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Meaning in Motion: New Cultural Studies of Dance

Meaning in Motion: New Cultural Studies of Dance

by Jane C. Desmond, Stanley Fish (Editor), Fredric Jameson (Editor)

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Dance, whether considered as an art form or embodied social practice, as product or process, is a prime subject for cultural analysis. Yet only recently have studies of dance become concerned with the ideological, theoretical, and social meanings of dance practices, performances, and institutions. In Meaning in Motion, Jane C. Desmond brings together the work of


Dance, whether considered as an art form or embodied social practice, as product or process, is a prime subject for cultural analysis. Yet only recently have studies of dance become concerned with the ideological, theoretical, and social meanings of dance practices, performances, and institutions. In Meaning in Motion, Jane C. Desmond brings together the work of critics who have ventured into the boundaries between dance and cultural studies, and thus maps a little known and rarely explored critical site.

Writing from a broad range of perspectives, contributors from disciplines as varied as art history and anthropology, dance history and political science, philosophy and women's studies, chart the questions and challenges that mark this site. How does dance enact or rework social categories of identity? How do meanings change as dance styles cross borders of race, nationality, or class? How do we talk about materiality and motion, sensation and expressivity, kinesthetics and ideology? The authors engage these issues in a variety of contexts: from popular social dances to the experimentation of the avant-garde; from nineteenth-century ballet and contemporary Afro-Brazilian Carnival dance to hip hop, the dance hall, and film; from the nationalist politics of folk dances to the feminist philosophies of modern dance.

Meaning in Motion broadens the scope of dance analysis and extends to cultural studies new ways of approaching matters of embodiment, identity, and representation. Giving definition to a new field of study, it will interest students and scholars of dance, art, and theater history, as well as readers in cultural, performance, and women's studies.

Contributors. Ann Cooper Albright, Evan Alderson, Norman Bryson, Ann Daly, Brenda Dixon Gottschild, Susan Foster, Mark Franko, Marianne Goldberg, Amy Koritz, Susan Kozel, Susan Manning, Randy Martin, Angela McRobbie, Cynthia Novack, Kate Ramsey, Anna Scott, Janet Wolff.

Editorial Reviews

Contains 18 essays exploring issues in dance such as ideology, subjectivity, social categorization, representation, and the disciplining of the body. Representative paper topics include feminism and body politics, strategies of mimesis in the work of Irigaray and Bausch, the female dancer and the male gaze, the staging of folklore in mid-20th-century Haiti, homogenized ballerinas, and dance ethnography and the limits of representation. Annotation c. by Book News, Inc., Portland, Or.
From the Publisher
“Excellent! Meaning in Motion will make it much easier for scholars concerned primarily with cultural studies to consider the challenges dance poses in ‘rethinking the body.’”— Peggy Phelan, Tisch School of the Arts, New York University

Product Details

Duke University Press Books
Publication date:
Post-Contemporary Interventions
Product dimensions:
6.37(w) x 9.43(h) x 1.35(d)
1520L (what's this?)

Read an Excerpt

Meaning in Motion

New Cultural Studies of Dance

By Jane C. Desmond

Duke University Press

Copyright © 1997 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-9728-1



Jane C. Desmond

A man and a woman embrace. Each stands poised, contained. They look past each other, eyes focused on distant points in the space. Like mirror images, their legs strike out, first forward, then back. As one, they glide across the floor, bodies melded at the hips, timing perfectly in unison. They stop expectantly. The woman jabs the balls of her feet sharply into the floor, each time swiveling her hips toward the leading foot. The man holds her lightly, steering her motion with the palm of his hand at her back. This is tango ...

Most readers of this passage probably have some image of the tango in their minds, whether from dancing, watching others dance, or seeing representations of the tango in Hollywood films. Most, if pressed, could even get up in their living rooms and demonstrate some recognizable if hyperbolic rendition of the tango. Few of us, however, have given more than passing thought to such an activity or have chosen to include it in our scholarly work. Dance remains a greatly undervalued and undertheorized arena of bodily discourse. Its practice and its scholarship are, with rare exception, marginalized within the academy.

