Dance, Diversity and Appreciation


5.0 Introduction

The previous chapters have considered the potential significance of embodiment to the appreciation of dance. It has been suggested that within (western) theatre dance, movement is understood not only in relation to conventions in dance but also in the context of immersion within everyday culture. Consideration has been given to approaches to dance as discourse in which actions are culturally inscribed and in particular to the intertextual analysis of dance as proposed by Janet Adshead (1999), in which an emphasis is placed on interpreting dance in relation to different ‘intertexts’ . However, this has raised the problem that such an approach can lead to the appreciation of dance being reduced to consideration of the relative merits of the different discourses shaping how the dance is interpreted.


Consideration of artists’ perspectives, in chapter four, emphasised that a focus on the interpretation of dance as ‘read’ may limit appreciation of the performance and that other approaches might allow for a fuller response. With reference to Paul Crowther’s development of Kantian aesthetics in tandem with the phenomenology of Maurice Merleau-Ponty (discussed in chapter two), aesthetic appreciation of the ideas embodied in dance is understood to open up for reflection as related, but not bound, to concepts. What is understood in a work of dance viewed as art is the result of direct acquaintance with the work rather than the result of translation of the work. This emphasises the importance of the phenomenological experience of engagement with the work as art and in this regard it has been posited that structured movement memories are drawn on, in a similar way to verbal concepts, to create and understand dance ideas that it may be found difficult to verbalise but which relate directly to the experience of culture as lived. While language is used to reflect on responses to a work, this should not lead to reducing a dance to the concepts that can be said to be embodied within it. In Crowther’s terms, the concept of  ‘ontological reciprocity’ offers an approach to art that allows for what is understood as embodied in the work to be dependent on the reciprocity of the subject:object relationship. This concept draws on the existential phenomenology of Merleau­Ponty to suggest how what is embodied in art draws on the phenomenological experience of self as inserted into the world. Responding to the work, the audience engages reciprocally with what has been created by another. In the acts of appreciating and talking about dance, clapping enthusiastically at a performance or otherwise communicating what is valued (or not) in a dance performance, audiences contribute to this ecology of the environment within which dance is created and performed.


However, within the ecology of western arts, in contrast to this intersubjective reciprocity, consideration of the subject:object relationship has previously often emphasised the concept of ‘aesthetic distance’. At its most extreme, this resulted in the formalist aesthetics of the second quarter of the twentieth century, modified versions of which are still drawn on in support of judgements about dance (Copeland, 1990) that prioritise formal qualities. The ability of audiences to respond from a suitable ‘aesthetic distance’ can be seen as rooted in ways of conceiving the dualist relationship between body:mind and self:other. In contrast, discussions with dance artists suggest that the phenomenological experience of the appreciation of a performance can include a sense of shared communication between performer and audience, momentarily experienced as a dissolving of the dualist experience of body:mind, self:other. Paradoxically, such an experience may be savoured in aesthetic terms. In contrast to earlier expressionist aesthetic theories which emphasised communication (or in Tolstoy’s terms the transmission of feeling), amongst the artists I talked to there is recognition that whatever is involved in this sense of ‘shared experience’, such communication is open to variations according to the audience’s own cultural and dance experiences.


Following the artists in allowing for a more fully embodied ‘reciprocal’ approach to the aesthetic suggests changes in the ecology of the arts. In discussion and reflection about their and my own experience of dance in London, this will be further explored in relation to cultural changes in and beyond London that seem to affect how dance is appreciated. This chapter will focus on one aspect of cultural change, the diversity of London’s population, exploring the ways in which a complex of attitudes to perceived ‘ethnic differences’ may influence what is understood as embodied in dance. Further I will be arguing that this not only has an impact on the appreciation of dance, but can have an influence on the artists that raises issues of their creative agency.    


5.1 Dance and Diversity in the Capital 

As the backdrop to presenting dance in performance, early twenty-first century London provides artists with a web of contradictions. In terms of ethnicity, the census in the first year of the new Millennium revealed almost 8% of the UK population to be from black and minority ethnic groups (Office for National Statistics, 2001). Nationally the British Government has developed strategies intended to promote cultural pluralism, respecting the differences between people of varied ethnicities, and, alongside the amendments to the Race Relations Act, to combat racism. With 45% of people from black and minority ethnic groups being concentrated in London, approximately one in three of the capital’s residents belong to this group (Office for National Statistics, 2001). It is not surprising that local government in London tends to make ‘valuing diversity’ a key theme promoted through policies and revealed in carefully representative images. Wherever artists draw on services in London, the values of diversity and equality of opportunity are everywhere enshrined in legal requirements, service level agreements, charters for ‘customers’ and organisations set up to protect people’s ‘rights’. Moreover the city’s diversity features positively in how London is presented to the rest of the world, as exemplified in its being viewed as the key’ to the city's bid for the 2012 Olympics (London 2012 archive, accessed April 2007). Yet the London bombings that greeted the news of the bid’s success emphasised how the celebration of diversity and promotion of equality of opportunity takes place within a context in which the tensions and inequalities between different groups of people are rarely forgotten. Whether it is the subject of racially motivated attacks, the question of institutional racism within the police force,  bombings by radical extremists or the politics of fringe parties, events, and the media’s reporting of them, bring to the fore one issue after another that question the possibility of diversity being universally welcomed in London, however much politicians ‘celebrate’ it.



A strategy document published by the Greater London Authority claims:


The Capital’s reputation as a multicultural city has been in the making for centuries. The vibrant mixture of diverse cultures is a major factor in the success of London’s profile. But there are inequalities that need to be addressed and historically, many diverse cultural organisations have been under resourced and not funded for sustainability.


Greater London Authority, 2004, Introduction


The funding for dance companies in London reflects the aim to address inequalities in the face of a legacy of funding patterns that historically supported national companies performing ballet and, more recently, the ‘contemporary‘ dance forms that draw on predominantly American traditions of modern dance. The Arts Council of England’s London Office’s figures for 2003/6 (Arts Council of England, July 2003) show the companies receiving the largest shares of the public purse are still the established ballet companies, presenting the dominant form of (western) theatre dance, albeit one that is globally popular. If companies such as the Royal Ballet and English National Ballet are to support many dancers and compete for audiences and accolades in a highly competitive international milieu, they require large sums of money [i] . This is likely to impinge on what is available out of a limited Arts Council dance budget to fund other companies. ‘Contemporary’ dance companies, with aesthetic roots in Europe and America, as a group, draw on the next largest tranche of money. However, in terms of individual companies those companies developing dance forms originating in Africa or Asia are funded at levels at least equal to the larger ‘contemporary’ dance companies. Although there are different ways of interpreting the figures [ii] , that over 2 million pounds in total per annum supported such companies in 2003-2006 represents over 10% of the regular funding for dance companies. In addition a number of smaller organisations and artists working locally with a whole range of dance forms are funded by the Arts Council via ‘grants for the arts’ and ‘decibel’, the latter initiative funding  artists of African, Asian and Caribbean descent in England(Arts Council of England, not dated, accessed May 2007). With ‘celebrating diversity’ as one of the Arts Council’s priorities, the decibel initiative was developed ‘in recognition that black and minority ethnic (BME) artists and arts organisations are under-represented in the arts’ (Arts Council England, not dated, accessed May 2007).


