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Editorial Comments

In 2004, at the Ausdance National Conference held at Deakin University, Melbourne, Australia, dance artist and scholar Elizabeth Dempster presented a paper titled "Undisciplined Subjects, Unregulated Practices: Dancing in the Academy."1 In this paper, she observes that the presence of dance studies in university dance and performing arts departments since the 1980s (in Australia) has raised a number of questions about the relationship between dance research and the practice of dancing and about suitable models of scholarly practice and paradigms of research. One such question is whether scholarly research in dance studies should refer to writing about dances and dancing but not the artistic practices that create performances. During her career, as both a practicing artist and university faculty member in Australia, Dempster observed an expectation from her academic colleagues that "research" would be located in the "writing about," a position she characterizes as an ongoing "subjection of dance and performance to textual paradigms." There was a concomitant failure to acknowledge the presence, or even the possibility, of theoretically informed research in the realm of artistic performance.

     In this issue of JASHM, we are pleased to present Dempster's original conference paper accompanied by three invited responses. Contributions from Georgiana Gore and Drid Williams, two senior anthropologists of the dance and human movement (with extensive experience as performing artists), accompany a third paper from Carol Brown, a practicing professional dance artist and choreographer, as well as scholar, who, like Dempster, contributes to both written and performed forms of knowledge about contemporary Western theater or concert dance.

     The contribution by Williams, titled "Dance Education: A Response to Elizabeth Dempster," opens with a discussion about Margaret H'Doubler, who established the first dance department at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, in the United States, circa 1917. Reflecting the origins of many American university dance programs in physical education, H'Doubler was convinced that the teaching and studying of dancing in an academic setting should not be concerned with whether the students develop into "professional or recital dancers." In responding to Dempster's essay, Williams argues from H'Doubler's fundamental conviction, concluding that "the emphasis in dance departments should be more on 'dance education' rather than the performance of some idiom of dancing."

     Gore takes up a different issue, arguing that Dempster needs to provide us with further exegesis of how it is, exactly, that practice-based dance research can provide an intellectually rigorous conceptual framework. Gore does not argue against a place for artistic practice in the academy but asks what its role would be and what it would accomplish. Gore remains unconvinced as to the "disciplinary" nature of dance studies but identifies the influence of somatics and a certain feminist discourse as two theoretical commitments that inform Dempster's approach. Noting the exclusive focus on Western style "theater dance," she advances the anthropological point, also made by Williams, that "dance studies ought to be the study of dances and dancing of all kinds," rather than its scope being "reduced to those forms considered as 'artistic practice.'"

     Carol Brown's contribution, on the whole, supports but also further illuminates Dempster's position by providing autobiographical details of her own experience with dance studies, first as a student in a "practice-led PhD" program and later as a dance lecturer, initially located in the United Kingdom and more recently in New Zealand. Of anthropological interest is Brown's mention of the productive challenge to assumptions about "the primacy of Western contemporary dance methods in dance studies" coming from her Maori, Pacific Island, and Asian dance students. She notes that many of them enter their University studies "with a strong foundation in Samoan, Fijian, and Tongan dances, as well as urban Pacific hip-hop, but with little experience of Western theatre dance." She notes how their "culture-specific dance knowledge entails a sense of belonging, identity, and community" and "ways of knowing that draw on intellectual traditions other than those of Western modernism." These facts represent a potentially productive challenge to the ethnocentricity that seems to pervade dance studies to date.

     We are pleased to note that the original paper and these responses come from nations spread across the globe—the United States, France, the United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand. We invite further contributions to discussion of these epistemological and ontological issues that address concepts at the heart of dance and human movement studies. Further conversation about what constitutes research (that is, theoretical questions, exploration, discovery, and explanation), the effects of changing disciplinary boundaries and interdisciplinary studies, the relationships between performing and writing, and the potential theoretical contributions from non-Western and nontheatrical dance forms, among others, are most welcome.

The Editors


1 Published in the conference proceedings Dance Rebooted: Initializing the Grid (Ausdance National, 2005). Available online at; accessed December 17, 2012.



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