Emily Coates: dance scholar, arts advocate, physics professor

hsin_emilycoates

Celebrity classes make their mark each shopping period, attracting hundreds of Yalies into cramped classrooms. This year, one course in particular has firmly established itself as the coolest kid on the playground (eat your heart out, Marvin Chun). Eager students (over 100) assaulted the first session en masse despite the 18-student cap.

Is this a course that’s guaranteed to produce the next Yalie-turned-President? Is it being taught by some amalgam of Tony Blair, Harold Bloom and John Gaddis?

Not quite. The class has a different kind of appeal.

It’s called Physics of Dance. And while Physics professor Sarah Demers is officially co-teaching the course, much of the buzz has to do with Emily Coates, a thirty-something former dancer who enrolled at Yale in 2005 after performing with the New York City Ballet and legendary dancers like Twyla Tharp and Mikhail Baryshnikov.

Coates has been involved with the effort to tie together academic research and dance at Yale for the past 5 years, serving as the Artistic Director of the World Performance Project. But this is the first time her work has been brought to the undergrad stage in such a big way.

Braving the labyrinthine horrors of the Trumbull basement, WEEKEND visited Coates in her office to talk about the buzz surrounding her course, how research enriches her career, and what she brings to Yale.

Q. So, how does this much-discussed class of yours actually work?

A. It’s a format that’s deeply integrated — I lead movement exercises that will inform the physics being taught by my colleague, Professor Demers. It’s going to be held in the dance studio at 294 Elm.

Q. You were a professional, so you must know studios very well. Do you feel that 294 Elm and other studios on campus can handle classes like this and a potential spurt in interest in dance?

A. Yes. Yale now has a number of well-equipped studios, many of them in various residential colleges. 294 Elm is the one we use for academic courses, and that’s great — it has a specially designed floor. Facilities at Yale have come a long way since I started teaching five years ago.

Q. Happy to hear it. But you must have started at a bit of an inopportune time. Doesn’t that mean you were still trying to expand the dance program just as the economy started to sink?

A. Well, that’s very true. We initially started the World Performance Project when Joe Roach of the theater department received a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation in 2005 and hired me after I worked with him during my senior year here. The grant expired mid-2008. So we prepared a proposal to ask the University to fund the continuation of our work.

We literally submitted the proposal on the day headlines this big [Coates gestured with her hands; since she probably understands space much better than WEEKEND does, we’re going to take her word for it.] said the world economy was crashing.

Luckily, the University saw the need and desire, among students and faculty, for dance to become a big part of Yale life, even in the classroom.

Q. That’s terrific. But do you think perceptions of dance as non-serious have changed to the point that the “need and desire” you speak of are really that strong?

A. Yale is one of the last universities in the country to have dance represented in its academic programs – many, many other schools have already done so, and seen amazing results. But there are certainly challenges. It’s a culture-changing project that I am involved in, and it’s as much about advocacy for dance as advocacy for the arts in general.

Q. There’s always a risk that QR credits for non-science majors develop a reputation as being “gut classes.” Have you thought about ways to ensure that this class and others linked to dance don’t just become for the QR-desperate seeking an easy option?

A. We’re reaching out to other departments and disciplines and showing people interested in them how they are linked to dance. For instance, with the course ‘Theories of Embodiment,’ I was excited to see students interested in taking the course as part of their research on movement and the body. As I said, it’s a culture-changing project.

Q. Reaching out like that might be difficult with people who think they’re absolutely hopeless dancers, though.

A. Well. [Coates is wearing the expression experts get when they’re trying not to be rude to amateurs. WEEKEND thinks we know what she’s going to say. We wonder if we’re right.]

I try to value different kinds of movement. There have been and still are those who see walking as a form of dance. So I think there is scope for anyone. [KNEW IT.]

Q. Do you know how Yalies dance at parties and at Toad’s? What do you think of phenomena like grinding?

A. I value them and try to bring those dance styles into my courses, so that they can be analyzed and contextualized. Also, I don’t actually know what ‘grinding’ is.

[WEEKEND demonstrates with pens. Coates looks in equal parts perturbed and amused — it’s like she’s seen a bizarre animal at a zoo.]

Hmm. I guess I’d respond to that by pointing out that I seek to expand knowledge about and exposure to, ahem, different dance styles on this campus.

Q. In that vein, what are your views on how dance is being popularized by shows like “So You Think You Can Dance”?

A. The dance world in general is fairly split on those shows. On the one hand, dance has historically been marginalized as a form of expression. It simply does not hold much heft in the capitalist economy we live in. So I appreciate the fact that it is being promoted in such a high-profile way,

However, what they promote is a certain view of what dance is. And I think that lacks the planning, conceptualization and vision of the great artists who work in dance, like Twyla Tharp and Merce Cunningham.

Q. Such shows definitely do help spread the view of dance as just trivial recreation. And that view is very much alive on campus as well — for instance, the Freshman Olympics feature a dance-off as a tournament.

A. I think that needs to be tempered by expanding Yalies’ knowledge of what dance is and what it can be. The way to do that in an academic context is to look at honing movement research, and see how the artistic practice of dance lends interesting new research paradigms to scientists and thinkers in all fields.

Q. So, you’re fighting to turn the tide and “change the culture.” But you’ve only been here 6 years. What was it like to transition from professional dance to an academic point of view?

A. I’m very fortunate to have worked with some of the most major figures in American dance history. That means that when I teach, my personal experience is a wonderful resource. It’s all about a recontextualization of the knowledge I gained during my full-time professional years – instead of spending countless hours in the studio, I’m now talking about dance and teaching. And it’s wildly awesome to take that knowledge and think about how I can use it to find common ground with a particle physicist.

Q. How do you balance your dance career with your teaching, though? Do you receive equal amounts of satisfaction from both?

A. It’s a very difficult challenge to be a good educator. When I’m in front of an audience, I’m responsible to myself and — if I’m not performing my own work — a choreographer. But as an educator, I’m responsible beyond the material. I need to see that my students grow into individuals. At the same time, I’m still performing. I’m working with Yvonne Rainer, also an important figure in the American dance world, and designing my own pieces through an intercultural collaboration with a West African artist from Burkina Faso. My position here at Yale thus informs my work — I’ve come to see choreography as research.

Comments

  • Jerry

    How was the source of the buzz surrounding this course measured, what was the sample size over which it was measured, and what were the related statistical uncertainties? If these questions appeal to you, then you may be among the many who are extremely excited to see the amazing Professor Demers co-teaching this course. No doubt Professor Coates brings a lot of excitement to the table, but let’s not give Professor Demers such short shrift. After all, if you took the “Physics” out of this class, you’d be left with “The of Dance”… not okay!