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Sue Ash, who is based in Oxford, began her research degree with Oxford Brookes in 2008. Her thesis title is 'Dancin’ Modernism: Moving Bodies Performing Identity and British Cultures of Modernism (1909-1939)'.
I live in Oxford, so I was aware of the university due to my location.
I had recently undertaken a BA and MA in Modern History at Oxford Brookes and I wanted to stay with the University in order to conduct my research. Although my area of interest was not typical of research undertaken at Brookes, I had heard of a lecturer in the Department of English and Modern Language whose research interests included ‘the moving body’.
I don't have a traditional profile for a research student. I left school without any A levels to begin a career as a professional ballet dancer. Later, having brought up a family and worked in a number of jobs that didn't require qualifications, I came to academic study as an Undergraduate - I had not written an essay for over thirty years! Having gained my BA at Oxford Brookes I took up the position of Administrator for the MA Arts students within the University. I am now enjoying the opportunity of bringing the highlights of my career profile together in my inter-disciplinary thesis, which is a historical enquiry into dance and movement in early twentieth-century Britain; an important area of cultural modernism.
The research environment is definitely more ‘grown up’ than taught study, so it helps to be personally motivated. The postgraduate staff within my Faculty engage with the students’ research interests and have a very positive and motivating approach.
My interdisciplinary PhD aims to re-frame the way dance is written about in modernist studies. My focus is on the formal production of the Ballets Russes within a British context and the utopian natural dance of Britain in the early twentieth century, not framed through other related disciplines but specifically through the somatic expression and affect of the moving body. This focus aims to show how the moving dancer’s body is a fundamental but often overlooked expression of modernism.
By its very nature dance is ephemeral; it goes into a space and leaves but a trace once the movement has been performed. However the effect of dance and movement is felt; it is embodied by those who see it and those who experience it. Dance has the ability to connect with current discourses or ‘conversations’ and to then ‘voice’ these conversations corporeally (through the body). As far as I am aware, there is almost no-one writing about the early British pioneers of utopian ‘natural’ dance as a way to read British cultural modernism.
My project will bring new knowledge to bear on our understandings of cultural modernism, underscored by my unique life experience as a dancer.
I enjoy the challenge of research in an area that I am passionate about. It can be an isolating experience, so my strategy is to keep in touch with my supervisory team, attend as many training opportunities as I can and keep in touch with fellow research students whose mutual support is invaluable. It was also difficult when I had to take a little over two years off as suspended study due to illness. However, it only took a little while to settle back in and now I am enjoying the research again, along with the opportunity to link up with the research and dance community in the University of Oxford.
I am also enjoying the challenge of taking part in various conferences. I have just given a paper on ‘dance and modernism’ at an international conference on modernist studies in London; I was one of a panel of three. It was a slightly scary experience but also exciting, and our panel was very well received.
Faculty Conferences and Training Days occur regularly and are usually well attended. My supervisory team are also supportive and encouraging. Training offered by the Graduate College is comprehensive and the Summer School particularly offers an excellent opportunity to benefit from a training package that would normally be very costly for students. If a student makes the most of the research training on offer, they should be very well set up to complete their PhD as well as their plans for a future career.
I would consider any opportunities that come my way, but I may have a book in me! I have learned so much more while researching my subject area than can possibly be written up in my thesis.