Texas Tech University

Unique Performance Highlights Women's Relationships to Gender, Family Roles

Heidi Toth

April 8, 2015

“Ordinary Wars” brings to motion the thoughts and feelings of women related to womanhood.

Elizabeth Sharp
Elizabeth Sharp

Whether she's found Mr. Right or is still waiting for him to find her, there's no doubt Mr. Right figures into many American woman's plans.


Elizabeth Sharp, an associate professor of human development and family studies in Texas Tech University's College of Human Sciences, has talked to women about their life experiences – getting married or staying single, planning weddings, having or not having children and whether their vision of an ideal life was more “Mad Men,” “Parks & Rec” or “Scandal.”

Sharp found that for every single woman who wants to get married, another doesn't, for every bride who wants a big traditional wedding is a bride with small nuptials in mind, and for each wife who cooks for her husband is a wife who doesn't. She also found many women, despite what they wanted, felt intense pressure to conform to a traditional narrow definition of femininity – husband, children, apron and all.

To bring this into the public eye, Sharp and Genevieve Durham DeCesaro, associate vice provost of academic affairs and head of dance at Texas Tech, created a performance designed to express the joy, judgment, angst and doubt the women in these studies expressed. This concert, called “Ordinary Wars,” is performed by Flatlands Dance Theatre and was created with a grant from the Office of the Vice President for Research's Creative Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences Competition, as part of a call for transdisciplinary projects in 2011.

It will be performed for the third time in Lubbock as part of the 31st Annual Conference on the Advancement of Women. The performance will be at 7 p.m. April 16 at the Louise H. Underwood Center for the Arts' Firehouse Theatre. It is free and open to the public and will include a talkback session with the dancers and the creators after the show.

“A primary goal of the larger project is to make space for people to engage with and talk about the ideas broached in the content,” DeCesaro said. “To that end, we are really encouraging our community members to attend.”

“The first time I saw it, I was blown away,” Sharp said. “There were two middle-aged women sitting near me and they started crying during one of the dances.”

The Performance

Sharp and DeCesaro's idea was simple: create a dance performance from choreographers' analysis of data from two of Sharp's studies. DeCesaro and Sharp have classified the work as performance social science. This project is notably different from other projects, in that DeCesaro did not use Sharp's findings (i.e. Sharp's analysis of the data) to create the dance. She took Sharp's raw data and interpreted it herself.

Ordinary Wars
Click to enlarge.

DeCesaro didn't use a single process in analyzing the data and choreographing the dances. With one dance she relied on excerpts from the data, developing movement phrases specific to those excerpts.

“For another dance, though, I was very focused on the larger trends within the data, specifically concerning ideas of getting married and being married,” she said. “I built the dance around those ideas, visually expressed, rather than integrating the text directly into the dance.”

“Ordinary Wars” took about 18 months to create and used two choreographers, Kyla Olson and Ali Duffy, in addition to DeCesaro.

Each dance tells a story, though not all of the individual dances are narrative in structure. One is about weddings. Another judges what makes a “good” wife and a “good” woman. A third focuses on how some women feel as they think about having children. The final dance is about how some women experienced singlehood.

“Throughout the performance, audience members tend to experience tension, joy, angst and empowerment, and watch women move in and out of confidence,” Sharp said. “Some of the single women are called old maids, other woman are sick of the relentless judgment of women.”

There are some theatrics. DeCesaro uses a wedding dress in one dance, and in the final piece she has excerpts of the study read aloud as the dancers move.

Does it express Sharp's research? She paused while considering the question before returning to the idea of resonance. In any social science research there's never a perfect, one-to-one correspondence between the participants' data and the findings, she said, and “Ordinary Wars” doesn't always leave audience members with the same impressions that reading a journal article would. But the dance connects them to the work in a way reading an article never could. Sharp said as far as she knows, no one has cried reading one of her publications.

DeCesaro said she was happy with the performance as well.

“I think the concert is quite successful,” she said. “What I mean by that is each individual choreography works well, and the larger concert as a whole is cohesive, engaging and challenging. We've found audiences to be very responsive.”

