Dance Provides Ph.D. in Literature Student Space to Grow as an Artist and Scholar

Dance Provides Ph.D. in Literature Student Space to Grow as an Artist and Scholar
Beller-Tadiar in “study for a copy (code surfing)” at November Dances 2022. Photo: Alec Himwich

As the annual spring dance between fauna and flora plays out across campus each spring, the Dance Program prepares for a concert of its own: ChoreoLab. The annual performance showcases original works from both Dance faculty and Duke students.

“This annual concert series provides an excellent opportunity to present and experiment with new choreography while introducing students to the behind-the-scenes mechanics of a concert performance,” explains Professor Michael Kliën. “We’re always excited to see the growth of a student’s work, from idea to full fruition, on the stage.”

This year, included among those students is Luna Beller-Tadiar, a Ph.D. student in Literature. Since arriving to campus in 2021, Beller-Tadiar is no stranger to the Dance Program. She has created choreography and performed in three Dance concerts — all in less than two years. 

Her piece “study for a copy (code surfing)” not only debuted in the annual fall concert November Dances but was also juried into the 92NY Future Dance Festival ’23. And earlier this semester, she had the opportunity to team teach an introduction workshop: Queer Tango. This practice-based class was a welcoming space for all students to learn the partner dance without gender roles typical to tango.  

“But practice is sneakily theoretical, so students hopefully came out of it with a lot more than just dance steps,” Beller-Tadiar says.  

 We sat down with Beller-Tadiar to learn more about her time in Dance, her choreographic process and what Dance has brought to her research. 

How did you make your way to the Duke Dance Program?

I arrived at Duke hungry for both dance practice and dance theory, so I took a seminar with Sarah Wilbur and auditioned for, and joined, Iyun Harrison’s performance class.

Through them, I learned that Andrea E. Woods-Valdés was organizing a Fall Student Showcase, so I sent my audition video. She responded with such warmth and enthusiasm. I went to work on my first solo and have made and presented work every semester since. I’m particularly grateful to Woods-Valdés for welcoming me into the Dance Program.

You’re working toward your Ph.D., so time is precious. Why has it been important for you to intentionally make room for dance and choreography in your schedule? 

Time is precious, and honestly, I’m frequently overwhelmed! But I consider my dance work, and my artwork in general, to be as important as my academic work. I don’t consider them to be separate.

My Ph.D. research has to do with moving bodies as central sites of culture and power and with questioning western regimes of rational knowledge that have long dismissed the importance of the body. Keeping up a dance practice as part of my academic practice is part of that questioning.

Do you believe that your work in dance has benefitted your Ph.D. research?

Absolutely. Part of the reason I wanted to pursue a Ph.D. was because of my previous work with queer Argentine tango. As an undergrad, I was interested in linguistic anthropological theory, as well as in queer theory, and I was lucky enough to get a postgraduate grant to travel to Buenos Aires and research queer tango.

In tango, I found such a rich space for thinking about the way subjects get formed in and as moving bodily relations. Tango practice as tango research, and the queer and feminist tango community in particular, affirmed and enriched my sense that ways of moving are ways of thinking and ways of being.

I began to wonder: What would it mean to seriously explore moving bodies as a fundamental ground for thought? How would that question transform both dominant understandings of knowledge and our sense of the consequences of bodily practices? These are the questions that brought me to graduate school, and I couldn’t have asked them without dancing — and especially dancing with others.

Beller-Tadiar doing a high kick
In the Dance Program, Beller-Tadiar has had carte blanche to make the work she wants and has grown an artist and scholar as a result. Photo: Nicole Roberts

How has your choreographic work developed during your time in Dance?

Since arriving at Duke, I’ve been working with one of the central ideas of my Ph.D. research: thinking about the body as a kind of “platform” for different physical-cultural codes. I’m exploring the literal circulation of gesture via, for example, the Internet, but I’ve also thought about gender and subject-forms more generally as the embodiment of circulating codes or programs.

For example, as a queer artist, I’m interested in the ways queer communities remix and repurpose the gendered codes available to us, often quite fabulously. Right now, I’m particularly interested in exploring gendered combinations of muscularity, sensuality and intensity (and here, I’d give a hat tip to both an Eleo Pomare solo performed at the Collegium for African Diasporic Dance at Duke last year and the Filipina performance artist Eisa Jocson, whose work I’ve long admired).

But I also wonder about the conditions of movement forms traveling across contexts and bodies. The white cultural appropriation of Black art forms is an important example of the dangers of the latter. And, in our transnational world, appropriation is only one part of the picture.

Personally, part of how I came to this idea of “body-as-platform” in the first place is because growing up half-Filipino and living between various places has meant a lot of adaptation. I’ve always been fascinated by the way learning a new language or a new physical practice involves this work of bodily transformation that is much more profound than just an “add-on” to a stable self.

I also have a kind of life-long identity crisis about all this, which was isolating and boring until I realized that Filipinos in general have a similar crisis, or at least condition.  

Your work “study for a copy (code surfing)” has been well received at Duke and beyond. Could you speak about your thought process when creating the piece?

For “study for a copy (code surfing),” I wanted to think more specifically with this condition of Filipinos: our reputation of being good mimics. Of course, this is a legacy of colonialism and continues to be an avenue of exploitation.

Filipina feminist scholars have investigated the ways global economies rely on Filipinos’ fluency in “other peoples” forms, allowing them to be the disappeared labor behind culturally competent English language call centers and content moderation services, to be exported as nurses, maids and care workers to the homes of others or to be the jazz musicians providing “a taste of home” for U.S. military personnel stationed in the Philippines during World War II.

And in the United States, Filipinos have a long and confusing history of a semi-merging with disparate racial and cultural groups. I wanted to think about all these conditions, which are quite different from my own and yet are intimately connected to my life and my experience. Weirdly, part of my “authentic” cultural heritage seems to be precisely “inauthenticity” — which is to say, a mimetic ability.

I’m interested in recuperating malleability and changeability from colonial disdain and thinking about mimicry as labor, often exploited labor, but also as a kind of method for navigating and knowing the world. This piece was about mimicry as a kind of ambivalent and transformative labor, which, for a body like mine, can slide ambiguously between survival and appropriation. 

Obviously, there is a lot to be done with all of this. In my upcoming work, [address], I hope to keep investigating this malleable, mimetic body, especially as it relates to colonialism, technology and gender.

What do you hope audiences discover or gain from your work?

I’m working through a lot of conceptual ideas in my choreography, as well as drawing from various strands of research. I’d love to make people reconsider what it means to move and how to make meaning from movement — but it’s important to me that the dance works at a visceral level. I hope audiences feel something, and perhaps that feeling can provoke new thoughts. I’m with Audre Lorde on this one: Feeling is already a kind of thinking.

What does the Dance Program bring to you as an artist?

The Dance Program has really been my other departmental home since arriving to Duke. Dance faculty have invited me to participate in their works, provided encouragement as I create new pieces and helped me with professional development opportunities.

And it’s also been an immense gift to have studio and performance space here at Duke — which has allowed me to make and to perform three pieces in less than two years. I’ve really had carte blanche to make the work I want to make, and I’ve grown so much as both an artist and a scholar as a result. For that, I am very grateful!