Conrad Scott-Curtis
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(Cross-)Disciplining Dance: Two Recent Collections of Essays in Dance Studies and (Lately) Related Fields

Susan Leigh Foster, ed.
Corporealities: Dancing Knowledge, Culture, and Power
New York: Routledge, 1996

Susan Leigh Foster, ed.
Choreographing History
Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 1995

Until the mid 1980s, scholarly dance writing concerned itself largely with monographic treatments of individual dancers, choreographers, and companies; with recording and analysis of particularly significant works or styles; and occasionally with anthropological study, ethnographies of dance. As Linda J. Tomko points out, dance writing as an organized scholarly pursuit even of these kinds dates only from the 1960s in this country, an observation that can be confirmed by perusal of the bibliographies of recent major works in the field.1 All the more intriguing, then, is Corporealities, a collection of essays edited by Susan Leigh Foster, chair of the Department of Dance at the University of California, Riverside, which brings together dance scholars who use a variety of theoretical methods to discuss dance practices in ways that, in the best of these papers, contribute as much to questions of general theoretical interest as to the study of dance itself.

Foster's own contribution "The Ballerina's Phallic Pointe," addresses problems of gendered desire through the surprising and "naughty" assertion (the word is hers) that the ballerina in a pas-de-deux functions as phallus and that her male partner "embodies the forces that pursue, guide, and manipulate it" (3). The provocation is not as outrageous as it might seem at first blush: marshaling an impressive range of historical detail in a limited space, she explores the early genealogy of the romantic pas-de-deux to trace trajectories of spectators' desire both in the early nineteenth century and today. Foster's reconsideration of gendered identities in ballet draws on their instability: among many others, she offers the fascinating detail that differentiation of male and female roles in early nineteenth-century pas-de-deux (before this, as Foster points out, men and women shared a lexicon of steps) spurred a concurrent rise in popularity of the travesty dancer—a female who took the male role in the new form. In its broadest application, her article is of interest to anyone concerned with gender formations of the early nineteenth century and their influence today. At the very least, her subtle parsing of the issues should put to rest any treatment of gender in ballet as self-evident.

In "Dance and the History of Hysteria," Peggy Phelan, chair of the graduate program in Performing Arts at NYU, approaches Josef Breuer's report of the treatment of Anna O. with the recognition that in this case from the early history of psychoanalysis, as in the other four reported in Breuer's and Freud's 1895 Studies on Hysteria , "a remarkable amount of attention is given to bodies, and to body parts, that will or cannot move" (90). Phelan discusses Anna's symptoms as an indication of a soma that is not integrated into a narrative order: Anna's body does not distinguish between the past, when she sat in death watch at her father's bedside, engaged in "a kind of still kinesthetic empathy…, a mimetic response to her father's illness," and the present, during which she lives on although her father has died. And Phelan finds in the potential of the body to become separated from consciousness's chronological organization of events an indication that "the body does not contain…[a] narrative order…independent of its imposition," continuing, "psychoanalysis suggests that the body's 'truth' does not organize itself narratively or temporally" (91). Further, she finds in the body's potential independence from the temporal order of consciousness a basis for a conversation between psychoanalysis and dance: whereas psychoanalysis integrates the body and consciousness according to narrative order, dance elaborates "possible temporalities for the body…, consciously performs the body's discovery of its temporal…dimensions," based on schemata not necessarily tied to narrative (92, italics omitted).

Heidi Gilpin, Assistant Professor of Dance at the University of California, Riverside, and dramaturg to William Forsythe of the Frankfurt Ballet, frames a discussion of Polish writer and theater director Tadeusz Kantor with a brief but compelling treatment of problems of repetition in Freud, Kierkegaard, and contemporary European performance practice. Beginning from the position that repetition can both indicate a compulsion "to master...the event being repeated" (111) and suggest an impulse toward new experience, toward discovery of difference within the same, she goes on to treat this double motivation as the crux of a productive paradox involving repetition. Gilpin writes interestingly about Kierkegaard's Repetition , including a discussion of implications for interpretation of modern performance practices of the philosopher's setting of problems of repetition as a "discourse of theatre, performance, and dance" (112). (Kierkegaard's narrator, Constantin Constantius, sets out to test the possibility of repetition by returning to Berlin, the site of an earlier excursion, among other reasons to watch the performance of a dancer he has seen before.) In contemporary examples of repetition in performance, Gilpin finds a kind of displaced fulfillment of Kierkegaard's prediction that repetition would "play a very important role in modern philosophy."

