Assessment of American concert dance world: Needs Improvement

I have seen the dance world from multiple perspectives. I have studied dance most of my life and performed, choreographed, and taught dance. I have learned about dance (with a degree to show for it) and read, thought, and written about dance. I have worked in administrative roles for dance education, presenting, and service organizations. I have engaged with Dance/NYC, Dance/USA, the Congress on Research in Dance, the Arts and Business Council, and the Harkness Center for Dance Injuries. I live in New York City where I see dance performances and hobnob with a variety of dance professionals on a regular basis.

And my consensus from observing the dance world from these diverse vantage points is: 1) I love it; I believe in it; I’m not done with it, and 2) It needs a lot of work if it wants to grow and sustain.

I have compiled here a list of problems or areas that I think need improvement in the large context of concert dance in the U.S. I have been thinking about these things for a while, but when I went to actually write down a list, I was surprised that I came up with so many – 20 in total. Because of this, I decided to divide them into categories, so that the full list wouldn’t be as overwhelming. Thus, here is my current list of areas of need for American concert dance

Coming together

  • There is not enough connection and caring among the different sectors of the dance world. I often refer to the 4 A’s and an E: Artists, Administrators, Advocates, Academics, and Educators. I feel that there need to be communication bridges between each of these groups as well as mutual respect and concern for the health of each sector.
  • Specifically, academic researchers and writers tend to be very exclusive. I spoke about this in my review of the Congress on Research in Dance conference last November. I particularly wish that academics were more inclusive of the rest of the field in their studies and also shared their findings with a broader audience, sparking positive change by sharing the knowledge with those it actually affects.
  • Once connecting bridges are established between the different sectors, there needs to be more discourse among people in dance. We need to come together to talk about issues and discuss solutions.
  • I feel dance writers could play a critical role in helping this discourse to happen – using media platforms to bring up topics and engage conversation (not just providing dance criticism). In order to do this, though, we need more opportunities, support, and compensation for dance writers.
  • To fully bring everyone to the table and working together to promote change, we may need to improve our current service organizations and possibly create new ones. For example, I think the Dance Critics Association and Dance/USA could benefit from clarified missions and rejuvenated energy. And with so many separate organizations for each professional group (though each useful), is there need for a national umbrella organization for all things dance, to at least bring representatives from each community together for cross-conversation?

 Identity

  • I’m currently working on another writing piece about what we name modern dance. “Modern dance” as a term actually has multiple meanings and is therefore inadequate to describe the form of concert dance done by many in our country. We need to figure out what we’re doing – “Modern”? “Contemporary”? “Live art”? Something else? – so that we’re all on the same page and can effectively talk about ourselves, where we’re going and where we’ve been.
  • Concert dance in America also needs a better national identity. Not only does this include how our dance is unique from other countries, but it also means we need to be aware and supportive of the various dance happening in different cities around the United States.

Bettering ourselves

  • There needs to be stronger and more uniform training of artists. All college dance programs need to meet certain standards, so we are developing well-informed, well-rounded, and self-aware artists. Beyond college, there need to be more mentorship opportunities for young people and more platforms for emerging choreographers to create and show work. No artist in any form is brilliant right from the start; to achieve brilliance, you need to be able to experiment and even fail many, many times.
  • Hopefully, then, this improved education and training will lead to better art. It’s not that there isn’t great artistic dance happening now, but I want even more. I want more art that is interesting and illuminating and provocative and impactful. And I want it to be accessible to a broader audience, while still maintaining a high level of artistic integrity. And I want lots of it, enough to share across the country. Not too much to ask, right?
  • Anyone that knows of Michael Kaiser, of the Kennedy Center and DeVos Institute of Arts Management, knows that one of his major agendas is to increase the amount and level of training for arts administration professionals in the country. While I may not agree with all of his opinions on arts management, I certainly agree that better training is needed, especially to prepare the next generation of arts leaders. In the same way, there needs to be strong training programs for every professional sector of dance, whether an administrator, advocate, teacher, etc.
  • This may be just a personal desire, as I hope to pursue a graduate degree in Dance Studies in the future, but I feel specifically that there need to be more Masters and PhD programs related to studying and improving the field of dance, rather than just studying or practicing the art form itself. From my searching, I found only one actual “Dance Studies” program in the country, though many MFA and Performance Studies programs.
  • Lastly, I wish everyone in dance were more aware and embracing of their own worth and place in the dance world as well as the world at large. It’s important that we remind ourselves from time to time of the important role that we play in our society and find new passion for doing our best at fulfilling that role.

