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The Insider-Outsider Status of the Artist-Scholar: A Response to Dempster

Carol Brown


Elizabeth Dempster's writing provokes and problematizes the identity of dance studies as a discipline within the academy. Writing from the perspective of an Australian dance scholar, she claims that "the disciplinary difference of dance practice and research has not yet been fully embraced and recognized" (Dempster 2005: 1). Her critique and radical evaluation of the professionalization of dance studies is a call for a more precise and nuanced handling of the relationship between critical practices and dancing, between dance as a subject of study (phrenesis) and dance as an object of study (techne). She invites this ontological renewal through a strategy of "thinking through performance" and a critical unpacking of the foundational assumptions of professionalized embodied knowledge. Underscoring the paper is an understanding of the limitations of the academy as a place for "undisciplined" creative inquiry and endeavor. In particular, she claims that dance has been academically disciplined by being positioned as 'other' within the dominant knowledge practices of academic institutions. A failure to carve out the distinct differences entailed in embodied knowledge through dancing, choreographing and performing have left the field vulnerable to the power and seduction of dominant discourses: "When we take up the place the 'other' reserves for us in the academy there is a danger that key assumptions underpinning our disciplinary modes of practice and research remain unexamined" (Dempster 2005: 5).

     Dempster surveys the emergence of dance studies as a discipline since the mid-1980s through the lens of her personal experience as an academic and through a comparison with the lifework of Mabel Todd, author of The Thinking Body (1972[1937]). She is troubled by assumptions about the new discipline and its status within the academy, noting that a trend toward interdisciplinarity has not necessarily benefited dance studies. Similarly, the 'corporeal turn' of poststructuralism, while enunciating the workings of society on the individual body through social, cultural and historical forces, has failed to advance understanding of kinesthetic difference (Rothfield 2005).

     Dempster, like British performance scholar Susan Melrose (2005), is skeptical of the ontological value that appears to have accrued to dance and performance studies within the academy. Melrose, too, asks questions such as "what kinds of knowledge are specific to expert dance performance-making?" and "what presuppositions are involved in theoretical enquiry by an expert practitioner?" Melrose concurs with Dempster that the dominant writing practices of the academy have 'othered' expert performance practices like Western theatrical dancing, primarily through the operations of "spectator theories of knowledge." Both scholars question current understandings of the disciplinary differences involved in theatrical dance performances.

     I would like to discuss further the limitations of a university-based disciplinary model of professionalism for dance pedagogy and research through reflection on my own experience of dance studies, both in the UK and New Zealand.

Embodied Knowledge as Homage and/or Critique

My first academic post as a dance lecturer was at the University of Surrey in 1995 after completion of a practice-led doctorate, one of the first of its kind in the UK (Brown 1995). I remember the job interview when a member of the panel asked, "But how will you maintain your practice as a dancer whilst fulfilling the demands of your academic post?" My commitment as a dance scholar to ongoing physical activity was greeted with incredulity and a suspicion that dancing was antithetical to the concentrated focus and presumed sedentary nature of serious scholarly endeavor.1

     I reassured my questioner that this was not an issue for me because I was a practice-led researcher, that is, someone who pursued her research through performance and, most importantly for this context, that I could also write about my research. I have subsequently negotiated a career that alternates between academia and professional artistic practice through choreographing and writing. Although I have persistently refused to separate these two modes of knowing, it is nonetheless evident that the ability to write has guaranteed me a place in the academy, together with my facility for choreography. As both a subject who moves and a subject who writes, spoken and written language have mobilized my presence as an academic scholar. This normative practice is perpetuated in my current status as academic supervisor for a number of Masters and PhD students who are required both to perform their research and write about this performance as theoretically rationalized research outcomes. Like Dempster, I recognize that despite the 'corporeal turn' of much recent academic discourse, dance studies as a field has produced disciplined bodies persistently subjected to the commands of writing (see Lepecki 2006).

