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'Dance Your Ph.D.' winner on science, art, and embracing his identity

Weliton Menário Costa (center) holds a laptop while surrounded by dancers for his music video, "Kangaroo Time." From left: Faux Née Phish (Caitlin Winter), Holly Hazlewood, and Marina de Andrade.
Nic Vevers/ANU
Weliton Menário Costa (center) holds a laptop while surrounded by dancers for his music video, "Kangaroo Time." From left: Faux Née Phish (Caitlin Winter), Holly Hazlewood, and Marina de Andrade.

Weliton Menário Costa grew up in rural Brazil. "I come from the countryside of the countryside of the countryside," he says. He didn't have much, but from his earliest days, he loved to sing.

"I just remember looking at the singers on television and loving them," Menário Costa recalls. "I think if I could have picked a profession — if the world was equal and you could pick anything — I would have picked 'musician.'"

He took a detour into science, but ultimately he's returned to embrace music professionally. And he recently picked up a major accolade. Menário Costa won this year's "Dance Your Ph.D." contest, an annual competition organized by Science magazine where doctoral students and Ph.D. graduates showcase their research through dance.

Menário Costa's winning submission highlights his work on kangaroo behavior and personality, but it also celebrates his identity — and what he's had to overcome to embrace it.

'I would just sing ... every day'

When Menário Costa was a boy in Brazil, he would try to sing and dance with his younger sister outside. That's when the comments would start.

"People were always like, 'Oh, that's a girl thing, you're a f** or whatever,'" he says. "Back then, I didn't even know what it was. I just knew it was negative. It's a very sexist space and homophobic and all that."

When Menário Costa did receive a compliment, it was usually for how smart he was. So he buried himself in school and excelled. He got into a competitive high school. But even so, he was chronically anxious about what others thought of him and worried that he wasn't good enough.

"So instead of going to parties and dancing or performing and doing the things I actually loved," Menário Costa says, "I would just lock myself in the room and say, 'Hey, I have homework.' But when I would shower, I would just sing ... every day."

With time, Menário Costa made it to Australia — first to study English, and then he received a scholarship to pursue his Ph.D. in behavioral ecology at the Australian National University in Canberra. His research focused on eastern gray kangaroos in Wilsons Promontory National Park in southeastern Australia.

"And my main question was, do kangaroos have personality ... different personalities?," Menário Costa explains. "And then, what's driving the behavior you see? Is it due to personality, or is it the social environment?"

It was during his Ph.D. — when Menário Costa was on this other continent half a world away from Brazil — that he managed to connect with who he really was. He came out as queer. He started singing and dancing out in the world again. And after finishing his Ph.D. amidst the struggles of COVID and bushfires, Menário Costa decided to leave science and dive into creative work.

"Now I'm gonna be a singer, now I'm gonna be a dancer, and now I'm gonna be all these things I liked as a kid," he says. Menário Costa started performing at pubs and small venues, mostly singing covers. "Then, last year, I started writing as well, and performing my own original songs."

Diversity in kangaroos — and in dance

To Menário Costa, Science magazine's "Dance Your Ph.D." competition felt like "a perfect way of exposing my work as a singer songwriter."

His submission — the song and dance "Kangaroo Time" — was born in an act of exuberant collaboration. The music video opens with Menário Costa driving to what appears to be his field site. There are a couple of kangaroo shots, but mostly it's a joyous sequence of dancers on an open landscape in Canberra — drag queens, Capoeira performers, ballet dancers, and people doing samba, salsa, hip hop, Brazilian funk, and traditional Indian dance.

"The way they move is very different," says Menário Costa, "but also what they wear to perform is quite different. I decided to use the actual diversity we have in a dance community."

This was how Menário Costa represented one of his central findings — that kangaroos have distinctive personalities, based on how much they squirm when they're handled as joeys and at what distance subadults and adult females move away from an approaching human.

In addition, kangaroo siblings often have similar personalities, and for that Menário Costa dances alongside his own sister — the first family member to ever visit him in Australia. "One of the main reasons that made her want to come was to be in that video," he says. "It was so special having her here."

Menário Costa also discovered that when kangaroos move between groups, they adjust their behavior to conform to that of their companions. In the video, he makes his way to other groups and adopts the new dancing styles as he goes.

The main lyrics are simple, but catchy: "I'm gonna share with you... hope you don't mind... some things I learned from my kangaroo time." The phrase "kangaroo time" has a rainbow of meanings.

"It means the time I did my kangaroo research," says Menário Costa. "But [it] also means the first time I lived as a gay man. It's the first time I lived as an immigrant, five years without going home. The time of reconnection to myself, of exploring my sexuality, of bridging these beautiful communit[ies]."

Menário Costa, who now goes by the stage name WELI, says that filming this music video — when all his worlds came together in a single afternoon — feels like his most significant achievement to date. He likens his first place finish to winning the Eurovision Dance Contest.

The video ends with text emblazoned onscreen — "Differences lead to diversity. It exists within any given species; it is just natural."

Copyright 2024 NPR

Ari Daniel is a reporter for NPR's Science desk where he covers global health and development.