She also finds that the arrival of the problem of repetition from the realm of philosophy onto the dance stage has created a particularly potent combination: Dance (or "movement performance," the rubric under which she subsumes dance and theater) is predicated upon the continual disappearance of events. In performance, repetition works as a "strategy that calls attention to the fact of disappearance" and to the dual impossibilities of recuperation of presence either through repetition or recollection: "either we repeat the performance of absence...or we recollect the disappearance of this performance" (114). Writing about dance, then, rather than attempting to recapture the event of performance, as did an earlier kind of dance writing, becomes a conscious misrepresentation, an acceptance of "interpretation…[as] a process of deformation"—she draws on Freud's concept of Entstellung (distortion, deformation, displacement)—which establishes both its status as a performance and "its only claim to legitimacy" (109).

These three essays, along with the seven others in the volume that range from reflections by modern dance choreographer and scholar of renaissance and baroque dance Mark Franko on the early modern-dance criticism of John Martin to field work in the dance of Bali and the Philippines by the dancer and anthropologist Sally Ann Ness, serve to introduce the scope of the current enterprise in dance studies. Perhaps even more interesting to a general academic audience is a companion volume of sorts, Choreographing History, edited a year earlier by Professor Foster and assembling contributions by well-known cultural historians such as Stephen Greenblatt, Thomas Laqueur, and Hayden White to consider questions of bodily signification and the production of knowledge. Read together, these two works suggest the cross-disciplinary alliances to which the more ambitious practitioners of the fledgling field of dance studies aspire and hints at issues involved in their scuffle for institutional recognition and position.

Foster's introduction to Choreographing History makes clear her fundamental claim for the relevance of dance scholarship to wider academic discourse: while the body has been studied extensively as "transparent conveyance of whatever meaning other cultural categories invested in it" (14) (she mentions ethnographic research of the 1930s that isolated the body as one site of culturally specific inscription, albeit inscriptions of western categories of national character as much as any other, and Norbert Elias's work on relationships between state power and bodily practices), little attention has been given to bodies as productive of cultural information, as themselves generative of "a kind of writing" (9) and not only as sites of inscription. Dance scholars, she implies, most of whom are themselves dancers and choreographers, and used to working within bodily practices "that establish their own lexicons, their own syntagmatic and paradigmatic practices, their own capacity to reflect critically on themselves and on related practices" (15), are positioned to influence new directions in the cultural and historical study of the body.

In sketching the contours of such study, Foster cites Bakhtin's work on the carnivalesque body as exemplary insofar as it examines the body's capacity for transgressive behavior, but concedes that in the ritual of the carnival "the body's power to function transgressively is never articulated in any detail" (13). And while Foucault allows that bodies "participate in the restructuring of meaning production," he "assign[s]...little if any agency to individual bodies" (15). Indeed, Foster's notion of the body's writing is most clearly articulated, and therefore easiest to understand, in relation to dance itself, and so, too, her notion of a scholarship that responds to the body's writing also is most developed in relation to dance. For example, her own treatment of the Romantic pas-de-deux explores possible choreographic responses to Romantic constructs of the female dancer; Phelan's discussion of non-narrative temporal organization of bodily experience concentrates on dance as conscious performance of "the body's discovery of its temporal and spatial dimension" (Corporealities 92); Gilpin's handling of the philosophical tradition concerning repetition finds interesting commentary on the problem in the realm of "movement performance." Further, Foster's understanding of dance as an activity that comments on its own practices is evident in her characterization of choreography as "a form of theorizing" ( Choreographing History 15). The introduction to Choreographing History, however, amounts to a programmatic call for attention in various disciplines to practices that take seriously the body's own writing: the body's ability to create, comment upon, and modify webs of experience, as well as to receive inscription. It becomes pertinent, then, to consider how contributions from various disciplines to Choreographing History respond to the task. It also becomes pertinent to ask what institutional exigencies might be operating in a call for a cross-disciplinary academic project to which dance studies would be central.

