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In contemporary Cuba, a previously marginal cultural expression now publicizes new paradigms in a complex process of social change. Within institutional strategies of cultural preservation and re-education, rumba, a dance of predominantly lower class black-skinned Cubans in the nineteenth century, has emerged as a national symbol of twentieth-century Cuban society. The national status of rumba has been enhanced and institutionalized through a series of monthly public activities organized by the Castro government through the Ministry of Culture. Cuba has chosen to promote a new national and international image and it has done so through rumba more than through any other folkloric dance. Before the Revolution of 1959, Cuban ballet and modern dance received national acclaim while folkloric dances were not particularly encouraged to flourish. Since the Revolution, a shift of support and interest has occurred in Cuban cultural policies. Rumba, a dance and a dance complex, as I will discuss later, is now promoted to express identification with African-derived elements that permeate Cuban culture. It is supported to represent the interests of the working masses and to solidify participation of the artistic community in the social advancement of a new political system. Despite the appropriation of this important cultural expression of the masses by the socialist revolution, rumba is not common within all segments of the Cuban population. It remains a dance primarily performed by dark-skinned Cubans with relatively little direct participation from other segments of Cuban society.
Since 1979, rumba in Cuba has been promoted in ways that other dances have not. Other dances, such as conga and son, are easier to perform and involve the participation of a larger cross section of the total population. As rumba has been appropriated and formalized in its presentation to a national and international public, it has shifted from a spontaneous, improvisational dance to a prepared, manipulated dance. Yet, rumba continues to forcefully embody a significant aspect of national culture for the Cuban people. The goal of this paper is to deconstruct the meaning of rumba and its role in the forging of a new Cuban national identity.
If we are serious about dance education within the school setting and the preparation of professional dance educators, current dance educators must engage in the difficult identification of the knowledge base required for competent teaching, and develop the materials and strategies to transfer this to students. (Brooks Schmitz 1990, 61)
As Brooks Schmitz recognized, the improvement of dance education will arise from a better understanding of the dance teacher's knowledge in relation to its pedagogical delivery. Although research on teacher knowledge has become a major focus of research in general education (Elbaz 1993; Leinhardt 1990; Schön 1983; Shulman 1986), such research is absent in dance.
The image and interpretation of the ballerina has shifted over time since she first took her place in the pantheon of romantic female performers in the early nineteenth century. For many, she is still romanticized, respected, and revered; in other circles, she has become suspect as a creature who may be obsessed, exploited, and retrogressive in light of the egalitarian strides women have made or are still trying to make. The female ballet dancer's basic contradiction—her ethereal exterior and her iron-willed interior—has not been sufficiently accounted for in either scheme, nor has it been woven into the kind of complex, contextualized analysis that includes practitioners who embody the form, audience members of various kinds, and the multiple, shifting locales and attitudes that surround them. As an elite art form, ballet has until recently relied on the more univocal discourse of bouquets and brickbats from critics and other specialists. In 1993, when dance anthropologist Cynthia Jean Cohen Bull called for a consideration of ballet's relationship of dance to life in ways that other cultural forms are investigated, few took up the call.
In 1892 Loïe Fuller, often figured as one of the “mothers” of modern dance, brought an infringement suit in New York against a chorus girl named Minnie Renwood Bemis in an attempt to enjoin Bemis from performing a version of the Serpentine Dance, which Fuller claimed to have invented. The dance, distinctive for its use of yards of illuminated silk fabric, made the American-born Fuller famous in Europe and spawned a host of imitators on both sides of the Atlantic.
Intent on staking her proprietary claim on the dance, Fuller took the precaution of submitting a written description of it to the U. S. Copyright Office. Ultimately, however, the judge for the U.S. Circuit Court denied Fuller's request for an injunction on the grounds that the Serpentine Dance told no story and was therefore not eligible for copyright protection. Although Fuller clearly regarded her expressive output as intellectual property, dance at the time lacked legal recognition as a copyrightable category in its own right and merited protection only if it qualified as a “dramatic” or “dramatico-musical composition.”
Scholarly studies explore dance from many points of view. They may focus on the historical development of a dance form, examine the context in which a particular dance event occurs, explore the background of those who dance and how this relates to social structure, or explore the movement process itself—the dancing. While all approaches to the study of dance provide potentially meaningful data and insights relating to the role of dance in its socio-cultural context, the heart of dance is the movement. Dance research that ignores the dancing (except for very broad descriptive statements) ignores a major component that has potential for revealing a great deal about those who create and use dance.
