2024 Undergraduate Dance Award Winners

Leah Esemuede headshot

The Julia Wray Memorial Dance Award 2024: Leah Esemuede

This Award celebrates the memory of Julia Wray who for many years was the leader and passionate protagonist for dance at Duke and in North Carolina. It is awarded to a faculty-nominated senior who has shown outstanding leadership in the Dance Program during their term at Duke University.

Leah Abieyuwa Esemuede received The Julia Wray Memorial Dance Award 2024. Earlier, Leah received the Clay Taliaferro Dance Award, the Dance Project Award and the Benenson Award in the Arts. She is a senior graduating with double majors in Psychology and Dance and a minor in Spanish.

Leah is a versatile dancer with a background in ballet, contemporary and hip-hop. With Duke Dance Performance Repertory, Leah has danced in choreographic works of lyun Ashani Harrison, Andrea Woods Valdés and guest artist Juel D. Lane, and has explored her own interests in dance choreography during her term at Duke. With her immaculate dance training, she was accepted for the summer programs at Orsolina28, The Alwin Ailey School and the A.I.M by Kyle Abraham.

She has provided choreographic leadership in student-run artistic organizations, including Embodiment Contemporary Dance, Black Arts Collective, and Street Medicine. Leah is a member of Ballet Ashani, directed by Iyun Ashani Harrison. She intends to continue pursuing professional dance after graduation from Duke.

Michela Arietti in dance pose

The Clay Taliaferro Dance Award 2024: Michela Arietti

This award was instituted in 2006 to honor Professor of the Practice Emeritus of Dance Clay Taliaferro, an extraordinary performing artist, choreographer and teacher. It recognizes the artistic and technical growth of a faculty-nominated undergraduate sophomore or junior student who has the potential to become a professional dancer, teacher or choreographer.

Michela Annamaria Arietti received The Clay Taliaferro Dance Award 2024. She was born and raised in Milan, Italy, where she trained at La Scala Theater’s Ballet School and later at the Bolshoi Ballet Academy in Moscow. Currently, she is a sophomore pursuing Program II at Duke, focusing on interdisciplinary studies in movement practices, nutrition and neuroscience. Her Program II will examine how trauma can be engendered and healed through both dance and nutrition.

Besides ballet at Duke Dance Program, she is also exploring other forms of dance that encourage orientation to de-institutionalized practices and social choreography. During the current academic year, Michela performed for Dance faculty Kristin Danielle-Taylor Duncan's choreographic work "NOT AT REST" and for the guest artist Juel D. Lane’s new work "Discovering Your Voice: A Dance Class" during his residency last fall.

Outside her academic pursuits, Michela is a passionate advocate for disability rights and eating disorder awareness, believing in creating a welcoming and nurturing space for all. Michela finds fulfillment in blending her scientific work, artistic endeavors and personal advocacy to create meaningful change both on and off the stage.

Cheryl Li headshot

The Dance Writing Award 2024: Cheryl Li

The Dance Writing Award, hosted by the Duke University Dance Program, is a competitive award presented annually. The Dance Writing Award recognizes the Duke University undergraduate who has written an academic paper demonstrating excellence in dance writing and has proven their ability to translate the movement text to the written word.

Cheryl Li received the Dance Writing Award 2024 for her essay “Guangchang Wu as a Reflection of China's Transformative Past and Present.” Cheryl Li is a senior at Duke University pursuing degrees in Computer Science and Economics. While her academic focus has been in the technical realms of coding and quantitative analysis, she developed a passion for dance and movement studies through her liberal arts education at Duke.

A defining experience was taking a Dance Program seminar course, "Movement in Question," which explored the philosophical, cultural and political dimensions of dance and physical expression, encouraging her to appreciate dance not just as an art form, but as a medium for raising questions about embodied experience, identity and social issues. Going forward, Cheryl hopes to continue integrating her interests in technology and dance. Her goal is to pursue a career in user experience design, bringing an awareness of physical and cultural contexts into creating intuitive digital experiences.

The Dance Project Award 2024:

Kayla Lihardo in dance pose
Photo Credit: Lydia Sellers

The Dance Project Award is a competitive award presented annually to help defray expenses towards proposed projects related to dance studies, creative work or dance research.

Kayla Lihardo is a Duke junior pursuing a Program II major in neuroaesthetics. Her interdisciplinary research is driven by her passion for dance, which she continues to explore within the Duke Dance Program and as the director of student company Devils en Pointe.