There is a long standing debate about diversity and dance in Britain that has centred on problems of definition and funding (Badejo, 1993). One key concern has been whether there should be more focus on supporting a range of dance forms that emanate from a full range of cultural traditions or on supporting dancers on the basis of their ethnicity. For instance ADAD (the association of dance of the African diaspora) is concerned with the support and development of dance forms emanating from the traditions of African diaspora rather than of black artists per se, but their current Programme Development Manager, Pamela Zigomo, is aware that this perspective is not universally held (personal communication with Pamela Zigomo, 14, May 2007).


In relation to regular support of the larger companies, the London Office of the Arts Council can perhaps be interpreted as working towards being representative of the nation’s cultural heritages at a level broadly in keeping with a breakdown of the population in terms of the proportion of ‘BME’ to ‘white British’. If at a larger, national level there has been a framework for relative cultural pluralism in the diversity of dance forms, from the evidence of a search of company web sites in 2005, it seems that during the funding period 2003-2006, diversity within a company was more prevalent among smaller, mainly ‘contemporary’ dance companies. Visits to the web sites of those companies supported by the London Office of the Arts Council on a regular basis for the period 2003-2006, reveal that of the twelve London based dance companies listed (including the Royal Ballet, that is funded via support to the Royal Opera House), one ‘contemporary‘ dance company with a diverse group of dancers has a stated mission to:


…explore and express an identity through dance which reflects the growing cultural fusion of contemporary society …

                                                                        www.uniondance.co.uk 1994/5


Another ‘contemporary’ dance company also has as mixed a make up as, say, a snapshot of the adults on an ‘inner-London’ street, while in two other contemporary dance companies there appears to be at least one dancer who would contribute to the company’s diversity. Three other ‘contemporary’ dance companies reflect other aspects of diversity: one includes a number of disabled dancers, another dancers who are ‘older’ than the twenty to thirty-somethings filling the ranks of most dance companies and the third  is known to draw on the experience of gay people and has recently included a disabled performer. Two other dance companies funded through the Arts Council both focus on contemporary approaches to South Asian dance traditions. 


In terms of the range of dancers there is a marked contrast between these companies and Adzido, a company that primarily drew on traditional African dance forms that appeared to comprise only black dancers. In relation to ballet the picture was more complex. The photographs of the larger ballet companies revealed they drew on a mix of dancers perhaps representative of interest in ballet on a global stage: the large London based national ballet companies presented a mix of white European and ‘Far Eastern’ dancers with only the occasional black dancer, often appearing as a soloist or even star performer. Although this has been changing even during the period of this research, the few black dancers in ballet tend to be male and come from South America rather than Africa, and rarely from Britain itself. Generally this is a reflection of the high quality of dance training in many South American countries and the small numbers of black British dancers trained to high standards in ballet. In terms of ethnicity, this may make it difficult for traditional ballet companies to incorporate diversity in a manner that would make them more reflective of their local communities. However, there is another issue that may be relevant in relation to the perceived ethnic range of performers in ballet companies. Traditionally ballet companies require a corps de ballet that is judged on its uniformity. In the 1960s in America, Brenda Dixon Gottschild remembers not being picked for a modern dance company because her skin colour would ‘destroy the unity of the corps’ (Dixon Gottschild, 2000, 147). In Britain, while the numbers of black dancers in ballet companies seems to be increasing, there may still be those who fear that audiences will judge what appears to them as a diverse corps as inferior to one incorporating less perceived difference. Whatever the reasons, the result is that in relation to the local London population, judging by the portraits of dancers currently on English National Ballet and the Royal Ballet web sites (www.ballet.org.uk and info.royaloperahouse.org, accessed April 2007), dancers whose features would be interpreted as revealing a strongly ‘African’ ethnicity still seem relatively under represented, especially amongst the women. This can result in a situation in which the presence of the occasional black ballet dancer tends to stand out since, given current sensitivities to issues surrounding ethnicity, their presence could be perceived as emphasising their difference. It is certainly the case that the few, such as the Royal Ballet’s ‘First Artist' Tyrone Singleton, are given quite a high profile through initiatives such as the Ballet Hoo! project (Birmingham Royal Ballet/Channel 4/Diverse TV , 2007) and features in magazines such as Dancing Times (March 2007 ). This may have contributed to at least one dance critic recognising the changes that have resulted in the Royal Ballet’s employing ‘at least twelve non white dancers’ (Dowler, 2007).  


With what has been slow progress towards the inclusion of black dancers in ballet, (and judging from Dowler’s comment above, a lack of sensitivity in the wider dance community about some of the surrounding issues), it is not surprising that dance companies have been established, drawing on African dance traditions and in which white dancers are similarly rare. In this context, the Arts Council’s financial support of Adzido to a level beyond that given to any ‘contemporary’ dance company helped to promote equality at a macro level while at the same time perhaps establishing the norm that many large scale national touring dance companies would have a repertory and cohort of performers that fulfil the demands of a specific, culturally delineated dance tradition. However, during the period of this research Adzido lost it’s funding, their last performances being in 2005. The reasons for this seem to have been complex but in part were due to the company not meeting targets set by the Arts Council of England. The company's failure to live up to expectations seems to have been generally agreed (Ismene Brown, 2005), although in the same year an Arts Council of England report revealed people’s concerns regarding the ‘predominance of Eurocentric definitions of quality at curatorial, programming and management (i.e. decision-making) levels within the arts infrastructure’ (Arts Council England, 2005, 9).


Given the wide debate about ‘multiculturalism’ in the media after the London bombings of 7th July 2005, what the Arts Council would do with the money not going to Adzido was interesting. The unofficial view from artists was that it was being split among younger black British dance artists whose work represents a less recognisably traditional, more ‘contemporary’ approach. This may seem to be in keeping with the Arts Council’s priorities for dance from 2007-2011. Believing that dance ‘connects people across the divides of language, faith, race and generation’ their list of priorities commences with the statement that they ‘will fund a portfolio of organisations that are contemporary in their approach and committed to engaging people in their work in new ways’ (Arts Council England, 2006). Although it is quite possible to work in ‘contemporary‘ ways within traditional dance forms, this statement, in combination with the emphasis on crossing cultural divides, does seem to suggest that it may be harder to gain funding for more traditional forms, unless it can be shown how a new contemporary approach is being adopted and how the dance will be appreciated across cultural boundaries. While large scale organisations may demonstrate this through more experimental projects running alongside more traditional work (for example the Royal Ballet can support Wayne McGregor as resident choreographer, and a range of ‘community’ projects alongside maintaining productions of the ‘classics’), for smaller companies, how to keep a sense of tradition while exploring what satisfies the Arts Council‘s demand for a ‘contemporary approach’ may be more complex. Whatever the  reasons for the funding changes and how funding has been apportioned, artists seem to perceive that working within the context of traditional ‘non western’ dance forms is less likely to be supported by the Arts Council than those that more consciously draw on contemporary themes or ‘newer’ dance vocabularies or structures.


5.2 Perspectives on Diversity in Britain

Perceptions of ‘difference’ in relation to dancers (rather than dance forms) in British dance companies can be thought of as being founded in circumstances particular to British experiences. For example the sociologist Christian Jopke has analysed some of the complexities of ‘race relations’ in Britain as being founded in tensions between the ‘legacy of Empire’ and a liberal approach to ‘race relations management’ that proposes ‘mutual tolerance’ of difference (Jokpe in Giddens 1997, 223). As Jopke points out, the transition from Empire to Commonwealth resulted in the difficult question of who could have the same rights as ‘territorial citizens’:


Tragically, in the British constellation of a ‘coloured’ colonial periphery and a ‘white’ core nation it was impossible to accomplish without, in effect [dividing] the ‘ins’ and ‘out’ along racial lines.


