At just 11 years old, Morgan Senter had an existential crisis.
A back injury left her questioning her future as a gymnast. When a teammate suggested she try Irish step dancing—a style characterized by the theatrical production Riverdance—Senter reluctantly gave it a shot.
Her first year was full of angst and bitterness at giving up gymnastic, but in the decade since, she’s competed as a step dancer on the national and international stages. Eventually, she realized she had developed a passion for the dance form.
Once at VCU, Senter started to look for ways to combine her love of dance with her interest in physical therapy. She settled on a major in health, physical education and exercise science with a minor in dance, thinking she’d eventually focus her practice on training and treating dancers.
Just a few weeks into her freshman year, Senter discovered a new possibility.
She was taking an honors class designed to introduce first-year students to graduate level research practices. She settled on a project exploring the cultural evolution of Irish step dancing.
“It was the first time I had ever examined dance in an academic context,” she says.
In her research, she came across a series of articles about a study at the University of Limerick in Ireland exploring the benefits of Irish set dancing for Parkinson’s patients.
While step and set dancing might sound similar, stylistically, they couldn’t be more different. Step dancing is known for its short, intense bursts of energy and the dancer’s rigid upper body, their hands locked to their sides. Set dancing, however, is informal and social, more akin to square dancing and line dancing.
“In set dancing, you can keep going for a longer period of time,” she says. “This is important in exercise physiology, especially when considering chronic disease populations. Set dancing is also more conducive to adherence because they’re having a good time, so they want to stick with the program.”
As she read about the study, Senter noticed one missing piece: the researchers didn’t include any details about the choreography of the dance classes. That’s when she started to connect the dots between her dance experience and her exercise science knowledge.
“Their program worked for that specific population, but if I’m looking to target a different population, there may be different physiological goals,” she says. “How I choreograph a class matters, because that determines which energy systems patients use and how I target outcome goals.”
“And that’s what really fascinates me, especially as a dancer.”
Set dancing isn’t widely available in the U.S. To better understand the form and choreography, Senter is heading to the University of Limerick after graduation. For the next year, she’ll study not only Irish set dancing, but other global dance forms like African dance and flamenco. She’ll also be researching the cultural aspects of dance, what keeps participants coming back, and how to document choreography.
“I’ll have the maximum movement vocabulary as I go on to physical therapy studies,” she says. “I’ll have all these dance styles under my belt that I can work with.”
It’s a natural next step after four years of research—including a few undergraduate research grants, presenting at the National Conference on Undergraduate Research, and serving as editor-in-chief of the undergraduate research journal Artis—that led her to a surprising passion.
“I didn’t expect that I would be more interested in what dance can do for the general population,” she says. “I’ve learned just how much it benefits your quality of life. There’s so much unexplored research and it’s so exciting to me.”