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The Philosopher in the Dance Department
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Julie Van Camp

The increasing importance of interdisciplinary understanding in the academy is reflected, happily, in departments of dance, as well as other art forms. Just as philosophy, history, literature, and other humanities disciplines are seriously engaging with dance scholarship, so are faculty from these fields increasingly welcome as teachers in dance departments.

I ordinarily teach philosophy of art in a philosophy department, but I also have had welcome opportunities to teach in dance departments, at George Mason University and now at California State University, Long Beach. I do not teach movement instruction, but theoretical, critical, and philosophical perspectives on the artform. As the cliché goes, I learned more from the students than they learned from me, and I think the experience has improved my teaching in philosophy. I would like to share here a few observations about lessons learned – by me as well as them.


Philosophers occupy a place in dance departments rather different from that played in other disciplines. The performance of dance enjoyed a well-publicized “boom” in the seventies. While that has ebbed somewhat, it lasted long enough to enable most dance departments to get out of the physical education umbrella and into schools and colleges of the arts. Scholars, at long last, began to study dance systematically, in a fashion long accorded to the “major” arts of music, theater, literature, and visual art. However, the theoretical study of dance, using the broad content and methodology of the humanities, is still far less developed than in those other arts. And there is much less in the way of rigorous dialogue among well-trained scholars in the various theoretical disciplines.

Of the various theoretical approaches to dance – history, criticism, and philosophy – dance history is the most advanced as a discipline, in that it enjoys an increasingly refined methodology, an expanding body of literature, and recognition within the academy. Dance departments are now much more likely to have a full-time dance historian than they were only ten or twenty years ago. Yet many dance historians are still expected to teach in the studio. Contrast this with the typical art department. How many art historians are also expected to teach a painting class on the side? How many literary specialists are also expected to teach courses in creative writing? How many musicologists also teach music performance?

Of course, many theorists in the other arts have an avocational passion for creation or performance of the art they study. But they are not expected to teach creation and performance with the regularity still common in dance departments. With fiscal pressures and the alarming trend toward greater dependence on lecturers and cut-backs in tenured faculty positions, there is little reason for optimism that the current situation in dance departments will change significantly.

The state of dance criticism in the academy is far more dismal than that of dance history. Formal training in dance criticism typically consists of a single introductory course, probably taught by a part-time lecturer who also writes criticism for a local newspaper. Excellent critics are not necessarily outstanding teachers, and their part-time status in the academy means that dance criticism lacks the rigor and discipline of criticism of other artforms.

The best dance critics writing today in this country generally do not hold full-time academic positions, nor even full-time writing jobs. They are journalists, publishing in magazines and newspapers, typically as free-lance writers who earn their principal income in unrelated ways. Almost none of the leading dance critics writing today has a doctorate. The books of criticism they have published are typically nothing but collections of criticism previously appearing in newspapers or magazines. Many are eminently worthwhile collections, but they typically lack the length and systematic analysis of criticism in, say, literature or visual art.

Given these limits on the state of dance scholarship, the limited theoretical dialogue in a typical dance department, and deficiencies in student theoretical sophistication, the philosopher can and should approach dance with wide-ranging approaches that shade into other theoretical disciplines.


Philosophers in dance departments encounter two very different kinds of students. The first is found in introductory courses on dance that typically meet a general education requirement. These are students from a variety of disciplines who often know little about any of the arts, let alone dance. Some seem to expect a “gut” course in a league with basket-weaving.

Dance majors are the second type of student and they present special challenges of their own. Preoccupied with arduous physical training, many are resistant to verbal discourse about the artform, believing it to be a poor substitute for the first-hand experience of movement itself.

Good teachers, like good critics, can help all students learn how to look at dance, talk about it, and describe, interpret, appreciate and evaluate it. Students must be convinced that there are many worthwhile types of “knowledge” about dance. First-hand experiential knowledge is valuable, of course, but it is not the “only” or necessarily even the “best” knowledge about this artform or anything else. (Men can be good obstetricians!)

All students have seen dance movement, if only music videos on MTV or Broadway musicals. But appreciating dance as an artform requires some understanding of the cultural status of works of art. What makes ordinary movement different from artistic movement? What makes social or ritualistic dance different from theater dance? A factual overview of types of artistic dance is an obvious starting point in any course, as it provides at least some shared examples for discussion. What are some of the elements that comprise typical dance performances – movement, music, costumes, drama, the visual tableau? What is modern dance? Ballet? Who are some of the greatest choreographers and dancers?

This factual introduction is obviously a necessary starting point for the general education student. But although many dance majors have some awareness of the dance universe, they know shockingly little about dance history, dance in other cultures, or genres in which they do not specialize. Modern dance students have seen too little ballet. Few have seen the historical performances available through videotaped reconstructions. Nobody seems to have seen much non-western dance. The dance major should be encouraged to try out different approaches to understanding the artform they love to enrich their appreciation of movement. The general studies student should be encouraged to draw on perspectives from other disciplines with which they are more familiar. All are introduced to new approaches to knowledge, regardless of their awareness of the primary subject matter.

Students also need an introduction to the types of knowledge possible about this or any other artform. The diverse perspectives and methodologies of artistic and humanities disciplines enhance the understanding of dance as a cultural phenomenon – and, in turn, of ways to approach other cultural phenomena. By learning how to think about dance, to ask questions about it, to relate it to the complex cultures within which dance functions, students gain methods and insights which will serve them well in the future, even if few formally study dance or go on to professional performing careers.

