Horton modern technique, hip-hop, stilettos and couture/vouge dance styles.

In her pre-professional career, Ife has danced with multiple companies including KOFFEE Modern Dance Company, DialeKt Dance Company, Black Millennium Runway Troupe, SHAE Movement African Arts and 4Thirty-Two Dance Company, where she also served as a choreographer.

As a practicing choreographer and performance artist, Ife now runs a dance company, Ife Michelle Dance, whose mission is to challenge the misguided perceptions and understandings of Black Women through performative offerings. Additionally, Ife teaches community adult dance classes (The Nightcap) that create a space for Black Women to access ownership and agency of self through dance technique and choreography.

“Deal with yourself as an individual worthy of respect, and make everyone else deal with you the same way.” —Nikki Giovanni

Ife Michelle Presswood’s website