As Foster's brief discussion of Foucault suggests, she tacitly bases her argument concerning the character and goals of such a project on concepts of the "agency" of bodily writing, and of bodies writing within a general field of cultural practices of signification and semiosis. One sense in which she uses the term relies on an analysis of, on the one hand, the complexity of the body's participation in the creation of signification and, on the other hand, the irreducibility of the significations of the body to language. She observes that writing about the body has tended either to "speak for" the body, "thus eviscerating its authority and immobilizing its significance," or "to revel in the fantasy" of the body's "untranslatability," at times romanticizing its "ephemerality," at other times treating it as a repository or "holding ground" for dark, unknowable drives. And she advocates a scholarship that will bring written discourse into "dialogue" with bodily discourse: "Written discourse must acknowledge the grammatical, syntactical, and rhetorical capacities of the moved discourse" (one of her terms for the writing accomplished by the body in movement) (9). In this sense, the "agency" of bodily writing would seem to be a broadly conceived independence of bodily signification from linguistic determination, its presence as a force within cultural practices. The second sense in which she discusses "agency" concerns the individual's ability to direct bodily writing toward specific political and aesthetic ends, as when she discusses the body's "potential to…resist…forms of cultural production" (15). This second sense implies a subject of unspecified nature, among whose attributes is agency exercised in moving in particular ways, presumably within everyday life as well as in, say, a dance studio or a carnivalesque festival.

Because these notions of agency are not well developed, however, one could ask for clarification of differences between the senses in which Foster discusses the body's "agency," as well as development of the constructs of subjectivity implied by either or both of these. Such clarification and development would seem prerequisite to evaluation of Foster's vision of the relevance of dance scholarship to other disciplines, for it is on the basis of the body's ability to effect meaning, to "participate in" and to "resist…cultural formations" that her project becomes generalizable to fields beyond dance. We can, however, get some sense of the applicability of her implied constructs of the body's "agency" across disciplines through examination of a few examples from Choreographing History . In one of her uses of "agency," Foster refers to the body's capacity to carry extra-linguistic meaning, but also, presumably, to its ability to carry practices that affect the production of knowledge, but whose rules cannot be made completely explicit. Such an understanding of the body's "agency" can be related to projects in a number of disciplines, including Mario Biagioli's discussion in Choreographing History of ways in which the bodily training of laboratory scientists affects replication of experiments and thus resolution of scientific disputes (see below). The second of these understandings of the body's "agency," its capacity to comment upon and resist domination by large-scale social forces, seems most apparent, however, in Foster's collections in treatments of performance practices themselves; contributions to Choreographing History do not make as clear ways in which bodies in other cultural arenas exercise "" to resist cultural inscription. Finally, neither is it clear whether—or perhaps the extent to which—in Foster's discussion the "playful probing of physical and semantic potential" in which choreographers and dancers engage implies a subject behind the body's writing (15).

If John J. MacAloon's contribution to Choreographing History is any indication, he might take issue with Foster's association of the body's ability to generate signs with the "agency" of "individual bodies" to resist social domination. In the paper that offers the most specific and developed consideration by a non-dance scholar of the writing carried out by particular bodies, the anthropologist and Professor of Social Sciences at the University of Chicago discusses the Olympic Games, emphasizing "the particularized globalization" of culture accomplished by the games and focused in the opening parade of nations. Although popular consumption of the festival treats the parade as a spectacle of diversity, MacAloon finds here

    a paradigmatic instance of the general law of cultural production in the contemporary "world system": the simultaneous, reciprocal, and codependent production...of integration and differentiation...through transnational...forms increasingly emptied of all but genealogical ties to particular civilizations. (33)

The increasingly deracinated signs of cultural identity on parade exemplify a general process of separation of cultural forms from indigenous contexts in order to adapt them for export, and the resulting signs of difference serve interests of integration into a world system. In delineating an example of what Jean-François Lyotard has elsewhere discussed as the ability of a system to manage contingency,2 MacAloon reminds us of the power of a large system to organize locally-generated differences toward its own ends. In what would seem to be an instance of relatively developed writing by bodies in a situation not involving the self-reflective practices of dance and choreography, potential for resistance is hard to identify. Even within dance such possibilities may be less far-reaching than Foster implies: her own example of the ballerina-as-phallus culminates in thoughts about the worldwide homogeneity of ballet as both performance form and training technique. In light of MacAloon's piece, reconsideration of her conclusions in "The Ballerina's Phallic Pointe" might include speculation about the cultural contexts in which rereading the figure of the ballerina presents opportunities, as she says, for creation of "a new identity that meets the political and aesthetic exigencies of the moment" (3) and those in which the figure of the ballerina offers little potential for resistance, political or aesthetic.

