Dr. Jen Atkins is an Associate Professor in the School of Dance. She teaches courses in dance studies—especially related to dance in the Americas and dance in popular culture.
1. Please tell us about yourself.
I am an associate professor in the School of Dance where I teach courses in history, theory, and research. I also love to teach tap, when I can. My MA is in American Dance Studies, and my PhD is in History (concentrating on Women’s History), so I come from an eclectic past that shapes how I teach and what I research.
2. Tell us about your research interests and why you are passionate about this topic.
I focus mainly on the relationship between American social dance practices and intersectionality, especially in my hometown of New Orleans where there is a long and rich history of cultural dance traditions. Dance is amazing. Whether watching something on stage or hanging out with your friends at the club, every time we dance our bodies are “performing” information about ourselves, our society, and our worldviews. This is what makes dance studies so exciting and my research constantly asks the question: How do we learn more about ourselves and our history through dance?
3. What do you want the public to know about your research? Why is your topic important?
Dance is so much more than ballet or jazz dance, though those are spectacular dance forms. Dance is all around us, every day. The way people walk across Landis Green constitutes a choreographed practice. The way that our basketball teams maneuver the court can be viewed as ritualized dance. Body language in movies, television, and commercials constitutes its own choreography. When considering dance from this open framework, we can see that the meaning of movement is central to understanding ourselves and our place in the world. What we do with our bodies and how we move reveals much about identity, is a response to the world around us (even to specific events), and has the power to anticipate and even develop new ideas. Dance interconnects with every aspect of experience; it is shaped by—and shapes—society, culture, and even politics. The list goes on!
4. Who has influenced you the most in life? I am continually influenced by my students—all of them. I love teaching and in the classroom I learn new ways of seeing the world from the connections that students make to the material. I am blown away all the time.
5. What is your favorite part of your job?
Obviously, teaching is my favorite part, but within that I especially enjoy brainstorming research projects with students. There is something special and rich about that one-on-one time where we are energized and riffing off of each other. I love that moment, when we’re done sparking new ideas, and we look at my messy whiteboard—which is always FULL of writing by this point—and I think: “This is going to be a great project!”
6. What IFS Series course do you teach and what is it about?
I teach ISF2038: “From Ballet to Beyoncé: Gender and the Body in Dance & Pop Culture.” At the surface, “From Ballet to Beyoncé” is about examining movement in pop culture and investigating issues of gender and sexuality, but the underlying goal is for students to become more aware of the ways that gender and sexuality are stereotyped and packaged on a daily basis. The course encourages students to use dance and movement as a framework for examining their own ideas about identity and ultimately to become actively engaged in making decisions about the way they think critically and converse about gender, popular culture, and of course, the impact of dance on identity. We look at all kinds of examples in these pursuits—and students bring in their own to share with the class—but music videos figure prominently throughout the semester.
7. How do you like to spend your free time?
I love reading novels and diving into pop culture, especially watching tv and movies. Dystopic sci-fi and wuxia pian martial arts films are my favorites!
8. What did we naively not ask you that we should’ve, and your answer to it?
Something I encounter a lot is that students are hesitant to take dance studies classes. I think dance can seem “off limits,” as if there’s a right and a wrong way to understand what’s going on. For me, dance is one of the most accessible disciplines. Again, movement forms are around us everyday and most of us don’t realize it. A lot of us have some movement or dance practice that we connect to, from family gatherings, to sports teams, to formal training. Dance studies classes are exciting ways to delve into history, persistent cultural questions, and to think more deeply about ourselves, the examples just happen to be dance and movement. You don’t have to know how to dance or know dance vocabulary to take dance studies classes; the only prerequisite is curiosity.