But much is to be gained by opening up cultural studies to questions of kinesthetic semiotics and by placing dance research (and by extension, human movement studies) on the agenda of cultural studies. By enlarging our studies of bodily "texts" to include dance in all its forms—among them social dance, theatrical performance, and ritualized movement—we can further our understandings of how social identities are signaled, formed, and negotiated through bodily movement. We can analyze how social identities are codified in performance styles and how the use of the body in dance is related to, duplicates, contests, amplifies, or exceeds norms of nondance bodily expression within specific historical contexts. We can trace historical and geographic changes in complex kinesthetic systems and can study comparatively symbolic systems based on language, visual representation, and movement. We can move away from the bias for verbal texts and visual-object-based investigations that currently form the core of ideological analysis in British and North American cultural studies.

Cultural studies remains largely text-based or object-based, with literary texts still predominating, followed by studies of film texts and art historical objects. Even excursions into popular culture are concerned largely with verbal or visual cultural products, not kinesthetic actions. Much current work on rap music, for instance, focuses primarily on the spoken text or legal and economic aspects of the music industry. Even the now popular subfield of critical work on "the body" is focused more on representations of the body and/or its discursive policing than with its actions/movements as a "text" themselves. In part this omission reflects the historical contours of disciplinary development within the academy. In addition, the academy's aversion to the material body, as well as its fictive separation of mental and physical production, has rendered humanities scholarship that investigates the mute dancing body nearly invisible. That dancing—in a Euro-American context at least—is regarded as a pastime (social dancing) or as entertainment (Broadway shows), or, when elevated to the status of an "art form," is often performed mainly by women (ballet) or by "folk" dancers or nonwhites (often dubbed "native" dances, etc.) also surely contributes to the position of dance scholarship. However, these omissions signal reasons why such investigation is important. They mark clearly the continuing rhetorical association of bodily expressivity with nondominant groups.

The rhetorical linkage of nondominant races, classes, gender, and nationalities with "the body," to physicality instead of mentality, has been well established in scholarship on race and gender. But the implications of those linkages, their continuance or reworking within the context of daily bodily usage or within dance systems per se, have yet to be investigated fully. Nor have the complex effects of the commodification of movement styles, their migration, modification, quotation, adoption, or rejection as part of the larger production of social identities through physical enactment, been rigorously theorized.

Such analysis will be responsive to many of the tools already developed in literary theory, film theory, Marxist analysis, and feminist scholarship, as well as ongoing theoretical debates about hierarchies based on racial, ethnic, and national identities. Pierre Bourdieu (Outline), for example, refers to the physical embodiment of social structures in his concept of "the habitus," but this idea has not been greatly elaborated. But it will also require the acquisition or development of new tools as well—tools for the close analysis of movement and movement styles (already well developed in the dance field itself), just as such tools have been developed for detailed analyses of specific books and objects in literature and art history.

Dance scholarship, with a few notable exceptions, has until recently remained outside the influence of the poststructuralist shifts that have reshaped the humanities during the last twenty or so years. And conversely, cultural analysts have evidenced little interest in dance, although literary, filmic, and art historical texts have garnered great attention. But there is evidence that this is changing, both within the dance field itself and with isolated excursions into dance by literary critics and philosophers in the recent past.

Movement Style and Meaning

Of the many broad areas of movement investigation sketched out above, I specifically want to discuss dance as a performance of cultural identity and the shifting meanings involved in the transmission of dance styles from one group to another.

