University of Delaware
Delaware dance students practice various dance techniques to turn their poetry into dance.

Literature, poetry, dance

High school students spend day at UD learning through collaboration


2:08 p.m., Oct. 5, 2012--High school and middle school dance students from around Delaware gathered in Hartshorn Hall at the University of Delaware on Saturday morning, Sept. 29, dressed in leotards. Despite the early hour, the students were bursting with energy and ready to participate in a literature, dance and poetry workshop based on the life of the antebellum writer Harriet E. Wilson.

The workshop was a collaborative effort between different scholars, artists and performers who had chosen Wilson’s autobiographical book, Our Nig: Sketches from the Life of a Free Black, as the subject of their collective work.

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The book is the story of an abused indentured servant in the antebellum North who endures hardships to later find surprising success as a hair care entrepreneur and religious speaker.

Lynnette Overby, director of the University’s Office of Undergraduate Research and Experiential Learning and a professor of theatre, worked with P. Gabrielle Foreman, Ned B. Allen Professor of English and professor of Black American Studies, to choreograph a performance piece based on Foreman’s research on Wilson’s life. 

Glenis Redmond, a performance poet from South Carolina, contributed original poetry to the performance piece; UD sophomore Kaya Simonson, who attended the workshop, danced in the piece; and UD music graduate Lauren Wells composed music. A video can be viewed here

Inspired by Wilson’s life, the professors decided to invite dance students from Cab Calloway School of the Arts in Wilmington, Dover High School, Glasgow High School and Brandywine High School to interpret Wilson’s work, discuss the importance of naming and develop poetry and dance based on Wilson’s work and their own names. The Delaware Humanities Forum helped sponsor the workshop. 

Mary Lynn Babcock from the University of North Texas and the Twin Poets, Al Mills and Nnamdi Chukwuocha, also facilitated the UD workshop on Saturday and offered additional perspectives. 

The workshop

The morning session of the workshop started with an icebreaker activity. Students were told to write all their names (real names, nicknames, pet names, names strangers call them) on nametags and stick them anywhere on themselves. 

“It is important to understand the social and political context of the power of naming,” said Foreman. 

Within 15 minutes students had nametags on their foreheads, mouths, legs and ears. The activity prompted students to start thinking critically about names.

“There is no right or wrong answer to these names. It’s all about your individual relationship to your names,” said Foreman while she grooved around to a playlist of name themed music. 

Foreman then led students in a discussion focusing on literary analysis and the importance of naming. The workshop gave students a preview of a college discussion class.

“I’m always hopeful that this will motivate students to think about college, to think about coming to UD,” said Foreman.

After a lunch break, students split into two groups to participate in poetry workshops with Glenis Redmond and the Twin Poets. 

Redmond read a few of her own poems and even shared her personal notebook with the students.

“You have to trust the process,” she said. “Writing is challenging because you have to go inside and outside.” 

Redmond wrote every students’ name on a whiteboard and asked them to brainstorm symbolic words.

“Flowers, forests, willow, crazy, strange, turquoise,” shouted the students. 

After the brainstorm, students were sent off to write poems about their own names. 

“Sharing my poems opens a door of conversation. I hope they can connect on some level. I want them to tell their story,” said Redmond. 

The students then got the chance to turn their poems into dance with the help of Overby and Babcock.

Students flew and twirled around the room, encouraged to “capture the essence” of the music.

Overby helped students turn their name poems into movements with a little bit of visualization. 

“Think about the people who are part of your story, where it takes place, sounds of your story, the tastes, all parts of your story,” Overby instructed students while they laid down and closed their eyes. 

The students continued to translate their poems into dance with the help of a variety of Babcock’s dance techniques. 

Finally, the students put the polishing touches on their performance pieces and shared with their peers, professors, teachers and helpers.

The art of collaboration

The workshop was designed to help further students’ understanding of Our Nig and the power of naming through a variety of disciplines.

“We want to translate the naming into poetry and dance, so they can communicate through various tools to get a deeper understanding,” said Overby. 

Redmond believes that the concept of naming helped students understand the book on a deeper level.

“Naming is important because we often don’t articulate what’s happening to us,” she said. “When we name it, we can see it.”

The workshop was designed so that students can continue exploring the concepts they learned throughout the school year. 

Joan Warburton-Phibbs, a dance teacher from Cab Calloway, said she was excited to see her students try new things at the workshop.

“Dance has become very routine, very competitive, the sense of artistry is being lost,” she said. “The workshop has taught them about starting art from inside yourself.” 

Article by Kelley Bregenzer

Photos by Doug Baker

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