LRCCS Faculty Spotlight: Emily Wilcox

Emily Wilcox   Assistant Professor of Modern Chinese Studies Asian Languages and Cultures

Emily Wilcox

Assistant Professor of Modern Chinese Studies
Asian Languages and Cultures

In this edition of LRCCS Faculty Spotlight, we interviewed Professor Emily Wilcox, Assistant Professor of Modern Chinese Studies in the Department of Asian Languages and Cultures.

LRCCS: Tell us a little bit about your background.  

Prof Wilcox: I grew up in Brighton, Michigan.  I went to Harvard as an undergrad and studied anthropology. Although I wasn’t a Chinese major, I took many electives in Chinese studies. Some teachers who inspired me in this regard were Bridie Andrews, Peter Bol, and William Kirby. My mom was also a big influence. When I went away to college, she gave me a copy of the Dao De Jing.

LRCCS: How did you become interested in dance?

Prof Wilcox: When I was a kid I studied ballet for six years, and in college I became a competitive ballroom dancer. I danced every day during college, and that’s when my identity as a dancer really formed.  In academia, the focus is usually on modern dance and ballet, but since I was involved in student groups and not academic dance initially, my interest was more in global and popular dance forms.

LRCCS: So when did you make the leap from identifying as a dancer to researching dance?

Prof Wilcox: As an undergraduate, I took classes in medical anthropology with Arthur Kleinman and became interested in the idea of embodied culture. I was also fortunate to take a class with Deborah Foster, a specialist in African performance who pioneered dance studies at Harvard. For my honors thesis I conducted field research on a contemporary dance festival in southern France. I looked at French contemporary dance as a legacy of the 1968 youth movements. This was my first academic work on dance.  

LRCCS: When did you start studying Chinese?

Prof Wilcox: I took my first Chinese language class as a junior in college but quit after one semester. During my senior year, the ballroom team was invited to China for a two-week performance tour. Visiting China renewed my interest in Chinese. After graduating, I did a master’s degree at Cambridge where I ended up studying the historical interactions of Chinese and Western medicine. It was around that time that I realized I wanted to study China for my career. I started to study Chinese very intensely, and this continued throughout graduate school. 

LRCCS: How did you first become interested in Chinese dance?

Prof Wilcox: When I was doing my graduate work at Berkeley, I discovered there was a whole tradition of Chinese dance that hadn’t been written about in the English-language scholarship. One summer, when I was studying language in Beijing, I started teaching ballroom dance on the side to practice my Chinese. It turned out that the husband-and-wife team who ran the studio where I taught had formerly specialized in Chinese classical dance. The wife had been a dancer in the Tang revival shows in Xi’an, and the husband had been an award-winning sword dancer. The husband’s mom, who spent a lot of time at the studio too, was a retired Chinese opera performer. As I met more people in the Chinese dance scene, I became more interested and decided to write my dissertation on this topic.

LRCCS: What interests you about Chinese dance?

Prof Wilcox: As a dancer, I like that Chinese dance challenges me to move in new ways. As an academic, I like that it has the potential to create new directions for research. The academic field of dance in the United States has tended to focus on Western dance.  I view this as a legacy of the colonial period – a form of discrimination against non-Western culture. Chinese dance is no less complex or innovative than its Western counterparts, so I think it has the potential to challenge certain assumptions in dance studies. In Chinese studies, I believe studying dance allows us to expand our understanding of Chinese culture to include embodied culture.

LRCCS: What’s your favorite style of Chinese dance?  And do you have any recommendations in that field for our readers?

Prof Wilcox: Chinese classical dance. It was created in the twentieth century as a Chinese alternative to ballet. It was an anti-colonial nationalist project.  The moves come from a variety of sources, both “alive” (such as Chinese opera and martial arts) and “dead” (such as images from the Dunhuang caves).  

There are so many connections between Chinese classical dance and literary and artistic traditions in China. When I was learning Chinese classical dance, my teachers would quote poems or describe paintings for us to visualize while we danced. They would sometimes ask us to imagine we were famous figures from Chinese literature and history. Dance is a physical way of engaging with these other traditions in new ways.

One of my favorite choreographers is Zhang Yunfeng 张云峰. He teaches Chinese choreography at the Beijing Dance Academy. He’s done a lot to expand the genre of Chinese classical dance. One of his early works I'd recommend is titled "Listen to the Wind Singing"《风吟》. (Embedded below)

LRCCS:  What projects are you currently working on?

Prof Wilcox: I’m working on my first book, which examines the history of Chinese dance since the 1940s. It looks at the key works of each period and takes on larger concerns in Chinese studies. I hope to finish this project sometime in 2016.

I’ve also been working with the Asia Library to make UM the best place in North America to conduct research on Chinese dance. One of the major projects, which I’m working on with Liangyu Fu and Ting Su, is the “Pioneers of Dance Digital Archive.” It’s a collection of high-quality digital scans of rare photographs from the personal collections of leading Chinese dancers of the 1940s-1960s. We want to give personal stories to the history of Chinese dance while providing material for future scholars. 

We also just received a donation of slides and film recordings taken by a Chinese-American dancer who visited China in 1975. We’re hoping to launch all this sometime in 2016-2017.

LRCCS: Thanks for your time.

Prof Wilcox: Thank you!