     My first academic post was brief, and I left within two years. Like Dempster, I identified first as an artist and second as a university academic. I was mentored by the first generation of British dance academics, whose dedicated labor as educationalists and historians had established the new field of dance studies. Despite having carved a space for a "practice-led PhD," the practice of writing (although it might stray from conventional academic language) was required to validate the activity of dancing through recourse to relevant literature, written analysis, and explanation.

     An academic identity, however, proved incompatible with my creative drives and artistic profile. I found that the demands of writing and teaching disrupted my professional practice as a performer and choreographer. Much to the chagrin of the professor who had mentored my career to this stage, I concluded that a dual role as dance academic and professional dance artist was problematic. Whereas my practice-led doctorate had given me scope to use feminist theories and methods to criticize my own assumptions about being a dancer, the professional expectations and institutional constraints of an academic career (that is, to develop the field of dance studies and teach its history and methods to undergraduates) seemed to contradict this purpose. For example, during my first university appointment, I was handed a course outline for teaching the choreographic methods of American modern and postmodern dance as developed by Merce Cunningham, Trisha Brown, Yvonne Rainer, and others of the New York post-Judson era. Whereas my doctoral practice had involved an undoing of my acquired embodied knowledge through radical critique and somatic inquiry, I was now obliged, as a young lecturer, to teach mastery of the techniques of others (each of whom was criticizing his or her predecessors, as Dempster points out) through the acquisition of expert skills in choreography and performance making based on canonical models of twentieth century Western dance.

     If much of what we teach and come to know from within the disciplinary regime of dance studies is founded on a certain kind of mastery, what scope is there to challenge, criticize, and undo this knowledge from within the academy? If dances within this genre are, by definition, constantly evolving over time and through space, the question arises as to whether students should be disciplined to enunciate a singular discourse and lineage. Cracks and fissures in American dance's modernist lineage were apparent given my own lineage as a dancer trained in the techniques and dance philosophy of choreographer Gertrud Bodenwieser, a Viennese Jew who fled to New Zealand, settled in Australia, and became a founding figure of modern dance in Australasia.

     In this position, I felt isolated and estranged from the norms of academic life. Working alongside a prominent UK choreographer with whom I had developed something of a complicity, there was a sense that we were different, that we shared a set of values distinct from the orthodoxies and dominant methodologies of the field that we were employed to teach. On reflection, this difference was as much about what was happening for us professionally outside the academy as to how we were positioned as practicing artists within it. I was a choreographer operating within a professional context that had its own norms and specific demands toward critical practice and contemporary relevance. At the same time, I had to negotiate these demands around an academic approach to dance studies that was built on models from the past.

Diversifying the Field

By the time I re-entered the field of Dance Studies as an Arts Humanities Research Board Fellow (AHRB) in the Creative and Performing Arts (2001–4) at Roehampton University, it had changed considerably from its late twentieth century, largely modernist, imperatives driven by pioneers of tertiary dance education. The growth of practitioner-scholars, and the impact of somatic approaches to dance studio practice (including those of Mabel Todd) informed by critical theory, had affected the kinds of work emerging from dance studies. The tertiary sector as a whole was undergoing significant expansion under a Labour government increasing its investment in education. This affected the growth and diversification of dance studies departments throughout the UK, making more room for specialization in non-Western dance forms. Roehampton University, for example, developed an MA in South Asian Dance Studies and collaborated with the SOAS (School of Oriental and African Studies, London University) and University of Surrey on an AHRB Centre for Cross-Cultural Music and Dance Performance (2002–7).

     I returned to academia at this time as an established choreographer. I had made the most of my nonacademic life to pursue the artistic projects and interests that stimulated my curiosity and that were enabled through funding and commissioning opportunities. Returning to academia with primarily a research appointment secured the resources and opportunities (both space and intellectual ballast) for my ongoing development as a choreographer and practice-led researcher. In hindsight, this could be read as a maturing of the field of dance studies, as I was able to benefit from opportunities like the AHRB fellowship to combine my professional expertise with an open-ended research program on questions of space for dance.

