How three faculty members teach dance history

As trained dancers, we embody history. Every jump, contraction and tendu reveals lineage—an evolution of movement over time through culture. It also gives form to the politics and social values that have inspired several dance movements.

The study of dance history is vital to training, but course content can span many time periods, genres and methods. The difficulty lies in squeezing hundreds of years of an art into a short amount of class time. At what point in history should professors begin and what is the most effective way for students to learn?

DT talked to three college dance faculty members about their approaches. We found that though many have discovered creative ways to teach, they are constantly reevaluating how to improve student engagement.

Rose Anne Thom

Sarah Lawrence College

American Dance History

Undergraduate and graduate dance requirement; open to other performing arts students

Rose Anne Thom’s course is a survey of American concert dance from the 20th century to the present, starting with Isadora Duncan. She spends most of her class discussing contemporary choreographers, who have unique movement vocabularies, because she wants to challenge the way her students label dance. “I try to break down the barrier between ballet and modern,” she says. For instance, she will show Millicent Hodson’s reconstruction of Vaslav Nijinsky’s The Rite of Spring early on in the course to confuse students. “They all look at me and go, ‘Oh my gosh, is that ballet or modern?’ I just try to shake up their preconceptions.”

Thom also focuses on current dance because she wants students to be able to decipher how their work fits into today’s scene. “I’m asking students to develop a vocabulary for talking about dance,” she says. “We really want the students to understand their work in the context of what’s going on right now.” The structure of the course emphasizes discussion, and she requires students to keep class notes in journals, which she tracks. If her lectures don’t line up with her students’ notes, she knows that she hasn’t been explaining the history effectively.

Philip Johnston

University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

Dance History I; Intro to Contemporary Dance

Undergraduate requirement; for non-majors

Philip Johnston’s Dance History I surveys Western and non-Western forms to show that dance is integral to all cultures. He offers as many entry points into the material as possible, whether he’s teaching dancers or those with little movement knowledge. He provides many ways for his students to connect dance to other artforms and the outside world, assigning NPR segments and live performances as homework and taking students to a museum to view art. “Every week there’s a topic of discussion. What’s going on in the world?” he says. “I don’t want them to find history boring.”

After seeing Wassily Kandinsky’s paintings, for example, students understood firsthand how his work inspired Martha Graham’s Diversion of Angels. “Graham talks about Kandinsky’s paintings and the first time she saw them, and the students are all sitting there nodding their heads saying, ‘Oh yes, we know what that means!’” he says. “They’re sponges. They take it all in.”

Harmony Bench

Ohio State University

20th Century Ballet and Modern Dance History

Undergraduate and graduate dance requirement

As times change, Harmony Bench’s course has come to rely more on technology and other modes of instruction instead of traditional lecturing. Rather than beginning with European court dances, she starts at the 1900s, which enables her to use video. She also makes regular use of OSU’s online course management system to communicate and assign work outside of class (including open-book quizzes and discussion-board posts). This allows her to use in-class time most effectively, with movement exercises and choreography discussion. “My class started as pure lecture. Then I threw in contact improvisation when I was at a school that didn’t have that in their curriculum,” she says. “In short, my classes look nothing like when I first started.”

Bench’s assignments at Ohio State take many forms. One of her favorites is asking students to imagine a conversation between culture-shifting choreographers and scholars at a cocktail party, having dancers Rudolf Laban and Ted Shawn, for example, interact with present-day historians like Susan Manning and Marion Kant.

In the coming year, Bench is planning a more substantial digital media component for her history courses, including students preparing “Fakebook” pages (an educational tool designed to mimic Facebook) for choreographers they’re studying. “The students will generate the profile, significant events, list of friends and wall posts, and will find relevant images and videos to post on their choreographer’s page,” she says. It will allow Bench to guide research-heavy learning with a light-hearted, interactive approach in a course that could easily be weighed down by textbook assignments. “I want them to understand how dance responds to its current moment and how it can shed light on the histories of ideas and cultures,” she says. “Dance gives physical form to the politics, social values, conflict, fears and hopes of a people.” DT

Lea Marshall is the interim chair of Virginia Commonwealth University’s Department of Dance and Choreography, and co-founder of Ground Zero Dance.

Photo by Catherine Proctor, courtesy of The Ohio State University

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