julia foulkes

Back to Dance

Perhaps you can never really leave it. But dance has become more central in my life again this year. Primarily it’s because of my collaboration with Netta Yerushalmy in her Paramodernities project, and also my time at the Center for Ballet and the Arts, and just more conversations with dancers. What strikes me most about this return is how much has changed in the years I’ve been studying dance.

When I was trying to find the right graduate program for doctoral study in a history department, with an interest in researching dance, I wrote a number of leading scholars in cultural history asking whether or not they would be interested in working with me. None of them worked directly with dance. There were no’s and some lukewarm maybe’s. I was lucky to receive one clear positive response, which convinced me to enroll in that program, and I feel ever grateful for that professor’s open-mindedness and embrace. And when I went on the job market, I’m fairly certain I was the only one looking for jobs in history whose dissertation had focused on dance.

Now dance departments at universities and colleges are well-established if not large. Dancer-choreographer-scholars are at the leading edge of thinking through and working on the links between theory and practice. Doctoral students studying dance are located in history, sociology, literary studies, art history, performance studies, on and on.

What changed?

Certainly the attention to bodies and, in particular, embodied experiences. Social theory has embraced this lens as a way in which to highlight phenomenological characteristics along with constructions of identities. Performance is everywhere–in museums, in texts, in poems, and literally living on the internet. Dance, then, heightens the register, makes intentional and deliberate what is more commonplace and assumed in everyday movement and action. It’s a way to examine performance as intentional and unintentional act.

That may help explain the growing attention in academia but I find it even more curious that dance seems to be gaining attention in realms outside academia as well. Every public conversation on dance I go to these days–at New York Public Library, at the Center for Ballet and the Arts, at the Whitney Museum of American Art–is sold out! While I do not believe that happens at many dance performances, it does seem that there is a new visibility to dance; articles on the choreographers of Beyoncé’s recent Coachella performance, for instance, in addition to multiple articles on the 100th anniversary celebrations of Jerome Robbins.

Some of this may also have to do with the ubiquity of videos, for everything. From personal news to world events, did it occur if not caught by video? One offshoot of that means that dance can be readily accessed, not just described in words, but seen, on phone after phone. And then there’s the proliferation of television shows that concern dance, from Glee to So You Think You Can Dance and Dancing with the Stars.

Perhaps it’s the medium of the moment. Encompassing the attendant politics of who we are, where we are, how we are, why we are. To contemplate dance is to know presence.