     Rather than impede my creative inquiry, the postdoctoral research fellowship altered the nature, complexity, and ambition of the projects I could undertake. It supported my desire for cross-disciplinary research and long-term sustainable research projects, culminating in a series of choreographic works including The Changing Room (2003) and SeaUnSea (2006). This mode of working, in the context of an academic environment, differed from my professional practice in several ways: first, the duration of the research phase facilitated sustained connecting conversations that extended beyond the imperative to get a production underway, leading to a range of research 'outcomes'; second, the nature and complexity of these collaborations were such that I was able to explore new ways of working, transforming my practice through somatic attention to the practices of others not usually encountered in the performing arts world (such as a mathematician, a computer scientist, and a chronobiologist). These collaborations enabled previously unseen possibilities for rethinking choreography and for critically decentering understandings of the field. Sustained development time in studio conditions with dancers and computer programmers, for instance, generated ways of thinking with movement both through digitally and corporeally intitiated actions.

     The Changing Room (2004) was an interdisciplinary collaboration among the fields of dance, architecture, and computer science. The research asked "What happens to our sense of presence when relating to both embodied and encrypted elements of choreography?" "How do we stage dances with avatars?" Choreographed for three performers and a virtual object, the performance took place within an interactive room. An avatar was projected into the physical space of the performance in real time, generating new forms of interaction and creating a blended environment of real and virtual spaces for a mobile audience. Unlike other software programs for dance (such as Life Forms, Motion Capture, and Poser), this work did not rely on the anatomical human skeleton as the basis for the virtual body of the avatar. Instead, together with architect Mette Ramsgard Thomsen, we created a virtual object that had its own morphology that was, in turn, influenced by the movements of the dancers.

     SeaUnSea (2006) developed out of my recognition of limitations in the previous project and during my subsequent employment as a Reader in Choreography at Roehampton University. This work involved an emergent improvisational score that evolved over time, entangling the physical presence of three dancers with a virtual seascape based on the Sargasso Sea. At the heart of it was the collaborative development of an intuitive human-machine interface.2 Using a camera interface, mounted above the stage, the dancers were 'seen' by a swarm of intelligent digital 'agents' that navigated their way through a virtual space. In this way, the 'agents' encountered the performers, at times evading, at times following, and at other times being curious about their presence. The digital agents formed vivid color fields, assembling and dissolving, creating cloud-like patterns projected into the space around the performer/participant.

     The Arts Humanities Research Council's Fellowships in the Creative and Performing Arts in the UK provided a unique opportunity for choreographers and performance makers, with or without academic backgrounds, to enter a university for sustained periods of research. As practice-integral fellowships, these opportunities provided dance studies with scope for Dempster's "thinking through performance" as a model of scholarship that foregrounds performance and artistic processes "as irreducible modes of thinking" (Dempster 2005: 6). Difficulties arise, however, in articulating the project in advance of the research process in ways that meet the scholarly demands of proposal writing but open, rather than close, the potential space of the creative inquiry. What this means in practice is that many practitioners with advanced research processes feel unable to apply for funding without a coauthor skilled in academic discourses who can align the application with academic imperatives.

Academic Identities and the Life World of Dance

Unlike Dempster, who has had a continuous career at Victoria University since 1991, I have moved in and out of dance studies through a series of appointments, both part-time and full-time, as lecturer, research fellow, and reader, while pursuing my artistic interests as a choreographer and performer. Appointments within dance and performance programs at the University of Surrey (1995–97), University of Brighton (1997–2001), Roehampton University (2001–9), and most recently University of Auckland (2009–present) have been coterminous with a sustained practice of choreography and performance. My identity as a performing artist and choreographer is not subsumed by my career as an academic in dance studies, as I have maintained an independent situation for my choreographic work through Carol Brown Dances, the company I developed in 1998 while choreographer-in-residence at The Place Theatre, London, and the vehicle for more than twenty dance works since that time.

