As of December 2021, I’m on a PhD Postgraduate Research in Performing Arts programme… Once again, I’m a student!
I’ve started full time doctoral research on a studentship from the University of Wolverhampton as part of the Black History of British Musical Theatre project led by Dr Sarah Whitfield and Sean Mayes (the book: www.bhbmt.co.uk/ and the blog: bhbmt.org). The focus of my research will be on uncovering the choreographic work of Buddy Bradley and finding out, in what way his dance practice was significant to the development of dance in the UK.
Introduction to my original Expression of Interest
The scholarly research of tap dance, one of the popular African-American vernacular jazz dances of the early twentieth century, is currently limited. The existing research is largely from the USA, where knowledge about the influence of Black tap dancers and choreographers who lived or worked in Britain, is missing. In the UK, the work of many historically popular Black practitioners has largely been unacknowledged. Therefore, I propose to examine the work of Buddy Bradley, a prominent, black choreographer of African-American vernacular jazz dances, ballet and modern dance across British stage and screen.
The initial process
Sometime in 2020, I jotted down Buddy Bradley’s name when going through material to put together a presentation about Will Gaines. I never imagined that curiosity on finding out about Buddy, a barely acknowledged choreographer who had significant success in musical theatre and dance across the UK and 1930-1960s Europe, would lead to a fully funded PhD research project. Or that it would happen within 6 months of my first, March 2021, presentation about him for TDRN UK.
I’d only begun to contemplate it for PhD research in May 2021 after it was suggested it would make a good topic. My first investigation into what kinds of funding would be available showed that it’s not only extremely difficult to secure (if you can first find any in the arts), but that I’d missed the deadlines to apply for an Autumn 2021 start. With the next typical round of research funding applications due between Dec 2021 and Spring term 2022, I’d anticipated I’d have a few months to find a supervisor in a department at a university that at least offered funding, and write my 2000- to 3000-word research proposal. I’d heard of other people who’d got onto research degrees but had either delayed starting in order to get funding or had turn down the offer. I’d also heard stories about people dropping out of the programme because they did not get on with their supervisor. It seems there are a lot of moving parts to navigate.
Finding a supervisor can be a challenging task. I spent many hours browsing through university websites, reading through biographies and research interests of professors in the arts (dance, theatre and music), history and social science departments. At the same time, I was creating a list of research proposal guidelines from different university websites and other postgraduate research information available online. Since there was so little research on Buddy Bradley I had to decide how to frame it but I was not sure which direction to go in. I created a list (I like making lists) of the options that I’d be interested in and used elements of this to compose an introductory email to potential supervisors. I’d compiled a short-list of potential professor/institution combinations and began the process of contacting each of them. One professor commented that I had about 20 research questions in the initial email I’d sent them.
It was reassuring to hear that all the potential supervisors I spoke with found my research topic interesting. Decolonising dance and musical theatre history, trauma of doing research through racist archival material, practice research and embodied knowledge were just some of the subjects that came up in the conversations. Another professor, who turned out to be retiring, not only offered advice and help but was also interested in following my project and giving informal support. I had been a bit apprehensive about returning to academia but so far it has been very positive experience with such generous advice and support from different academics, regardless of whether or not it aligns with their own research interest.
I began with contacting potential supervisors who’d been recommended to me by dance friends (both inside and outside of academia) and it turned out that one of them was not only a great match for my research project, but that there was newly available funding, just announced that summer (July 2021). The start date was the upcoming autumn term.
Applying for the studentship
I went from casually* pondering and drafting my research topic, to working intensely on submitting an Expression of Interest (excerpt above) with my application by the end of August 2021 for the PhD studentship. (Thanks to my amazing, proof-reading friends for helping me through that crazy two weeks.) A week later, I was short-listed for an interview which successfully led to an offer. The next stage was for me to submit a research proposal (RESPROP), with the assistance of my new supervisor, in order to get onto the PhD programme.
September and October were also intense. I began rearranging my existing and upcoming projects in order to clear my schedule to become a 35-37 hour a week research student as soon as possible. But amongst the reorganising, planning and writing, I was also getting my head around the speedy success of beginning my PhD journey. I couldn’t believe that I was going to be able to spend the next 3 years immersed in a topic that I feel so passionately about – tap dance history in Britain.
Despite a few early administrative delays the submitted RESPROP was approved and within a week there was a magical administrative turn around and I was fully enrolled onto the PhD programme.
Now the PhD journey begins…
* I realise that the people who know me well will be laughing their heads off at my use of term “casually!”