In introducing and teaching art-critical skills—i.e., the skills of description, analysis, interpretation, and judgment—the greatest challenge for teachers of college and university dance students is to teach them confidently to formulate interpretations of the dances they see. With modest effort and practice students are able to gain proficiency in describing the visible features of a dance, as well as in marshaling descriptive/analytical evidence into defensible reasons for an aesthetic judgment. But the concept of interpretation is often difficult for students to grasp for two reasons. First, interpretation is tied to the philosophically slippery term “meaning.” Second, there is little consensus among theorists, artists, critics, and educators on what “interpretation” actually is, or how to go about doing it. This uncertainty in the professional ranks naturally filters down to students, causing some of them to grow nervously silent when faced with questions about meaning in dances and other works of art. Once silenced, of course, students are more likely to accept at face value the interpretive arguments of others rather than to develop their own aesthetic perspectives.
If students are to become critically literate, however, it is imperative for dance educators to explore with them various approaches to interpretation. Only then is it possible to present to students—as I will try to do here—an account of interpretation that they will find sensible, easy to articulate, and directly applicable in their own critical practice.