Printer-friendly format  Article citation        


Dance Education: A Response to Elizabeth Dempster

Drid Williams


Writing about dance departments in colleges and universities in the United States would not be complete without prior mention of a trained biologist, Margaret H'Doubler,1 who not only taught the first dance classes but established the first degree programs in dance education under the auspices of the Physical Education Department at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, in 1926. Mention of H'Doubler also permits informing readers about the early structure and development of the Wisconsin department, because, in the early years, this department not only became a kind of model for other dance departments throughout the country, but its curriculum was an important identifying feature of the field of dance education.

     The anonymous Wikipedia website on H'Doubler's "Dance Pedagogy" informs the reader that

H'Doubler began teaching dance in the summer of 1917. She described dance as an art and science which formed her foundation. Her theory of dance was viewed as acceptable because it was feminine and aesthetic [Wilson, Hagood, and Brennen 2006: 23]. She taught exercises based on her idea of natural body movement—movement that did not require formal dance technique. She started with her students on the floor and then progressed to standing positions. She was also interested in how the body would react to the "structural changes of position of the body" and "self generated creativity" [Wilson, Hagood, and Brennen 2006: 22]. She wanted her students to express their own ideas and feelings through movement. She would often ask them to describe their movements in scientific terms.

After discovering her theory of teaching dance, she wrote a book, Manual of Dancing: Suggestions and Bibliography for the Teacher of Dancing in 1921. Her fourth book, Dance: A Creative Art Experience, was published in 1940. In this book, she explains her theory of dance pedagogy about the expression of one's own thoughts and feelings through dance. She states that the technique is "training the mind to use the body as an expressive instrument" [H'Doubler 1940: xi]. She explains the teachers' ability to inspire confidence in the students so they will not be afraid of what they will reveal when expressing their own feelings through dance [ibid., xxi].

     H'Doubler's approach to dance education was to "enable each individual to live as fully as possible" and [she believed that] "the educational process must be based upon scientific facts concerning the nature of human life" (Wilson, Hagood and Brennan 2006: 216).2

     Currently, there are approximately 130 departments of dance in the United States, each with unique histories and pedagogics.3 Not all of them conform to the idea of dance education envisioned by H'Doubler, who wanted everyone to be able to experience 'dance' and what it could do for them in their lives. Her contribution, including the "Orchesis Dance Club," centered around the notion of dance education for everyone, especially women, because, at the turn of the century, physical education and sports in America was almost entirely dominated by men.4

     My interest in the Wisconsin department is threefold. First, I was employed to teach there in 1963.5 It was my first teaching experience in the "academy" (as Dempster calls it). It was a good experience, although I spent very little time in Lathrop Hall or on the Madison campus because most of my work was done teaching in university extension centers all over the state, during a time when the borders of the state were considered to be the boundaries of the campus.

     Second, my concept of dance education was (and still is) influenced by H'Doubler's approach. That is, the geographical shift from teaching and working in New York to teaching in Wisconsin was, for me, a shift in teaching and working with professionals in New York to teaching and working with nonprofessionals in Wisconsin, where I became a dance educator.6

     Third, from the brief historical context I have given, I can say that, in the United States, the dance has not been 'other' in colleges and universities for many years. It has been recognized as a discipline for some time now, in the sense of a disciplined physical practice.7

Dempster's "Dancing in the Academy"

Dempster thinks there were power and authority in the dance being 'other' in an academic setting in Australia. Although she says there has been constant change in the scene in that country since the 1980s, the upshot is that the dance still is not fully recognized as a discipline there. However, "practice-based research" did form the basis for a contemporary performing arts education. She tells us that "the disciplinary difference of dance practice and research has not yet been fully embraced and recognised. And despite the recent expansion of practice-based and creative arts research degree programs, we also know that the subjection of dance and performance to textual paradigms has not yet been overturned" (Dempster, current issue).