Stephen Greenblatt's contribution to Choreographing History tends to support Foster's claims for the potential of dance studies to define at least some kind of cross-disciplinary project in studies of the body. Greenblatt, of Berkeley, looks at a work from 1649 titled, in part, The Significative Muscles of the Affections of the Minde, by John Bulwer, whom he identifies as "a little-known English savant." Reversing the traditional misprision of the body, Bulwer found in facial expression and attitudes of the head and body immediate expression of the soul: whereas language is culturally determined, at least since God confounded its articulation at the time of the Tower of Babel, signification by the muscles does not lie. In support of his promotion of the body as manifestation of the soul, Bulwer, as Greenblatt points out, adduces Aristotle's assessment of motion as "the highest perfection of a living creature," reasoning that "the qualities and attainments that characterize human identity," including speech, "depend on the muscles" (26-7). Bulwer's view is complicated by an "obsession" with things cultures do that alter or obscure pure bodily expression—changing of the shape of the head, scarring and tattooing of the skin, piercing (these latter two concerns of Bulwer, by the way, shared by modern-day purists both in the NBA and on college campuses), and alteration of the feet, inter alia . In principle, however, the natural signs of the body are easier to discern beneath such distortions than is the form of Adam's original language behind the fragmentation and distortions of history.

Bulwer's is a view that takes most seriously the materiality of the body's writing, even if it does not, ultimately, assign such writing independence from transcendent determinations. And Greenblatt's exegesis of him indicates potential for histories that run counter to those that treat the body as having been held always and everywhere incidental to occurrences of consciousness. To this degree, Greenblatt's essay accords with the scholarship envisioned by Foster. In the introduction to Choreographing History, for example, she identifies the early decades of the twentieth century as a time during which "the body attained a new autonomous existence as a collection of physical facts," due to "new regimentations of the relations between bodies and machines..., cinematic representations of the body..., its treatments in the emerging field of advertising..., [and its treatment by] choreographers from Nijinsky to Graham and a kind of material substance, capable of being shaped and manipulated" (12-13). Greenblatt's topic is one of many possible in histories of engagement with the irreducibility of the body to subaltern relationship with the soul, the mind, or language, including a pre-Aquinian scholastic debate over the degree of material continuity necessary for identity between earthly and risen bodies,3 Nietzsche's treatment of the body as source of the rhetorical, of that which in text escapes conceptual containment,4 and Foucault's treatments of bodily discipline as determinative of experience.

Choreographing History includes additional examples of essays that acknowledge the materiality of the body's writing, the impossibility of reducing the body's writing to language (or at least the impossibility of completely mapping the rules of particular bodily practices), but that stop short of finding the "" which Foster indicates in the highly self-reflective practices of dance. Mario Biagioli, Co-director of the Center for the Cultural Studies of Science at the University of California, Los Angeles, reviews literature that extends Thomas Kuhn's notion of tacit knowledge in science—a category borrowed, as Biagioli points out, from Wittgenstein—to include the training of the scientist's body in laboratory practices: "In a sense, the connection between a theory and the 'out there' is learned by the student as she or he learns how to move around and operate in a laboratory (or in the field) and to tinker with instruments. Tacit knowledge is as much of the body as of the mind" (70-71). Biagioli goes on to cite examples from recent history, as well as the example of replication of experiments with Boyle's air pump in the 1660s, to assert that in these instances the expertise for replication of experimental results "traveled with bodies and not only with texts" (71). But thus far his discussion treats transfer of bodily knowledge and not the moments of innovation, of rewriting of bodily experience, that interest Foster. Here we would seem to encounter an opportunity for the kind of influence on a distant field that Foster envisions for dance studies. Biagioli, however, points out the difficulty—"the often impossible archaeological feat" (73)—of histories of instrument building that might shed light on shifting laboratory practices (and therefore on changes in the tacit bodily knowledge of scientists). A limitation, or at least a focusing, of Foster's project as it relates to the body of the scientist can be found in the suggestion by Biagioli that work in periods in which "scientist's protocols of argumentation and behaviors had not yet conspicuously differentiated themselves from surrounding cultural practices" presents fewer problems with empirical data.5 Such work needn't rely exclusively on "artifacts and texts of...[the scientific] community" (73).

Thomas W. Laqueur, of Berkeley, treats the concurrent rise in early eighteenth-century England of worries about the new credit economy, warnings about the dangers of fiction associated with the new form of the novel, and the sudden appearance of medical discourse on the dangers of masturbation as expressions of an underlying anxiety over ways movements of the imagination and the imaginary threaten traditional social relations. Although he discusses a bodily practice, masturbation, his emphasis is on social determination of the meaning of the act, rather than on any changes in the act itself. Indeed, he argues that the discourse concerning the newly medicalized category of "onanism" reflects a movement of large-scale social forces and not any change in bodily practice at all.

