Professor connects history to dance

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Assistant Professor Amy VanKirk

Assistant professor Amy VanKirk encourages difficult discussions through dance. VanKirk challenges her students – including freshmen – to tackle complex and challenging subjects.

“People may not always think of dance as a method of communication or as a way to address serious issues, but this is something we do every day,” VanKirk said.

The opportunity to focus on some of these current issues came from developing a new freshman seminar course with an open-ended performance component, but the motivation for the topic of this semester stemmed from a collaboration happening next spring.

“I’m doing a collaboration with NASA Langley Research Center as a part of their 2017 Centennial Celebration. I decided that as a precursor for the new work, I’d focus my freshman seminar course on a recent history of African American women who worked at Langley during the space race,” VanKirk said. That book, released in September, is “Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold story of the Black Women Mathematicians who Helped Win the Space Race,” by Margot Lee Shetterly.

VanKirk uses the course, a recently designated Scholar-Citizen Intensive class, as a foundation for the road ahead.

“It’s important to have difficult discussions about topics that were just as relevant in the past as they are today, such as race and gender discrimination in the work place.” VanKirk said. “In order to broach these topics, it’s essential to set up an environment of respect and trust in the classroom. I never want to tell students what to think, but I do want to open up the discussion.”

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Radford University students performing "The Things They Carried" as part of their freshmen seminar course.

These discussions are being had among freshmen at Radford University.

“They’re ready,” VanKirk said of the freshmen. “They are eager to have meaningful inspiration behind their dancing. They are very involved in the creative process.

“I thought that with the political and social climate of today it would be a perfect time to highlight this book, which features gripping stories about being women of color working in a male dominated field in the 40s, 50s and 60s,” VanKirk continued. “The same issues are still very alive today. I asked the students to jump right in and create the movement for the show.”

The students are involved in every aspect of the semester-long project, from creating the movement material to picking the music for the show.

A secondary goal for the class is to build a community among the dancers.

“We’re trying to create a family,” VanKirk said. “By having freshmen dance majors address difficult topics through discussion, writing and moving – it forces them to open up and become a close-knit group.”

But the main motivation for tackling these topics is the benefit to the students.

“Tackling difficult subjects encourages students to work on important skills such as communication, tolerance, open-mindedness and conflict resolution, which are important in all aspects of life” VanKirk said.

Nov 1, 2016
Max Esterhuizen
(540) 831-7749