People say the combination of physics Ph.D. student and ballroom is an odd one. They say that it’s unusual to find the artist and the scientist in one body. But Robbie Fraleigh manages it without any conflict. He says that he doesn’t know how to do grad school without the dancing.
Graduate school was the first time Robbie studied ballroom dance at a high competitive level. He and his dance partner even placed in the national collegiate championship. And his advisor loved it, regularly signing off for him to TA the university ballroom courses. The advisor would then announce to other students and professors and visiting lecturers that one of his students was a dancer and how interesting was that? It simply was not common for a graduate student to so publicly invest in another hobby. The oddity was engaging rather than a worry for the department especially when the other work got done.
It’s easy for us to imagine graduate life through one lens, as just one practice: that we are our work and this is all. But we are not one dimensional beings. Our lives are comprised of both our bodies and our minds. A practice like dance touches on both of these important parts of being a self. And we might even have an advisor wise enough to encourage it. (See The Samurai Number).
One thing that we know about grad life is how discouraging it can be. Something Robbie has found is that having a movement based hobby helps alleviate that. “You have to have times off to keep moving forward. You need things to keep you from being depressed in the ups and downs of research.”
But also, dance has impacted Robbie’s work as a scientist and improved this thinking. “As a scientist, the process of learning to dance involves the exploration and methods of the research. But it is quicker. It hones the process for you while you’re having a restful, fun time.”
My personal relationship with dance began as my undergrad life ended. My parents were divorcing and my own dating relationship had ended with complicated and worn out emotions on both sides. Ballroom was my haven. It renewed how I experienced my body and sense of identity, especially a feminine identity. Dance also changed how I related to my writing through the complexities of following and striving for musicality. The complexity of dance’s creative work means we cannot progress at steady rates but lurch along in starts and stops. The point becomes discovery rather than linear progress. I can value discovery and who I am becoming as a person, not simply winning intellectual points in the work that I do.
And perhaps most importantly, dance has been a place to build a community.
Robbie and I are dance instructors together. In the last year, we’ve created a community around a particular style called West Coast Swing. In our west coast group, we have all kinds of folks, all ages and work and interests, but there is a notable presence of graduate students in our midst. They are from all backgrounds: ecology, mechanical engineering, artists, educators and more. All are coming for a break in their lives that becomes something more profound. One entrepreneur said that learning to dance had help her heal after while grieving the death of her grandmother. Another quiet engineer said that being around dance had helped him come out of his shell and to be a more relationship person with those closest to him (See a video here of Jerome and Bonnie mentioned in The Samurai’s Number. This was taken on my porch at a monthly dinner).
I’m a dancer. I love dance. I think there is something Divine in the combination of movement and music. But God’s care for our mangled and weary graduate selves doesn’t have to come through dance.
It comes, instead, through the movement and working of the bodies we are called to live in and with and through. Our bodies are the great responsibility—and joy and sorrow—of our messy faithfulness.