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Portrait of an Artist: Dewey ’22 defies boundaries of dance

October 18, 2019

Produced, edited and filmed by Alexandra Lin ’23


Sophomore Emma Dewey used to think dancing was about perfect posture and technique. For her, improvisation used to take place in her bedroom only. Now, in her fourth dance class in three semesters and as a leader of the Bowdoin Modern Dance Collective, she’s begun exploring dance that makes her feel good—and lots of other feelings, too.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The Bowdoin Orient: When did you start dancing?

Emma Dewey ’22: I started dancing when I was 12. I started with competitive ballroom and I was trained in international ballroom and Latin. I really enjoyed performing and I really enjoyed partner dancing. I was a very shy child, so ballroom felt a lot more comfortable to me because I was performing, but with someone right there next to me so I wasn’t alone under the spotlight.

Q: What is your relationship with dance at Bowdoin?

A: Now I take classes in the dance department and I’m also involved with the Modern Dance Collective, which is basically just a weekly drop-in class. The first dance class that I took at Bowdoin was Advanced Modern with [Assistant Professor of Dance] Aretha Aoki. That class blew my mind because it was very liberatory for me. Ballroom was so limiting. There were so many rules about the character you had to perform and the technique you had to execute. And then in Advanced Modern there are no rules and it’s about what feels good for your body.

Q: What classes are you taking this semester?

A: Currently I’m taking Afro-Modern II: Technique and Intermediate Improvisation and Partnering. I was really excited to try improv because that was something that I always secretly did by myself like in my bedroom or in my bathroom, but that’s such a small space. I remember walking into the studio and realizing that there was just so much space and it was incredible that I had access to it whenever I wanted. So I think in a lot of ways, improv has been very important to my growth as a dancer because it allows me to just really explore how I want to move and to play.

Q: How has dance affected your life?

A: I definitely still feel a lot more comfortable dancing on stage than speaking on stage. Being trained in ballroom for so long has increased my confidence in myself and how I move through the world and how I carry myself because so much of ballroom is about presentation. The first thing you learn is how to have good posture, and that is what they groom you on constantly. One of my first teachers said, ‘to practice your posture, you just have to sit up straight all the time—walking through school, sitting in class.’ So I think getting into the dance world itself, made me a more confident person in all areas of my life.

Q: How do you feel when you dance?

A: It really depends. I, in a lot of ways, think of dance as therapy for myself. There were a lot of times last year when I was feeling stressed or anxious, and I would just come to the studio and dance for an hour. I think in our American, Western culture, there is a very strong divide between mind and body, and that is a fallacy. The way you experience the world is absolutely always through your body. And being connected to my physical being is really, really important for my mental health. So dance for me is always very cathartic and grounding. There’s not one feeling that I get when I dance—it’s every feeling.

Q: How does your identity as a queer woman play into your life as a dancer?

A: When I danced growing up, [there] were very strict gender roles that, as a queer woman, felt very dissonant to my identity. Ballroom is a very cis-heteronormative dance system. In order to compete it’s always a male-female couple, and a very hyperbolic version of masculinity and femininity. So for competitions I had to wear very dramatic makeup and it took almost two hours to get ready and just do hair and makeup. And Latin is very sexualized. I had to wear two to three-inch heels.

Q: Do you plan to continue dancing after college?

A: I come from a family of “not creatives.” And I think there is a bit of apprehension on their part of, “where will this lead me?” And I don’t really have a paradigm for where investing myself in dance can take me. I know that I am a dancer and I know that it’s a huge part of my life now. Coming to college is about finding yourself and all that, and I think dance and Bowdoin has been a really huge part of creating my own identity. But I don’t know for sure where it will take me. Hopefully I’ll always be dancing in some capacity in my life.


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