     I find these sentences confusing. By making my confusion public, I hope to be challenged. What does Dempster mean by "the disciplinary difference of dance practice and research?" I think I know what is meant by "the disciplinary difference of dance practice" (Dempster uses the term techne as opposed to phrenesis [current issue]),8 because, during the years I danced, taught, and choreographed professionally, I performed my own style of modern concert dancing and a north Indian style of dancing, Kathak. I also taught and studied ballet for several years, and I worked with many dancers on their particular forms of danced expression. Therefore, I think I can safely claim to know of what "the disciplinary difference of dance practice" consists. Put simply, dance practice is what you do—an activity that is continuously perfected and performed, at whatever level.

     However, I am not at all sure that I know what "the disciplinary difference of dance . . . research" is. Unfortunately, Dempster does not give explanatory clues to what she means through further clarification or examples. My confusion grows deeper when I read that "we also know that the subjection of dance and performance to textual paradigms has not yet been overturned" (current issue). I am puzzled because I wonder how anyone can produce the results of research into dance practice other than through "textual paradigms"—through writing about it? I also don't understand of what "the subjection of dance and performance to textual paradigms" means.

     I sought further clarification by writing to Dempster herself, who made these comments:

You may be aware that there has been a huge expansion of offerings in practice-based higher degree research programs in Australia, the UK and to a lesser extent in Europe. These MA and PhD programs are offered in the Visual Arts and in the Performing Arts at many universities across Australia. I'm not sure whether this kind of practice-based research degree exists in the American university system, but I think perhaps not, although I heard recently that University of California, Riverside, is introducing a dance practice-based PhD (email to Williams from Dempster, September 22, 2012).

Reading this comment provided further insight. If the end product of "a dance practice-based PhD" is a performance of a dance, then my position is (and was) clear. When I taught at New York University's Dance Department, starting in the autumn of 1979, I flatly refused to be on any doctoral committee that supervised a "performance degree." The reason? Master's and doctoral degrees are not performances of the same type as dance performances. As an example, I will offer one illustration from my doctoral thesis.9 In volume I, section I of this work, the second and third chapters are titled "Intellectual and Emotional Explanations of the Dance" and "Religious and Literary Explanations of the Dance," respectively. Together, the two chapters comprise fifty-five pages of a survey of extant literature (including theories) about dancing, starting with Ernst Kris (1952) and ending with Alistair Crawley (1911). The survey included approximately seventy-five books on the dance, dealing with the ballet, modern dance forms, east Indian forms of dancing, and "Greek" dancing—to name a few.

     There is no way that the information I gave about theories and explanations of the dance in this survey could be expressed in dance performances. This is by no means the only example I could produce, but space prevents further examination of the thesis I wrote. Suffice to say here that Master's and doctoral surveys of literature provide much-needed continuities in the field of study, preventing current researchers from rediscovering the wheel and the needless commission of other naïve, sophomoric mistakes common to thesis writing. I still fail to see how such research demands could be met by a performance of a dance. But, maybe I am missing the point. According to Dempster,

Some ten to fifteen years ago a lot of political, strategic work was done to persuade the academic boards of various Australian universities that creative arts methods and outcomes could constitute credible research activity, such that methods of artistic production might be regarded as research methodology and artistic works as examinable research outcomes. At that time a few eloquent individuals argued for the inclusion of practice-based research on various grounds, one being that the university had become dominated by inflexible paradigms of knowledge creation and exchange, which were not sensitive to art-specific values (email to Williams from Dempster, September 22, 2012).

Here, I have a problem because, I imagine, if methods of artistic production are regarded as research methodologies, then José Limón should have been awarded a PhD for The Moor's Pavanne, Martha Graham for Clytemnestra, Doris Humphrey for Lament for Ignacio Sanchez Mejias, and Alvin Ailey for Revelations—and I could go on—the list is almost endless. All these works are doubtless "examinable research outcomes," but did their choreographers merit PhD's for creating them? Would they have wanted to have one? More to the point, perhaps, could they have created these works in an academic context? Think about it.

