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UD philosophy professor awarded Fulbright for dance research in London

By Dave Larsen

University of Dayton associate professor of philosophy Aili Bresnahan received a Fulbright U.S. Scholar Program award for the 2020-21 academic year to research connections between dance and ethics at the Centre for Dance Research at Roehampton University in London.

She will examine whether the expert skills dancers use to communicate and navigate spatial boundaries between people could serve as a model for productive verbal discourse, particularly among people who hold opposing views.

The project stems in part from Bresnahan’s professional background as a ballet dancer, labor and unemployment lawyer, and philosopher who specializes in aesthetics, with a particular focus on the philosophy of dance, improvisation and performance. She has 10 years of professional-level dance training at the School of American Ballet, Ballet Academy East, and New York City’s High School of Performing Arts, and holds a law degree from the Georgetown University Law Center and a doctorate in philosophy from Temple University.

As a lawyer, Bresnahan has seen how difficult it can be for people who disagree to come to terms ethically on a business issue or personal dispute, especially when both parties want to continue an ongoing relationship.

“It is hard to know how to resolve conflicts in ways where you can preserve a relationship you care about,” Bresnahan said. “Dance has all these methods for doing this in ways that are not just navigating two bodies ethically — as when two different artists are dancing together — but in ways that can be beautiful or harmonious or that can create something that is really enriching for both people. I am interested in looking at the tools that dance has for movement integration to see whether they can be put into discourse, and then to see whether they might be useful in philosophy.”

Bresnahan plans to collaborate with Sara Houston, a principal lecturer at Roehampton whose research focus includes community dance with people with Parkinson’s disease. They began working together in summer 2017, when they prepared a no-paper presentation for the Performance Philosophy conference in Prague, along with Einav Katan-Schmid — an independent scholar from Tel Aviv who has developed a philosophy of the Gaga dance form created by Israeli dance innovator, Ohad Naharin.

The trio realized dancing their presentation wouldn’t communicate complex philosophical ideas. Instead, they focused on how their respective dance styles correlated with the categories of phenomenological embodied ethics, applied ethics and the ethics of care. This collaboration thus led them to think about how dancing together requires a willingness to engage in inter-ethical dance discourse before the dancing can even begin.

“I wanted to research that more,” Bresnahan said. “Even just recognizing the attitude and framework one brings to the discourse would go a long way toward figuring out how to take a step back and see where you’re coming from in order to frame new rules for the discourse that are more comfortable and productive for everyone.”

At Roehampton, Bresnahan will shadow Houston’s community dance practice. She also hopes to work with Katan-Schmid, now based in Berlin. In addition, she plans to interview dance scholars and participate in classes and workshops, particularly those related to various cultures with norms different from those she has been trained in, such as Indian or African dance.

“I want to see what forms of life and discourse are represented in these kinds of dance,” Bresnahan said. “In African dance, for example, there is a dialogue between the drummers, musicians and dancers that is back and forth. So, there is a conversation happening where it isn’t just the musicians following the dancers, or the dancers following the musicians. There is a group dynamic happening. I am going to be watching, observing and talking to the dancers and students about the ethical dynamics in these different kinds of dance practices.”

Originally scheduled to start in September and continue through the fall and spring semesters, her research award was deferred to the spring and summer 2021 semesters because of travel restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Bresnahan expects her research to result in several articles, if not a book. She also plans to record video of dance sessions and interviews for use in an interactive media project. After her return, she hopes to work with the University of Dayton Human Rights Center on a project addressing dance, human rights and ethics in an international context. Her research also will be used in her ethics and aesthetics courses.

“Dr. Bresnahan will have access to one of the western world's largest collections of dance research at Roehampton, and her planned research on ethical agency in dance will bear directly on one of UD's core institutional learning goals, that of practical wisdom,” said Rebecca Whisnant, professor and Department of Philosophy chair. “Dr. Bresnahan's colleagues and students will have much to learn from her research on how such ethical agency can serve as a model for productive discourse among diverse interlocutors in philosophy and elsewhere.”

Bresnahan is one of more than 800 U.S. citizens who will teach, conduct research and/or provide expertise abroad for the 2020-2021 academic year through the Fulbright U.S. Scholar Program. Recipients of Fulbright awards are selected on the basis of academic and professional achievement, as well as record of service and demonstrated leadership in their respective fields.

For more information, visit the Department of Philosophy website.

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