The Research

The performance is based on two qualitative data sets. The first is interviews from young women who had recently married and focused on their weddings and what made a good wife, and the second looked at women who were not married and did not want children.

Genevieve Durham DeCesaro
Genevieve Durham DeCesaro

Sharp noticed some interesting trends as she combed through the data. In talking to newlyweds, she found society labeled brides in one of two ways: princess and bridezilla. The princess got walked on, the bridezilla breathed fire. Often these stereotypes, particularly the latter, prevented women from speaking up or being forceful about what they wanted, afraid they'd be labeled a bridezilla for getting upset or frustrated. This fundamentally restricts women's behavior, Sharp argued.

The study of single women raised interesting questions as well. Some of these women didn't want to get married, while others did want marriage and it hadn't happened, so they were reconsidering their desires for marriage. All, however, found themselves boxed out by what social scientists call the Standard North American Family (SNAF) ideal – the reigning discourse being that having a partner followed by children is the best, most acceptable, most desirous way of life. This paints women into a restricted definition of femininity.

“Despite the growing number of single people we have, there's still daily stigma the women I talked to had to deal with,” Sharp said. “People who are not living in the position of being a single person may not realize the subtle, and not so subtle, assumptions single people have to grapple with in their everyday experiences.”

The married people may even contribute to the stigma. Several women told Sharp they disliked when grandparents, aunts, uncles, coworkers, taxi drivers and friends presumed they were not happy or not complete because they had not married. One participant explained that being a single woman reflected a flawed femininity with a society that exalts coupledom.

Single women who didn't want marriage still lack a cogent place in today's SNAF-centered society, she said. In the United States in 2015, it is still seen as odd to not want to get married.

“That's why we called the performance ‘Ordinary Wars' – it's these everyday, mundane tensions and challenges women, married or single, contend with about how they should perform their femininity,” Sharp said. “The performance asked audience members to consider: ‘What is a good woman and who gets to set the terms?' I love that this project is able to showcase the insidious and unrelenting pressure of conventional femininity in a nuanced way.”

The Transdisciplinary Process

What Sharp and DeCesaro set out to create was a project that was more than dance and more than social science. Similar projects typically involve the social scientist giving the choreographer the social scientist's analysis of the data and a dance that was created from the scientist's distilled analysis. In this case, Sharp “surrendered” her raw data to DeCesaro, and DeCesaro analyzed the data herself and created the dances from her analysis.

It wasn't easy, both said. As an artist, DeCesaro was used to working creatively and listening to how her body responded to certain data, then focusing on the audience. Sharp, a scientist, paid close attention to facts, data and processes. They disagreed about practices, how important the message the audience received was and the role data should play. DeCesaro liked the art to be open to viewer interpretation. Sharp worried when viewers interpreted a dance in a way that seemed to contradict the data.

They met somewhere in between those points. One such example was the pilot performance in August 2012. Half of the dances were performed for an audience, after which Sharp collected data on the audience's responses. As a result of those responses, some of the presentation went through radical changes. Sharp said they needed a second pilot to get audience data about the rest of the dances.

DeCesaro disagreed, saying they didn't have time. The two found themselves stuck arguing in essentially two sets of practices – one art-based and one social science-based. They eventually compromised, and DeCesaro filmed the three remaining dances and showed the film to a small audience, and Sharp collected data on the audience reactions.

Sharp described it as having to argue for the processes she'd always taken for granted when working with other social scientists. For DeCesaro, it took her out of her academic comfort zone.

“Working on this project has prompted me to more carefully investigate my own disciplinary preferences and practices, something I and Elizabeth consider critical to transdisciplinary research,” DeCesaro said.

Since the show premiered, Sharp has spoken about their experience in multiple conferences nationally and internationally, including as keynote speaker for a conference in the United Kingdom, and she makes sure to emphasize the challenges they experienced. They're also co-authoring a book about the experience and the emergent methodology from the project.

"If transdisciplinary projects are going to be sustainable, I think it is important to share some of the hiccups and the missteps as a way to help others who engage in transdisciplinary work," Sharp said. "The book exposes the messiness. It brings into focus the complicated nature of a project based on two disciplines. A project like this offers a fast track to what we have called disciplinary humility."