In pursuit of a Baudrillard of ballet

Times Higher Education Supplement, 07 November 1997

Claire Neesham reports on the rise of dance as an intellectual discipline

It is obvious that the Laban Centre in South London is a dance school. Young people hang around the reception area dressed in track-suit pants and leotards. African drumming comes from studio one, where students are leaping through the air two at a time. But dancing is only part of the story. Undergraduates are also expected to attend lectures in history, politics and sociology. For the Laban Centre is not only a centre for the training of professional dancers, it is also an academic institution offering degrees. Director Marion North likens it to a conservatoire where vocational training occurs alongside academic study.

Ten years ago institutions that offered honours degrees in dance were the exception rather than the rule. Today, dance is firmly fixed on the university agenda. Why have attitudes to dance as an academic subject undergone such a sea-change in less than a decade?

The privately run Laban Centre was the first European institution to gain academic recognition for dance, winning validation for a BA (Hons) degree in 1976. Peter Brinson, author of a history of the centre, remembers that, at the time, the idea of a dance degree raised eyebrows in academic circles. "Dance to them was a small part of teacher training, hardly a degree-worthy discipline," writes Brinson. How times have changed - the latest handbook from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service lists 21 institutions offering degree-level dance.

But what does the academic recognition of dance mean? Does dance find the same academic acceptance as music and does it encourage the same debates? Is there a Derrida of dance, a Baudrillard of ballet? Theresa Buckland, of Surrey's dance department, believes that dance has the same academic status as music even though it has taken longer to be accepted, partly because of the western attitude of privileging the word over the body. Challenging the Cartesian dualism that draws a line between body and mind is one of the central debates of dance studies.

Much attention has been paid to developing a theoretical framework for dance studies and to creating a scholarly criticism. In recent years this body of knowledge has encompassed ethnological views of dance, dance anthropology, discussion of dance as language, and there has also been a focus on feminist analysis of works. Performance and choreography are taught; mimicking the position of music within the academy, where performance and composition sit alongside musicology.

Some of the new theoretical approaches which have arisen in the humanities have proved fruitful. Poststructuralist considerations of gender and race, for instance, have led to a reconsideration of the biological meanings assigned to bodies, resulting in a surge of interest in dance among academics from other subjects, as well as offering dance scholars the chance to contribute to mainstream academic discussion. The way is now open for dance to become an area of study within cultural studies. In such a context the old divisions between dance practice and theory will no longer be relevant. Theory and practice are interlinked. Learning dance sequences is more than merely building up skills, while discussing the theory of a plie is useless if the student has no experience of the movement. Stephanie Jordan, professor of dance at the Roehampton Institute, says: "Practice contributes to, and challenges theory". Such views reflect discussions in phenomenology, with its exploration of the theory that phenomena can only be experienced subjectively.

But how well does such theorising fit with the practice of dance? Dance courses may support the coming together of mind and body, but the practicalities of running them are not straightforward. Gurmit Hukam, at the Northern School for Contemporary Dance, points out that at a professional dance school there is a reluctance to lower the high technical standards required for a dancing career, despite the need for time for academic study in students' busy schedule. Some of the universities that have set up dance departments have the opposite problem - they find it difficult to schedule practical sessions into their modular timetables. Caroline Woolridge, at Derby University, says the time allocated to dance for her first year degree students is three hours weekly - not long enough to teach technique to aspiring performers.

Derby, therefore, does not position its course as a springboard for would-be dancers. Instead it sees itself as providing students with a broad range of skills allowing them to pursue other careers. But this does not stop some students from looking to university courses as a base for a career in dance, partly in order to gain financial support from the state, which is not available for students at professional dance schools. The Northern School for Contemporary Dance is one exception. As student Debbie Wild says: "This is not a private school, you can get financial assistance," although this does mean competing for a place. Students can expect two technique classes a day. "Everyone's aim is to work in companies," says Wild.

In the meantime, university dance programmes continue to address issues of mind, body and culture from both a theoretical and practical point of view. A mix that can be heard as students, crowding round the studio door, discuss their colleagues' compositions.

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