     While university contexts have provided the financial means for my research through practice and to some degree provided the critical housing for this, I have been sensitive to numerous irreconcilable differences between the risk taking demanded of serious somatic inquiry and the norms and protocols of an academic environment. These include pragmatic issues such as access and rights to spaces that make possible the sensate life of the body in choreographic encounters; working conditions that support embodied understandings and levels of attunement that lead to insights difficult to 'capture' in academic writing; the regulation of performance research through ethics procedures more suited to biological and social sciences; and difficulties with pre-established disciplinary methodologies that ignore the role of serendipity, intuition, chance, and play in artistic inquiry.

     Neither have I been immune to common perceptions of academia within the professional arts world, where an academic background carries little weight. In contrast to academic conferences and publishing, the success or otherwise of a choreographic work is largely determined by audience, venue, peer feedback, and critical reception. Until relatively recently, arts funders, programmers, and curators have been suspicious of performers and performance-makers with academic positions, the assumption being that, whereas an artist 'does,' an academic thinks, talks, and writes about this doing.

     A hybrid identity, as dancer-scholar, operating both inside and outside the academy, has in hindsight involved a somewhat messy and discontinuous tactical negotiation of different spheres of activity and understandings of what it means to be 'disciplined.' The construction of a choreographic 'world' through an emerging research process that combines somatic exploration, material construction, concepts, and scenographies seldom follows the sequence of disciplinary norms in the humanities and social sciences. Whereas to be an academic conventionally requires a thorough-going knowledge of one's discipline, its contexts and discourses, to survive as a contemporary artist requires a continuous practice and a reflexive process. Deborah Hay uses the analogy of house renovation to describe how this process is activated in her dancing:

The questions that guide me through a dance are like the tools one would use for renovating an already existing house. Like a screwdriver being turned counter-clockwise, or a crow bar prying boards free from a wall, the dancer applies the questions to re-choreograph his/her perceived relationship to him/herself, the audience, space, time, and the instantaneous awareness of any of these combined experiences. The questions help uproot behavior that gathers experimentally and/or experientially. (Hay 2007)

Choreographic artists like Hay see their practice as a form of enablement for the invisible perceptual potentials of the body's conscious articulation of space and time. This is a rigorous process arising from a fidelity to practice and a reflexive engagement with what constitutes that practice. It does not presuppose an acquaintance with past models of practice or contemporary theory and philosophy, although these may help contextualize that practice and provide resources for facilitating the kind of critical practice and tacit knowledge that supports the construction and performance of dances.

Conclusion: (Un)knowing Dancing

Following a shift across hemispheres, and in response to Dempster, my current position as a full-time associate professor in dance studies within a postcolonial context in Aotearoa, New Zealand, has opened my awareness to reconsider the critical distinctions that apply to dance studies as it seeks legitimacy as an academic discipline.

     It was twentieth-century Anglo-American discourses of modernism and postmodernism that created the 'canon' for dance studies scholarship into the 1990s. More recently, however, there has been a diversification and decentering of the 'field' in the UK to include non-Western approaches to dance making and performances of knowing through practice-led research. Similarly, in Aotearoa, an emphasis on learning historical models of Western theater dance is viewed as increasingly irrelevant to young Māori, Pacific Island, and Asian dance students. The assumed primacy of Western contemporary dance methods in dance studies courses is questioned by staff and students alike, as many of my students enter their university studies with a strong foundation in Māori kapa haka, Samoan, Fijian, and Tongan dances, as well as urban Pacific hip-hop, but with little experience of Western theater dance. For many of the dancers I now teach, their culture-specific dance knowledge entails a sense of belonging, identity, and community. They create ways of knowing that draw on intellectual traditions other than those of Western modernism, including the relational thinking characteristic of Māori and other Pacific life worlds. This expansion aligns with Ramsay Burt's challenge to the historical hold of dance modernism on dance studies as a field and its racial blindness. In "The Specter of Interdisciplinarity" (2009), Burt calls for both interdisciplinary and medium-specific methodologies for research as a way to engage critically and imaginatively with the specificity of choreographed movement and the publics it addresses.