Jokpe in Giddens 1997, 224


This then may be one factor behind research that demonstrates how many people of Caribbean parentage born in Britain, although having full British Citizenship, do not feel British:


Despite a strong sense of social and cultural commonality with the white British, most Caribbeans found it difficult to lay claim to [being] British. The difficulty was almost entirely based on the knowledge that the majority of British people did not acknowledge the commonality... The Caribbeans felt that they were constantly reminded that they were not accepted in a variety of ways including discrimination in employment, harassment, invisibility and stereotyping in the media and glorification of an Imperial past in which they were oppressed. This racism rather than any sense of distinctive ethnic heritage was seen as an obstacle to feelings of unity with the white British majority.


Modood, Beishan and Vindee, 1994, 216-217


For Thomas F. De Frantz (2004) writing about African American dancers, a common experience of white oppression provides a sense of commonality amongst the diaspora that is part of black people’s pan African identity. While there are undoubted differences in the social development of Britain, the combined legacy of Empire and racism has led to a parallel black British experience of oppression. Given this context, a television interview (BBC, 2003) with Carlos Acosta, guest principal dancer with the Royal Ballet, in which he makes reference to his family name as revealing their historical background as slaves, edited together with shots of him as the only black dancer on the stage, could make it difficult not to consider his ethnicity when watching him perform with the Royal Ballet.


For other artists, their experiences in relation to their perceived ethnicity can be of central importance to their work. Lack of employment opportunities and a sense of frustration are features of Artist B’s early dance experiences in clubs that informed his later work:     

We would get our frustration out on the dance floor and that is where the energy comes from. So I take that same energy from when I was young and put it in the studio.


‘Cos you didn’t have a job or couldn’t get work -You go to a club and you see another person dancing and you sort of compete and because you didn’t have a job or anything much, the dance was more serious than anything else.


Artist B, 2003


A comparative lack of success in gaining employment and the social deprivation linked to this has undoubtedly been a feature of life for ethnic minorities in Britain and has been well documented (Brown and Gay 1985). From discussions it is apparent that the experiences of both the British African Caribbean artists I talked to would accord with Brown and Gay’s findings. What is less well documented is the interrelationship between ethnicity and specifically British attitudes to class. This is perhaps due to differences in approach to the relationship between class and ethnicity, varying from Marxist approaches which focus on the need for new sources of cheap labour to more complex approaches which see class, ethnicity and gender differences as interwoven (Bradley, 1992). While problematic, it is interesting to reflect on these dimensions jointly since so much of the British class system saturates perceptions of the national identity of British (or more specifically English) dance. 


The dance critic Alastair Macaulay, in an  exploration of the ‘English‘ style of ballet recognises how this sense of style has long  been associated with the Royal Ballet, in particular with the choreographic style of Sir Frederick Ashton, whose work along with the Petipa/Ivanov ‘classics’ dominated the repertory of the mid twentieth century Royal Ballet. For Macaulay, the constraints of English society are products of the class system and have a significant influence on dance in this country:


The English class system - surely more complex and subtle than that of any Western country - is the main reason why English society is so hidebound. Naturally in English dance much of this snobbery attaches to Covent Garden. No wonder the Royal Ballet’s signature classic (now illegible) was, for many years, The Sleeping Beauty, for it is the most hierarchical of the old ballets, and it focuses on the life of a royal court


Macaulay 1996, 24


Macaulay’s discussion suggests the extent to which much British ballet of the mid twentieth century reflected the social milieu of a specific part of society. In particular he quotes from the novelist, Jane Austen, to reveal the physical and social environment of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries that shaped the experience of those growing up as white, English and of ‘good family’ well into the twentieth century. For Macaulay, Austen’s novel Emma, along with other novels of the period, describe:


the rural milieu in which, a hundred years later or more, many of us grew up. They catch the English class system, the village mentality, the highly circumscribed social circle we still know in so much English life.


                    Macaulay, 1996, 23


Aware  that this world would not be so familiar to all those born English in the twentieth century, Macaulay is able to illustrate how some of Ashton’s ballets, notably Symphonic Variations (1946) and La Fille Mal Gardée, (1960) are rooted in the same locale, one in which lyricism is placed in an almost serene counterpoint with constraint. My own experience corresponds to his analysis; Ashton’s dance style with its rich use of épaulement in controlled swirls of precisely stepped movement appear to me as a familiar structuring of space, reminiscent of the Kent country lanes of my youth; these wound their way between fields enclosed by hedgerows and led to villages in which might be found cottages and at least one large old residence for the ‘gentry’.


Ashton was able, in dance terms, to reveal the subtle ways in which his characters (even in ‘pure dance’ roles) pushed at their ever so English constraints whilst hardly upsetting the gentle rhythm of the world around them. As Macaulay points out, Ashton saw himself as always ‘fighting against that English primness in dancers’ (Macaulay, 1996 cites Ashton in Vaughan, 1996 [1977]), a theme that will be further explored in relation to sexuality in chapter six. Yet the work Ashton created happily fitted into Royal occasions at the Opera House and some of Ashton’s works may run the risk of being interpreted as an ‘imagined idyll’, ‘an adorable Tory fantasy, coloured by a nostalgia for a rural existence sweeter and neater than ever existed’ (Macaulay, 1996, 23). For a new generation of black British people growing up in an urban environment, such an idyll might seem as far removed from their experience as the drawing room of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park to those labouring on the West Indies’ plantation owned by the true life equivalent of her characters.


A full study of differences in the dance British people enjoy related to their class would be at least as lengthy and complex as Bourdieu’s (1979) analysis of French attitudes to visual art and music. In general terms Peter Brinson, writing at the end of the twentieth century from a position of authority within the dance sector, pointed to how notions of ‘excellence’ were  related to the ‘high’ cultural preferences of the elite that composed the Arts Council and the Board of Covent Garden  (Brinson, 1991, 115. ) Developing on from his discussion of dance culture in Britain, it could be argued that ballet as it developed into a national British institution can be viewed as being shaped by the attitudes of those higher up the social ladder and the aspirations of those wanting to join them there. ‘Contemporary’ dance, as discussed in chapter four, may be thought of as allied to the interests of the intelligentsia through its links with higher education, while dance styles that fit into ‘popular culture’, whether, pop videos, musicals or ballroom dancing, are thus often perceived as having lower status than the ‘high culture’ of ballet and ‘contemporary’ dance. The former group tend to be labelled as ‘entertainment’ as opposed to ‘art’ and are more widely popular. For example 26% of respondents to an Arts Council of England survey of attendance had attended a musical in the last year compared to 4% attendance at ‘contemporary’ dance, 2% at ballet performances and 12% attendance more generally at the full range of dance performance events (Bridgewod, Fenn, Dust, Hutton, Skelton and Skinner, 2003).


However rather than provide evidence of a simple divide between elite and mass culture that equates with divisions on the basis of class, recent discussions of cultural consumption point less to an equation between class divisions and the high:low culture divide and more to a distinction between ‘omnivorous’ and ‘univorous’ tendencies and a complex relationship between cultural consumption and social stratification (Chin and Goldthorpe 2006). While income, status and education are differently related to participation in the arts, in general terms lower income, status and education are related to univorous consumption that focuses on film and popular music rather than combining these with enjoyment of live theatre, dance and classical music.


