Talking to Summer Intensive students at ODC last August, dance scholar Janice Ross shared how her interest in engaging with dance intellectually led her to pursue the then budding field of dance studies. Ross invited students to reflect on what dance studies are, while insisting on the role they can play beyond the academy, in the world. Below is an edited version of Ross’ presentation.
When I graduated from UC Berkeley in the early seventies, the only path into dance outside of the studio was to be a dance critic. That was what I did for the first 10 years. I wanted to write and engage with dance, critically, intellectually, the way that our historians wrote about art. And it wasn’t a widespread practice in dance then. I did that for 10 years, loved it and found that I wanted to go deeper. It was well-timed because this field called dance history was beginning to enter the academy and it was the beginnings of the possibility of doing graduate degrees in dance, to do something other than being a studio teacher or in addition to. And so I pursued that. I did a Master’s and then a PhD. All my colleagues, my peers, were also stepping out of criticism into dance scholarship – people you may know: Sally Banes who is a really important dance writer for the Judson postmodern movement, Joan Acocella who is a critic for the New Yorker. And we all moved laterally from criticism into a different kind of dance scholarship, or some of us kept a job in two. And I ended up at Stanford, which was great timing for me to help build a dance academic component to the dance studio classes there. And now I write books instead of dance criticism and I get to go really deep. I have three questions I’d like to pose: What is dance studies? Why does it matter? What does it do in the world?
What is dance studies?
The way I think about it is that it is a way of holding up dance for an investigation of what dance does in the world. I am linking that investigation to some kind of practical outcome. I am looking at ballet in Soviet Russia because I believe it was an extreme form of resistance to a totalitarian state. That’s a pretty risky claim and you have to justify that.
As I am an historian at heart, I will footnote some history. Dance entered the academy initially as a form of physical wellbeing, at the turn of the century, for American women. It was a way to make them physically more robust. There was no dance theory, there was no dance analysis. Dance was not about performing, it was about feeling, not showing. It was not an intellectual practice, it was a physical practice and it started at the University of Wisconsin with a woman named Martha H’Doubler in 1917. It was about sensation, it was not about display and all these kinds of divides have been bridged now by the practice of dance in private studios and in the academy. So we had to live through decades of this slow reclaiming of dance from all the things that were deliberately cut off from it.
Dance studies allowed me to go back and write that story I just told you. I did my PhD at Stanford in the School of Education and I thought that the first dance studies book I would be reading was going to be the story of how dance ended up at the university. And there was nothing on it! There were untouched archives at Madison, Wisconsin, but there was no story written. For me, that was writing the history I wanted to read. And then I was launched. When you start researching and writing, you are making meaning out of pieces, you are expressing to an unknown audience this understanding about dance. You are letting it peek inside of it.
That’s the first big question and that’s a definition that’s not clear, there is no closure on it. Initially, when Christy invited me to come here, she asked me if I would talk about the Mellon Dance Studies Seminar that just convened at Stanford last month and that is part of a nationwide effort to further define dance studies. I do it with two colleagues, Susan Manning at Northwestern and Rebecca Schneider at Brown. And we rotate throughout our campus every summer, holding an immersive 7-day institute, 10 hours a day, of what dance studies is. What does it look like? Where is it happening? We accept 24 people, all expenses paid, room and board, young scholars who live at Stanford or Brown or Northwestern and just saturate themselves with questions. That’s one of the first attempts to create an institute in the summer around this subject.
What do dance studies matter?
It provides the cultural surrounding for the moment for the dance as it’s unfolding and that’s very critical. That sometimes gets lost in criticism and dance studies try to add it back. The scholars who look at the dance reviews also look at the ads on the page next to the review, they try to get that moment. As a scholar, the more we can show that dance is about race, class, gender, that it actually operates at the heart of some of the most problematic areas in society, the more legitimized it is for an area of research in the academy.
What do dance studies do in the world?
It is accessing information that is not retrievable or demonstrable in any other way. There is a unique province of expression for dance, for the moving body. It occupies a place that if it were to vanish, we would lose a full series of knowledge and conversations. It’s getting cannibalized by other humanities disciplines –at least where I live- because they are very interested about what you can read on the body. How do you read a body that doesn’t say any text, that’s moving? And we know that, we live in that. But to make it explicit is incredibly valuable. The more mediated our lives become, the more critical the live moment is. How do we really grab and present liveness is a huge issue.
Janice Ross is a professor in the Theatre and Performance Studies Department, Faculty Director of ITALIC, Immersion In The Arts Living In Culture freshman residential program and former Director of the Dance Division at Stanford University. She has a BA with Honors from UC Berkeley and MA and PhD degrees from Stanford. Her most recent book, Like a Bomb Going Off: Leonid Yakobson and Ballet as Resistance in Soviet Russia, is forthcoming from Yale University Press in January 2015. She is the author of three other books including Anna Halprin: Experience as Dance, (University of California Press 2007), winner of a de la Torre Bueno Award 2008 Special Citation, San Francisco Ballet at 75 (Chronicle Books 2007) and Moving Lessons: The Beginning of Dance in American Education, (University of Wisconsin 2001). Her essays on dance have been published in several anthologies including Dignity in Motion: Dance, Human Rights and Social Justice, edited by Naomi Jackson (Scarecrow Press 2008), Perspectives on Israeli and Jewish Dance, ed. Judith Brin Ingber, (Wayne State University Press, 2008), for The San Francisco Tape Music Center: 1960s Counter-culture and the Avant-Garde, Performance and Ritual, edited by Mark Franco (Routledge 2007), Everything Was Possible (Re) Inventing Dance in the 1960s, edited by Sally Banes (University of Wisconsin Press 2003), “Improvisation as Child’s Play,” in Caught by Surprise: Essays on Art and Improvisation, edited by Ann Cooper Albright and David Gere (Wesleyan University press 2003). Her awards include a Guggenheim Fellowship, a 2010-2011 Fulbright Fellowship to Israel, two Stanford Humanities Center Fellowships, Jacobs’ Pillow Research Fellowship, as well as research grants from the Iris Litt Fund of the Clayman Institute for Research on Women and Gender, the Memorial Foundation for Jewish Culture and the Djerassi Resident Artists Program. For ten years she was the staff dance critic for The Oakland Tribune and for twenty years a contributing editor to Dance Magazine. Her articles on dance have appeared in numerous publications including The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times. She is past President of the international Society of Dance History Scholars and past President of the Dance Critics Association as well as a former delegate to the American Council of Learned Societies.