John T. Consoli
When she’s not observing traveling artists in the mountains of Cuba or teaching classes on subversive periods in history, Laurie Frederik straps on her heels, dons false eyelashes and slips into a sparkly dress to samba and waltz her way to the top of the ballroom dancing world. The anthropologist, associate professor in the School of Theatre, Dance, and Performance Studies (TDPS) and Latin American Studies Center director has traveled the globe for dance and research, studying storytelling and expression through theater, political protest, legal testimony and more. Frederik talked to Terp about how these areas of her life work in harmony.
TERP: Why did you study anthropology?
Frederik: My first interest was in human evolution and primatology. When I was an undergraduate I went to Kenya and did some work with baboons and other primates and realized that the cultural differences in the humans studying them were much more interesting to me than the primates themselves.
TERP: How did you end up teaching in TDPS?
Frederik: I started studying art and politics in South Africa (1993-94). My anthropology research inadvertently coincided with artistic performance and my interests shifted. When I finished my Ph.D. I looked for jobs in anthropology departments. I never expected to work in a theater department, but it turns out that my research was very much performance studies. I just wasn’t calling it that until I came here and realized I fit into that niche.
TERP: The U.S. is easing travel restrictions to Cuba, but you were among the first wave of American researchers to go there in the mid-1990s. What was that like?
Frederik: This is where the theater was really helpful. If you said, “I’m a historian or journalist and want to talk to people in the street about politics, agriculture or law,” the Cuban government would say, no, you can’t do that. But the people I talked to were under the Ministry of Culture: theater directors, writers, dancers and musicians. I’m an artist too, so there was camaraderie and trust.
TERP: You’ve won four national championships in ballroom dancing. Why do you enjoy it?
Frederik: Being an academic is so heady; you’re just immersed in books and ideas, but the ballroom has kept me balanced. The paso doble is aggressive and powerful, the jive is fun and bouncy. All the different dance styles satisfy different parts of your being. You have a partner and an audience, so it’s social fulfillment too. It’s athletic and competitive. And you get to wear rhinestones!
TERP: Do your students know that you dance?
Frederik: They do eventually find out. I get them up for a tango class when I teach “Performing the Nation.” We read a book about Argentine tango, and it’s all about gender, politics, violence—it’s hard to understand the nuances of any practice unless you get up and try it yourself.
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