Generalisations regarding ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture may mask many anomalies, not least the popularity of full length Tchaikowsky ballets starring ‘Barbie’ distributed on video (revealing the popularity of children’s ballet classes amongst girls). ‘Authentic’ dance forms from ‘non western’ cultures are increasingly popular amongst well educated professionals, whilst commercialised versions of ‘non western’ dance (for example Bollywood dance) attract significant audience numbers. Yet perhaps that the ‘high:low’ distinction remains pertinent to the omnivorous:univorous divide is revealed by the Arts Council’s (adult) attendance figures not featuring hip hop/street dance and ballroom as categories for dance performance even though  they are the dance forms most visible on television. Moreover, significantly more people had attended dance performances ‘other’ than African, ballet, ‘contemporary’, jazz or South Asian than any one of these suggested categories. The figures for participation revealed a similar picture in that that 23% of (adult) respondents had been ‘clubbing’ as opposed to 4% taking part in ‘contemporary’ dance activities and less that 0.5% in ballet classes.


If we accept Macaulay’s view that British ballet, in the form of the Royal Ballet as it developed in the mid twentieth century, at that time reflected  the attitudes and way of life of a specific group of British people it raises questions about  dance in British theatres today. What changes would a national ballet company need to make in order to become more rooted in the lives of a broader section of society? That in terms  of ethnicity those identifying themselves as being of Indian, black African and white ethnicities are most likely to attend South Asian dance, African dance and ballet respectively (Bridgewod, Fenn, Dust, Hutton, Skelton and Skinner, 2003, 38) [iii] suggests there is some progress to be made before companies presenting traditional dance forms engage fully with a wider public.


In addition to companies that present these forms developed by drawing on ‘contemporary’ dance practices and/or contemporary life experiences, there are organisations working to educate a wider range of people in the traditions of ballet, African and South Asian dance. Both approaches would seem to be in keeping with a pluralistic society which values different cultural traditions while appreciating their development in a postmodern Britain. Indeed a current statement by the Foundation for Community Dance states they are ‘developing a model for intercultural dialogue’ that recognises:


The diversity of reasons why people participate in dance ­ some of which are about sustaining traditional cultures based on national, racial and other identities; while others are about making new cultures and creating new identities.


Bartlett, 2007

However, there can seem to be rivalry between these two approaches that occasionally can spill out into quite acrimonious debates [iv] . To understand this it may be helpful to further contemplate current perceptions of ‘difference’.


5.3 Perceptions of ‘Difference’

The question of how ‘difference’ is perceived is no less complex in dance than it is in other parts of public life. For instance, are representations of ‘difference’ understood as a celebration of diversity or as reinforcing stereotypes by presenting the ‘other’ in contrast to the norm? It is of interest here to reflect on Dorothea Fischer-Hornung’s discussion of a mid twentieth century film of Katherine Dunham teaching a white dancer. Dunham, an African American dancer who was very well educated in anthropology was able to articulate the difficulties in gaining respect as a black performer.


[T]he Negro believes in a certain fallacy the white person has bequeathed him ­ namely that the Negro is a natural born performer and needs no training...


We harbour an appreciation of this rhythm over and above melody.....But this appreciation is not based on any physical difference, nor is it psychological; we are socially conditioned by our constant contact with it...In the West Indies, women dance to the drums almost until the hour the child is born ­ and they nurse it, still dancing. But that does not mean there is no technique. There is. And it is every bit as essential that we train as rigorously as any other group...


Dunham, 1938 in Fischer-Hornung (2001), 92



However while Dunham is likely to have wanted to show that traditional African dance forms were no more ’natural’ than western dance traditions, requiring similar degrees of training, the contrast between the white and black dancers in the film unfortunately may, as Fischer-Hornung suggests, be seen demonstrating to many people that ‘white girls can’t dance’. This would undermine Dunham’s project to liberate the black dancing body from ‘racialized’ “primitivism” and the white body from equally ‘racialized’ “culturalism” (Fischer-Hornung, 2001, 110) by reinforcing the sense that ethnic differences are ‘natural’.


Fischer-Hornung discusses a dance film made in America in the 1950s but are issues for black dancers in London today very different? In conversation with Artist B some themes seemed all too familiar. For instance he reported how when he was training in London in the 1980s his ballet teacher had to break the news to him and other black British dancers that British ballet companies were very unlikely to employ them because of their being black. His immediate passionate response to a question about black dancers in ballet was to emphasise the point Dunham had been making over 50 years ago; that it is the way you are brought up and what you are taught that makes one form of dance seem more ‘natural’ than another and ‘nothing to do with the colour of your skin’ (Artist B, 2006). It seemed that, while recognising changes since the eighties, from his perspective the same prejudices Dunham attempted to counteract still exist in some quarters. However it is his personal experiences of the problems facing black people in Britain in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries that inform his work. In particular, the plight of many black men of his generation, including his friends, seems to undermine any sense of easy optimism: at the time of our discussion he was rehearsing a work which takes as its theme the problems for young black people of growing up in Britain (‘No role models, no father figure,... education’). In this context the audience’s and dancers’ perceptions of their black British identities are an important element of the work (Artist B, November 2005 edited, 2007.) 


This perhaps is one of the clearest examples of how perceptions of different ethnicities affect not only how work is understood (in this case that a sense of anger, fear and alienation is specifically related to a black British experience) but how it is created. This artist has a very clear approach towards issues of ethnicity and culture, which is clearly signalled to the audience. The audience are likely to be in no doubt as to the significance of the performers’ ethnicity to the work.

In other instances the performer’s ethnicity may be less relevant. It may well be that the performance is presented ‘or framed’ in such a manner as to direct the audience to consider the formal or expressive aspects of the dance and to leave aside considerations of the performers’ actual ethnicities with other factors external to the dance.  For example, recently in the Royal Ballet School’s end of year performance (2005) two black British young men danced in Ashton’s La Valse with the combination of lyricism, clarity of épaulement, and classical elegance that is a feature of this school perfectly matching the dance qualities of their white peers whom they danced alongside. Their ethnicity thus might be set aside as irrelevant to audience’s appreciation. Yet since black British dancers are rather a rarity in the parent company, their presence is likely to have been a noticeable feature of this performance for some spectators. An increasing diversity of perceived ethnicity amongst the dancers making up the ‘corps’ may have been received positively as suggesting a growing acceptance of different ethnicities within the body of British society. Whether this contributed to the appreciation of the performance as art returns us to the questions of aesthetics raised in chapter two.


With regard to the circumstances described above, it would certainly be possible to argue that the dancers’ presence contributed to an aesthetic idea of harmony embodied in the dance. From another point of view, by fitting in so well to a style that can be thought of as defining a particular part of ‘English’ society, their dancing could be interpreted as their assimilation into that society and as such be viewed positively or negatively. For instance  the hip hop artist Jonzi D responded to learning ballet at the London School of Contemporary Dance with a sense of having been ‘colonized’ (2001, 4).


Assimilation into the ‘host community’ was initially the favoured response to the influx of immigrants from the Commonwealth. However, ‘cultural pluralism’ has become the official British Establishment approach to the question of different ethnicities, Baroness Helena Kennedy QC, on behalf of the British Council, suggesting to fellow European dignitaries:


We must celebrate our differences and revel in the ways that they bring us together.


