Why Dance and Dance Studies Matter
Sarah Whatley, co-editor of Art and Dance in Dialogue: Body, Space, Object, discusses the relationship between dance and the visual arts, and how Dance Studies is responding to the challenges posed by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Dance Studies is a relatively young discipline but the increasing number of publications over the last three decades in particular reflects how important dance is in people’s lives. As a broad field, dance writers have studied how dance plays a vital role in our cultural lives, is core to our cultural heritage, and as a practice, reveals more about individual and community identity, whilst contributing to social cohesion, health and wellbeing. The range of themes that Dance Studies encompasses reflects this diversity. Many scholars have introduced readers to a plethora of dance practices, ranging from theatrical forms, to social dance, folk traditions and much more. Moreover, whilst different theoretical and methodological approaches characterise Dance Studies research, drawing variously on philosophical, historical and analytic lenses, writing about and through practice is a common feature. Dance Studies also finds many connections with other disciplinary fields and has helped to shape new enquiries in multiple areas including in the digital humanities, in pedagogy, activism, and in therapeutic contexts, as well as with its close relations; other art forms.
The dialogues that emerge when dance and the visual arts come together is the focus for a new book I have co-edited with Imogen Racz, Katerina Paramana and Marie-Louise Crawley: Art and Dance in Dialogue; Body, Space, Object. Our aim with the book was to bring together writers who have practices and theoretical concerns that span dance, visual arts and performance, to show how contemporary practices are part of a much longer tradition of collaboration, whilst also bringing attention to how bodies, spaces and objects give rise to new thinking and new practices, and the spaces in which those practices take place and are experienced. The contributions are in various ways concerned with movement, or the suggestion of movement, movement through spaces and the echoes, memories and rituals associated with our relationship to the environment. The chapters, contributed by specialists in their field and from diverse cultures, show well how the social, material and sensorial intersect in dance and visual art. The book, whilst intentionally interdisciplinary, revitalises the conversations between dance and visual arts that have taken place throughout the twentieth century and have been so influential to Dance Studies today. From the ‘total theatre’ of Serge Diaghilev’s project in the early part of the 20th century to Allan Kaprow’s ‘Happenings’ of the 1950s-1960s, to Rosemary Butcher’s minimalist choreography straddling the end of the 20th and start of the 21st century. These key figures and many other dance artists have been exploring new aesthetics, a new spatial organisation and sensibility, and have drawn on philosophy, cultural studies and critical theory to offer new understandings of what constitutes dance and choreography. Dance Studies is alive to how different forms of knowledge can be articulated, and in particular how the embodied knowledge of the practitioner can and should be valued.
As we learn to live in a world that is trying to find a new stability and ways to recover from the Covid-19 pandemic, the idea of ‘embodiment’ has taken a new turn. The dance sector is facing major challenges. Our theatres are shut, freelancers haven’t worked (or been paid) for months, and yet dance artists are trying to keep their practice alive through making work for new environments and platforms, and our dance training institutions are developing new ways to teach online or in ‘bubbles’. Physical contact, touch, and much of what is familiar to so many dance practices, is replaced by a new choreography of social distancing and online connection. The lived experience of dance has taken a new direction. But at the same time, many more dance works are being distributed online and more people are dancing and sharing their dances on platforms such as TikTok, creating a new kind of global short-form dance commons. This new way of living has awakened the dormant dancer in many people, reminding us that dance was our earliest and most fundamental form of communication. Dance is what makes us human, lifting our spirits in times of grief. Dance will help us survive and thrive. And Dance Studies will respond, expanding the discourse of dance to record, document and theorise how we have lived and danced through this unprecedented time of isolation and shared experience.
Sarah Whatley is Director of the Centre for Dance Research (C-DaRE), Coventry University, UK. Her research focuses on dance analysis, digital dance resources, dance and disability, and intangible cultural heritage. She has published widely on these themes and is founding Editor of the Journal of Dance and Somatic Practices.