Rebekah Kowal
Photo Credit: Rebekah Kowal. By Tim Schoon.

Professor Rebekah Kowal is a dance researcher uncovering a lost history. She is exploring the way dance became an avenue for social change in the 1940s and 50s with U.S. citizens attending dance performances by global performers and by American dancers learning and performing dances from other cultures.

During this time, the United States had a very restrictive immigration policy that only allowed a certain number of immigrants into the country. Policies began to change after World War II and shifted in a wholesale way with the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965.

Kowal is interested in the way audiences’ experience with dance from different cultures made them more accepting of other nations.

“The experiences audiences had with otherness somehow helped them to feel more like we were living in a cosmopolitan nation, that they wanted to welcome foreigners instead of being afraid or protectionist,” Kowal said.

Though Kowal is looking back into history and archives, she is excited about finding ways to make the information she learns relevant to contemporary scholarship and contemporary questions, particularly about the importance of the globalization of dance.

“If we can bring this to our attention today, maybe we’ll think in different terms,” said Kowal. “The reason why it’s so important today is that it was important 60 years ago, but we sort of lost track of that.”

Kowal did not always plan to be a dance researcher. After attending Barnard College in New York, she danced professionally for four years while working various jobs on the side.

“I thought I wanted to be a professional dancer, but I got to a certain level there, and it wasn’t enough,” said Kowal. “In a way I think I always had this in my heart that I wanted to do it, but I had to try all the usual things.”

After trying out jobs as an art gallery director, paralegal, editor, and waitress, Kowal decided to pursue American Studies at New York University. For her first thesis in the fall, she wrote about the post-war kitchen and the housewife. Her professor, knowing she had been a professional dancer, asked why she didn’t write about dance. She told him she didn’t know she could.

“He gave me license to do it,” Kowal said. “That very day I went to the library at NYU and got 15 books on Martha Graham. It made complete sense when I started doing it. It was like, of course I should be doing this.”

Though Kowal is no longer dancing professionally, she believes her experience as a dancer has helped invest her research with “something that’s real and living and breathing.”

“It’s hard for people who are not dancers or have never been dancers to do it,” Kowal said. “It’s like music. You have to be inside it to understand.”

Kowal would tell young researchers in dance studies to be adventurous and rigorous, since it is a new field and there is much to be uncovered. She also stresses the idea of performance and research going hand-in-hand.

“Try to find a way to bridge your theory and practice,” Kowal said. “How can your experience as a dancer lead you to thoughts and conclusions? How can the scholarly realm inform your physical practice? You don’t need to isolate these parts of yourself. You don’t need to say dancer or scholar.”

If she was not a researcher, Kowal would like to be a… doctor or surgeon. She is interested in how the body works and how to heal people and would love to have that sort of real-world impact on people’s lives.

When she is not researching, Kowal can be found… having fun with her two sons and husband and doing physical activities like swimming and yoga. Before an injury two years ago, she was still dancing in advanced ballet four days a week. She also loves visiting New York City and attending performances there.

Kowal is currently reading… the New Yorker magazine every week.

By Anne Easker