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Fearless Fulbrights: Dr. Kate Spanos

To Brazil, Ireland, the Caribbean, and back, ARHU’s own Dr. Kate Spanos has taken her love of dance all over the world. In 2018, she traveled to Federal University of Pernambuco on a Fulbright in Recife, Brazil, for an 8 month exploration frevo dance.

1. For those who may be unfamiliar with you and your work, can you share a little bit about yourself, your research interests at UMD, and the scope of your Fulbright(s)?

I’m a dancer, educator, scholar, and arts administrator. My scholarship focuses on “dances of resistance” and social change through dance, especially in Brazil, Ireland, and the Eastern Caribbean. My background is in Irish dance and I have an M.A. in traditional Irish dance performance from the University of Limerick. I did my Ph.D. in dance and performance studies at the University of Maryland’s School of Theatre, Dance, and Performance Studies. My doctoral research focused on the Caribbean island of Montserrat, known for its Irish and African heritage, and their masquerade dances. After I finished my Ph.D., I got a postdoctoral Fulbright to study frevo dance in Recife, Brazil (the capital of the state of Pernambuco). This ethnographic project focused on Recife’s frevo tradition, which is an energetic music and dance that symbolizes Pernambucan culture. Frevo represents a regional variation on Brazilian national identity and narrates notions of identity that contribute to social empowerment and the valorization of popular culture. This research looked at the political role of frevo and how it empowers marginalized individuals in Pernambuco. (Check out my website at www.thekatespanos.com.) 

2. What inspired you to start this process of becoming a Fulbright participant? What was your process in approaching the application?

I had always been interested in doing a Fulbright because it’s a prestigious scholarship that fully supports international research. So many grants for academics only partially support fieldwork or only support short trips, but I wanted to fully immerse myself in the culture for an extended period of time. I’d been studying Brazilian dance and Portuguese language for about ten years before I applied. I had been training capoeira (a Brazilian dance/martial art) since 2008 and happened to hear about frevo, which derives from capoeira but looks very different—less aggressive and more playful. I was immediately intrigued and went down a rabbit hole watching videos and reading books. Because frevo is so localized in Recife, it made for a really good Fulbright project with a well defined scope and clear research goals.

I actually didn’t know that I could still apply after I graduated from UMD and it was only by chance that I learned that I was eligible for the postdoctoral grant program. I took full advantage of UMD’s library resources (including interlibrary loan, since so many books about frevo are pretty hard to find!) and spent a couple months pulling together enough research for my proposal. UMD’s Office of International Affairs (especially Joe Scholten) was helpful in navigating the process and reviewing my application before I submitted it. Through my contacts in the Brazilian music community here in DC, I was able to make a connection with a professor of ethnomusicology at the Federal University of Pernambuco in Recife, and he wrote me a letter of support. Everything came together really quickly and I was shocked when I got the news that I was accepted!

3. In 2022, the university released their new strategic plan, Fearlessly Forward. One of its core tenets is to take on the world's grand challenges. In what ways does your work contribute to supporting the common good?

I think that any time a scholar embarks on international research, there is an element of fear. There is so much unknown, especially working in an unknown place and in a new language. But despite that fear, I had so much conviction that I needed to do this research so I forged ahead. Both in my Ph.D. fieldwork and in this postdoctoral project, I had a very instinctual sense that I was on the right path even though it scared me. After I got back from Recife, I wrote a blog post for the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage about what I learned through my experience of Recife’s street carnival—which can be quite aggressive at times—and the relationship between violence and resistance in such cultural manifestations. I found that the “carnivalesque improvisation” that I identified in the ways people dance frevo can teach us a lot about how historically marginalized communities empower themselves and resist social inequities. I both experienced this on a very personal level and saw it on a broader social scale. I think this ability to move “fearlessly forward” in our research and our personal development is crucial for doing important research and revealing ways we can take on grand challenges like equity and inclusion.

4. What was the most surprising thing you found in your research and scholarship?

The most important thing I have learned in my research over the years—in Brazil, in my doctoral work in Montserrat, and in my work in Ireland—is that embodied knowledge is much more valuable that we tend to give it credit for here in the U.S. As a dance researcher, I’m often confronted by the idea that dance is not that important and that we’re just dancing to have fun. Having fun is certainly part of it, but dance is really important for understanding people, cultures, and societies, and especially how people express themselves, especially when their voices might be silenced or oppressed. In academia, we tend to hold the written word in higher esteem and also prioritize theories by Western philosophers. But all of the theory I learned in graduate school I saw live, in the flesh, in the ways that people dance and talk about dance in the communities I’ve studied. This work often plays out in the streets, not in libraries, and it is critical that we recognize the value of this knowledge.

5. How do you plan to carry forward what you learned and the relationships you formed while abroad?

My Fulbright experience changed my trajectory in significant ways. I made really important connections with dancers and culture bearers in Recife and other parts of Brazil and I still maintain regular contact with them. When I returned from Brazil, my partner Pablo de Oliveira and I founded a non-profit called EducArte, a 501(c)3 non-profit organization based in College Park that offers arts education programs for Brazilian and Latin American communities in the DC region. This work has enabled me to participate in the promotion of Brazilian culture here in the U.S. and I teach regular frevo dance classes in College Park under the mentorship of one of my teachers in Recife, Otávio Bastos.

When I returned from Brazil, I was also invited by UMD’s Honors Humanities program to teach a seminar in dance ethnography, highlighting the power of dance and the arts to enact change for communities around the world. I am heading into my sixth year of teaching the course and I’ve been able to put into practice what I have learned as a student and researcher from my own teachers and interlocutors over the years. The biggest learning objective in the class centers around what I mentioned earlier about valuing embodied knowledge, especially the embodied knowledge that arises from marginalized communities.

The latest development is that I have a book coming out this month! Co-authored with my colleague Sinclair Ogaga Emoghene, “Dancing in the World: Revealing Cultural Confluences” discusses issues of equity and inclusion for traditional dance cultures in the academic dance field. A lot of my thinking around these issues were directly shaped by my Fulbright experience and I include many reflections from my fieldwork in the book. It has been thrilling to be in conversation with Sinclair, who is an assistant professor of dance at Virginia Commonwealth University, originally from Nigeria and a graduate of UMD’s M.F.A. dance program. Despite our different backgrounds, we have developed a shared understanding of our field and how the dances we practice fit into it.

This bridging of cultures and promotion of shared understanding across communities is central to the Fulbright philosophy, and I credit the Fulbright program with allowing me to experience that on a deeper level.

6. For other Terps that are interested in becoming Fulbright participants, what advice do you have for them?

The most important—and perhaps daunting—part of the process is finding support in the country that you want to go to. But once you make your first connection, things start to fall into place. Also reach out to other Fulbright alumni in the country you are interested in to get a better sense of the experience and how you can prepare. The Fulbright is all about people and making connections so be proactive about talking to people. Take advantage of the resources UMD offers for international study and start studying the language now. And be very clear about the scope and goals of your proposed research and how you plan to disseminate the research after it’s done. As with any research, things will change once you get there, but Fulbright wants to see that you have a plan!

For general program information and to review application guidance, visit the Fulbright website. Interested in applying for your own Fulbright, or want to learn more about the program? Reach out to UMD’s Fulbright liaison Joe Scholten, and explore our resources. 

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Visit our Fulbright Scholars gallery to meet our fearless scholars engaging with the world. For general program information and application guidance, visit our "How to Fulbright at Maryland" section at the bottom of the page. Interested in applying for your own Fulbright, or want to learn more about the program? Email UMD’s Fulbright U.S. Scholars liaison at Scholten@umd.edu. 

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