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Dance in Academia

Dance and the Aesthetics of the Body

by Elif Isikozlu

I spend a great deal of time reading about the way the body is conceptualized in medicine, science, philosophy, history, anthropology and, of course, dance. What strikes me most about my reading is the lack of awareness, across other disciplines, of dance’s perspective and research on the body. Although dance scholars draw upon research from other disciplines when writing about the body, rarely if ever, do other disciplines draw upon knowledge from dance. This observation led me to the following questions: how can dance scholarship contribute to the discourse on the body? What is unique about the perspective of the body in dance and how can knowledge generated by dancing bodies and dance researchers contribute to the understanding of the body in other fields? My questions are not so much about what is going on the dance field per se but rather about how dance scholarship situates itself in relation to other disciplines with respect to research on the body. This is not to imply that dance research or dancing is only about the body, but that “body” is a concept and a lived reality that is central to dance both in theory and in practice.

The conceptualization of the body in dance is unique. The dance body is at once an aesthetic subject and object and a physiological being bound by the laws of gravity and the realities of injury. Although other disciplines (such as diving or gymnastics) share these characteristics, part of what makes the dance body unique is its operation with the frame of “art”. Operation within this frame entails different theoretical concerns and physical demands. The notion of beauty (and the debate surrounding its definition and representation) becomes particularly relevant in an artistic context and bears directly on the physical demands of dance. Dancers must not only be able to execute choreography, but they must simultaneously adhere to an aesthetic concept that differs from the artistic criteria applied in sports such as gymnastics and diving. This difference necessitates independent consideration. As such, dance has a unique contribution to make to the wider discourse on the body. This is then not only a call to dance scholars to take a more visible stance within academic discussion on the body but also a call to other disciplines to take a greater interest in dance’s potential to contribute.

As a dance scholar in training, I am all too aware of the uphill nature of this cross-disciplinary approach, especially given dance’s relatively new appearance on the academic scene and that a doctoral dance program is not available in Canada , as it is in the UK , for example. I do not mean to imply that inter-disciplinary work is not occurring but rather that this kind of collaboration is more the exception than the rule.

As dancers, dance writers, researchers, historians, appreciators etc. we generate a vast amount of experiential, theoretical and practical knowledge. It is imperative that this expertise not remain within the confines of the dance discipline; the fact that our perspective on the body is unique necessitates its sharing with others given that other fields cannot generate the same kind of knowledge. It is likely the case that many non-dance scholars who would be open to dance knowledge have simply not been aware of its existence. This is where our work is to be done. It is not about forcing our point of view but simply about making it heard and easily available.

Dance scholars have the unique opportunity to challenge well-established notions about the body and the way in which knowledge about the body is produced. Let us not take a back seat to this discourse, but rather, jump right in with the same gusto and determination with which many of us step out onto the dance floor. At the very least, the dance world needs to reach out to other fields, to make itself known by presenting at non-dance conferences, writing in non-dance publications and engaging in academic collaborations outside of dance. This is not to say that this isn’t being done. This is simply to say, let’s do more.

Edited by Holly Messitt

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