Each year, approximately 40 graduating seniors from liberal arts colleges throughout the United States receive this coveted grant. The Thomas J. Watson Fellowship is given to students of “unusual promise” who wish to travel the world for 12 months of independent international travel, shaped and driven by the passions of the individual fellow.
Dani sat down with us to share their plans for the next year. Along the way, we talked about dance, life as a transfer student, hip hop, and embracing the heritage of the African diaspora.
Congratulations on the Watson Fellowship. Have you traveled before?
I've traveled, but not extensively, and I definitely haven't traveled alone, so that's going to be a trial. But I’m excited. Especially with the kind of project I'm doing, it's about dance, so outside of just exploring the theoretical and cultural questions I have for my Watson, it's about gaining self-knowledge and a deeper connection to myself and my body.
And you're looking at dance in the African diaspora, right? Are you a dance major?
I'm not a dance major. I actually transferred from George Washington University before my junior year, and there I was an Africana Studies major. After I matriculated here, Africana studies wasn’t a major, so instead I did the next best thing for me, which was Anthropology; I'd still have the flexibility to study what I was interested in, but it expanded the perspectives I had and the approaches I took.
It's interesting to have the history of all of these different cultures, but it can be a completely different thing to see how things have changed, and how different cultures have diverged and interacted with each other, through art and specifically through dance.
So you’re studying dance in the Netherlands, Chile, New Zealand, and Ghana. Could you explain why you're going to each of those countries, and what you're planning on doing there?
Yeah! I think typically the Netherlands tend to have a "color-blind" approach; they have a lot of issues in regard to immigration, as most Western countries do right now, but hip hop dance styles are extremely successful in the Netherlands.
I didn't know that!
Yeah! A lot of people don't know that, but it's very successful, and a lot of choreographers are working out of the Netherlands. One of the major dance festivals, for hip hop dance specifically, happens in the Netherlands over the summer. I'll be working with the director of that festival. I’m focusing on how something like hip hop dance, that's so embedded in oppressed and immigrant communities, can be used to claim a space for those communities in the Netherlands, which tends to be “color-blind.” Why would something like this be so successful in a place that doesn't tend to honor these different cultures?
And in Chile, I'm looking at how millennial dancers are using African styles of dance to reclaim their African history. From my research, it seems like Chilean heritage is commonly attributed to Spanish and indigenous, but not African, cultures. But the national dance, cueca, clearly has elements of African dance styles, so I'm going to be working with an Afro-Latino dance collective that focuses specifically on their African heritage. How are they reclaiming this? How are they complicating the ways in which African history has interacted with Indigenous and colonial cultures?
In New Zealand, I'm looking at Indigenous cultures. I was inspired by a dancer named Parris Goebel, who’s one of the biggest choreographers for hip hop dance in the world. She's Samoan, and she has a dance studio in New Zealand. I’m working with these dance studios, and cultural centers in the area that focus on incorporating traditional Indigenous dance styles with hip hop. How are these groups using a style that originated in the South Bronx in New York? How has that been translated to these different spaces, and how are other marginalized groups using it?
And in Ghana, I'll be focusing on just traditions, so I'm going to be working with the national theater, in Accra, volunteering there. I’m focusing on how these communities continue to teach traditional Ghanaian drumming and dancing even though there's been so much corporate convergence and so much change. Why is it still a necessity to teach the younger generation these traditional dance styles?
So that's my last place, and I get to see how pieces of these dance styles and traditions have travelled, literally, through the diaspora, from Ghana to the Netherlands.
Did Bryn Mawr influence your decision to do the Watson, or any of your research here?
Actually, my mentor in high school got the Watson, so from back then I knew I wanted to do it.
It's your destiny!
Yeah! So it's been a long time coming. I didn't always know exactly what I wanted to study, but it's always been a dream. And I think that Bryn Mawr provided a space where I could have a deeper connection to faculty and other students to help me figure out what my idea could be. But the Watson's always been there for me.
I also think it's great that the Watson focuses on developing people as human beings. Is there any personal growth you want to get out of your journey?
So, my family never could afford dance classes for me. And I remember several times as a child asking my mom, since I’ve always known that dance is what I want to do. I can only imagine from her perspective, as a parent, not being able to provide that.
But I've always found ways, growing up, to find myself in dance spaces, and giving myself those opportunities when I could. So I think one of my fears is going into one of these dance spaces, feeling inadequate, because I don't have the traditional training. But I'm on Rhythm N Motion, which is the Tri-Co dance team, and it has given me so much confidence in regards to my ability.
And so that's definitely something I will need to grow, and understand that I have these passions for a reason, and I'm worthy of having them, and I just need to do the hard work and push through.
There will be a Watson Fellowship Information Session on Saturday, April 8, from noon-1:15 p.m. in Thomas 224.