     While we can come to know difference through dancing as a practice of somatic intelligence and interdisciplinary potential, the difficulty remains in getting this epistemological difference acknowledged and understood by the gatekeepers and regulators of academia. Predecessors chose to 'play the game' and work within institutional constraints to change regulations and shape the professionalization of the field. They legitimized the discipline by relying on the canon of Western theater dance, but there is a concomitant risk in this strategy of losing a place of openness 'outside' what is known and enunciated by established discourses.

     One strategy for this might be to cultivate co-presence 'inside' and 'outside' the academy, opening spaces and places for the difference and potential of uneasy acts of dancing. In-between states and in-between disciplines can create favorable conditions through which the mutable instability of dancing can discover its 'ground' as a set of interconnecting flows. Dancing as serious play in the ebb, flow, and interruption of a mixed economy (between academic and nonacademic contexts, between scholarly and community practitioners, between professionals and nonprofessionals, and, crucially, between non-Western and Western forms of dance) creates discomfit and uncertainty. If, as Dempster (citing Threadgold 1996) claims, becoming "disciplined" means being able to enact successfully the favored discourses and narratives of the academic field and its genres, then we can also ask how doubt, uncertainty, and failure might create disorientation and loss of place, simultaneously offering challenging ways to learn of new potentialities within and across disciplines as well as genres of dance. If dance studies is to find ways to theorize through states of performance marked by disorientation, instability, not-knowing, and indeterminacy in order that we might learn from them, how might it also become attentive to what is evidenced by the publics it attracts?

     The twenty-first century presents us with a huge task: to understand the inherited knowledge and embodied practices of previous eras, but not to be so constrained by these that we cannot imagine different futures and ways of moving and creating. An evolving world demands continuously adaptable forms of creativity. it also demands recognition of the redundancy of those discourses that inhibit our ability to bring about a better future. As a choreographic researcher, I experiment and experience, I feel the angles and rhythms at the interfaces of performing bodies and performatively constructed worlds.


1 I have written about this experience in Brown 1997.

2 In collaboration with Mette Ramsgard Thomsen (architect), Chiron Mottram (programmer), Michael Mannion (lighting designer) and Alistair MacDonald (composer).

References Cited:

Brown, Carol
1995. Inscribing the Body: Feminist Choreographic Practices. PhD dissertation, University of Surrey, UK.
1997. Dancing Between Hemispheres: Negotiating Routes for the Dancer-Academic. In Knowing Feminisms, (ed. L. Stanley). London: Sage: 132–43.

Burt, Ramsay
2009. The Specter of Interdisciplinarity. Dance Research Journal 41(1): 3–22.

Dempster, Elizabeth
2005. Undisciplined Subjects, Unregulated Practices: Dancing in the Academy. In Dance Rebooted: Initializing the Grid (ed. Kim Vincs). Canberra, AU: Australia Dance Council: 1­–11: Accessed December 17, 2012.

Hay, Deborah
2007. How Do I Recognize My Choreography? The Deborah Hay Dance Company. Accessed October 15, 2012.

Lepecki, André
2006. Exhausting Dance: Performance and the Politics of Movement. London: Routledge.

Melrose, Susan
2005. …Just Intuitive…. Keynote presentation, AHRC Research Centre for Cross-Cultural Music and Dance Performance, School of Oriental and African Studies [SOAS], London. April 23. Accessed October 14, 2012.

Rothfield, Philipa
2005. Differentiating Phenomenology and Dance. Topoi 24: 43–53.

Threadgold, Terry
1996. Everyday Life in the Academy: Postmodernist Feminisms, Generic Seductions, Rewriting and Being Heard. In Feminisms and Pedagogies of Everyday Life (ed. Carmen Luke). Albany: State University of New York Press: 280–314.

Todd, Mabel
1972[1937]. The Thinking Body. New York: Dance Horizons.



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