American researchers who have explored the movement process have, on the whole, worked independently (of each other or of other research projects), without working toward developing a widely understood methodology for examining dance movement and exploring its potential uses in other dance research. While such studies contribute to the knowledge of specific dances or dance forms, they overlook the need for common tools necessary for cross-cultural and comparative studies. To allow for the most meaningful research to be carried out, a discipline must develop tools and methodologies that have a certain consensus of validity and broad applicability. Only through use of such research procedures will it be possible to interrelate apparently diverse studies and evolve broad concepts relating to dance as human activity.
Anna Sokolow (1910–2000), an American Jewish choreographer known for her social statements, led the workers dance movement and performed as a soloist with Martha Graham. She imbued her dances Strange American Funeral (1935) and Case History No.— (1937) with proletarian ideology that spoke to 1930s working- and middle-class audiences aligned with values of revolutionary and modern dance. These choreographies spoke to a political atmosphere focused on social justice while they appealed to a broad dance-going public. Sokolow's Graham training engendered a modernist aesthetic in her choreography that led critics to consider her work universal instead of marked as coming from a working-class left-wing Jewish dancer. This article argues that while narratives about Sokolow's work downplay her Communist affiliations, these ideals played a critical role in her choreography and in her navigation of international Communist circles. As Sokolow's choreography reinforced her politics, so too did her affiliations support her dance work.
The strength of ethnography and ethnographic criticism is their focus on detail, their enduring respect for context in the making of any generalization, and their full recognition of persistent ambiguity and multiple possibilities in any situation. (Marcus and Fischer 1986:159)
Movement as Cultural Knowledge: The term “ethnography” literally means “portrait of a people.” Perhaps “portrait” is too thin and two-dimensional a metaphor to represent the goal of ethnography, for an ethnographer seeks not only to describe but to understand what constitutes a people's cultural knowledge. Cultural knowledge includes, in anthropologist Clifford Geertz's words, “a people's ethos—the tone, character, and quality of their life, its moral and aesthetic style and mood—and their world view—the picture they have of the way things in sheer actuality are, their most comprehensive ideas of order” (1973:89). The ethnographer wants to know nothing less than how a given group of people find or, more accurately, make meaning.
To examine dance from an ethnographic perspective, then, is to focus on dance as a kind of cultural knowledge. Dance ethnography depends upon the postulate that cultural knowledge is embodied in movement, especially the highly stylized and codified movement we call dance. This statement implies that the knowledge involved in dancing is not just somatic, but mental and emotional as well, encompassing cultural history, beliefs, values, and feelings. If movement encodes cultural knowledge then, for example, ballet can be examined for the messages it embodies about enduring gender conventions derived from the court society of Renaissance Europe and performance art can be examined as a response to the demands of survival in urban America.
When phenomenology is true to its intent, it never knows where it is going. This is because it is present-centered in its descriptive aims, accounts for temporal change, and does not have appropriate and inappropriate topics. It might move from Zen to dance to baseball to washing dishes, and even isolate a purity of attention that under certain circumstances connects them all. Phenomenology develops unpredictably, according to the contents of consciousness. This is its first level of method. Its second level develops philosophical perspectives from the seed of consciousness. It holds that “philosophy is not the reflection of a pre-existing truth but, like art, the act of bringing truth into being”. Here I will discuss phenomenology as a way of describing and defining dance, shifting between the experience of the dancer and that of the audience.
Experiential Truth: Phenomenology depends on immediate experience, but includes more. It hopes to arrive at meaning, perspectives on the phenomena of experience (dance in this case) which can be communicated. It is not devoid of past and future, since both are lived as part of the present. Present time takes its meaning in part from past and future. Heidegger described time as belonging to the totality of being, as “the horizon of being.” He chose the vulnerable image of falling to describe the lived dimension of present time. Falling is both a movement and a symbol of our existential mode of being-in-the-world.
Long before I became a committed academic, long before I was a college professor teaching dance history, long before terminal degrees and professional titles, I chanced upon an exhibition of early dance photographs at the Rodin Museum in Paris. I bought the small catalogue, and from time to time I would page through the striking black and white images searching for dancing inspiration. I always paused at a certain one of Loïe Fuller. There she is, radiant in the sunlight of Rodin's garden, chest open, arms spread like great wings, running full force towards the camera. It is an image of a strong, mature woman, one who exudes a joyful, yet earthy energy. A copy of this photograph taken in 1900 by Eugène Druet currently hangs above my desk.
