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Grad student receives fellowship for her research on bomba dance

June 17, 2020 By Chelsea Hylton

Sarah Bruno didn’t just read books and study documents to learn about the bomba dance and its roots.

She danced the Afro-Puerto Rican dance in multiple classes in Chicago and on the island of Puerto Rico.

“I probably took like 75 hours of classes at this point, because after COVID I was taking almost six bomba classes a week on Zoom,” said Bruno, who is an Afro-Puerto Rican woman.

Sarah Bruno

Dancing the bomba let her feel the powerful emotions the dance is known for.

“I feel brave and also feel oftentimes drawn to the song and the people who are playing or singing, which might be about ancestors,” she said.

Bruno, an anthropology Ph.D student at UW–Madison, was recently named a Mellon/ACLS Dissertation Completion Fellow for her bomba research.

Her project, called “Emotion in Motion” examines how Afro-Puerto Rican women dance bomba as a form of healing themselves and their communities in the wake of disaster. Within her research, she explores affective profiles of Afro-Puerto Rican women, how emotions can have history, and how bomba as a dance has its own emotional history.

“I am also looking more particularly at the emotional dexterity within Afro-Puerto Rican women. So the idea that you can hold multiple emotions at once and learn to navigate those emotions,” said Bruno.

There are multiple types of bomba dance, Bruno explained. Holandes has a happy and cheerful rhythm, while Yubá is more angry and sad but at the very same time courageous. Cuembe is empowering but also flirty, another variation of Cuembe is sad.

Her interest was sparked in bomba when it was mentioned in an undergraduate history class at UW–Madison. She knew she wanted to go to graduate school and to further research bomba in her studies.

Bruno began the intense process of applying to different graduate programs, including the Mellon/ACLS Dissertation Fellowship.

“As application season came around, I was getting nervous because I started getting rejections. I got rejected from a lot of them, and it just so happened that they (Mellon/ACLS) saw the potential of my project,” said Bruno.

Bomba has a lot of significance to current events, with both the Black Lives Matter movement and the movement favoring Puerto Rican statehood.

“Bomba has historically been a site of protest and Blackness in Puerto Rican history and with Black Lives Matter, the Afro-Puerto Rican people in the states are using bomba to protest and further freedom or liberation,” she said.

Bruno thinks it is important to recognize local networks of protest and liberation for Black folks in Madison, in particular those that focus on liberation within Madison or within the United States.

“I got the award and that’s cool, but I think there are other people that could definitely be linked to moments that are really important,” said Bruno.