     Instead, we will move on to another phrase from Dempster's recent comments that is a source of confusion. She mentions in the email quoted above, "the university [that has] become dominated by inflexible paradigms of knowledge creation and exchange, which were not sensitive to art-specific values." I simply do not understand what these paradigms are. I would have to be given examples to understand what is meant.

Dance Education Again

We have clearly moved far away from H'Doubler's ideal of dance education with which this essay started. She advocated the study of dance for everyone, as an enriching and enlightening experience that enhances individual lives. Janice Ross notes that H'Doubler's classes offered a new interpretation of the collegiate push for the education of the whole person (2000: 6–7). Even St. Denis (in Ross 2000) remarked on this, noting,

I should call the working classes of Miss H'Doubler a splendid environment for all the capacities for reaction and invention that a pupil might have, rather than for that intensely individual and solitude-seeking mood of the creative artist (Ross 2000: 7).10

In my opinion, the dance education classroom should be a site of discovery on at least three levels: kinesthetic, emotional, and intellectual. It should not be a site where professional dancers are trained.11 We may, therefore, well ask, "In building a dance department, toward what are we moving in college and/or university departments?"

     Are we moving toward the idea of a dance department that encourages most, if not all, of its dance majors to become dance artists and choreographers? Should university dance departments award advanced degrees for performances in (presumably) modern dance styles and techniques that compete with professional companies? This question leads to others: What happens to an aspiring east Indian dancer in this setting? What happens to a person dedicated to his or her Aboriginal heritage? What happens to aspiring dance therapists, or, for that matter, what about people who want to learn to teach dancing in new and different ways? For example, teaching dancers to handle their own bodies? (See Williams 2011: 10–12.) I have serious doubts about a dance department based on the kinds of narrow focus that the teaching of professional dancers implies.

     Dempster suggests that there are (at least) "two levels of difficulty consequent on being disciplined within the academy:" "a silencing (not being heard)" and "being seduced and accepting (more or less) the [academic] place that is offered." She thinks the latter is the more dangerous because "key assumptions underpinning our discipline-specific methods of practice and research, and the discourse that has evolved around them, may not be critically examined." She also suggests that no form of "othering" has advanced the understanding of the nature of dancing.

     Not only has no form of "othering" advanced the understanding of the nature of dancing, but the activity has resisted definition for at least a couple of hundred years. The best definition I was ever able to come up with for my doctoral examiners was the following:

Dancing is essentially the termination through actions of a certain kind of symbolic transformation of experience. Speaking is also a symbolic transformation of experience. The terminal symbols of speech are expressed in words, sentences and paragraphs. The terminal symbols of dances are expressed in gestures, poses and movement phrases. The terminal symbols of speech are often considered to be symbolic in quite different ways from the terminal symbols of any dance form, but both kinds of symbolic system, (movement and language) share the function of meaning, for that is what any symbolic system is about, and meaning has both logical and psychological aspects. (Williams 1975: 1:118)

This definition of dancing might be unsatisfactory to some, especially those who are deeply attached to one dance form or another, but that is the reason I produced a definition that could not be tied to any specific dance form. It is a definition that can apply to any form of dancing anywhere in the world, which brings me to some final thoughts about the structure and course offerings of a dance department in a university.

     Nowhere does Dempster identify the specific dance forms she talks about. Many readers, whether in the U.S. or Australia or New Zealand, are not going to know what dance forms are taught in programs that presently exist in Australian universities, far less American institutions. Moreover, I remain unclear about what Dempster means when she talks of "professionalization." While I agree with Melrose's concept of "critical metapractice" (see current issue), I do not understand what "dance practice and performance work that performs its critique of its own disciplinary conventions" amounts to.

     Given the scope of world dance forms that are available for study, a necessary course for any college or university department would be dance ethnology or, even better, an anthropology of the dance,12 because, no matter how good dancers and choreographers may be with regard to their own forms of dancing, they are rarely able to perform or write well about an unfamiliar or little-known technique. Often, they are unable to write well about dance forms with which they are familiar.

