When Tyler Junior College dance professor Kristi Franks was working on the thesis for her master’s degree, she hadn’t anticipated that her research would earn national recognition.
Franks was recently named the winner of the 2022 Doug Risner Prize for Emerging Dance Researchers by the National Dance Education Organization.
“It’s the 2022 prize because it was a yearlong process,” she said.
Franks’ thesis topic, “Exploring Postsecondary Experiences for Dance Majors in Texas with Backgrounds in Competitive Dance and/or Drill Team,” was based not only on her experience as an educator but also as a dance student growing up in Tyler.
“I came from a competitive dance background in a studio here, and I did not learn modern or ballet techniques at my studio,” she said. “We focused on jazz and lyrical styles.”
In her senior year of high school, Franks decided she wanted to major in dance at Texas Tech.
“I soon learned that, in academia, the model for dance studies is very classical and Euro-centric; so, there was a huge emphasis on ballet and modern dance,” she said. “There was hardly any jazz nor the other forms of dance that I was experienced in, so I felt behind and unprepared. I had a hard time transitioning. I eventually fell in love with modern dance and, after a couple of years, came around to ballet and gained a true appreciation for it.”
After graduating from Texas Tech, she began teaching part time at the university.
“I kept seeing the same thing,” she said. “I taught modern, and the freshmen who came into my class thought they had enrolled for a hip-hop class because they didn’t even know what modern dance was.”
She saw that trend continue when she joined the TJC dance faculty.
“Every semester, I see new students who have been taking dance since they were small children,” she said. “They come here as college freshmen with up to 16 years of dance experience, and maybe even years of drill team; but that experience does not necessarily put them in any sort of advanced-level class. We have them take mostly modern and ballet, which are often foreign to what they did for 16 years.”
Franks’ thesis idea was born out of how to address that issue.
“My research became: ‘There’s a gap here, so what do we do? Is it a postsecondary educator’s problem where we’re trying to fill the gap? Is there some partnership we can do with high schools and dance studios? Am I even correct in thinking this is prevalent?’”
Franks interviewed current and former students and educators for her research — and her findings weren’t surprising: Yep, it was prevalent.
“I found that what I had experienced and seen was pretty common,” she said. “I presented last fall for the National Dance Educators conference about this topic, and I’m doing the same thing at the Texas Dance Educators Association this January.
“It may not need drastic curriculum change. Maybe it’s communication — just a conversation that needs to keep happening about where we can meet in the middle. With academia right now, there’s more inclusion and people are starting to say things like, ‘Just because students don’t do ballet and modern doesn’t mean they aren’t a real dancer.’”
She continued, “The world of dance is evolving like everything else. Dance education is moving forward. It’s not stuck in the early 1900s, when they set up these college programs. It’s moving somewhere, and I’m saying let’s be inclusive of everyone.”
Franks’ research was published in the Journal of Dance Education, and she is still surprised by the Risner Award.
“One of my mentors suggested I should apply for it,” she said. “When I was looking it up and it said, ‘emerging dance researcher,’ I laughed and thought there was no chance. It’s very humbling.”
Even though Franks joined the TJC faculty only four years ago, her TJC roots run deep. Her mother, M’Liss Hindman, has been a professor and director of the TJC Speech and Debate team for more than four decades.
“I grew up on this campus,” Franks said. “After Texas Tech, my husband and I lived in the Dallas/Fort Worth area for a time and had kids, and then his career as an architect moved us back to Tyler."
“When I came back, my mom told me about all of the great things happening in the TJC dance department. So, I went to see their production of ‘The Nutcracker,’ and was blown away by the talent and teaching. I couldn’t wait to be a part of it. It feels like home, plus it’s such a fun, full circle to be colleagues with my mom.”