Kennedy, 2000


Such ideals, as Kennedy understands, can leave challenges as to how differences can be celebrated in a manner that brings communities together rather than further marking out distinctions that become the focus of conflict. As has been argued by James Donald and Ali Rattansi (1992), a celebration of diversity at a superficial level can mask the fact that there are dominant cultures that have greater power and legitimacy.  


The complexities of attitudes to the relationships between different groups are most easily revealed when something goes wrong. The Cantle report (2001) into clashes between Asian youths and the police saw the segregation of specific ethnic groups in terms of their studying, working, socializing and worshipping as being an underlying factor in the polarization between different communities and the ensuing clashes. Here, and in the aftermath of the July 2005 bombings in London, it can be seen how the virtues of cultural pluralism can come into question. Yet, since a return to the ideals of assimilation would be antithetical to the contemporary, liberal concept of individual freedom, the debate about just how Britain manages ‘difference’ is likely to be lengthy. That the Foundation for Community Dance has recently presented a whole issue of their publication Animated (2007) with a focus on ‘intercultural dialogue’ suggests the dilemmas facing British society are understood to be echoed in dance and that it is an issue the dance community takes seriously. If, as Trevor Phillips (2005) suggests, Britain is in danger of ‘sleepwalking to segregation’, should the British aspire to develop dance companies that specialise in specific culturally delineated traditions? If not, especially given how long it takes to train a dancer in a specific tradition, there is a risk of losing the understanding and respect of those traditions. It could be argued that no tradition is static and that as traditions develop they will in any case reflect the broader culture in which they are situated, but this could be a recipe for doing nothing and allowing the drift that concerns Phillips to continue. Arguments may also be raised in relation to dancers from ethnic minorities being ‘assimilated’ into dance forms traditionally associated with a culture different to their own being seen as invalidating their own culture, while if new dance forms emerge in the ‘melting pot‘ as dancers bring elements of their own movement culture to different dances, this can appear as a threat to the ‘original’ traditions.


Unlike those arts that have fixed objects to refer back to, dance by its ephemeral nature is dependent on traditions being handed down. A look at an early photograph featuring the dancers who performed in Petipa and Ivanov’s The Nutcracker at the Maryinsky in 1892 (Roslavleva, 1966, facing 128), demonstrates how much changed in ballet between the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Those rounded ladies encumbered in their ballet dresses and headdresses do not look capable of the speed and flexibility demanded of today’s svelte, athletic ballerinas. In terms of what dance suggests about society, both what changes and what people feel cannot be changed about their dance can be very interesting. Today’s members of a corps de ballet would look very different to their late nineteenth century counterparts but very likely they would look equally similar to one another. In terms of how society shapes perceptions of dance, it may be interesting to reflect on how the perception of differences and similarities affects expectations and appreciation. For instance, the corps de ballet in a traditional work might be expected to all have the same hair style but not necessarily the same colour hair. The dancers would usually be grouped in ways that minimise the visual difference between body sizes and it would be noticed if the smallest and tallest dancers were placed next to each other. In the age of liberal western democracies this uniformity may be a matter for reflection. Is it appreciated in relation to a historical context? Are current audiences happier to view a greater range of physicalities dancing together as one, seeing dancers who vary visually but dance in the same style with spatial and rhythmic accuracy as a unified entity? How would a corps de ballet be viewed that, in addition to incorporating dancers who are visually different, permitted a range of dynamic phrasing thus allowing dancers to bring more of their own (cultural) identities to the dance? Those companies that have large ensembles who approach the same steps slightly differently tend to be seen as ‘contemporary‘ dance companies even if they draw on ballet vocabulary. At present, Mark Morris, or perhaps William Forsythe present new ensemble works in this way, but many would find it hard to view traditional ballets performed in this manner, perhaps due to a sense of their historic identity. 


5.4 Dance and ‘New Ethnicities’

If ’difference’ is beginning to be a feature of larger companies, artists who have developed skills in dance traditions not usually associated with their cultural and ethnic background seem to be a visible feature of the ‘non aligned’ sector: Artist B, who identifies himself as black British, creates dance by fusing traditional and modern black dance forms with European dance traditions to make dances often concerned with a current black British experience. He aims for black and white audience members to enjoy his work, but there is an awareness that audiences will respond to his work differently and value it (or not) for reasons that in part are linked to their different cultural backgrounds. For instance he has experience of some black audiences reacting negatively to any dance movement that involves extended lines as ‘balletic’ and of white audiences failing to see anything but the obvious ‘tricks ‘ involved in street or jazz dance. In contrast, the dancer of ‘Hispanic’ ethnicity, brought up in the Bronx, draws on neither ‘Latin’ dance nor hip hop, but on ‘pure movement’ traditions most often associated with middle class, educated white Americans and Europeans. However, he has an awareness of how his cultural background and sense of ethnicity informed his early dance experiences:


We were sent to ballet classes and I just enjoyed it ... But I remember when I watched ballet on television as a child it was just too foreign to me. It was a very white culture - It’s beautiful and I just could never relate to it.  For me, I’m always drawn to things that are really ground related. So that could have something to do with maybe the background of being part of you know this Indian…


I was really into going disco dancing ‘cause I grew up in the Bronx ....then coming into dance (training) Graham was the first thing I did and it wasn’t because I had a choice really it was just I had looked it up in the telephone book and it was the only name I had heard of so that’s where I ended up. It was very white, very rich. It was just really a whole different thing. But once I got into the studio the floor works were so grounding, very beautiful, very inspiring...

Artist D, 2003


The South Londoner of African Caribbean ethnicity performs Egyptian dance because it is a dance form that attracted her. However she recognises that this may be partially linked to her cultural background: 


I just liked the music. There was something I was immediately drawn to. Talking to other people - like a friend of mine who is an older Caribbean woman - she is saying there are so many similarities with the African and Caribbean - in the actual technique. I don’t think it is something that has been emphasised...


Anderson, 2003


Artists like these seem to view the traditions they draw on in creating dance as a matter of individual preference rather than conforming to preconceived ideas about what dance form someone from their cultural background should dance. However there is also an awareness of how their cultural background shapes those choices. Perhaps all three artists have a sense of creating their dance identity that is linked to their sense of self as an individual. If dance is thought of as embodying ways of being, have they actively chosen ways of dancing and being that suit them? Although one of them admits to having wanted to explore something different to what was familiar, all three were concerned with what suited their body and their way of moving. Their dancing of their own choreography might thus be seen as embodying their sense of self and agency understood not in terms of a contrast to a seemingly homogenous cultural group (as may be the case with their counterparts in well established companies) but in the context of the cultural diversity that is found in contemporary urban cities. 


