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Miriam Phillips
TDPS takes students around the world with dance.

By Missy McTamney, Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center in Maryland International

If you wanted to learn the cultural history of the Spanish Andalusians, you could Google it, read the Wikipedia page, maybe check out a library book, or watch a YouTube video to gain some degree of insight—or take it a step further, and enroll in a course on flamenco dance!

Miriam Phillips, Assistant Professor of Dance in the UMD School of Theatre, Dance, and Performance Studies (TDPS), believes that dance, because it is a personal physical experience, can instill comprehension of an entire culture. The oppressed Andalusian people, including the Gypsies, who were socially and economically marginalized for centuries, channeled their emotional frustrations into the proud, passionate dance style known as flamenco.

Photo by Bonnie Kamin

“Dance is embodied culture,” says Phillips, who specializes in Dance Ethnology and Movement Analysis and is noted for her work with the art of flamenco. When she received a prestigious Thomas J. Watson Fellowship in 1981, she was able to study in Spain, India, and the Middle East—an experience that launched her work.

“A culture’s dance is the encapsulated expression of their history and ethos. The phrasing and body movements in dance are an embodiment of each culture’s world view—their social values, economics, environment, and belief system—all represented in their dance patterns,” she says. It’s a perspective that guides TDPS’s philosophy on the School’s World Dance program.

Photo by Enoch Chan

It is also an artistic experience that can add tangible value and enrich lives. MFA Dance candidate Kwame Opare’s class on West African dance is full of barefoot UMD students dancing to the pulsing beat of Opare’s native drum. Their animated movements embody West Africa’s largely subsistent communities where the gods and the dance are connected to life forces—water, rice cultivation, fishing, and climbing palm trees. With its bent knees and forward inclining torso, there is a clear connection to the earth and natural world.

Photo by Enoch Chan

Opare, whose critically acclaimed work speaks to social issues around the world, has traveled to Ghana with the support of TDPS to research West African dance styles and their methods of teaching children. Not only has his research informed his choreographic and creative processes, but he has also applied that research to teaching elementary school-aged students in underprivileged Baltimore City. His students learn the dance techniques, but more importantly, they learn to understand and appreciate their heritage, giving them a new perspective and a more confident way of approaching the world.

Photo by Long Pan

Xuejuan Feng, another TDPS MFA Dance candidate and Chinese Folk dance teacher, is investigating the dance and movement patterns of Chinese and American women. Believing these movements are a reflection of each culture’s values, she explores qualities of delicacy, restraint, boldness, and space as a means of contrasting and comparing the two dissimilar worlds. As a Chinese woman living in a country that challenges her to move and act like one of its own, she can appreciate the value in learning to “walk the walk” of American women. But even more valuable is sharing with her students the cultural insights gleaned by simply appreciating the difference between the two worlds and their dance styles.

Photo by Long Pan

So, the next time you’re wondering what made the ancient Romans tick or why the Vikings had such wanderlust, put on your dancing shoes, and check out their movement and dance rituals for some genuine insight.