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Dancing in the Academy? A Response to Dempster

Georgiana Gore

This article results from an editorial invitation to respond to Elizabeth Dempster's 2005 article "Undisciplined Subjects, Unregulated Practices: Dancing in the Academy," a contribution to the Proceedings of the 2004 international conference "Dance Rebooted: Initializing the Grid" held at Deakin University, Melbourne, Australia, the aim of which was to reflect on the sustainability of dance practice and research. No brief was given, no constraints imposed, and no questions asked on my side when the invitation from JASHM editors was proffered.

     What follows is, therefore, my personal position on the issue of practice-based research that is at the heart of Dempster's article, both in her analysis of the emergence and development of dance studies since the 1980s (particularly in Australia) and in her projections and pleas for their future. My approach here is not explicitly anthropological but is necessarily informed by the discipline and its objects of study, among which is the dance. Moreover, while I am aware that, for certain scholars, the split between dance practice and dance research may no longer be epistemologically relevant (see, for example, Brandstetter's [2007] dense argument), their relationship to each other and within the academy remains unresolved.

     The aim of Dempster's paper is "to reflect critically upon the disciplinary identity of dance studies and dance research, and with some more concrete sense of how these endeavours might be engaged differently" (2005: 1).1 To do so, she draws on a variety of sources, including her own experience, the writings of her close colleagues and other more disparate sources, many of which have in common what might be characterized as a "somatic" approach to the analysis of dance and other practices. She recounts her induction into academia, which required training in the disciplinary practices necessary for effective intervention in the area of the dance on an equal par with the more established university arts and humanities subjects. Her account harks back with avowed nostalgia to the beginnings of the integration of performance studies, and by proxy the dance, into the academy when "Practice based dance research provided an intellectually rigorous conceptual framework for a contemporary performing arts education, along with many innovative pedagogical activities and experiences" (Dempster 2005: 2). While I may share Dempster's sentiments, I do not share her analytical posture.

     To this day, I do not comprehend how practice-based dance research can provide an intellectually rigorous conceptual framework. And Dempster does not assist me in gaining understanding in that, she fails to demonstrate what this process entails. She deploys no specific examples, nor does she provide further theoretical elaboration on how research experimentation through practice leads to intellectual rigor and conceptualization without the intervention of some disciplinary paradigm with its specific conceptual schema. Mistake me not: I am not arguing against a place for artistic or other forms of practice in the academy; rather I am questioning what its role(s) may be and what it is apt to do.

     Dempster develops two main lines of argument to justify a practice-based approach to dance teaching and research in the academy, with a number of others running as explicit but unexamined threads throughout, and, therefore, taken as implicit givens.

     The first line of argument is that the hegemony of a "textual paradigm" (Dempster 2005: 2) in conventional academia constrains the study of dances and dancing. As a special kind of activity, different from others studied in the human and social sciences, it requires a different disciplinary framework. While it is true that dancing is a special kind of activity with its own properties, like other forms of human interaction such as ritual or play, Dempster provides no clear articulation of what these may be, unless it is the recall to its corporeal grounding, which apparently differentiates it from the study of other human activities. To put forward this difference as the reason for some special treatment may appear logical, but it is not justifiable without further elaboration. In a stance that mirrors a certain feminist discourse, Dempster states,

I am suggesting that there are two levels of difficulty consequent on being disciplined within the academy. The first involves a silencing of difference, not being heard. The second difficulty—being seduced and accepting (more or less) the place that is offered—is I think the more challenging of the two problems we are facing today. In this situation, when we take up the place the other reserves for us, there is a danger that key assumptions underpinning our discipline-specific methods of practice and research, and the discourse that has evolved around them, may not be critically examined. (Dempster 2005: 5)

In the same vein as my preceding remarks in which I bemoan the lack of explication and the taken-for-granted, I wonder what the above mentioned "key assumptions" and the "methods of practice and research" specific to the discipline are exactly. No longer a part of the community of practice to which Dempster belongs, nor sharing her ideological leanings, I do not have access to her subtext. Moreover, I am unconvinced as to the disciplinary nature of dance studies.

