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Faculty Spotlight: Music for Midwives

Written by Veronica Dittman Stanich

When Ruth Zielinski applied for a UMS Course Development Grant, she envisioned a musical experience for her upper-level midwifery students.

As Clinical Associate Professor in the School of Nursing and Lead for the University of Michigan’s Midwifery Program, Zielinski reasoned that music as therapy during labor and birth is consistent with her course’s focus on physiologic, or “natural” birth. Moreover, music would require students to be still and listen, a significant task in a program whose days are filled with lecture, note-taking, discussion, and clinical practice.

Through discussions with UMS’s Campus Engagement Specialist Shannon Fitzsimons-Moen and me, Zielinski’s plans for the experience expanded to include dance. Music and dance are—perhaps surprisingly—a natural fit with midwifery. Numerous studies illustrate the effects of music on a laboring mother, including decreased pain, anxiety, and postpartum depression; increased satisfaction with the birthing experience; and even a shortened duration for labor. Likewise, an increasing body of research points to a similar suite of positive effects for mothers who move—walking or rocking their hips—during labor.
U-M Midwifery Program Studetns
For Zielinski’s Course Development Grant, Fitzsimons-Moen arranged a specially designed music-and-dance workshop for student midwives. Kris Danford, Assistant Professor in the School of Music, Theatre & Dance, led the first session, sharing her research into vocalization during labor. Her insights into breath and the voice afforded the students—a tight-knit group who had just spent their first two weeks in actual clinical labor and delivery settings—the opportunity to share their recent experiences of music and vocalization in these settings. Together they analyzed the various effects music had on the patients, and on the attending midwives, in these instances. Students also shared playlists they had constructed for labor, considering the characteristics of music they had chosen for separate “upbeat labor,” “slow down labor,” and “pissed off labor” playlists.

For the workshop’s second session, I discussed with students how dance-based concepts choreography, rehearsal, and improvisation might be operative in their work. Students quickly adopted these concepts as metaphors, applying them both to expectant mothers and to themselves. For example, mothers-to-be often have expectations of a tightly choreographed birthing plan, and midwives can think of their oft-rehearsed movements as a toolkit upon which to draw when the situation calls for improvisation.

We also experimented with variations on walking and pelvic rocking, using structured improvisation as an opportunity to really listen to our bodies as we explored both familiar and unfamiliar sensations. Students reported that the experience not only provided them with a family of movements to share with patients; it also gave them permission to move themselves, reconnecting with their own bodies in a way that was positive and freeing. The concept of permission recurred throughout the movement session, provoking a discussion of the culture of different labor-and-delivery settings, and of how variations in culture might affect mothers’ feelings of inhibition around vocalization and movement. Students extended the dance metaphor to account for audience—the various watchers who are often present in these settings, and may contribute to a laboring mother’s inhibitions.

Zielinski’s midwifery students left the workshop with plans to incorporate elements of it into their work, both in antenatal visits and during labor and birth. The Course Development Grant also provides a different sort of music and dance experience: a ticket for each of them to any UMS event this semester.

Faculty Spotlight: “Hair and Other Stories” in U-M Classrooms

This post was written by UMS 21st Century Intern Grace Bydalek.

On January 12th, 2018, UMS rang in the new year with a performance of Urban Bush Women’s Hair and Other Stories in the Power Center for the Performing Arts. Urban Bush Women’s work focuses on text with the history, culture, and spiritual traditions of African Americans and the African diaspora. Artistic Director Jawole Zollar weaves together the boundary-pushing non-linear stories through dance, music, and spoken word.

Hair and Other Stories was crafted through interviews and other personal narratives, highlighting the struggles and complexities of our current world and times ahead. Original compositions by The Illustrious Blacks underscore dynamic movement and storytelling about gender identity, economic inequalities, body concept, race, freedom, liberation, and release in this extraordinary time.

Faculty across a variety of schools at the University of Michigan chose to integrate this engaging performance into their syllabi, exposing their students to the world of performance art and modern dance. Below, some of these faculty discuss the impact of Hair and Other Stories on their courses and students.

Photo: Urban Bush Women. Courtesy of artist.

