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Dancing to Success (by Holly West)

Date:14 November 2016

Writing a thesis is a combination of freedom, dedication, and the strange underlying terror that somehow, regardless of the number of back ups you make, you will manage to delete your thesis—and thus end your life as you know it.

However, this is not something you fully realize in your first year. At that point, this daunting piece can seem far off and unfamiliar. For me, the 1,200 word essays of “Rhetoric & Composition” were challenging enough, so to consider a time when you would have to write an 8,000 word essay was slightly terrifying.

I wish I could say that this feeling of unease disappeared upon beginning the project; that the years of essays, grammar and topic variety had prepared me to such an extent that this thesis is something most could do with their eyes closed. This is, sadly, not the case. However, this is not to say that past courses were not without merit. More than once I delved back into the notes from “Theories of Culture I” and the “Americas” courses to find authors, whose perspective was excellent support for mine.

For me, the freedom that was granted when we chose our topics was a godsend. Not the pseudo-freedom of tight brief, or the bulleted list of dusty, well-used topics: we were given total independence, a theme that had been present throughout our much of our degree. What to do with such freedom? My advice: find a topic that instills passion and enthusiasm, and build your entire thesis around it. To choose a topic that is easy, but holds none of your interest, makes for a very dull and uninspiring few months.

My inspiration came from the one of the first thesis meetings held regarding topic choices. Coffee. One student wrote his entire paper on coffee—its uses, representations and portrayal within popular fiction and movies. The topic was not what inspired me; it was, quite simply, its sheer simplicity that caught my attention. As a result, I decided to make my own topic equally straightforward. I chose salsa dancing. Having danced salsa for almost four years, I have always been caught by how vibrant, dramatic and unapologetically sexual it is.

So yes, success! I have chosen my topic. Pat on the back—a very proud moment. This is, however, the easy part. What comes next is the torturous few weeks in which you have to actually come up with a vaguely academic-sounding thesis statement that passes mentor approval. And to do this, I had to begin my research. Hello EBSCOhost complete—a gift send down from the gods—a place where topics from social hegemony to kinaesthetic ethnography live in perfect harmony, providing you with numerous threads of information that you desperately grab at and attach to the increasingly tangled and chaotic web that is currently your bachelor thesis.

Who knew that Raymond Williams’ “Base and Superstructure in Marxist Cultural Theory” could be used to argue the fluid notion of gender and sexuality within salsa spaces? Or that the words of Judith Butler and Foucault could be sewn into an argument about salsa bodies and pattern formations? Well, my thesis was one such place. It is amazing to see what you can find if you really open your mind to such unusual connections. Thus armed with this newfound knowledge, I wrote my thesis statement at 3am, when I was struck by a very rare moment of genius (aka sheer panic at the impending deadline of my statement). And rather incredibly, it was accepted.

Ok. So, thesis subject: tick. Basic thesis statement: tick. Research: tick! Now comes the moment that every student puts off for as long as they can: the writing of the thesis. For me, it was at the cusp of this process that a problem began to arise. A problem that I have had ever since my first year: too much research. I am one of those people who gets a little too enthusiastic with research—until I realize that I have pages and pages of the stuff, with only very vague connections between each academic piece. Put in another way, my notes were longer than my actual thesis—by some 2,000 words. This is where my over-keen research instincts came back to bite me. Because, trying to find connections in all of these articles proved the hardest part of the entire thesis. It is safe to say that that rare moment of genius had well and truly been extinguished.

Instead, I had to try to bring my fragile thesis statement to life. And for this you have to work hard, because those extra hours and effort will make all the difference between you thesis looking like a dancer, whose moments flow effortless into one another, and Frankenstein’s Monster, a creature where no body part fits homogeneously with the next.

The end result was, on the whole, something I was rather proud of. Expanding upon the simple premise of salsa, I theorized the existence of salsa space: a temporary and physical location where women are able to exhibit a sexuality free from the constrictive norms and attitudes of the dominant society. Unlike a regular dance floor, where boundaries are often crossed, within a salsa community there are a number of strict unspoken rules: such as respecting a woman’s space. It is through this safe and supportive community that the space protects and preserves the meanings and practices ascribed to it, excluding those individuals who are seen as a threat to these values and celebrating the nature of female sexual performance.

To support this argument I undertook some ethnographic research, using the experiences I had during my time studying abroad at UNC Chapel Hill. I had joined a salsa team, Que Rico, and attended many of the salsa parties that were offered. Using this advantage, I interviewed a number of people from both the parties and the dance team, so as to give my work a variety of voices, ranging in age, location and experience.

It still amazes me that I was able to base my academic achievements upon my love of salsa. To begin with a simple thought and conclude arguing that there is a complex space within which sexuality, community and dance are forever being learned, negotiated and resignified, was an extraordinary experience.

Although, I would also say that none of this would be possible without the encouragement from faculty. Having teachers who have the patience to go through every step of the process, supporting your ideas and suggesting possible research ideas is something for which I will forever be thankful. It just goes to show that success is not just what you know, but who you know and how to take advantage of the situation in which you find yourself!