Dance Scholars and Critics Convene in the Bay Area

By Janice Ross


For four days this June, the Bay Area will become the center of the dance studies universe. The two leading organizations of dance writers, historians and critics, the Society of Dance History Scholars (SDHS) and Dance Critics Association (DCA) respectively, will be joining together for the first time at Stanford University and San Francisco for their annual conference from June 19-22, 2009.

While the Bay Area has long been a center of vibrant dance performance and innovation, it has lagged behind in the areas of serious dance scholarship and criticism—two dimensions of a healthy dance community that are critical to long-term survival, cultural memory and artistic growth. This conference will be the first grandly scaled international forum on dance scholarship held in the Bay Area in 20 years—the first, and only, time the Dance Critics Association met in San Francisco was at a conference organized jointly by Stephen Steinberg and this writer.

We are long overdue for this kind of intellectually and artistically invigorating summit of new and emerging ideas about the life of a dance work after the performance. History and criticism customarily begin where the performance ends and most often artists and scholars each perfect their craft in isolation from one another. Exchanges frequently happen long distance as a dance historian might study a video tape of a performance to write about a certain work, while the dance artist can read reviews with an eye toward what might be useful for bookings, etc. One of the implicit questions this conference asks is how might our respective locations in the larger field of dance be made to intersect in more productive ways? Both the keynote address on Friday afternoon and several full conference plenary sessions during the conference will address these issues as part of a look at the future of dance studies.

The Society of Dance History Scholars, the major sponsor of the conference, was organized in 1978 as a professional network, and incorporated as a non-profit organization in 1983. It now counts among its membership individuals and institutions across the globe committed to the interdiscipline of dance studies. SDHS was admitted to the American Council of Learned Societies as a constituent member in 1996.

SDHS defines dance history in the broadest possible terms. To recover the meaning of the dance event for participants and spectators, SDHS embraces a wide range of research methods. Some are drawn from related disciplines such as musicology, anthropology, theater and performance studies, feminist theory, and queer theory; others employ dance-specific modes of inquiry such as movement analysis or choreographic reconstruction.

SDHS members work in a broad range of different positions. While some are independent scholars, others teach dance studies in departments of dance, theatre, music, and performance studies as well as in other academic departments of colleges and universities. Many are scholar-practitioners who combine research with performance. SDHS members also work as performers, arts administrators, dance critics, filmmakers, notators, reconstructors, librarians, and archivists. The society especially welcomes graduate students interested in dance research, whatever the academic orientation of their doctoral programs.

SDHS annual conferences feature paper presentations, panel discussions, movement workshops, and performances on a broad range of topics. During each conference, SDHS working groups meet in informal sessions to share information and ideas on their common interests. SDHS also presents annual awards at each conference in recognition of outstanding scholarly work in dance studies.

The Dance Critics Association was created in 1973, when a group of dance critics attending a Philadelphia arts conference saw the need for an organization that represented working dance critics. The group’s primary focus, then and now, was an annual meeting to serve dance writers. DCA was formally established in 1974, also the year of its first convention.

Now, the association has nearly three hundred members—both freelance and full-time—who write for newspapers, magazines and websites across the United States, as well as in Europe and Asia. DCA continues to host a yearly conference in the late spring or early summer where critics, editors, writers, scholars, dancers and choreographers convene to discuss issues that impact the world of dance in general, and the art form of dance criticism in particular.

Themed, and titled Topographies: Sites, Bodies, Technologies, the conference expands on the concept of “topographies” broadly defined as the critical and creative mapping of the physical features of dancing bodies in public and private places. Like a hybrid between a festival and an all-stars game, the conference will feature papers, lectures, demonstrations, workshops, performances, and film, DVD and video showings by 180 leading and emerging international figures in the field of dance scholarship, criticism and choreography and performance. The conference is open to the scholar, dance specialist, artist and general public, all of whom can register for the full three-day event or individually for single days. The full schedule will be posted shortly on the SDHS website and registration is also available online at

The conference begins Friday afternoon, June 19, 2009, 4 p.m. at Stanford with the keynote address “Movements Between Performance, Theatre and Dance” by noted performance studies scholar, Professor Peggy Phelan, chair of the Drama Department at Stanford. A tiny sampling of the nearly 200 workshops, demonstrations, papers, and conversations that will unfold in studios and lecture halls around the campus, beginning that evening and continuing through Monday afternoon June 22, include: “Urban Bush Women and the Black Female Body,” “Hip-Syncopation and Soccer Dancing Fields,” “Forsythe and the Terrain of Stillness and Silence,” “The Disrobed Body in Neo-Burlesque Striptease,” “Corporate Striptease,” “The Petipa Problem,” “The Partner Dances of Fred Astaire,” “Fantasia and the Body of Mickey Mouse,” as well as papers and demos about and by Joanna Haigood, Anna Halprin, Deborah Hay, Eiko and Koma, Jo Kreiter, Heidi Drucker, and Margaret Jenkins.

Highlights include a Friday night participatory ‘50s Social Dance Night led by social dance historian and Stanford dance faculty member Richard Powers, and a Saturday night screening of dance on film and mediated dance, curated by Roxane Fenton and Colleen Dunagan. Sunday features an all-day series of events at ODC Commons in San Francisco, jointly curated by Katherine Mezur, conference committee chair, and Rob Bailis, theatre manager of ODC. This San Francisco portion of the conference includes mini-performances in every corner of the two-story Commons building, and discussions and papers focusing on dance criticism as well as local dance.

It is only fitting that a conference that looks at the past and immediate present also includes a longing glance toward the future. As part of this, the conference will include a mini-dance criticism writing workshop with former Village Voice dance editor Elizabeth Zimmer. What the dance studio is to emerging dancers and choreographers, this conference is to the next generation of dance writers, historians and critics. The future starts here.

This article appeared in the June 2009 issue of In Dance.

Janice Ross, Professor, Theatre and Performance Studies Dept., Stanford University, is the author of four books including Like A Bomb Going Off: Leonid Yakobson and Ballet as Resistance in Soviet Russia, (Yale Univ. Press, 2015) and Anna Halprin: Experience as Dance, (UC Press 2007).