            Clare Croft brought the students in her course Dancing Women/Dancing Queer to the performance of Hair and Other Stories. The students had been prepared for the performance over the duration of the semester. Croft explains, “The students read portions of dance scholar Nadine George-Graves book on Urban Bush Women, did class exercises focused on movement description, and then attended the performance as their first step in their performance analysis paper. For the paper, students had to take notes on the physical, material details of the performance; and then write a paper in which they described a significant moment in the performance, contextualize that moment in the performance as a whole, and then discuss how that moment raised questions about gender and sexuality.”

Croft observed her students’ curiosity and increased engagement in the course after the performance. They were, as she describes it, “struck by the overt discussion of race and gender, which some thought was moving and some thought demonstrated a lack of trust in dance’s ability to make meaning.”

            Petra Kuppers exposed her undergraduate students in Health, Gender and Performance, a course run as a collaboration between LSA’s Women’s Studies and the Theatre Department. In the class following the performance, Kuppers and her students created their own movement material from their “body histories,” inspired by Urban Bush Women’s physical movements.
“We used the theme of ‘everyday rituals,’ and students wove performances of worship and communal meals together with moments of private movement, abstract patterns that held memories for them, and that they shared with and taught to their co-performers,” Kuppers explains.  She immediately observed a change in the way that her students, many of them pre-medical, engaged in the course material. “As it was early on in our course, this was the first time the students performed for each other, and it was a pleasure to see the energy and delight unlocked by seeing and then engaging dance work together,” Kuppers states.

urban bush women

Photo: Urban Bush Women. Courtesy of artist.

Joel Howell’s Medical Arts Program focuses on the benefit of the arts on medical practice, and is done in cooperation with the medical school Office for Health Equity and Inclusion. Given the nature of the program at hand, Howell did not do any specific preparation for the performance in his course, save for a lively discussion with Jawole Zollar. They discussed the piece at large, and about racial disparities in medical treatments and outcomes. “I think the conversation with Jawole Zollar before the show was the most valuable part of the evening,” a medical student stated. “Not only did it help contextualize the show and highlight some of the intent behind the pieces, but it also helped draw connections between art, especially dance, and how we as physicians move through the world.”

After each performance, he asks his students to provide him with feedback. The connections between Hair and Other Stories and the medical world abounded. “We talked a lot about being truly present in a moment when communicating with someone and ways to consent to and properly end a shared experience no matter how big or small,” one student observed. “We also discussed the concept of autonomy and asking for permission to enter a shared, intimate space with another person. Both of these things are essential components to a positive patient encounter.”


Faculty Spotlight: “Written in Water” in U-M Classrooms

In October 2017, UMS presented Ragamala Dance Company’s Written in WaterUniversity of Michigan students had the opportunity to experience the performance, many attending with a University of Michigan class that incorporated Written in Water into the curriculum.

Veronica Dittman Stanich interviewed faculty who shared their experience with the work and impact on students. 

Photo: Ragamala Dance Company performance in 2016. Courtesy of artist.

On October 20, 2017 UMS presented Ragamala Dance Company’s Written in Water at the Power Center. Ragamala’s work is grounded in the classical South Indian dance form Bharatanatyam, but its artistic directors, Ranee and Aparna Ramaswamy, continue to push its traditional boundaries, working in contemporary choreographic contexts and collaborating with a range of musicians and visual designers. In Written in Water, they bring together themes of spiritual ascension from an ancient Sufi text, a Hindu myth, and Paramapadam—an Indian antecedent of the board game Snakes and Ladders. The dance unfolds against a backdrop of projected images by artist Keshav and is accompanied by Amir ElSaffar’s heady blend of Middle Eastern music and jazz, performed live by ElSaffar and a small ensemble of musicians. Faculty across the University of Michigan College of Literature, Science, and the Arts integrated the performance into their syllabi, bringing over 250 students to the performance. Here, some of these faculty explain how Written in Water functioned in their courses and how it impacted their students.

Photo: Ragamala Dance Company. Courtesy of the artist.

