Laying Good Fortune at Dancing Feet: Whitman Senior Gets Fellowship to Study Women & Dance in Africa, Asia & Indonesia

WALLA WALLA, Wash. -- Good fortune has fallen at the dancing feet of Erin Beery.

A Whitman College sociology major who loves the art of expressive dance, Beery will spend the next year traveling through Ghana, Senegal, Malaysia, Thailand and Bali to study the ways in which dance reflects the role and growth of women in society.

Beery, a Seattle, Wash., resident, is one of 60 graduating seniors from around the country who have received Thomas J. Watson Foundation post-graduate fellowships for the 2000-2001 academic year.

More than 1,000 seniors from 50 of the nation's top liberal arts colleges and universities applied for the latest round of Watson fellowships. Those selected for funding receive $22,000 to finance their year-long independent study project.

Beery, a 1996 graduate of Seattle's Franklin High School, is the 11th Whitman student to receive a Watson fellowship over the past five years (click here for information about past winners). She is the daughter of Madeline and William Beery, who live in the Queen Anne Hill neighborhood of Seattle.

The Watson Foundation fellowship program, based in Providence, R.I., was founded in 1968 to honor the founder of IBM. Designed to reward "seriously creative" people, the program encourages applicants to devise projects in which they can explore specific interests and concerns, test their aspirations and abilities, view their lives and American society in greater perspective, and develop a more informed sense of international concerns.

For her Watson project theme, Beery chose dance as it "shapes and reflects individuals" in five cultures. That theme combines her love of dance, she said, with her academic interests in "traditions that weave together individuals, groups and cross-cultural communities." Her specific goals are to "witness, experience and examine the particular place of dance in the lives of women, how dance reflects their relationships and passages, and the ways in which it augments their lives and development."

While pursuing her sociology degree at Whitman, Beery has taken several dance classes and been an active dancer, performer and choreographer with the Whitman Dance Theatre. This past year, she and a friend also have taught a free, weekly class on African dance. Beery based her class contribution on material she gathered while studying in Zimbabwe during the fall of 1998. She divided her time between the study of women in African dance and the study of AIDS prevention programs in Zimbabwe's healthcare system.

Her two study projects in Zimbabwe were not as unrelated as they might first seem. "Dance is very much a part of mourning ceremonies in Africa, and I attended quite a few funerals of people who had died of AIDS," she notes.

Beery, who considers a master's degree in public health as one of her future options, worked last summer as prevention educator in the Street Outreach Services (SOS) drop-in center in downtown Seattle. The center serves upwards of 300 people per day, many of them homeless substance abusers with associated physical or mental problems. She assisted with health care referrals and helped with the staffing of needle exchange sites. While attending Whitman, Beery also has volunteered in a needle exchange program in Walla Walla.

Beery, who began taking jazz dance lessons at age 10 at Roseanne's School of Dance in Seattle's Magnolia neighborhood, will graduate from Whitman in late May and begin her Watson journeys in mid-August. She will split her first six months between the West African nations of Ghana and Senegal before finishing the year in Malaysia, Thailand and Bali.

"I am drawn to the areas of West Africa, Southeast Asia and Indonesia because of the seriousness with which traditional and non-traditional dance is taken," Beery says. "My interest in those regions in particular is intensified by the roles that many dances play in the lives of women, and in their journey from childhood, through adolescence and into adulthood. I see these dances as wide open doors through which I will find entrance into the dances of life and the true ways in which these dances apply to everyday events, rituals and movements."

The first stop on Beery's Watson itinerary will be the Department of Drama and Dance at the University of Ghana. After making connections with students and faculty, as well as with women's groups and dance companies, schools and instructors, she plans to visit rural villages to learn the formal steps and informal meanings of various dances. Two dances of particular interest are the Takada, an all-women's dance, and the Fofui, a religious dance of healing performed by girls as young as 12.

While in Senegal, Beery will explore the dance traditions of the Mandinko and Woloff peoples, which are represented in the National Ballet of Senegal, as well as the more rural, non-commercial dance practices of the Diola people. Her goal is to "explore the ways traditional Senegalese dance plays a role in the birthing process, in the ceremonies of entrance into adolescence and adulthood, and in the dying and grieving process."

Beery's next and most personal stop will be Malaysia, where she was born in 1978 near the end of her father's two-year term as associate director of the Peace Corps in charge of health, medical care and higher education for Malaysia and Thailand. Her mother at that time was working as a trainer at the UNESCO-funded Asia/Pacific Institute for Broadcast Development. Her father first served in the Peace Corps in the mid-1960s as a volunteer in Senegal, where he helped with a rural development program focused on water supply, sanitation and school-building projects.

With a population comprised of Malays, Chinese and Indians, Malaysia draws on several sources for a fertile dance culture that includes a unique intersection with the Muslim, Buddhist and Hindu religions. Beery plans to spend two months in the home of family friends of Indian and Malay heritage. "They have a daughter experienced in traditional Malay dance who is willing to help me with initial connections," she says. "The contrast of the Indian- Malay backgrounds within the family will offer a rich starting point for my exploration."

Beery also hopes to visit the Indonesian island of Bali, well known as a land of a thousand gods, a thousand temples and a thousand dances. Dynamic and agile, Balinese dance is exciting theater filled with intricate coordination of eye, finger, neck and shoulder movements performed according to strict tradition with no allowance for improvisation.

Beery has yet to decide which career path she will take after completing her year- long Watson project. One immediate possibility is teaching dance at one of the public high schools designated an "arts magnate" school, which was the case with Seattle's Franklin High School during her time there. "This $22,000 fellowship seems like a lot of money," Beery says. "Teaching dance at one of the public schools might be a good way to repay that investment."

Public health, the other major career possibility Beery mulls about, is rooted at least in part in the examples set by her parents.

Her father is a vice president at Seattle's Group Health Community Foundation. The foundation is focused on improving public health in the Northwest through grant-making, community service, and research/evaluation. He also is an affiliate professor at the University of Washington's School of Public Health.

Her mother is executive director of Bellevue's Slingerland Institute of Literacy, a national organization that provides training for teachers of dyslexic children. Erin has worked part-time this past year as a therapist for a young boy with autism.

For a daughter who might want to follow in their footsteps, there are educational opportunities beyond the traditional master's degree in public health. Beery also looks with interest at Naropa University in Boulder, Colo., and its Somatic Psychology Department, which offers master's degree programs in dance/movement therapy and body psychotherapy. Approved by the American Dance Therapy Association since 1987, the programs train students in the clinical practice of movement-oriented, body-centered psychotherapy.

Graduates are eligible to take the state of Colorado's Licensed Professional Counselor exam.

Regardless of what her future holds, and whether dance will play a formal or informal role in her professional life, Beery is ready to take a closer look at the energy, vitality and refreshment that dance can bring to everyday life. "I am now ready," she says, "to begin my study of the dance of life."