This approach might be viewed as compatible with Stuart Hall’s concept of ‘new ethnicities’ (Hall 1996 [1989]) which emphasises the differences contained within ethnic groups and allows for elements of cultural ‘hybridization’. It is a concept which looks forward to an eventual weakening of boundaries between ethnic groups as multiple differences in relation to culture, class, gender and sexuality bring about a whole range of potential self-definitions. Such a viewpoint is closely related to issues of culture and ethnicity in postmodern, postcolonial theory. However in these approaches there may be more emphasis on active resistance to racism and a proactive attitude to creating opportunities for the voices of minorities to be heard. Watching the work of Artist B, the most radical amongst the artists I talked to in terms of voicing concerns relating to his experience of ethnicity, brought home the relevance of some of the concerns of post colonial theory. For instance Paul Gilroy (1987) suggests how a group’s perception of its own ‘race’ is socially and politically constructed in response to racism. Yet sitting alongside a fellow dance professional of African British ethnicity, I recognised both of us were equally distanced from the experiences of inner city black youths by class, education, gender and age. Artist B himself, while starting from a concern with experiences of black British youths, is aware that the issues he raises could also be viewed in relation to different ethnicities and even gender and is contemplating surprising his audience in the future by recasting the work. Stuart Hall’s concept of ‘new ethnicities’ perhaps best represents the complexities of issues of identities with which dance artists currently grapple.


‘Contemporary’ dance companies, due to their tradition of innovation, are the most likely to be influenced by newer ideas. In a survey of their web sites in 2005, it was interesting to see the number of dancers who in their appearance seemed to reflect the idea of ‘new ethnicities’: the number of dancers taking on aspects of ‘other’ identities was evident [v] alongside a number of dancers who, within the context of current sensitivities, would be considered as being of ‘mixed ethnicity’ [vi] . In terms of audiences, an Arts Council survey revealed that over a third of dance ‘attenders’ defining themselves as being of ‘mixed ethnicity’ attend ‘contemporary’ dance in contrast to a quarter of the white and 14% of Asian audiences for dance (Arts Council of England, 2003). The Arts Council suggest that the comparative youth of the ‘mixed ethnicity’ group may account for some but not all differences in patterns of participation. Age has been shown to be a factor in attitudes to ethnicity amongst ethnic minority groups. More precisely, there are different attitudes to their ethnicity amongst those who originally came as immigrants to Britain and their British born offspring (Modood, Beishan and Virdee, 1994). Generally more hybrid approaches are a feature of the younger generations (not discounting the significance of those who seek a culturally distinct approach). It is thus likely that age and ethnicity are factors behind the proportionately high attendance of those defining themselves as being of ‘mixed ethnicity’ at ‘contemporary’ dance performances.


With its emphasis on individual expression and the creation of new works by young choreographers, it may be that ‘contemporary’ dance offers the potential to articulate ways of being in keeping with the concept of ‘new ethnicities’ in contrast to dance forms with older traditions. Moreover fusions of forms, particularly of less established traditions with ‘contemporary’ dance, seem popular. For instance a number of companies identify themselves as contemporary Asian or contemporary African. While, at Morley College where  I worked until September 2005 in South London, offering pre vocational or leisure courses,  amongst the students new to dance were a small but identifiable group of more experienced, usually white, ‘contemporary’ dancers exploring kathak, Egyptian or African-Caribbean dance and street dancers, often black,  turning up in ballet classes. While dance may not always serve intercultural dialogue, an interest in breaking down the boundaries between cultural forms exists beyond the demands of the Arts Council.


5.5 Diversity and Questions of Value

The interest in exploring a range of dance is sometimes linked to a challenge to the perceived status quo in terms of what forms are valued more highly: discussions with street dance students (Morley College, 2004) revealed a concern to develop ways of dancing that value the traditions of a whole range of dance practices. Amongst this group there was a distrust of a hierarchy of values that would place breakin’ below ballet or ‘contemporary’ and an openness to dancers drawing on different dance traditions to create a style that works for them. For example, since part of the street dance tradition has become the incorporation of movements from other contexts to develop your own individual style, street dancers seem particularly open to borrowing movements from other genres as long as they can incorporate them on their terms. These dance values seem to parallel a broader concern for equality. This is not to say however that ‘anything goes’. With a tradition of street dance battles and competitions, judgments are certainly made that decide one dance/dancer is better than another. These judgements are as hotly debated as any other qualitative assessments in western dance and seem to reflect the same concerns with issues of value as found in other dance forms. In a project to work with a street dance teacher (Bunbury, 2006) to identify clear outcomes for assessing achievement in street dance, it became apparent that the same approach to quantifying standards could be applied to this dance form as are used for other western dance forms in spite of its sometimes seeming to be positioned in opposition to more mainstream, western dance genres. The need for bodily control and coordination, skills in virtuosic movements, precision in space and time (particularly in unison sequences) were all similar to other dance techniques. Moreover, the need for dancers to be able to make creative choices and ’freestyle’ led to similar outcomes to those used to assess improvisation in ‘contemporary’ dance. 

As with much dance in Britain, there seems to be a tension between the need for groups to dance in unison as a cohesive unit and for dancers to develop a sense of individual ‘style’.


Street dancers may challenge traditional dance hierarchies, but the same cultural pressures can be seen affecting street dance as affect other dance forms. Amongst the practitioners in London there is the same perceived divide between those who make commercial work and those who make work (usually fused with other dance/performance genres) for more artistic presentation. There is a similar debate about the worth of showy, virtuosic moves and the presence of a third group who in keeping their dance allied to its roots in street culture are in part linked to the community dance ethos. This last group however have a zeal for upholding their values and style which are very different to much of the community dance movement that largely developed out of explorations in ‘contemporary’ dance (Scott Barrett, 2007, 16) [vii] . What distinguishes street dance from other western theatre forms, and relates to its roots in urban youth culture, are certain stylistic features. These in part draw on what the young people call ‘attitude’ but can be identified in terms of movement analysis as emphasis on strong, direct, bound movements which vary in terms of speed. There is rarely the spatial projection to the extent found in other western dance forms although the focus can be very direct and body design can be extremely important. In short the dancers tend to confront space rather than assume dominance over it. Complex articulations of the upper body together with grounded movements found in street dance reveal the African dance influences that fed through early jazz dancers into “breakin” and “poppin”. Stylistically street dance seems to reflect a very different way of being to dance forms more traditionally presented in major western dance venues. However, as the project to accredit it revealed, it shares some values and concerns common to (western) theatre dance more generally. Since audiences are interested in a broader range of dance than ballet and ‘contemporary’, it is not surprising that this dance form is crossing over into the established dance sector as demonstrated by a whole weekend at Sadler’s Wells in summer 2004 that is becoming a popular annual event.


A factor that may still militate against dance forms with roots in ‘non western’ cultures being valued as art is the historic perception of culture. In particular, in relation to dance, primitivist assumptions have led to the ‘other’ being seen as a source of unbridled sexuality. For example, in Edward Said’s ground breaking work of the 1970’s, Orientalism, in which he investigated the West’s view of the Orient, he recognised:




The Orient seems still to suggest not only fecundity but sexual promise (and threat), untiring sensuality, unlimited desire, deep generative energies…


Said, 1995[1978],188 


While Said was careful to put an explanation of this sexual fascination beyond the reach of his study, he suggested that to the Romantics the Orient was a place for the exploration of a kind of sexual experience different to that available in a Europe where sex had become embroiled in a ‘web of legal, moral, even political and economic obligations’ (Said, 1995 [1978], 190). However, Said claims this sexual exploration became, in time, a standard commodity and while he relates this to popular literature it surely also relates to the popularity of Oriental themes in nineteenth and twentieth century dance on which much of the success of both the Diaghilev Ballet and Denishawn was based. The issues this raises for dance is illustrated by Said’s hardly mentioning dance save to describe, almost in passing, the profession of the prostitute Flaubert took up with on his travels in Egypt.