     Can there be a disciplinary identity to a domain constituted by the application of different disciplinary perspectives to a practice constituted as an object of study—dances and dancing? Is dance studies not rather an area or field of study at the crossroads of several disciplines as Koritz (1996, in Dempster 2005: 4) seems to suggest? To constitute a discipline, does there not need to be some consensus as to methodological and theoretical approaches? Would reflecting on local and national histories of dance studies programs assist us in identifying these—part of the aim I would imagine of the Deakin University conference? Or would we not end up with a disparate set of dogmas depending on which mother discipline was instrumental in establishing the program? Of the programs with which I am most familiar, the University of Saint-Denis Paris 8's project of creating an academic discipline through the emergence of a study in rather than of the dance most closely resembles Dempster's suggestions. That department's aim has been to focus on and engage with dancing practice and to interact with its actors to generate a language and paradigms for its comprehension and analysis. I would maintain, however, that the disciplinary origins of its faculty in history, aesthetics, and somatic practices have shaped the thrust of its program.

     Reading Dempster's article, I wondered to what degree she had reflected on how her use of the notion of 'discipline' promotes the idea that it is, above all, controlling, coercive, and stifling of creativity, without also taking into account Foucault's astute demonstration that it is also productive, even if within specific power-knowledge configurations or regimes. For example, Mabel Elsworth Todd's work on postural or structural integration, so feted by Dempster in the second part of her article, while certainly fostering creativity in its application, is undoubtedly disciplinary since it is concerned with "structural hygiene" and "bodily economy" (Todd 1972[1937]: xiii). As with other techniques of self-government, there is certainly at stake the production of a 'disciplined' subject but one whose body may be exercised in undisciplined mode when it is given relatively free rein in dance improvisation, for example.2

     For her second line of argument, Dempster pursues the idea that professionalization stifles creativity by regulating practices according to normative criteria. For example, she is opposed to the idea of introducing into academia professional dance training as this would merely contribute to the reproduction of labor and skills, rather than fostering the kind of innovative practice and research that should be foundational to dance studies programs. It is in this context that she introduces and discusses at some length Mabel Elsworth Todd's professional career and practice, during which Todd refused to establish a certified system or a school, which, according to Dempster, maintained the work's vitality. Moreover, the latter celebrates the fact that, for all but three years of Todd's career, she undertook her research and the development of her method outside academia. What she fails to identify is that Todd found a patron in the form of Colonel George Fabyan, who provided laboratory space, equipment, and instruction for Todd's experiments on body balance and dynamics and to whom she dedicated her 1937 book The Thinking Body. Todd was fortunate enough to be able to survive financially outside academia, and her choice, not always followed by her students, not to create a system and school had nothing to do with the preferred location for her research and teaching.

     Dempster's article is a dense and thought-provoking stab at a reflexive and critical analysis of the development of the discipline of dance studies within the academy, but, as we have seen, too many concepts and expressions are taken for granted and a number of a priori or implicit premises go unexamined. One of the most salient for an anthropologist of dance such as me, who has worked within dance studies and done research on several continents, is that 'dance' for her is essentially 'theater dance." This is evident in her plea for practice-based dance research, if the expression (which she never actually explicates) is used as "an umbrella term for academic research which incorporates artistic practice as a research methodology" (Rubidge 2004). However, this approach severely restricts the field of study, eliminating, for example, social and popular dancing, which cannot fit into its schema. While dance studies ought to be the study of dances and dancing of all kinds, its scope is thus reduced to those forms considered as 'artistic practice.'

     From the tenor of my remarks thus far, it may come as a surprise if I now reveal that thinking through performance (Dempster 2005: 6) or practice-based research, although not named as such during the 1970s, was the impetus for my doctoral dissertation, "The Social Topography of the Human Body" (Gore 1982). While undertaking my PhD in social anthropology at Keele University, under the supervision of Ronnie Frankenberg, I was also running a New Dance company (Kontradance Theatre). During this period, the 'work' in rehearsal, the choreographic productions, and the theoretical issues with which I was grappling mutually informed each other. With titles like InSignIam (see Godden 1978) and Prism of Prose, I explored the so-called poststructuralist paradigms of Lacan, Derrida, Barthes, Foucault, and others. These initiatives, both academic and performative, resulted from a year-long study period in the U.S., during which I worked with Don Oscar Becque, former director of the Federal Dance Project under Hallie Flanigan and student of Mabel Elsworth Todd. I share this autobiographical detail not only to demonstrate some sensibility to practice-based research on my part but also to indicate that my own trajectory intersects with Dempster's.

