Anthropology, Theater and Dance collaboration featured in Anthropology News

A collaboration that began with mutual interests between professors in the anthropology and theater and dance departments is the subject of a recent article an SIUE professor published in an anthropology newspaper.

Anthropology professor Aminata Cairo’s article, “Anthropology and Theater Very Likely Bedfellows,” was published in Anthropology News, the newspaper of the American Anthropological Association (AAA).

“Since I started [working at SIUE in 2009] I’ve been collaborating with Professor Kathryn Bentley from the department of theater, and it started out as a workshop…,” Cairo said. “And then out of that came an IS course that we taught and what became clear is that we can use each other’s techniques to enhance both our fields.”

The collaboration began out of friendship and personal interests, said Cairo, who also has a background in dance.

“We felt we could do a workshop on theater and dance and I would do the dance part and she would do the theater part and focus on the African Diaspora,” Cairo said, “And there’s this legacy of Katherine Dunham that combines performing arts with anthropology and she was right here and did her work in East St. Louis, so that inspiration, it’s ever present.”

Bentley said the departments working together “seems like a natural fit.”

“We both are dealing with people’s stories, delving into people’s stories,” Bentley said. “Theater brings stories to life… We just thought it was a perfect fit.”

Bentley said her students “really get a chance to delve into research” because of the collaboration.

“[It’s] going to serve them well in whatever they decide to do,” Bentley said. “I really feel like it rounds them out as scholars who are also artists.”

Bentley also said she wants her students “to be as curious about the research aspects of what they do as they are about the performing aspects.”

“[This collaboration] sparks something in my students that they didn’t know existed in them…,” Bentley said.

Similarly, Cairo said she wants her students to learn about anthropological skills, but “using the theater techniques will help them navigate what it’s like to function in a different culture.”

“I think the theater skills help with the people skills,” Cairo said. “Of course, I train them, but our training is still very intellectual and so theater gives us some extra things to pay attention to — your body, how you interact – and that only makes them better so that after they graduate they have more skills in their repertoire when they go out, which will hopefully be an advantage over other people.”

As Bentley and Cairo develop an education model out of their work, Cairo said she hopes to present a workshop at the next annual AAA conference.

Cairo is also the recipient of the Martin Luther King Jr. Award. She said she likes to use her “academic skills to enhance communities.” Cairo has worked with African-American drumming groups and “how they use their programs to help kids go to college and avoid violence.” She is also involved with a community health clinic in St. Louis that works with uninsured and underinsured populations.

“Those are the kinds of things that I want to do with my personal work, but also what I want to train my students so that their work can make a contribution to communities,” Cairo said. “That’s really what I’m about…”

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