Story+ Project

Body Work: Reanimating Policy Responses to Coal Mining Disasters


During this collision of artistic and academic energies, students will examine U.S. policy responses to significant coal mining disasters during the 20th Century and experiment with methods of processing their research through dance. Drawing on evidence such as transcripts of Congressional hearings, federal reports explaining the causes of disasters, and oral histories with coal miners and their families, students will employ content analysis methods to answer two primary questions: how were the narratives used to explain each disaster constructed? And how did those narratives influence policy that aimed to prevent similar catastrophes in the future? At the same time, dance artist, educator, and researcher Justin Tornow will introduce the students to embodiment methods, which will include an introduction to somatic practices, structured improvisations for movement and spatial orientation, and the use of chance operations. By the end of the six-week term, students will draw on these tools to compose a post-modern movement performance that communicates both their research and the results of including embodiment as one of their methodological cornerstones. Through this unique research experience, students will investigate themes such as the politics of expertise, the role of focusing events and class and gender-based power dynamics in policymaking, the impact of embodiment on academic inquiry and communication, and the alienation of human bodies from processes of energy production in fossil-fueled societies like the modern U.S.

Skills undergrad:

No relevant background or special skills are required, but students with either experience or a strong interest in the history of U.S. energy systems, public policy, labor and working-class history, and/or artistic expression (especially dance) will be particularly compelling applicants. 

Project Sponsor(s): 

Jonathon Free, Ph.D., Lecturing Fellow and Assistant Director for Research Development, Duke University Energy Initiative

Justin Tornow, Dance artist, researcher, and educator

Graduate Mentor(s): 

Hannah Smith, MEM candidate, Environmental Management 


Alice Carroll, Emma Cairns, Juliet Irving (MFA candidate, Dance)



This team experimented with various methods of embodied research while investigating the roles that coal miners’ bodies played in policymakers’ efforts to improve mine safety following major disasters. These embodied methods included basic exercises (regularly-scheduled mindfulness meditations and stretching) designed to focus each researcher’s attention on their body. More advanced techniques used, such as matching the postures of miners at work or on a picket line, or the breath patterns of oral history narrators disabled by black lung, were creative and interpretive methods that sought to reconfigure both how they processed their research and their relationship to the subjects at its core. This work resulted in two interrelated conclusions: that policymakers conceptualized miners’ bodies as unruly objects in need of regulation more often than they understood them as human beings in need of protection from mining’s various dangers; and that an intentional and critical emphasis on engaging both the body and mind during research has the potential to transform the research experience in ways that may expand the archive and open doors to deeper empathy.

Image from Coal Age (July 1947), pg. 80.


  • Arts
  • Dance
  • Environment
  • Public Policy
  • Labor History
  • Oral History
  • Global Health