We live in an age overwhelmed by information, facts, data, and no one can possibly master all of it. Students are better served by learning methodologies and questions that will enable them to actively acquire knowledge throughout their lives. This is one of the many important contributions that we make in teaching the arts and the humanities.

The philosopher in the dance department can also teach critical thinking and writing skills, basic skills in the solution of intellectual problems and the acquisition of knowledge. These skills are as valuable taught in this context as they are in the more “practical” or “technologically” oriented programs at the typical university.

Writing and Analysis

One way for philosophers to teach these broader methodologies and techniques of knowledge is to draw on the practice of critics. First, the critic must describe the work, which is particularly difficult in a nonverbal artform such as dance. Dance majors might be asked to pick a favorite work as a case study for use throughout the semester. So much dance is now available on videotape that they can study and re-study a work from a variety of perspectives throughout the course. A useful beginning exercise for all students – dancers and non-dancers alike – is to have them observe a dance class or rehearsal or performance and describe it in words, without relying on any technical terminology.

In writing a description in non-technical language, students should try to give the reader a sense of what it is like to be in the theater, using metaphor, analogy, and other techniques of descriptive writing. Such an assignment will teach dancers something about composition that helps them see their work from different perspectives. This exercise in verbal description is surprisingly difficult for dance majors who are tempted to rely on the technical shorthand of the studio classrooms. The majors learn how to use their non-dance language skills to describe something important and precious to them. This develops their own critical thinking skills and also helps them learn the language they will need some day to give interviews and write press releases about their own dance companies.

This simple writing exercise also opens up an enormous range of important theoretical, critical, and philosophical issues. What are the possibilities and problems for the use of verbal language for characterizing this elusive artform? Is there one and only one correct way to describe the experience of seeing dance? Should writers concentrate only on the perceivable properties of movement in front of them during the performance? Should they also describe their personal subjective or emotional responses to the work as they observe it? Should they discuss backstage tidbits with which they might be familiar? Exactly what is the “proper object” of criticism? Should it be limited to the perceivable performances or is other information relevant? Do all observers “see” the “same” thing? Do observers in some sense “complete” the work drawing from their own experiences and knowledge? Do dancers “see” something different from those not so trained?

This process also teaches students about the elements of dance and definitions of “art” in general. Is a “dance” the movement? The movement as expressive of the music? Is dance primarily a way of telling a story? Of expressing an emotion? Of clarifying form and technical ability? A description of a dance allows the philosopher to present theories of art which go far beyond the dance studio.

A second important step for the critic or any writer about dance is putting a work into a historical, stylistic, or cultural context. Students should compare and contrast the work with other dances or with other works of art in that same period or with important historical events at the time the work was created. How does the work compare and contrast with others in the same genre? with works created in the past before the work in question?

This contextual analysis introduces students to the importance of understanding the history of an artform – or the history of anything – in order to further describe and enhance our understanding of the work. It also invites consideration of the extent to which cultural influences on a choreographer and dancer influence their artistic work, and whether we can understand the work without knowing something about their culture. What does it mean for an artist to be “influenced” by the culture and historic precedents? How is “influence” different from “plagiarism” or “copying”? What does it mean for a work to be “original” in its historic context? Is that the same thing as “historically novel” or “first-in-time”? Why do we value “originality” but not “novelty”?

The third and most difficult step for the critic is evaluation. Thus another useful project for students is writing about their evaluation of a performance. This project enables the philosopher in the dance classroom to introduce yet another range of philosophical issues. What is the meaning of the word “good” when used to assess works of art? Can things be “good” in one culture and not “good” in another? (For example, is “athleticism” always a virtue?) Are the intentions of the artist relevant in assessing the value of a work? Is value just a matter of subjective taste? Are there any objective standards that transcend time and place?

Students can also be asked to collect a variety of examples of criticism about a work from specialized dance publications or newspapers, and compare and contrast the approaches of various critics in discussing the work. What reasons were important to these critics? If the critics disagreed on their judgment of the work, why did they disagree? Were they focusing on different criteria? Did they place a different emphasis on these criteria?

Students discussing any artform tend toward the most blatant “relativism,” and it is no different in dance-related courses. Such issues cannot be resolved in introductory courses, and there is admittedly enormous disagreement in our assessments of works of art. But it is helpful to ask students why it is that we do agree on so much good art. Why do we agree that Mikhail Baryshnikov is a great dancer? Does Baryshnikov just have a better press agent or is it possible that he really is a great dancer? Do we think George Balanchine’s choreography is great only because we are fascinated with Russian emigres, or is it possible that his choreography is better than most of the other choreography available to us?

In challenging naive relativism, it also is useful to ask students what it is that they expect to accomplish in their dance classes. Are there standards they strive to attain? Do they consider their classmates and teachers equally good, or equally bad? Do they ever try to convince someone of the “value” of a work or a performance or a dancer that others have rejected?

The hope for students, whether dance majors or general education students, is not only that they will learn something about dance in these courses. They will also learn something about writing, critical thinking, the importance of historical and cultural knowledge in understanding our world, the methods for finding such knowledge, and the nature of evaluation and how it can be justified. These are essential skills for all students, skills which should be central in any university education. In an era when the National Endowments are in extremis and when the arts and humanities are under siege even within the university, we can and should continue to insist that what we teach is essential to the education of every citizen.

1997 © Julie Van Camp

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