Outreach and education

  • We all want more support for dance – we mourn the loss of government and private funding; we wish more people came to shows; we want higher paychecks. But in order to get more support for dance, we need to make outreach a major priority. Our art form will not continue to exist, let alone thrive, if we don’t get more people interested in dance and aware of its artistic value.
  • A big part of getting people to appreciate dance is to increase education about the art form. To this end, I think we need to hit them early and provide more dance education to children (inside and outside schools), so that Americans learn at an early age to be comfortable with their bodies and recognize the potential for expression through movement. Thankfully there are already many hard-working individuals and many influential education programs across the country, but with our political climate and decreased government support for arts education, this important task is actually very difficult to achieve. Which is why we need to dedicate major efforts to promoting existing programs and building new ones, as teaching children is the key to building dance audiences for years to come.
  • Only slightly less important than educating the audiences of tomorrow is educating those of today. We need to have more outreach to non-dance people in our society, educating the masses to de-mystify the form and make it more accessible and enjoyable. I can act as a private tutor to my family and friends, but what about everyone else that we can’t individually reach?

Addressing current issues

  • Not enough dance outside of New York: Maybe New York City will never lose its monopoly on modern dance in our country, and maybe that’s okay. (It started here; it deserves to be strong here.) But there also needs to be a proliferation of dance across the country, so that everyone can see and benefit from the form, not just those in New York or select other large cities. How about in the very least creating a resident modern dance company in every city that has a ballet company?
  • Better use of technology: Now, technology can be used for so many things, but particularly I would love to use it to address the first issue, bringing dance to more people. Like Tendu TV is trying to do, make dance pieces available for online download, and like The Met Opera has done with live broadcasts to theaters around the country, how can we use technology to make great dance available no matter where you live?
  • The potency of pop culture influences, like reality TV shows, and the influence of the separate world of commercial dance: Not that these are entirely bad, but how do we take advantage of benefits and counteract the disadvantages? (For more on my specific opinions on So You Think You Can Dance, read the bad, the good, and the big picture.)

Renewing spirits

  • Beyond these various tasks and foci to address within the field, a big part of moving forward is preparing mentally. And I think the first part of this is remembering to have fun. Clearly there are a lot of heavy issues that we need to face, but we also need to remember the joy we find in dance. We need to reinvigorate our passions and encourage each other as a family, a family united in love for this great art form.
  • Ruth St. Denis performed Radha at Coney Island in 1906; Isadora Duncan returned to the U.S. after success in Europe in 1908; and the Denishawn school was founded in California in 1915 (Ballet and Modern Dance). Fokine moved to New York in 1919, started his ballet school in 1921, and had first performances with the “American Ballet” company in 1924 (Fokine website). Graham’s first season with her company was in New York in 1926 (International Dictionary of Modern Dance). Congratulations on 100 years of artistic dance in the United States! Let’s feel good about our accomplishments, then recommit to improving dance and making it a viable art form in the U.S. for many years to come.

So there you go, my mini manifesto on the needs I see in American concert dance. To be fair, many of these areas are already being focused on by amazingly dedicated individuals and organizations across the country. But my point is that in these ways, we still have a long way to go; and we need to come together to make these efforts a priority, for the greater good of the form.

And so my final note is to those who identify themselves as somehow within the field of dance. Which of these or similar areas of need are you going to dedicate yourself to? Concert dance is still so new in our country, so it’s only natural that there are still many aspects that need improvement. But let’s make it happen. Let’s make this art form as great as it can be and fill as many souls with it as we possibly can. Let’s take up our own responsibilities and also work together to push the form forward and build a foundation for dance in the United States.

Please feel free to comment, as I would love to hear what others think about this list and what possibly needs to be added.

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6 Comments

  1. Siobhan B

     /  October 27, 2011

    Hi Megan! Wow, what an impressive and comprehensive assessment of the field. Right on. I especially appreciate your thoughts on dance education (teaching expression through movement at a young age) and, of course, on the potential for dance writers to enrich the critical discourse.

    –Siobhan

    Reply
  2. Siobhan B

     /  October 27, 2011

    (Oops, I mean, MeAgan.)

    Reply
  3. Meagan, there is so much you’ve covered here that I don’t even know where to start as far as a response but I thank you for posting your insightful, thorough, and passionate thoughts.

    I think to keep my comment short I’ll just respond to your final question: Which of these or similar areas of need are you going to dedicate yourself to?

    I think that I’ve dedicated myself in some way to each of these areas via my website. I began Dance Advantage hoping to connect dance studio culture to a wider world of dance; to help & encourage dance teachers to broaden and improve training methods or at least dare to go beyond instruction, and educate their students; and to present students with a fuller picture of the expressive, commercial, personal, and artistic potential of dance. When I started in 2008 there were very few spaces online inspiring thought, discussion, or investigation of dance (at least, not with much depth) and I’ve been thrilled to see that change. Your blog is just one example. What this will do to help concert dance “organize” itself in some of the ways you’ve mentioned, I’m not exactly sure. But it gives me plenty of hope for the future of dance!

    Reply
  4. Thanks so much for this article. I want to respond in depth and hope to do this soon. I was going to send you a link to my blog post but see you’ve already found it.
    Thanks again!!
    Heather (educatingdancers)

    Reply
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