Emily Schuhmann is the quintessential old soul. When she is not teaching as an adjunct in the Art depart-ment, she spends her time swing dancing, practicing period hair design and shopping for vintage hats.
“When I was a kid, my mom had a box of hats under her bed that were my grandma’s,” she said. “I used to sneak in there and put them on, so it just kind of cascaded into a love of all things vintage.”
Schuhmann earned an undergraduate degree in metalsmithing and jewelry design with a minor in German from Ball State University. She went on to get a graduate degree in painting, metalsmithing and jewelry design with a certificate in art history at Texas Tech. She began teaching in 2007 as a graduate student there and has since taught at schools including the University of Louisville, Bellarmine and Indiana University Southeast.
As a graduate student, she needed a stress reliever from school. After discovering that her library carried vintage books on period hair design, she began practicing it and fell in love. “I mostly know about late 1890s Gibson Girl styles all the way through ’60s beehives. I’m not super into brush-outs like Farrah Fawcett kind of stuff in the ’70s.”
Not only can Schuhmann fashion a mean pile of curls, she can perform the dance moves to match. “I got started dancing in the ’90s when the Gap commercial came out, and neo-swing,” she said. “I was part of this dance club at my university and then I danced a lot nationally and while I lived in Germany.” After completing her undergraduate degree, she took a year off and was able to refine her dancing skills. During this time, she helped found a swing dance club in Louisville.
When thinking of swing dance, most people’s reference is what they may have seen on Dancing with the Stars: women in full skirts with pin curls, men in pinstripes and suspenders and vibrant jazz music. But the dance form is much more complex than that. There are more than six different styles of swing dance dating to the 1920s and ’30s. Swing dance stemmed from African American and African Cuban culture fused with New Orleans culture, Schuhmann says. Every detail of it is based on some particular occurrence in history, and the style of the dance, the clothing, and even the participant roles differ depending on the era being performed.
“Early swing dances, such as the Charleston, are earthy and improvisational. You’re not stiff; you’re loose, and your beats are very much into the ground and conversational between the partner and the music,” she said. Other styles evolved from the Charleston. “Balboa style happened when the high school students in Balboa, Calif., packed the ballrooms and they wanted to dance to this new fast music. They were doing Charleston, but with their bodies touching in a really small space. So you’ll notice the kicks are really small and underneath you and it’s a chest-to-chest connection. When we get past that into the ’30s and ’40s into what we call Lindy Hop, it’s really, really aggressively athletic. There’s lots of jumping, and there are flying moves where the leader will throw you. Balboa doesn’t have that.”
Schuhmann explained that recently there has been a major shift in the interpretation of traditional swing dance roles, giving women more power in dance and creating a more welcoming environment for the LGBT community. Traditionally, a male plays the role of the leader and the woman the role of the follower. Schuhmann flouts these traditional roles and is adding her own voice to her dancing.
After competing for years and fine-tuning her craft, Schuhmann became a swing dance instructor. “People won’t take your dance class unless it’s fun,” she said. “You’re giving them information and techniques, but it’s also fun. So you tell jokes, it’s a jovial atmosphere and you’re having a great time.” Dancing has taken her all over the United States and abroad. Some favorite destinations include the Outer Banks in North Carolina, St. Louis and India.
In India, she has also had the opportunity to live out another of her passions: bettering the art community. She has been working as the coordinator for an artist residency program in Raghurajpur, a village in Odisha, India, where every household is home to an artist. “You walk down the street at night and the houses are lit and it’s like walking through this open-air gallery.”
Currently, Schuhmann is working to connect Western artists with the residency program, giving them the chance to live in the village, take art classes with the locals and immerse themselves in the culture of an art-driven community. “I really strongly feel that art is an expression of self,” she said, “and the more that you can show that you are your authentic self, the more you empower others to be their authentic selves.”
By Emily Gahafer ’17
Photo by Rosemary Cundiff-Brown