Like Bourdieu's concept of "taste" (Distinction), movement style is an important mode of distinction between social groups and is usually actively learned or passively absorbed in the home and community. So ubiquitous, so "naturalized" as to be nearly unnoticed as a symbolic system, movement is a primary not secondary social "text"—complex, polysemous, always already meaningful, yet continuously changing. Its articulation signals group affiliation and group differences, whether consciously performed or not. Movement serves as a marker for the production of gender, racial, ethnic, class, and national identities. It can also be read as a signal of sexual identity, age, and illness or health, as well as various other types of distinctions/descriptions that are applied to individuals or groups, such as "sexy." Given the amount of information that public display of movement provides, its scholarly isolation in the realms of technical studies in kinesics, aesthetics, sports medicine, and some cross-cultural communications studies is both remarkable and lamentable.

"Dance," whether social, theatrical, or ritually based, forms one subset of the larger field of movement study. And although we tend to think of dances, like the tango, lambada, or waltz, as distinctive aggregations of steps, every dance exists in a complex network of relationships to other dances and other nondance ways of using the body and can be analyzed along these two concurrent axes. Its meaning is situated both in the context of other socially prescribed and socially meaningful ways of moving and in the context of the history of dance forms in specific societies.

When movement is codified as "dance," it may be learned informally in the home or community, like everyday codes of movement, or studied in special schools for social dance forms (like the Arthur Murray Studios) and for theatrical dance forms (like the School of American Ballet). In either case—formal or informal instruction, quotidian or "dance" movement—the parameters of acceptable/intelligible movement within specific contexts are highly controlled, produced in a Foucauldian sense by specific discursive practices and productive limitations.

To get at what the "stakes" are in movement, to uncover the ideological work it entails, we can ask what movements are considered "appropriate" or even "necessary" within a specific historical and geographical context, and by whom and for whom such necessities obtain. We can ask who dances, when and where, in what ways, with whom, and to what end? And just as importantly, who does not dance, in what ways, under what conditions and why? Why are some dances, some ways of moving the body, considered forbidden for members of certain social classes, "races," sexes? By looking at dance we can see enacted on a broad scale, and in codified fashion, socially constituted and historically specific attitudes toward the body in general, toward specific social groups' usage of the body in particular, and about the relationships among variously marked bodies, as well as social attitudes toward the use of space and time.

Were we to complete a really detailed analysis of social dance and its gender implications, for example, it could provide us with a baseline from which to pursue further questions that are much larger in scale. We might ask, for instance, how the concept of pleasure is played out in this kinesthetic realm. Who moves and who is moved? In what ways do the poses display one body more than another? What skills are demanded of each dancer, and what do they imply about desired attributes ascribed to men or to women? What would a "bad" rendition of a particular dance, like the tango for instance, consist of? An "un-Latin" or "un-American" version? An "improper" one?

These questions are useful for historical as well as contemporary analysis. For example, the waltz was regarded as too sexually dangerous for "respectable" women in Europe and North America when it was first introduced in the nineteenth century. The combination of intoxicating fast whirling and a "close" embrace was thought to be enough to make women take leave of their senses. Some advice books for women even claimed waltzing could lead to prostitution. Nineteenth-century dance manuals included drawings showing "proper" and "improper" ways to embrace while dancing, specifying the position of the head, arms, and upper body, and the required distance that should be maintained between male and female torsos. In manuals directed toward the middle and upper classes, bodies that pressed close, spines that relaxed, and clutching arms were all denigrated as signs of lower-class dance style. The postural and gestural maintenance of class distinction was a necessary skill to be learned, one that could even be represented with precision in "yes" and "no" illustrations of dancing couples.

Such detailed bodily analysis of the linkage of gender and class provides another discursive field through which to understand the shifting constitution of class relations and gender attributes during the nineteenth century. Changing attitudes toward the body as evidenced in the "physical culture" movement, changes in dress such as the introduction of "bloomers," and new patterns of leisure activities and their genderedness provide part of the wider context through which such dance activities gain their meaning. Similarly, the rapid industrialization and class realignments that took place during the latter half of the century, giving rise to new ideas about the division between leisure and work, between men and women, and toward time and physicality, are played out in the dance halls. As "dance," conventions of bodily activity represent a highly codified and highly mediated representation of social distinctions. Like other forms of art or of cultural practice, their relation to the economic "base" is not one of mere reflection but rather one of dialogic constitution. Social relations are both enacted and produced through the body, and not merely inscribed upon it.