Hayden White, University Professor Emeritus at the University of California, Professor Emeritus of the History of Consciousness Program at University of California, Santa Cruz, and Professor of Comparative Literature at Stanford, addresses conditions of possibility of constructing "the history of the body—or, indeed, the history of bodies and, beyond that, the histories of bodies" and points out that any such history will be determined by postulation of "some kind of anti-body," which "marks the limit or horizon" of the normative body (232). He uses the example of the Christian, humanist tradition, which situates the body between spirit and mere matter, a location that "constitute[s] the limits of possibility for the career of the body or all bodies, the boundary conditions that mark the line at which bodies cease to be bodies proper and become...non-bodies" (232). He argues, in fact, that any history of the body or of a particular species of body—"female, male, and so on"—will be a history of deviation from a normative body: "Every history is a story of the ways in which the individual (some individual) violates the specificity of species" (233). Possibilities of convergence with Foster's project begin to appear here: to the extent that historians of the body recognize both the materiality of the body's signs and their independence from determination by language, the making and remaking of the monstrous bodies that define normality becomes a topic that would seem to require collaboration among dance historians, art historians, historians of religion (White includes a list of bodies transformed by sickness, mutilation, and discipline, largely drawn from religious figures), and indeed any other field that studies people who have or have had bodies.

But although the potential of dance studies to invigorate discussion of the body is evident in Foster's collections, the applicability of dance scholarship's "certain knowledges of the body as a representational field and certain skills at viewing and interpreting human movement" to a general "scholarship of the body" (15) has yet to be decided. If Foster's claims for the centrality of dance studies to a redefinition of the study of the body in various disciplines are overstated, they are perhaps understandable in an institutional context that has no single, established position for dance studies and in which the impressive competence of a new generation of dance scholars tends to be unknown and undervalued. And just as Foster's contribution to the development of dance studies in this country and abroad can hardly be overestimated—her 1986 Reading Dances was a watershed in scholarly study of dance—so the temerity of her attempts to bring other disciplines into relationship with dance studies is to be applauded.

More problematic is Foster's notion of the agency of individual bodies within practices of bodily signification, if only because it is not yet well developed. To leave it undeveloped, however, would be an omission that would portend collapse of the theoretical construct Foster is developing. Dance's complex cultural position derives in part from its tendencies both to invoke and to suspend experience of a connection between the movements of the body and presence of an intentional subject: the trained dancing body evidences the volition of the dancer and the degree to which it has been inscribed by received practice. Read uncritically, however, that nexus brings us into proximity (to choose one historical construct of strong subjective agency) with the Kantian moral subject whose volitional embrace of necessary law is seen as a sign of its essence. And the circumstance that dance is art brings us into engagement with an aesthetic tradition that understands the artistic product (here the dancing) as necessarily implicating an aesthetic subject, also of Kantian provenance. Taken together with a quotidian habit of thought and of body that accepts uncritically the simplest of the body's movements as a sign of the presence of an intentional subject, the dancing body retains a potential to reinforce naïve notions of agency. As Foster understands, such notions have little place in discussion either of dance or of other bodily practices. The status of the dancing subject wavers between that of an instigator of movement and an effect of the body's significations. Perhaps the greatest impact dance studies is poised to make in the wider academic community is not on understanding of the body's potential for resistance to cultural formations in general, but will be the result of bringing to bear focused and sustained pressure on the historical link between the moving body and constructs of subjective agency.

Conrad Scott-Curtis



(1)  See, for example, Sally Banes, Greenwich Village, 1963: Avant-Garde Performance and the Effervescent Body (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1993). Susan Leigh Foster. Reading Dancing: Bodies and Subjects in Contemporary American Dance (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986). Mark Franko. Dance as Text: Ideologies of the Baroque Body (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1993). Susan Manning, Ecstasy and  the Demon: Feminism and Nationalism in the Dances of Mary Wigman (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993). Linda J. Tomko's remark appears in her "Fete Accompli: gender, 'folk-dance,' and Progressive-era political ideals in New York City." In Corporealities 156.

(2)  Jean-François Lyotard. The Inhuman (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1991) 65-6.

(3) Carolyn Walker Bynum. "Material Continuity, Personal Survival and the Resurrection of the Body: A Scholastic Discussion in Its Medieval and Modern Contexts." In Fragmentation and Redemption (New York: Zone Books, 1991). See, esp., 253-58.

(4)  See Eric Blondel, Nietzsche: The Body and Culture (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1991).

(5) In illustration of his point, Biagioli returns to his argument from Galileo Courtier (1993) that acceptance of Galileo's experimental results with the telescope had more to do with consonance of the range and style of his claims with courtly concepts of virtue than with explicit rules of correspondence between what he observed through the telescope and accepted categories of experience.


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