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Illuminating the Black experience through dance and technology

Thomas DeFrantz will use funding from the Mellon Foundation to explore how Black dance matters, furthering efforts to champion underrepresented voices

Thomas F. DeFrantz, professor in Northwestern University’s department of performance studies and department of theatre in the School of Communication is among 26 scholars sharing more than $12 million in new grant funding from the Mellon Foundation’s inaugural Higher Learning Open Call for Civic Engagement and Social Justice-Related Research and Projects. 

 DeFrantz is the director of SLIPPAGE: Performance, Culture, Technology, a interdisciplinary performance research lab new to Northwestern’s Evanston campus that explores connections between performance, history, theater and emergent technology. As an artist and scholar, DeFrantz works at the apex of dance, technology and critical Black studies.

As principal investigator on the Grant awarded to Northwestern, DeFrantz plans to use the University's share of the funding -$500,000 - to expand a research project examining Black dance practices across the United States and research how those practices help represent African American identity and Black freedom.

“This project and funding will allow the SLIPPAGE lab to continue its explorations of how Black dance matters and how its variegations of place predict an abundance of performance method and dance styles,” DeFrantz said. “Working with a post-doctoral fellow, we will be able to produce a range of gatherings and situations of study that allow us to consider how dance is operating for Black people and those who care towards our lives and creative expression.”

On January 24, 2023, The Mellon Foundation announced DeFrantz and researchers at twenty-five other colleges and universities will receive between $250,000 and $500,000 in funding to support social justice-related research or curricular projects. The open call invited proposals from institutions exploring three distinct topical categories — civic engagement and voting rights, race and racialization in the United States, and social justice and the literary imagination.

“This call is designed to highlight the essential role of the humanities – including those disciplines concerned with the interpretation of expressive culture – in addressing our society’s most salient social issues, past and present,” said Phillip Brian Harper, program director for Higher Learning at Mellon. “We seek to support not only incisive analytical work, but also projects that creatively envision more just and equitable futures.”

“Of course, we are grateful to The Mellon Foundation for supporting this project, which represents the intellectual labor of some 325 researchers affiliated with the Collegium for African Diaspora Dance, a SLIPPAGE project,” DeFrantz said.

In addition to his appointments in the School of Communication, DeFrantz is also a fellow in the Segal Design Institute at the McCormick School of Engineering.

SLIPPAGE, founded in 2002 at MIT, has engaged global audiences in productions and performances staged in India, France, Japan, and South Africa.  At Northwestern, the lab where teaching and research will take place is under construction in Louis Hall on the Evanston campus.  DeFrantz plans to stage projects and produce events in the Virginia Wadsworth Wirtz Center for the Performing and Media Arts inside Abbott Hall on Northwestern’s Chicago campus.