With a nod to the meanings embedded in historical study, Walter Benjamin once wrote: “To dwell means to leave traces” (1999, 9). Indeed, traces are the material artifacts that constitute the stuff of historical inquiry, the bits and pieces of a life that scholars follow, gather up, and survey. The word itself suggests the actual imprint of a figure who has passed, the footprint, mark or impression of a person or event. These kinds of traces are omnipresent in the case of Loie Fuller. Some traces are more visible than others, some more easily located. But all traces—once noticed—draw us into another reality.
What is dance and what is the experience of dancing? What does dancing mean for those who do it?
Dance scholars and critics have written many words in response to these questions. Choreographers give their answers to “what is dance?” in the work they create and, often, in commentary about it. Professional dancers have also spoken, primarily in biographies and autobiographies, of what dance and dancing mean to them. Not all voices are heard in dance literature, however. In particular, the voices of children and adolescents, especial ly those not enrol led in professional schools, are silent. What is the dance experience like, and what does it mean, for them? What do their experiences—and the meanings they make of them—say to us, who work with young people in dance?
These were the questions that propelled three researchers into this study focusing on a group of 16–18 year old young women. In particular we were interested in finding out what young women dancers thought of their place within dance and dancing. This research focused initially on young adolescents and, as such, represents only a beginning of what we view as an important area of investigation.
No critic of phenomenology, arguably, has been more influential in prefiguring recent discourses on power, gender, and sexuality that have emerged in dance studies in recent decades than the philosopher-historian-critic Michel Foucault. The number of dance scholars directly citing Foucault, and the number influenced indirectly by his ideas through intermediary theorists such as Judith Butler—perhaps the single most popular one—is so large as to require an essay of its own just to survey. Virtually every analysis of choreographic practice that has addressed these topics since the 1980s has drawn directly or indirectly on Foucault's theories. Indeed, the very mention of the term “discipline” in current dance scholarship (and many related fields as well) more or less automatically makes reference to Foucault's genealogical study of incarceration, Surveiller et punir. Naissance de la prison, translated into English as Discipline and Punish: Birth of the Prison, and, in particular to the chapter, “Les corps dociles” or “Docile Bodies” (Foucault 1975, 137–171; 1975/1995, 135–170).
For the past thirteen years, I have been traveling to the United States from my home country of Germany, first as a graduate student in California and later as a professor living in New York. Every time I pass through immigration, I am asked a series of questions regarding my final destination and my occupation. The latter always leads to some confusion, because when I am asked what I do, my accent seems to turn “dance history” into “dentistry.” Forced by phonetics to use the term “dance studies,” when confronted by the blank face of the customs officer, I inevitably embark on an explanation of what “dance studies” might be. Just in the moment when I finally see some comprehension of my profession lighting up the officer's face, the question is asked: “And we pay you to do this?”
I constantly find myself in the position of having to explain my work. Usually I avoid a long-winded, defensive justification by comparing dance studies to one of its neighboring disciplines: “It is like art history, just writing about dance instead of paintings.” That usually does the trick, but it leaves a foul taste in my mouth. I know that dance studies isn't like art history and I certainly don't want it to be.
Laurence Louppe once advanced the intriguing notion that the dancer is “the veritable avatar of Orpheus: he has no right to turn back on his course, lest he be denied the object of his quest” (Louppe 1994, 32). However, looking across the contemporary dance scene in Europe and the United States, one cannot escape the fact that dancers—contrary to Orpheus, contrary to Louppe's assertion—are increasingly turning back on their and dance history's tracks in order to find the “object of their quest.” Indeed, contemporary dancers and choreographers in the United States and Europe have in recent years been actively engaged in creating re-enactments of sometimes well-known, sometimes obscure, dance works of the twentieth century. Examples abound: we can think of Fabian Barba's Schwingende Landschaft (2008), an evening-length piece where the Ecuadorian choreographer returns to Mary Wigman's seven solo pieces created in 1929 and performed during Wigman's first U.S. tour in 1930; of Elliot Mercer returning in 2009 and 2010 to several of Simone Forti's Construction Pieces (1961/62), performing them at Washington Square Park in New York City; or Anne Collod's 2008 return to Anna Halprin's Parades and Changes (1965), among many other examples.
