You’ve heard of the expression “the right place at the right time”...right? Well, in Dr. Kate Spanos’ case, it was a matter of being the right person for the right project. Kate’s story is a little unique. She always knew she wanted to get a PhD (like both her parents) but it took some time to find her field. She completed her undergraduate degree in cognitive science and computer science at the University of Virginia, but wasn’t convinced that they were fields she wanted to pursue in graduate school. She got a job in e-commerce marketing and web development, but kept contemplating a Master’s program in traditional Irish dance performance at the University of Limerick that had been in the back of her mind for years. As a lifelong Irish dancer, Kate decided that she had to apply to the program or she would later regret it. She was accepted and went to Limerick with the plan to complete the Master’s then go back to web development.
In Limerick, Kate was exposed to new styles of Irish dance and to the historical and cultural context of Irish dance traditions. The experience was eye-opening. She realized that being an Irish-American Irish dancer gave her a different perspective and understanding of the tradition than the Irish dancers from Ireland. The program opened her mind to broader questions about how people from various communities embody culture and to how important dance is to questions of cultural identity. She realized that dance could be more than just a physical practice—it could also be a scholarly endeavour.
When Kate came back to the United States, she decided to pursue a PhD in dance and performance studies at the University of Maryland. Initially, she focused on the history and development of Irish dance in the United States as well as tap dancing, which developed from cross-cultural exchange between Irish and African Americans. However, during her research she repeatedly came across a footnote about the Caribbean island of Montserrat. This small island with a population of 5,000 is slowly recovering from a volcanic eruption over twenty year ago, and has a distinct Irish heritage that is part of its cultural narrative. Montserrat’s traditional masquerade dance is said to derive from Irish dance steps described as the mimicking of eighteenth-century Irish slave masters on the island. Previous researchers on the Irish influences on Montserratian culture glossed over the details of the dance, noting that only someone familiar with Irish dance could make such comparisons. When Kate read that she thought, “This project was made for me!” She switched her dissertation topic and set off on a six-month fieldwork trip to Montserrat.
What Kate brought to the project was the ability and willingness to actually dance. “It’s a huge part of my methodology,” she explains. “I’m not afraid to get up and just dance with people. I always look ridiculous learning a new style, but that experience of actually ‘trying on’ a new movement style is really exhilarating and also terrifying to me, all at the same time.” As a dancer trained in both Irish and African-derived styles, Kate was able to feel if certain masquerade dance movements felt familiar or awkward, and then back up that feeling with historical research. During her time in Montserrat, Kate researched the narratives that the community used to represent itself through stories and performance. Her dissertation explored how the island reconfigures its post-volcano cultural memory and “Montserratian” identity through annual festivals as well as the role of the masquerade tradition as a dance of resistance and resilience.
Kate is now gearing up for a new dance ethnography project. She was awarded a postdoctoral Fulbright U.S. Scholar grant to study dance in Recife, Brazil in 2018. Kate first became interested in Brazilian dance when she took up the Brazilian martial art/dance capoeira during her Master’s in Ireland. Frevo, a carnival dance specific to the Brazilian state of Pernambuco and its capital Recife, is historically related to capoeira. Like capoeira, frevo is also described as a dance of resistance, but it operates from a very different aesthetic and philosophy. Not many researchers have conducted ethnographic studies on frevo dance, although much has been written about the accompanying music. In Recife, Kate will be focusing on two themes: the importance of the frevo tradition to Pernambucan cultural identity and its role in the urban community of Recife as a dance of resistance.
“I find this kind of work very intimidating,” Kate admits. “I find myself in a cycle of going on these big research trips that take me out of a comfortable office job, and then coming back to gear up for the next adventure.” It’s scary to go to an unknown country and immerse yourself in an unknown culture, but Kate realizes afterwards that there’s so much to be gained from doing it. “Just as I value my cultural traditions, I want to learn from other people who are working to ensure that their own traditions stay vital and alive. I want my research to contribute to wider recognition of the value of these cultural traditions and the importance of embodied research for greater cultural understanding.