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Kamarck, Edward (ed.) / Arts in society: growth of dance in America
(Summer-Fall, 1976)

Cohen, Selma Jeanne
Dance literacy: [the state of sylphs in academe: dance scholarship in America],   pp. 222-227 PDF (6.0 MB)

Page 222

by Selma Jeanne Cohen
Selma Jeanne Cohen is editor of Dance
Perspectives magazine.
After all, it seems to be the most unlikely
combination imaginable. Of all the arts, dance
is the most physical, the one that least
requires the exercise of intellect. George
Balanchine tells his dancers of the New York
City Ballet: "Don't ask why. Just do it. You
don't need to know why." They don't need to
think; they don't even need to read. Dancers
can remember the steps of a ballet without
a single written word or symbol to guide
them. They call it "muscular memory."
Nothing mental about it.
Yet a number of distinguished minds have
applied themselves to dance. Both Plato and
Aristotle thought it worth discussion, and in
eighteenth-century France a number of
aestheticians considered dance as one of the
major art forms. Now, after a few setbacks,
incited by Puritans on one continent and
Victorians on another, writers are again deal-
ing deftly and provocatively with the ideas of
dance as well as with the events of its history.
Unfortunately, viable dance scholarship has
been outweighed by quantities of fan publica-
tions. There is nothing essentially wrong with
the latter (or would not be if only they were
accurate, which most of them are not), as
long as they are put in their proper place,
which is not that of substituting for in-depth
scholarship. There has been too little serious
work to compensate for the frivolities, and the
imbalance has led to the prevailing opinion
that dance scholarship is non-existent. It has
and does exist-albeit in small quantities.
Why has progress been so slow? In general,
dancers and even choreographers have been
wary of scholarship. Active rather than specu-
lative by nature, they fail to see how the
researcher can be of any use. Dancers do not
need history or theory; they need bodies
attuned to respond to directions, instantly
and accurately, a condition that is only
inhibited by reasoning. Consequently,
academic subjects have formed a meagre
part of the dancer's education, when they
formed any part of it at all. Balanchine
responded to Edwin Denby's sensitive analysis
of his choreography: "Too fancy." Hardly
encouraging, but typical.
To be sure, there were some mavericks. John
Weaver staged some ballets and also wrote An
Essay Towards a History of Dancing in 1712.
Among later choreographers, Jean Georges
Noverre and Michel Fokine declaimed against
the abuses of their day in apologias for their

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