It is well acknowledged that the court dances which developed in Europe from the seventeenth century onward spread to the rural areas of Europe and to the new world. What has not been properly recognized is that these dances — the quadrille, the cotillion, the contradance and the like — were taken up by Afro-Americans in North and South America and the West Indies and were modified and adapted to local cultural circumstances. In many cases — especially in the West Indies — they continue to be found today. Yet as similar as these dances may look or sound, their functions are not always necessarily the same as those of their European sources. At one extreme, they were “Africanized” for sacred purposes; at the other, they were re-formed and became the basis of a new world popular culture. An example of the former occurs on the island of Montserrat.
There country dance orchestras made up of various combinations of fife, fiddle, concertina or accordion, triangle, and two drums known as the woowoo and the babala (or babla) play for social dancing, but the same music is also used for inducing possession on other occasions, called “jombee dances.” On these latter occasions quadrille dance rhythms are intensified and gradually “Africanized” in order that individuals may become possessed and convey the messages of the spirits.
I begin these rather tentative and exploratory reflections by calling upon some provocative remarks by George Beiswanger, from an essay written some years ago and later reprinted:
Muscular capacity is the physical means by which dances are made. But the means becomes available to the choreographic imagination only through the operation of a metaphor, a metaphor by which a moving in the muscular sense takes on the character of a doing or goings-on. … Strictly speaking, then, dances are not made out of but upon movement, movement being the poetic bearer, the persistent metaphor, by which muscular material is made available for the enhanced, meaningful, and designed goings-on that are dance.
Though this passage summarizes a view that I shall try to defend and articulate, the attempt to apply the concept of metaphor troubles me: it seems a strained extension of an otherwise reasonably clear and useful term. So instead of Beiswanger's rather mysterious “operation of a metaphor” I shall suggest we employ some concepts and principles borrowed from the philosophical theory of action. But I still like his favored expression for what we are all trying to understand better—those special “goings-on” that constitute dance.
In a 1915 editorial of The Ladies Home Journal, social commentator Dorothy Mills pondered the issue of the “woman question,” and in a few vivid sentences summed up much of the public's reaction to women's readjusted place in society during the Progressive era. What was one to make of the fact that women were declaring the right to vote, divorcing their husbands at a greater pace than ever and demanding fulfilling work outside of marriage? Said Mills:
The “New Girl” that some of us proclaim, and many of us don't believe in at all and more of us dread, is not a fantastic creature, a third sex, a superwoman. She is the eternal woman, with her love for man and child her eternal necessity, plus perhaps only one thing: a certain awkward realization of herself as more of a personality, a unit. Do you see how that can be the starting point of an infinite variety of developments, of activities, of theories? (Mills 1915, 3)
As western theatrical dance has developed through the centuries, dance educators, artists, and researchers have sought methods to improve dance skills and to refine the quality of dance performance. In the pursuit of ever-increasing technical skills, improved alignment, freedom from injury, and enhanced artistic capabilities such as expanded dynamic and expressive range, dancers have explored numerous training systems developed for these purposes. These systems are often used in conjunction with dance technique classes, and they explore a range of approaches addressing different aspects of the neural and motor mechanisms underlying dance skills. In general, the systems can be seen as operating within two large concerns. The first includes systems using imagery and/or mental practice designed to affect alignment and dance performance on the subcortical or neurological level, with minimal or no physical action (Bartenieff 1980; Dowd 1990; Sweigard 1974; Todd 1937). The second emphasizes consistent and specialized exercise programs designed to encourage muscular strength and endurance, flexibility, and/or cardio-respiratory endurance, with the claim that these physical changes will enhance alignment, dance technique, and performance (Clippinger-Robertson 1990; Fitt 1988; Kravitz 1990; Lauffenburger 1990; Pilates 1945; Russell 1992; Solomon 1990; Stephens 1990; Trepman, Walaszek, & Micheli 1990). While there is often overlap in these two categories, the first group emphasizes neuromuscular repatterning to alter alignment or movement habits, while the second addresses muscular/structural alterations to affect change. For example, the body therapies, including the work of Bartenieff, Alexander, Feldenkrais, and Sweigard, attempt to alter the way muscles pattern themselves, stressing whole body activity, connections, and awareness, not exercises for specific muscles (Myers 1980). Conditioning programs, on the other hand, do engage particular muscles, in order to make gains in muscular strength and range of motion.