     I would have to see a dance performance that "performs its critique of its own disciplinary conventions" to be convinced of the possibility of a dance performance being able to handle such subject matter. Although I flatter myself that I possess a fairly well-developed, complex imagination, I am unable to visualize what such a performance might look like.

     Nearly all the early modern dance forms could be seen as "critiques" of the structure and conventions of the ballet's form and techniques. I can handle that, but I cannot envision what a dance would look like that comprises a performed critique of, say, the Humphrey-Weidman technique, far less a critique of the disciplinary conventions of, say, Japanese Butoh, south Indian Bharatanatyam, or some of the Caribbean dance forms I have studied.

     In general, I would welcome a broader outlook from American dance departments than I have seen or experienced in the past. We give lip service to the notion of 'world dance,' for example, but what are we really talking about? How much do our departments reflect that kind of perspective? Perhaps the emphasis in dance departments should be more on 'dance education' rather than the performance of some idiom of dancing.


1 She was born in Beloit, Kansas, in 1899. She died in Springfield, Missouri, in 1982.

2 See

3 It would be interesting to have a history of the backgrounds of departments for 'dance' in the university (if there is one, please let me know!) because, to my knowledge, we know very little about how the initial context of dance departments influenced the attitudes toward and practices of the actual dance forms that were offered.

4 See University of Wisconsin (Madison) Libraries, "Archives and Oral History" web site, specifically, "Health and Fun Shall Walk Hand in Hand: The First 100 Years of Women's Athletics at University of Wisconsin–Madison," by Chris Hartman: (accessed December 17, 2012).

5 A severe injury to my left Achilles tendon marked the end of my teaching and dancing career in New York City.

6 This included work at the state women's prison and the Wisconsin School for Girls in early experiments in 'dance therapy.' See Williams 1999: 123–27.

7 Meanings in the dictionary explain how I am using this word so far: Discipline—4. Mental self-control used in directing or changing behavior, learning something, or training for something; 5. A subject or field of activity, for example, an academic subject.

8 Defined as "an object of study—techne—instead of a subject of study—phrenesis."

9 The thesis is titled "The Role of Movement in Selected Symbolic Systems" (Williams 1975).

10 This includes Ross's citation of Ruth St. Denis from "The Creative Impulse and Education." Denishawn Magazine 1 (4): 14–16 (1925).

11 Perhaps I should say that the dance education classroom in a university is a site where professional dancers cannot adequately be trained.

12 I say this because 'ethnology' is largely descriptive, while sociocultural anthropology provides a wider scope for understanding the relationship between the danced form and the people who practice or own it.

References Cited:

Crawley, A.E.
1911. "Processions and Dances" and "Auto-Intoxication." In Hasting's Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clarke.

H'Doubler, Margaret.
1921. Manual of Dancing: Suggestions and Bibliography for the Teacher of Dancing. Madison: [s.n.] University of Wisconsin Memorial Library.
1940. Dance: A Creative Art Experience. 2d ed. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

Kris, Ernst
1952. Psychoanalytic Explorations in Art. New York: International University Press.

Ross, Janice
2000. Moving Lessons: Margaret H'Doubler and the Beginning of Dance in American Education. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

Williams, Drid
1975. The Role of Movement in Selected Symbolic Systems. 3 vols. Doctoral thesis, Oxford University.
1999. Beyond Survival: An Autobiography. Beaverton, OR: High Ground Press. [This book is now out-of-print, but available through JASHM.]
2011. Teaching Dancing with Ideokinetic Principles. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Wilson, John, with Thomas Hagood and Mary Brennan
2006. Margaret H'Doubler: The Legacy of America's Dance Education Pioneer. Youngstown, NY: Cambria Press.



Content in Journal for the Anthropological Study of Human Movement (ISSN 1940-7610) is intended for personal, noncommercial use only. You may not reproduce, publish, distribute, transmit, participate in the transfer or sale of, modify, create derivative works from, display, or in any way exploit the Journal for the Anthropological Study of Human Movement database in whole or in part without the written permission of the copyright holder.
© 2013 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
Terms and Conditions of Use.