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A New Movement: Emma Dewey ’22 choreographs the first honors dance thesis

January 27, 2022

Emma Dewey ’22, the first Bowdoin student to perform an honors dance thesis, previewed her piece, “Crazy American,” on the last day before winter break.

Inspired by her Chinese lineage, biracial identity and the migration history of her mother’s family, Dewey crafted a personal piece that combines her focus on anthropology with her studies in dance.

“What the piece is trying to do is take my migration history and figure out what my relationship is to that story, given where I am in history and where I am in the larger systems of U.S. imperialism and racism that shape the story,” Dewey said.

Dewey first began exploring the themes that inspired her thesis during the summer following her sophomore year. She interviewed her immediate family and investigated their relationship to race and, more specifically, to whiteness.

The first semester of her junior year, in her Advanced Afro Modern Dance course, Dewey was challenged to associate a body part with her own lineage. When she began to think about her physical traits and which family members she looked most like, she returned to her summer project. Dewey again questioned her relationship with race. The project soon grew into a 15-minute dance film.

“That project was very emotional to really deeply execute, to think about your relationship to race,” Dewey said. “There’s a lot of emotions that come with being the product of an oppressor-oppressed relationship.”

The internal struggle she felt when developing this piece made her decide to continue to grapple with similar themes in her honors thesis. Working with a committee consisting of Assistant Professor of Dance Adanna Kai Jones, Assistant Professor of Dance Aretha Aoki and Assistant Professor of Anthropology Steph McIsaac, Dewey began developing and choreographing her current thesis piece.

Similar to other types of thesis work, Dewey’s dance thesis also required research and deskwork, including extensive reading lists and writing prompts, which she completed in a summer fellowship before her senior year. In addition, she conducted dance-specific research.

“And then there’s embodied research,” Dewey said. “Which is me moving through these questions and thinking about how I can process these things in my body … what I find so fulfilling about dance is that there’s a lot [that] language just can’t capture.”

All of this work culminated in her 35-minute preview performance this winter. Though only a work-in-progress, Dewey was satisfied with the result of her preview and enjoyed sharing her piece with a trusted audience. She will continue to work on refining some of her movements and finalizing stage designs, and her final performance will take place on April 1.

Dewey stresses that although she will be the first to perform an honors dance thesis, Lucia Gagliardone ’20 also choreographed an evening-length performance piece her senior year. While Gagliardone’s performance was similar to Dewey’s in format, the honors project was not yet defined.

“I just wanted to uplift that and say that I wouldn’t be a dance major if not for Lucia,” Dewey said. “She’s just been a really inspiring friend, mentor and creator in my life.”

With the success of Dewey’s dance thesis so far, her thesis advisor is excited to see more dance projects that ask tough questions and promote critical thought.

“[Emma’s piece] is deeply emotional,” Jones said. “She takes on some heavy topics like xenophobia and US colonialism in intimate ways. It takes a brave soul to take that on, and to do it well.”


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