Despite the extensive history of dance worldwide, only small bits of its history and global significance were addressed in its early history as a formal discipline. Since its formal study in the US beginning in the 1920s, dance has slowly become more inclusive and now explores the dance histories of minority groups. Further, because dance can go beyond cultural and social barriers, it has the power to transform and positively influence marginalized groups.
Bust a move through Dance
Dance is an ancient tradition and a modern pastime. There are rich and varied histories of dance in nearly every culture during many eras. But, how dance came to be included in academic curriculum of contemporary culture is a history of its own. While the formal study of dance has not always been equitable, recently, more conscientious efforts have sought to include minorities and revise the histories of antiquated agendas.
In the United States, dance education became formalized in the 1920s. Initially, the classes that were taught were specifically for women. These tended to be affiliated with physical education requirements. This continued through the beginning of the 1970s until legislation urged schools to focus on equal educational opportunities for both men and women, and pushed for coeducational activities. The face of dance was thoroughly changed in schools when it became integrated into the fine arts departments, rather than in the physical educational arenas. Institutionally, a greater emphasis was put on the creative process of dance in additional to its historical and cultural significance. This aligned with education in other areas of the arts. By the 2000s, dance was commonly a part of art education curriculum, including study tracks of its own (Advancing Dance Education in the Arts, 2017).
According to Buckland, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, dance in the West was studied with a number of biases that distorted the image of dance as a whole. For instance, due to commonly accepted assumptions about aesthetics and socio-economic class, ballet was seen as a superior art, one of “high culture” (p. 2-3). Other types of dance rarely made their way into dance curriculum. When they were included, they were tied to the study of cultural traditions, and were not usually celebrated in their own right. Further, at the time, societies with oral histories were not typically taken seriously in anthropological studies. Thus, many rich and ancient traditions of dance were disregarded. Anthropological studies were heavily influenced by colonialism and as a result, many minority groups were marginalized and distorted (p. 4-6).
For example, a good deal of research done on folk dance in Europe was funded by governments. With an intent to strengthen nationalism, folk dance and culture was often exalted. It gave the groups in charge of research to infuse contemporary and politically advantageous ideas about the culture and country at hand in their conclusions (p. 7). The academic study and practice of dance came about at a time when America was rapidly changing. With the close of WWI and the opening of the “roaring twenties,” Western education institution’s relied on a very closed conception of dance and its history, despite the rich histories and contemporary models that were available. Their “white centric” views on dance reflected attitudes of nationalism, xenophobia, and conservatism were hallmarks of the time. Instead, focus was placed on ballet and other classical forms.
Yet, ballet had biases of its own. While dance remains one of the few disciplines in which women are over-represented, the restrictions of early dance education put unfair pressures on women. Ballet Nyama McCarthy-Brown discusses the effects of color-casting in dance productions in the US (2010). In the early years of ballet in America, the few black dancers that appeared in productions were often stigmatized and harshly criticized. While a handful of black dancers were features by companies throughout the subsequent decades, most dancers of color were seen only in the even fewer colored companies.
Post civil rights era, black dancers still face difficulties in the industry. The most prevalent issue that McCarthy-Brown found in her research was color casting, meaning hiring practices were skewed to favor lighter skinned dancers. The author reveals experiences of black dancers who were consistently discriminated against because of their skin color. Often they were given particular roles merely because of their color. More commonly, they were not given roles because of their color. Light-skinned women remain the face of ballet, while colored women remain grossly underrepresented.
Nonetheless, opportunities have opened up for more representation within dance while dance history has become more comprehensive. Julie Kerr-Berry, an educator, discusses her experiences educating young students about the history of dance (2016). She makes the history of historically marginalized groups a core part of her curriculum and urges others to do the same. Kerr-Berry understands that these aspects of the history have been “undertold,” and that teaching students about diverse types of dance will help students grasp the full picture of dance history in addition to seeing how minorities are often undermined in education. Dance history, then becomes a window through which students can learn about dance and its many facets while also working to overcome the prejudices that undermined these groups to begin with.
Including past precedents and pressures that performers were challenged by opens up discussion for similar issues that persist today. By using dance as a framework for the social order, students can understand and overcome past problems. Opening up the historical side of dance also opens up the performance side of dance by including and inspiring minorities that have been previously excluded. In the realm of dance this also extends to the inclusion of men, who are underrepresented in the discipline.
While progress in these regards has been made, Buckland calls for additional effort. More specifically, she calls for “reflexive and dialogic strategies…[that] we can exercise our cultural and political choices purposefully toward a more informed and imaginative future for dance and its scholarship” (p. 16). While Kerr-Berry notes that she sees progress and has observed that most students seem to be receptive to the messages she teases out, there is more hesitancy than she observes in her students. Indian dancer, activist, and educator, Mallika Sarabhai notices a similar hesitancy among those she works with (2009). However, Sarabhai believes that this hesitancy can be overcome by the power of art and dance in themselves.
Sarabhai cannot explain this believe in-depth. But she knows that “art can get through when other things can. It reaches somewhere where other things don’t.” Dance itself can make social change, as a type of art. Because dance is so prominently understood, it can break cultural barriers. Dance, in particular, the use of the body, seems to exhort people to action in a way that spouting facts does not. Art, she says, arouses our senses and this can be the push that moves us to action. One example she gives is of a performance on water distillation that had profound effect on water usage practices in rural India. Performers danced and sang about the proper way to treat water before drinking it. By being not only informative, but beautiful, residents made changes to their lives. Sarabhai believes that dance works for both the performers and for the observers.
While dance education began as a colonialism featured study of “classical,” white, European history and physical education for young women, in the past century, it has grown into a much larger and inclusive discipline that has fused with the arts. Because dance has such a broad history, it is a prime example of how curriculums can work to include previously suppressed historical roots. Exposing these roots has extended an interest in arts to minority groups who had previously been excluded. While the same has occurred in the world of dance performance, issues of discrimination clearly persist. On the other hand, Sarabhai brings up an interesting point about how dance itself is a medium that speaks to people despite cultural barriers. Dance is set apart from other disciplines in this regard. Perhaps, as Sarabhai suggests, dance education will one day be able to overcome its own barriers and exist as a source of joy and hope for all. After all, it is a practice that exists across nations, ages, and colors. It is something that all cultures of the world can share.
- Advancing Dance Education in the Arts. (2017).”Evolution of dance in arts education.”
Advancing Dance Education in the Arts. Retrieved from http://www.ndeo.org/content.aspx?
- Buckland, T. J. (2006). “Dance, history, and ethnography.” Dancing from Past to Present. The
University of Wisconsin Press: Madison, WI.
- Kerr-Berry, J. (2016). “Peeling back the skin of racism: real history and race in dance education.”
Journal of Dance Education, 16:4, 119-121.
- McCarthy-Brown, N. (2010). Dancing in the margins: Experiences of African America ballerinas.
Journal of African American Studies 15:3, 385–408.
- Sarabhai, M. (2009). “Dance to Change the World.” TED. Retrieved