If for the European Romantics the Orient, and particularly Egypt, was the site for reaction against the conventions of the West, twentieth century Harlem may have provided a similar opportunity for white counter cultural experimentation in America. In a discussion of dance in Harlem in the 1920s, Wendy Perron quotes Nathan Huggins’ discussion of what white visitors to Harlem were seeking:


Harlem was a means of soft rebellion… The Negro as their subversive agent - his music, manners and speech…The fantasy of Negro sexuality is fed by deep springs in the white psyche…Negroes were the essential self one somehow lost on the way to civility, ghosts of one’s primal nature whose very nearness could spark electric race-memory of pure sensation untouched by self consciousness and doubt. 


                                              Huggins [1973] in Perron, 2001, 24


The issue of sexuality within dance will be explored in more depth in the next chapter. In terms of how dance is valued, if in the past the dances of ‘others’ were interpreted by white audiences as reflective of an uninhibited sexuality, however positively this might have been viewed, it leaves a heritage of perception that may make it more difficult for some western audiences to view ‘non western’ dance as the product of structured, learned, movement forms and thus respect them as art.


It is interesting to note that the popularity of what are perceived as predominantly black or Oriental dance forms (such as street and Egyptian dance) may be associated with  the breakdown in the boundaries between high and low culture. While theatres such as Sadler’s Wells move to include street dance, is there a sense that it is perceived by some as placed within a hierarchy that would still view greater artistic value in more traditional western dance forms? If the view of art that persists within cities such as London draws on aesthetic ideals embedded within western culture, such a hierarchy of art values may be unlikely to change unless there is a change in aesthetics.


5.6 Global Perspectives

One factor that may perhaps be influencing a shift in artistic values is the global perspective that seemed to influence the majority of the artists I talked to. Although it was not an issue I had initially thought to raise through questions, in discussing their work four out of six dancers in the first interviews specifically alluded to differences and similarities between trends in their dance field here and in other countries. This seemed especially marked amongst the two drawing on ‘non western’ dance traditions.

For instance, Anderson was interested in how dance in Egypt had assimilated Hollywood versions of Egyptian dance and how the development of the cabaret style in the salons of the 1920s fused Egyptian dance with a more western sense of ‘theatricality’. The ‘Modern Cairo Style’, she felt, had incorporated balletic elements into the dance. Yet in contrast to this absorption of western theatricality into Egyptian dance as performed in Egypt, Anderson was conscious of how local Egyptian audiences viewed some European based performers as lacking expressive elements that, she felt, were developed through an immersion in Egyptian culture. Anderson was also aware of the attempts some European based performers have made to present their dance in a manner fitting in with traditions in ‘artistic’ (western) theatre dance. This is most easily seen in relation to costuming, where dancers based in Egypt adopted the Hollywood invention of the two piece costume [viii] , while some contemporary European based performers eschew not only the bare midriff but also the accompanying scarves and ornamentation. This dancer was also interested in the links between Egyptian and other African dance forms, in particular why an emphasis is usually placed on Egyptian dance’s ‘oriental’ context [ix] .


For Sushma Mehta, visits to India and continued connections with dancers from India are an important part of her continued professional development alongside studies in Britain. An interesting perspective on the complexities of globalisation is seen in how this artist, working in traditional kathak dance, chose as a recent collaborator an Indian based dance artist who has trained in ‘contemporary’ dance.


The street dancers I talked to seemed to view their dance as linked to an urban youth culture that, while part of a global phenomenon, also draws on culture and dance traditions specific to a locality.  Perhaps in contrast to the British adaptation of jazz into a dance syllabus suited to local dancing schools, street dance, developing in the context of postmodernity, is promoted through a near global  network that has access to the internet to view the latest ‘moves’. When questioned about the potential for cultural dominance by America and MTV my students looked at me quizzically pointing out the best street dancers were Korean. In the mainstream, street dance may be almost synonymous with American hip hop, but London based dancers are aware of British traditions and the strengths of dancers around the world in a way in which young jazz dancers in the 1970s could not have imagined.


The effect of globalisation on British identities has been documented by the sociologist Andrew Pilkington. He finds that some British people have felt their national identity to be threatened by both the growing power of the European Union and the strengthening of the identities of ethnic minorities. Pilkington (2002) argues that the British identity is a social construct which did not exist before the Act of Union (1707) and was largely dependent on defining itself in contrast to others, most notably Catholics and the French.  He argues that it is possible for British identity to change to meet the challenge of globalization by embracing multiple identities.


For those artists who define themselves as black British there is a sense in which their dance can refer to a pan African experience as well as to a contemporary British one. Thomas F. DeFrantz, drawing on the works of Paul Gilroy, suggests how Black dancers performing in the context of the western theatre can draw support from their sense of belonging to the African diaspora. The circle that Paul Gilroy sees as something that ‘protects and permits’ Black dance in a social context is extended through space and time to the theatrical context.


But what of our concert dancer, already removed from the realm of the social by virtue of her interest in focused aesthetic principles adopted from Western ideas? I offer she might, by necessity, align herself with the African diaspora. Here, she will take comfort in the multitudes similarly disenfranchised and deposited in the New and Old Worlds without recourse to a ‘real’ homeland. The African diaspora is a utopia... It is a tool for survival. The diaspora closes the circle for the dance across time and space. Through it, we black dancers allow ourselves to collaborate whether we understand each other or not


De Frantz, 2000, 13-14


What De Frantz writes of African American dancers can also be related to those viewing themselves as black British. Pilkington also found that a resistance to multiple identities can be found amongst ethnic minorities as well as amongst white ‘little Englanders’.  For some communities sensing a lack of acceptance amongst white British people strengthens their sense of ethnic identity. Thus while some people may have a sense of multiple identities in a global context, others have a sense of singular ethnic identity linked to a perceived community that may be dispersed around the world. These people thus may also be resistant to ‘new hybrid identities’ (or in Hall’s terms ‘new ethnicities’) being wary of their culture mixing with others. It is likely then that artists who forge new dance identities that explore their relationship both to Britain and the African diaspora are likely not only to suffer the prejudice of the ‘little Englanders’ but hostility from  those who would keep their cultural traditions separate.


In dance terms the instances of seeming resentment between those maintaining distinct dance traditions and those developing fusions of dance forms may well reflect these broader cultural concerns. An important factor here may be the result of perceived funding preferences for one or other approach. One aspect to such tensions is related to questions of aesthetics. In discussions with Anderson and Mehta (the latter prior to starting the research), the problem of presenting ‘non western’ dance in western theatres revealed the differences in aesthetic viewpoints. To be accepted as art within western aesthetics places expectations that may fit oddly with some aspects of dance traditions originating in Asia or Africa. South Asian or African dance artists wanting funding may emphasise the creative developments they are making to their dance form in relation to how creativity is understood in (western) ‘contemporary’ dance. Where such approaches are more successful, in terms of gaining the seal of Arts Council approval, than those working more within the boundaries of their traditions, it could seem as if integration is a one way process. Further, as will be explored in the next chapter, different cultural attitudes to sexuality and its relationship to art are still an issue that artists confront. Enjoyment of ‘non western’  dance in a global context can at times be  linked to the collapsing of (western) boundaries between art and entertainment but this may be to the detriment of a western appreciation of different artistic values.