Appropriation/Transmission/Migration of Dance Styles

Obviously, ways of holding the body, gesturing, moving in relation to time, and using space (taking a lot, using a little, moving with large sweeping motions, or small contained ones, and so forth) all differ radically across various social and cultural groups and through time. If dance styles and performance practices are both symptomatic and constitutive of social relations, then tracing the history of dance styles and their spread from one group or area to another, along with the changes that occur in this transmission, can help uncover shifting ideologies attached to bodily discourse.

The history of the tango, for example, traces the development of movement styles from the dockside neighborhoods of Buenos Aires to the salons of Paris before returning, newly "respectable," from across the Atlantic to the drawing rooms of the upper-class portions of the Argentine population during the first decades of the twentieth century. As Deborah Jakubs has noted, the taste of the upper classes for "a fundamentally taboo cultural form is a recurrent phenomenon," as evidenced by the passion for Harlem jazz exhibited by many wealthy white New Yorkers in the 1920s and 1930s.

A whole history of dance forms could be written in terms of such appropriations and reworkings occurring in both North and South America for at least the last two centuries and continuing today. Such practices and the discourse that surrounds them reveal the important part bodily discourse plays in the continuing social construction and negotiation of race, gender, class, and nationality, and their hierarchical arrangements. In most cases we will find that dance forms originating in lower-class or nondominant populations present a trajectory of "upward mobility" in which the dances are "refined," "polished," and often desexualized. Similarly, improvisatory forms become codified to be more easily transmitted across class and racial lines, especially when the forms themselves become commodified and sold through special brokers, or dance teachers.

In studying the transmission of a form, it is not only the pathway of that transmission but also the form's reinscription in a new community/social context and resultant change in its signification that it is important to analyze. An analysis of appropriation must include not only the transmission pathway and the mediating effects of the media, immigration patterns, and the like, but also an analysis at the level of the body of what changes in the transmission. Often in the so-called desexualization of a form as it crosses class or racial boundaries, we can see a clear change in body usage, especially (at least in Europe and North and South America) as it involves the usage of the pelvis (less percussive thrusting, undulation, or rotation for instance), and in the specific configurations of male and female partnering. For example, the closeness of the embrace may be loosened, or the opening of the legs may be lessened. In analyzing some of these changes we can see specifically what aspects of movement are tagged as too "sexy" or "Latin" or "low class" by the appropriating group. Of course, the same meaning may not at all be attached to the original movements by dancers in the community that developed the style.

Looking back to the early years of this century in North America, for instance, the case of the professional dance team of Vernon and Irene Castle provides a good example. The husband and wife duo became well known among the middle and upper classes through their exhibition ballroom dancing and their popular movies. They were so popular that Irene Castle set the standard for fashion and hairstyle and appeared in many magazines. Performing in elegant dance clubs, and running their own dance school in New York City, they built their reputations on popularizing (among the middle and upper classes) social dances that originated in the lower classes, especially within the black population. They "toned down," "tamed," and "whitened" such popular social dances as the Turkey Trot and the Charleston. Such revisions tended to make the dances more upright, taking the bend out of the legs and bringing the buttocks and chest into vertical alignment. Such "brokering" of black cultural products increased the circulation of money in the white community which paid white teachers to learn white versions of black dances.


Excerpted from Meaning in Motion by Jane C. Desmond. Copyright © 1997 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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Meet the Author

Jane C. Desmond is Associate Professor of American Studies and Women’s Studies at the University of Iowa.

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