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Frederick G. Naerebout

The past, presentand future of Dance History

Naerebout, G. Frederick: "The past, presentand future of Dance History", Tradition and Art 062, p. 20-21, Athens, I.O.F.A., March - April 2002.

                 The past, presentand future of Dance History

Dance History has been described as the ‘poor relation’ of the large family of historical research. One simply has to count the number of university professors, of learned journals, conferences and so on, to show that Dance History is indeed lagging behind. At a conference organized by the European Association of Dance Historians, London November 2000, I presented the results of my quantitative analysis of Dance History publications taken from 18 different authoritative journals. Below I discuss this material anew.

I started by counting all articles which dealt with anything historical involving dance in any significant way (that is, there should be at least a single substantial paragraph dedicated to dance which contributes to the article as a whole). I went through almost 4,000 articles in the 1989-1999 issues of three categories of journals: 1. Dance studies (Dance Chronicle, Dance Research, and Dance Research Journal); 2. History of music or of the theatre (Acta Musicologica, Early Music, Ethnomusicology, Music & Letters, Revue d’Histoire du Théâtre, and Theatre Research International); and 3. General History (American Historical Review, Annales ESC/HSS, Archiv für Kulturgeschichte, Ethnologia Europaeae, Historische Zeitschrift, History Workshop, Past & Present, Tijdschrift voor Geschiedenis, and Volkskundig Bulletin). I ended up with 287 articles, 247 from the first category of journals (about 25% of all articles in that category), 35 from the second category (somewhat less than 3%), and 5 from the third category (about 0,3%).

So amongst the journals not specifically dedicated to dance, a mere 40 out of over 3,000 articles dealt in any way with the history of dancing (and 8 of these were in a single thematic issue of Early Music, and another 2 were written by myself!). I asked myself: why this sad score, despite the fact that we are speaking about dance, that is, about a universal human phenomenon?

Why is Dance History the ‘poor relation’? To this difficult question there is no single answer that fits every time and place. One could point to the fact that as a scholarly subject it is a relative newcomer. It is true that for over five centuries a lot of attention has been paid to dancing in ancient Greece and Rome, by scholars and theatre makers. I have outlined that tradition in my book Attractive performances. But it was only in the ­­­­19th century, after a first few attempts in the 18th century, that we get ­histories of the dance in other periods and places. At the close of the 19th century the study of non-Greek dance, historical and otherwise, was really taking off, but we had to wait until the 1960s for Dance Ethnology, Dance Anthropology, and the wider subject of dance studies to be firmly established. A scholarly tradition of 40 years, or 100, or 140, wherever one wants to set the beginning, is not very long as far as the humanities are concerned. But this is not so very different for the study of music, or drama or any other performing art. Many parts of art history are very young. History has produced many subdisciplines that are recent outgrowths. And so on. It appears that there is something else at work that is keeping dance history out of the journals.

Could it be that Dance History is not taken seriously? I think it is not, and I think there are several reasons why. The idea that the performing arts in general, and dance in particular, are something frivolous, not fit for scholarly attention, has certainly played, and sometimes still plays, its part. The weight of a long tradition of religious objections to the more bodily and sexual human arts is behind it. But could it also be that something is wrong with dance history itself? I think there are a number of weaknesses in Dance History as it is now undertaken which make it difficult for the outside world to take it seriously. These weaknesses become visible from my analysis of the 287 articles in my sample. I asked the following questions: 1. What period is dealt with; 2. Is the article ‘theoretically sophisticated’ or ‘antiquarian’ (a collection of facts without adequate contextualizing or problematizing); and 3. Does the article discuss particular dance movements, dance in general, or subjects related to dance.

This was the outcome: almost 62% of the articles deal with 20th-century subjects (152 out of 246; the contents of the other 41 articles could not be ascribed to a single period or century); almost 13% deal with 19th-century subjects, mainly late 19th-century (31 out of 246). That leaves only one quarter of the articles to deal with all centuries before 1800. Secondly, almost 90% could be described as antiquarian (219 out of 245; 42 articles were excluded because they were source publications and the like). That leaves just 10% asking or answering questions of wider import. Thirdly, 16% of articles (46 out of 287) centred on the analysis of dance movements, while 84% (241 out of 287) centred on the general phenomenon ‘dance’ within or without a particular context, or on related subjects which do not directly touch upon the dance itself at all (such as the social position of professional dancers, the income of dance teachers, the number of discotheques, and so on). I can add that almost all articles deal with the history of European and American theatrical and social dancing.

Thus we can suppose that most articles published on Dance History are antiquarian enquiries into recent history. But journals other than the specific dance journals seem to prefer articles of wider import and of greater time-depth, because these were disproportionately represented amongst the (very few) articles published in that kind of journals. They do not publish much Dance History articles, because its practitioners apparently find it very hard to look beyond the ballet and modern dance stage and the ballroom, and to look at things in context. They safely stick to what is known and what is near. But, to give only a single example, there are three millennia of documented Greek dance. These are very interesting in themselves, but also help to solve, and at the same time raise, innumerable questions. Now that is a great subject! By which I do not imply that, for instance, the career of Nureyev is not a proper subject for dance history. It certainly is, if it is approached intelligently. What I am saying is that this should not be the only, or only kind, of subject. Dance historians should be writing a better kind of History: more comprehensive, with a greater time-depth, partaking of the current concerns of historians in general, and providing more contextualizing and theorizing.

How to accomplish this? Not by putting all our energy into creating a new discipline which tries to put this into practice. As we have seen, dance history is unfocussed: only a small percentage of research deals with the dance movement itself, the large bulk deals with many different things. A discipline of Dance History which is unfocussed will only serve to perpetuate the weaknesses outlined above. It tries to do everything at once, and thus it is not very good at anyhting, and is always looking for the easy way out. Only those who carry out specialist work on dance movement should have their own discipline. Those who are the ‘generalists’ of Dance History had better convince the representatives of established disciplines of the validity and interest of the subject, by living up to their standards. The lack of focus can then be turned into a strength, because one can find a home almost everywhere.

The best way forward for most of Dance History is to become good enough to be accepted by historical studies at large, but in the end also to merge with these. The history of dance is a subject too important to be condemned to languish, or flourish for that matter, in a small ghetto peopled by dance historians. It should be of interest to all historians or whatever kind of scholars, researchers, authors, and readers. Because they have come to feel that any account of human society that leaves out dance is incomplete.

Frederick G. Naerebout



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