     However, in the intervening years since the completion of my PhD, with ten years in Nigeria and an acquaintance with forms of Nigerian traditional dancing, as well as a period at the University of Surrey in dance studies, my personal stance has led me in a direction opposed to that of Dempster. I would argue today, no doubt also under the influence of the French university system, that academia is not principally the venue for practice-based research and that practice should be subordinate to theoretical research, since the aim of academia, especially at graduate level, is to arm students intellectually. Other kinds of institutions are better equipped in terms of human and other resources for the job of fostering practice, including practice-based research: conservatoires, 'arts academies,' and so on, even if these are now sometimes integrated into universities. One of the tasks that faces us in academia is to provide students with the critical distance they require to develop a form of reflexivity to be applied to their work whether within or outside academia. This is no doubt akin to the idea of "critical metapractice" that Dempster borrows from Melrose (Dempster 2005: 10), "a disciplinary practice or practices which both maintain conventions specific to the discipline (and the judgements it entails) while challenging and/or interrogating certain of its practices." And on this point my reflection finally meets Dempster's.


Dempster clearly argues for an empirical approach to dance study and research, but she seems to conflate the position of dancer as researcher with that of the academic as researcher. In an article "Choreography as Live Theoretical Practice" (2007), Brenda Farnell, anthropologist and editor of this journal, and Robert Wood, choreographer, describe their interdisciplinary collaboration to explore "what kinds of theoretical knowledge might be built into choreographic knowledge in Contemporary Dance, but realized only in live performance" (Farnell and Wood 2007: 407). Like Dempster, they position movement at the center of their investigation and "privilege talking from the movement not about it (ibid., 410). Unlike Dempster, they are quite clear on what their respective goals are in the research process: the movement artist aims "to create something new . . . so that we see things differently, whereas the social scientist seeks to uncover or discover what is already there in the natural and social worlds, and to interpret and document it accurately" (ibid., 408).

     Finally, it may perhaps be useful to remember that there are other empirical sciences within the academy, and, while, as social scientists, we may not want to emulate the apparent positivism of the 'hard' sciences, we might like to think of the dance studio as the laboratory for dance studies. This is a place for experimentation with self and others, for experiencing and for dialogue (see Stamer 2007), in the production of dance knowledge adequate for understanding all kinds of dancing from the codified and prescribed (for example, ballet, ballroom, and Bharatanatyam) to the most contemporaneously disruptive. It is also a place for exploring the anthropological dimensions of dances and dancing, conceived not from an aesthetic perspective but, as Brandstetter suggests, as a configuration of "situational knowledge" (2007: 46)—an "alignment knowledge" (ibid., 47). Such an approach does not, however, preclude the fact that, in the battle for sustainability and for continued legitimacy for the dance within academia, in the maintenance of the territory it has conquered once freed from the paternalistic haven of theater, music, sports, educational, or even performance studies, the production of rigorous scientific/intellectual discourse remains the primary challenge.


1 Dempster's article appears as the first article in this issue of JASHM. However, I will cite her original publication, which is the same except for minor changes in grammar and spelling.

2 Improvisation, too, is, of course, shaped by the social and cultural parameters of artistic genre. See Puri and Hart 1980.

References Cited:

Brandstetter, G.
2007. Dance as Culture of Knowledge: Body Memory and the Challenge of Theoretical Knowledge. In Knowledge in Motion: Perspectives of Artistic and Scientific Research in Dance (ed. S. Gehm, P. Husemann, and K. Von Wilcke). Bielefeld: Transcript Verlag: 37–48.

Dempster, Elizabeth
2005. Undisciplined Subjects, Unregulated Practices: Dancing in the Academy. In Dance Rebooted: Initializing the Grid (ed. Kim Vincs). Braddon, ACT, AU: Ausdance National:

Farnell, Brenda, and Robert Wood
2007. Choreography as Live Theoretical Practice. In Proceedings of 30th Annual Conference of the Society for Dance History Scholars (ed. Anne Cooper Albright, et al.). Riverside, CA: Society of Dance History Scholars:

Godden, R.
1978. Review of InSignIam. New Dance (Autumn): 8.

Gore, Georgiana
1982. The Social Topography of the Human Body. Unpublished PhD dissertation, University of Keele, UK.

Koritz, Amy
1996. Re/Moving Boundaries: From Dance History to Cultural Studies. In Moving Words: Re-writing Dance (ed. Gay Morris). London and New York: Routledge: 88–103.

Puri, Rajika, and Diana Hart
1980. Thinking with Movement: Improvising versus Composing? JASHM 2 (2): 71–88.

Rubidge, Sarah
2004. Artists in the Academy: Reflections on Artistic Practice as Research. In Dance Rebooted (ed. Kim Vincs). Braddon, ACT, AU: Ausdance National:

Stamer, P.
2007. What Is an Artistic Laboratory? A Metalogue between Peter Stamer. In Knowledge in Motion (ed. S. Gehm, P. Husemann, and K. Von Wilcke). Bielefeld: Transcript Verlag: 59–69.

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



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