Claudia Lawry '16 '18GS Researches Beauty Standards in Ballet

September 20, 2016

Claudia Lawry

Learn more about Claudia's research!

What are you studying at Simmons?

History. I'll also be getting my MA in teaching English as a second language

Tell us about your SURPASs (Summer Undergraduate Research Program at Simmons) project.

My project, "Bodies Before Balanchine" focuses on American ballet from roughly 1890 to 1920, a short time before the so-called “father of American ballet,” George Balanchine opened his school in America. I’m curating a collection of primary sources – mostly visual – for a digital exhibit regarding the dancer’s body. At the heart of this project is the question: did dancer’s bodies influence cultural standards and perceptions of beauty, or was it the other way around? Where do class, gender and race fit in?

My faculty mentor was Professor Laura Prieto of the History and Women’s and Gender Studies departments. She's a master of this time period and is very knowledgeable about women and culture. She's also no stranger to archival research, which has quite the learning curve! I'm forever grateful to her and my growing list of biographies and background books.

What does your SURPASs project aim to accomplish?

I have two big goals:
  • Make this project accessible to the public.
  • Contribute to today’s conversations about bodies and representation in the ballet and dance world. 

Though historians traditionally write papers about this sort of research, such papers are usually overly academic, difficult to read and fail to capture the precise meaning of a visual source. Like dance itself, an image speaks a universal language that everyone can understand in their own way, and a digital exhibit has a much wider reach.

This topic is also of great importance to the ballet world, which has been widely criticized in recent years – and rightfully so – for its lack of diversity and its fixation on a body type that is unrealistic and often dangerous to obtain. These aren’t new problems in the dance world, yet many people are focused only on the here and now. By looking closer to the beginnings of ballet, I’m bringing those overlooked figures and norms back into the conversation. 

How did you get involved with SURPASs?

My roommate! She asked me if I would go to the info session and take notes for her because she couldn’t go. I was really drawn in by Professor Gurney’s emphasis that students from all disciplines were welcome, especially from the humanities.

What was the most rewarding part of your experience?

Designing my own project and running with it! It's so enjoyable to conduct research and gain expertise when it’s a project that holds such strong personal and academic value to me as a dancer and historian. Being able to travel independently and basically live at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts in New York City for a week was a truly one-of-a-kind experience that usually can’t be done until an upper level thesis or doctoral dissertation.

What are the top 3 lessons you learned from SURPASs?

  1. Sit down and plan what you’re doing for the day. Even though it takes some time, it narrows your focus and keeps you accountable. And if you don’t get it all done,  you reassess. I usually set the bar a bit too high for myself, so I have to bring myself back to reality.
  2. Always ask the good questions: the why, the how, the significance and so on. And write everything down!
  3. You can’t make history – meaning you can’t go back in time and create a source that doesn’t exist. It’s disheartening to discover an amazing lead that goes nowhere, but it doesn’t mean all hope is lost: the absence of information also speaks volumes.

What made you choose Simmons?

My favorite teacher from high school is a Simmons alum and we both agreed that I would thrive at a small college where I would benefit from a close-knit community and the faculty attention and support that comes with that. 

I was also the commander of my Junior Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC) unit in high school, which gave me a taste of leadership that I enjoyed and wanted to pursue further in college. All of those desires click with the Simmons mission – and it also helped that every person I met when I visited was incredibly friendly and kind.

Do you have a Simmons Moment?

Every year at the Undergraduate Symposium. It’s amazing to see so many different kinds of student research together in one place, and to see the Simmons community taking such a genuine interest in student work.


Claudia at the High Line, a park in Lower Manhattan. Photo taken by Raelissa Glennon '17.