5.7 Diversity, Individualism and Agency

Whether working in ‘contemporary’, jazz, ballet, Egyptian dance, hip hop or fusions of any of these, what marks out the artists contributing to this research is the element of individuality in approach to dance, informed by knowledge of existing traditions and common practices. This individualism is an important element of contemporary western culture and thus of (western) theatre dance heritage. While undeniably reflecting a ‘great men’ (and women) approach to dance history, the fascination with dance artists as individuals also reflects the communicative potential of dance within western culture. The examples of artists who are developing individual choreographic styles by choosing to draw on dance traditions associated with a culture different to their background appear to me as some kind of resistance to pressures to fit into the expectations of others that dates back to Romanticism. However, the question of what is a matter of individual choice is complex.


Choice can be something of an illusion and in relation to cultural diversity can seem rather superficial. In dance terms choice might be equivalent to the nineteenth century practice of changing the design on the bodice of the tutu to indicate a different ‘exotic’ location for a ballet. However, for a dancer to learn the basic stance and style of a different movement tradition takes hours. To become anything like proficient in it takes a number of years. So for those who become skilled in more than one culture’s dance tradition, or who decide to learn to dance in a form not most easily available to them, the level of personal investment is far more than having a new hair style or buying a cook book. To move in ways different to those instilled by previous immersion in movement training is difficult as the body may literally have grown into a desired shape. For instance in ballet the body is ‘re-educated’ (Lawson 1975) from a young age, and from my own experience of ballet training my ‘lengthened’ straighter spine has yet to regain its more natural curves in spite of my attempts to re-programme my muscular habits first in Graham-based and later in releasing technique classes. This makes it difficult to achieve the articulation of the spine demanded in much African­Caribbean dance.


In late capitalist society, in which the marketability of the body-as-project is well documented (and will be explored in chapter seven), the motivation to learn a different dance form can be commercially driven. However, to engage fully with different ways of being through dance may be viewed as a resistance to those who would insist on the death of the individual in late capitalist society as much as to those who would uphold traditional boundaries between different communities of people. Dancers who cross cultural boundaries can be seen as revealing the potentiality of humans both to embody different ways of being and perhaps to assert an element of individual agency.


While artists may attempt to embody a sense of agency and individual identity not bound by cultural conventions, audiences may receive their work in ways that can limit this sense of agency. Observing the progression of the development of Artist B, I have been struck by how often a ‘fun’ jazz orientated dance work was selected by theatre programmers who seemed wary of his more serious work exploring aspects of black British experience. This may have been because the former was a well polished piece or simply because programmers find fun pieces easier to sell than serious ones. (Ironically the fun work can lead to his being taken less seriously by those writing on black dance.) However it did strike me that perhaps programmers felt some audiences would feel more comfortable with an image of young black people showing off their physical prowess in a light hearted way than their confronting serious issues. The artist himself is adamant that ‘the only pigeon-hole is if I pigeon-hole myself’ (Artist B, 2006). His recent serious work is now gaining performance opportunities although, in addition to his determination, this may in part reflect a shift in attitudes since violence amongst young people has become the focus of concern in the media.


From the audience’s perspective, unless a strict formalist aesthetic is adhered to, there has always been a question as to how to view the significance of the choices choreographers and directors make in terms of the dancers they cast in (western) theatre dance performances. Audiences may decide to ‘read’ this aspect of a dance performance in relation to how the performance is presented or ‘framed’: in a piece of dance theatre the ethnicity of the performers may be an integral feature of what is being presented; in a ballet in which members of the corps de ballet  are all dressed and move the same, or in a contemporary dance work where the focus is on the movement’s spatial and dynamic forms, what may be prioritised are the ‘formal ‘ qualities of the work. Returning to Copeland’s updated formalism it may be that the concept of aesthetic distance can be useful:


The post structuralists no doubt would tell us that all we ever see is what we have been conditioned to see, what the language we speak and the culture we inhabit will permit us to see. But the function (or one possible function) of formalism is to draw us out of ourselves, to encourage us to transcend responses that are habitual or merely conditioned. 


Copeland, 1990, 8


Distancing aesthetic appreciation from more day to day concerns with matters of ethnicity may allow audiences to set aside preconceptions or even prejudices that inhibit their ability to appreciate the qualities of a dance performance. However, as in the example of the Royal Ballet School’s (2005) performance of La Valse, given the current state of concern in relation to ‘difference’, aesthetic enjoyment of dance may be positively affected if experience of such difficulties is recognised. Against a context in which formal harmony has often depended on the use of dancers of similar physical appearance, the presentation of physical ‘difference’ in a harmonious form may be felt to embody the aesthetic idea of social harmony in a diverse society. Returning to the discussion of aesthetics in chapter two this is not to say this is the ‘true meaning’ of the performance. Nor in the reverse case should we insist that a dance that only uses dancers who look the same embodies the ideal of ‘ethnic purity’. Dance as an art is too complex to be translated so literally. Yet at a time in the development of British culture when perceived differences between groups defined in terms of ethnicity are the sources of many tensions, for audiences and artists alike, to reflect on these issues may inform the understanding of dance.


Within the context of semiotic approaches to dance as ‘read’, it may be helpful to re-consider the concept of ‘framing’ in relationship to the power dynamic at play between producers, artists and audiences. In terms of appreciation it is important to reflect on how the phenomenological experience of the dance is affected by an embodied position within culture as lived. Audiences may recognise that dancers such as Artist B are able to draw on more than one way of being, if as audience members they are willing to engage fully with his dancing. To return to the question of how ‘difference’ is perceived in dance, how it is answered may depend on the extent to which artists and their audiences are able to exercise personal agency in their approach to cultural norms.  



Notes to Chapter Five

[i] From their viewpoint they are competing internationally against companies some of which fare much better in terms of state subsidy.

[ii] The figures analysed are for 2005/6. For instance how much of the Royal Opera House’s global figure of over 24 million supports ballet rather than opera affects the statistics, as does the inclusion of umbrella organisations as some tend to promote a particular form (e.g Dance Umbrella, Independance, Akademi) .

[iii] Discussion of these findings in relation to audiences for Shobana Jeyasingh revealed further complexities as her audience is largely white, but it is unclear whether those responding to the questionnaire would have identified her work as South Asian dance or ‘contemporary’. 

[iv] In a discussion of works in progress at Morley College, December 2005, it seemed that a group presenting traditional African Dance felt defensive of their position in relation to ‘contemporary’ African dance. 

[v] In 2007 the look that emphasised cultural fusion in the hair fashions for corn rows  for white dancers  and bleached hair on Black dancers seems to have given way to more subtle manifestations of individual approaches to the cross cultural in fashion.

[vi] What tends to be recognised by this term are combinations of white European and African/African Caribbean or white European and Asian although the actual permutations are endless and, working in South London, I have found the term is increasingly a source of annoyance to the young adults it is supposed to describe.

[vii] That the former relates to a predominantly black urban culture and the latter to a predominantly white, liberal educated one makes for some complex interactions. 

[viii] Something of the complexities of Egyptians’ own attitudes to sexuality in dance is suggested by Judith Lynne Hannah  (1988, 63) who states  the two piece was banned by Nasser in1963 along with movements carrying sexual implications but that these strictures were then relaxed in 1966.

[ix] Given the popularity of ‘Orientalism‘ in early twentieth century western theatre dance and the current ethnicity of our major ballet companies there does seem to be a sense in which dance forms and dancers perceived as ‘Eastern’ have been more readily assimilated into western theatre dance than those perceived as black.