Alexandra Wolkoff’s senior thesis was a very personal project. A sociology major and education minor, Wolkoff started taking classes in the dance department at Bryn Mawr College during her freshman year and was so transformed by the experience that she sought to use her senior capstone project to study why. The result: “No Weight on that Back Foot: Dancing Towards Empowerment Through Transforming the Gendered Feminine Habitus.”
“Studying dance has challenged me mentally, emotionally, and psychologically in many ways, and this has allowed me to develop a new relationship with myself and my body,” says Wolkoff, who is working as a Haverford House fellow this year, coordinating an educational enrichment program for Puentes de Salud, an organization that serves South Philadelphia’s Mexican immigrant community. “All along, I wanted to understand why my experiences dancing impacted me so profoundly and how, exactly, it was creating these changes in me.”
How did you conduct your thesis research?
My thesis explores gender socialization, the processes that begin in childhood and continue throughout life through which we learn to understand ourselves as women and men, feminine and masculine. I specifically explored how these identities become mapped onto the physical body, structuring how we use our bodies in daily life. I interviewed female dance students and teachers in an attempt to explore how their experiences dancing interact with their conceptions of themselves as women. My main question was: Does dance influence or change how they experience themselves as women in their daily lives? I looked at several specific areas, such as their self-confidence, body image, sexuality, and emotional expression.
What did you learn working on your thesis?
My main takeaway was that because dance is, itself, an embodied practice that teaches its own ways of using and understanding the body, it has the potential to change perceptions of themselves and their bodies that the women may have developed growing up … . I then talked about this in relation to current efforts for gender equality and social justice more broadly. My thesis has also been an extremely moving process of developing language to talk about my own experiences, to answer my initial questions of how and why dance impacts me so deeply, as well as coming to understand my story within a larger narrative of other women’s experiences.
How was the thesis experience, overall?
My thesis process has been one of the single most difficult things I have ever done in my entire life, and I don’t say that lightly! I have never gone through any experience that has so highlighted both my personal strengths and my greatest insecurities. Through reflecting on the process personally and with my writing partner, Barbara Hall (of the Writing Center), I have learned a great deal about myself personally that I will carry forward. It was an 18-month process for me, … but it is so meaningful because it really has been developing over the course of my entire time here in college—from the day I walked into my first dance class as a freshman. I know that not everyone’s thesis is such an integration or capstone of their experiences and work here, but I feel extremely grateful that I had the freedom and opportunity to develop a project that really [is a culmination of] my development and growth over the last four years
“What They Learned” is a blog series exploring the thesis work of members of the Class of 2014.