Yopie Prins brought all 125 students from Great Performances (Comparative Literature 141) to Written in Water. For this course—a First Year Writing Requirement similar to a “Great Books” course—students see performances from across genres, including music, dance, theatre, and opera. Prins explains, “I like to hold open a space for canonical works from non-western traditions. Ragamala brings together classical Indian dance and a more contemporary American aesthetic.” To prepare for this form that was unfamiliar to many students, they read about Bharatanatyam, participated in a movement workshop led by graduate students from the Dance Department, and attended a talk given by Ranee and Aparna Ramaswamy. Prins comments, “UMS went out of their way to introduce the artistic directors to the class.” For their written response to the performance, Prins asked students to formulate an interpretation of the work by drawing on information from the preparatory readings and workshops as well as on their direct experiences in the theater. “It was an opportunity for some students to say, ‘I don’t know all I need to know to make sense of this,’ and to think critically about what they were missing,” explained Prins.

Photo: Ragamala Dance Company. Courtesy of the artist.

For Madhumita Lahiri’s Introduction to Indian Cinema: Bollywood (English 375), Written in Water extended the students’ investigation of a culture’s ideals around the body and movement. The performance allowed an additional perspective on Indian dance, augmenting students’ study of movement vocabularies in films. Lahiri’s students learned Bharatanatyam’s hand and foot movements and basic postures and she finds that, since the performance, students are noticing references to Bharatanatyam in the films they watch. Written in Water also became a lesson in looking. Lahiri notes, “Many of my students are on dance team, but the concert dance experience is new. Even students with a South Asian background, who know Bharatanatyam, don’t know the ‘codes’ of concert dance. There are choreographic layers, in addition to production layers like the projected artwork.” The class also found that unlike films, “There are no close-ups and no focus on the soloists. The camera isn’t there telling you what to watch. That was part of our classroom discussion—What did you notice? How did you know what to watch?”

Photo: Professional artist photograph of Ragamala Dance Company

Leslie Hempson’s Islam at Sea: The View from the Indian Ocean (History 195) examines how Islam spreads, asserting that it is an oceanic tradition, transported through commerce and navigation. Written in Water provided students the opportunity to consider some of the course’s themes through the medium of performance. For example, the course examines Sufism, a primary mechanism for the spread of Islam in South Asia, and especially its experiential elements; Sufism stresses an interactive relationship with God, often mediated through music and dance. The incorporation of Sufi text into the performance allowed students a different sort of inquiry into this theme. Their assigned responses to Written in Water focused on experiential elements—how it looked, how it sounded, how it made them feel. “Another major concern of the class is movement, movement of people and ideas,” says Hempson. “We can see how portable so many traditions are. Ragamala based in Minneapolis is an example; the tradition comes from South India. It helps us think about how art changes as it moves.”

In Sara McClelland’s Approaches to Feminist Scholarship in Humanities and the Social Sciences (Women’s Studies 601/602), first-year graduate students investigate feminist approaches to research practices that are used across the Humanities and Social Sciences. These include embodied methods along with more familiar ones like reading, listening, and counting. Written in Water provided an opportunity for McClelland’s students to consider ethnographic participant/observer practices, performance, and spectatorship as modes of research. She notes, “A lot of students aren’t accustomed to thinking about performance as inquiry. Most had never imagined performance’s potential as scholarship.” Now McClelland asks, “Where are your bodies in your research?” For their final projects, using methods from the course to investigate a research question, most of her students are planning to incorporate embodied practices. McClelland considers UMS performance an important part of her course, not only pedagogically—because it allows students to encounter sources other than text—but also socially. Most of her students had never heard of the Power Center and were excited to learn about UMS programming, especially the No Safety Net series.

Are you a U-M faculty member who would be interested in bringing your students to a UMS performance? $15 Classroom Tickets are available for students and faculty in courses that require attendance at a UMS performance. To learn more about how to work with UMS, email Campus Engagement Specialist at or check out our new guide How to Integrate a UMS Performance into Your Course.

Veronica Dittman Stanich writes about arts-integration in the university for UMS, and researches it for the Alliance for the Arts in Research Universities (a2ru). She also teaches writing about dance and performance, and holds a PhD in Dance Studies.

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