NAMING NAMES: the Significance of Sources in Modern Dance Technique

By Kristin Kusanovich


Modern/contemporary dance is experiential and its practitioners have a penchant for fusion, integration, assemblages and communal intent. Modern/contemporary dance is also known for being an open-minded forum in which the intermingling of art forms, genres, historical approaches and new experimentation is encouraged.

Given this complex number of inputs and inspirations, it is both common and seemingly acceptable practice for a modern dance teacher to present movement without necessarily acknowledging the artistic family tree it is likely derived from, to effectively not pass on whose kinesthetic findings are being cited through the enlivening exercise of dancing. To effectively function outside of any stated or implied lineage.

This article and its research investigates the perceived value for students when dance teachers ‘name names’ as they conduct technique class, thus facilitating a sort of untangling of origins of movement sequences, methods, and whole styles in some cases. Based on data collected from college-aged respondents to an anonymous survey and analyzed using a constant-comparative analysis and open-coding process, the findings reveal some possibly surprising insights about the next generation of dance artists.

Fusion as a Given
In an era of fusions and borrowings in which an artist is expected to be a uniquely formed creature ready to synthesize and embody the multiplicity that is one’s training, it becomes apparent that at some point, the concept
of the real origin of movement sources for dance teachers, as well as students, can become clouded. By definition, modern dance is big, and it appropriates.

I would argue that the ephemeral art of dance is not so ephemeral as we might assume it to be. By that I mean, things actually kind of stick around. We share ideas through time, one might say, intergenerationally; but we also share in the immediacy of our peer group, laterally, in the present. Sometimes movement ideas are conveyed slowly with great deliberation and care, though sometimes with great haste and fervor. Movement ideas become ingrained, entrenched, absorbed and are hard to shake out. Oral and kinesthetic tradition keeps them as alive as stories of old. With greater understandings and appreciations of the notions of appropriation, remixing and ultimately issues of plagiarismat the forefront of other fields (music, for example) it is timely to look at where the teaching of modern dance is positioned in terms of tendencies by teachers to either hide or reveal the historicity of “their” technique.

The teacher of a modern dance technique class is a product of various trainings that effectively create a new synthesis and understanding of what to teach and how to teach it. Except when teaching an unmodified, single origin curriculum, as in Martha Graham or Merce Cunningham’s technique, though those certainly changed through time, a teacher of dance is likely to have been exposed to dozens of techniques that might inform pedagogy and praxis, all of which he or she intends surely to pass on, at least in an embodied fashion, through movement. All of this can be done with or without any reference to lineages.

I did not come to this research because I experienced this lack of orientation but for the opposite reason – I had this style of clear explanation throughout my childhood training in JoAnne Black’s Willow Glen Creative Dance Center for Children. But from then on the rest of my education in dance tended to be different. Rather than sort all these experiences out verbally, it seems more common for a modern dance teacher to present movement without necessarily acknowledging the artistic family tree that a movement is likely derived from.

Some movements are not necessary to acknowledge the origins of every time we utter them – every French term (used in a non-Francophone modern dance class context) is derived from Ballet, and every dancer knows that “the Ballet” is therefore the source of the ubiquitous “plié, tendu, degajé, relevé, etc.” However, though ballet styles vary, nevertheless, ballet as a general origin of movements having French-named terms is infinitely more transparent when quoted by modern dance doers. Unlike ballet, however, modern does not have codified terms. Many movement sequences that certain modern dance artists invented do not have names, but are called something for convenience, such as “Jose Limon style brush lunge swings.” Lester Horton numbered his etudes and fortifications and one can refer to them that way. But entire modern/contemporary classes occur everyday in every country that are entirely movement based with no reference to the name of an exercise, or any personal or communal origins.

Therefore, it seems, though it remains to be proven, that most movement is presented as ‘unsourced.’ This research investigates the effect of teaching modern dance technique in a manner that calls explicit attention to the sources of particular movements whose origins are traceable to a particular culture, time period, artistic movement or individual visionary. Under examination is the perceived interest among young adult dancers in having their teachers ‘name names.’

By surveying a group of dance students who have had many different modern dance teachers and have therefore been exposed to multiple styles of modern dance, possibly even both ‘unsourced’ and ‘sourced’, the research did not reveal a preference for “just movement,” without explanation, but rather a preference for “movement, plus” a knowledge of the origins of movements on the part of today’s learners. The question of ownership/appropriation/plagiarism becomes especially charged when the derivation is readily traceable to a singular artist of the past or school of thought that permeates our work still today. How much do students value knowing about the collaboration and collision that creates the prismatic field of modern dance?

To take things from another’s culture or tradition and adopt them for one’s own is to appropriate. Appropriation in itself is neither good nor evil and some would argue that on some level all ideas shared that lead to new actions or behaviors require some amount of appropriation. It has negative connotations because we often are referring to negative ways people have carried out appropriation.

Teachers gain cache, they stand to benefit from their knowledge, or rather from the knowledge they impart that we associate them with because they imparted it. They can experience increased student interest, student engagement, teacher ratings, higher school enrollments, cache as an artist, etc., by having the latest or greatest techniques or methods that attract developing performing artists to be associated with their persons. So where collaboration and appropriation mingle there are some penetrating questions to ask ourselves. This article can only pose questions regarding appropriation. Fuller studies exist that elucidate this point.

The title “Naming Names” refers to the pedagogical practice of intentionally connecting what we are doing in the dance class to the origins or originators of the exercises, when these are known. The definition of “origins” is deliberately left open, because in dance we could have learned something from an individual person who herself was passing on someone else’s findings, an oral tradition, a book, a film, a company’s or group’s training method, a YouTube video, a conceptual framework or another field altogether. Though we may love the beauty of the mosaic with all its mystery and wholeness seen from afar, I wondered if the next generation of dancers also may appreciate the opportunity to understand the sources of some of the more prominent pieces that comprise the
total picture of a dance teacher’s training.

I figured that dancers who are mid-career like myself might have a different view of the importance of history or a different relationship to lineages in the teaching of the arts. In fact I was fully prepared to consider that after analyzing the data, I might learn that it makes no difference to my students or others’ whether we ‘name names’ or not, and they might have been politely tolerant of this penchant of mine for many years now. That would be good to know.

Whether one would adjust one’s pedagogical approach based on apparent lack of interest by one’s students in ‘naming names’ remains a question – sometimes the values of a teacher being different than students allow for a cross-generational exchange of ideas and attitudes that would all but dry up if student interest led all subject matter and content delivery. This said, anything a learner might perceive as irrelevant deserves close scrutiny.

Ultimately this small study does get at the ethics of teaching and what we believe in imparting—whether students would report they wish for it or not. So here are the findings of this preliminary research in a nutshell:

All respondents reported at least 4-6 years of dance training with the overwhelming majority of respondents falling into the ‘over 10 years’ of training category. The average intensity of involvement was listed as 3 times a week for intensive technique classes or equally demanding rehearsals, with 25% of respondents noting that they engaged at this level with dance training for 4 or more classes a week regularly. So the respondents are not comprised of casual visitors to the field of dance.

Respondents noted in 86% of the cases that the majority of their teachers in modern/contemporary appeared to mix styles, so they were aware that fusing is happening. Moreover, 32% of the total polled said they would characterize 90% of their teachers as mixing sources of movement in teaching technique classes.

According to this data, a low percentage of dance teachers never explain the sources of movements, sequences or principles they are using in dance class. Only 8% according to responses never explain anything in this regard. 75% of teachers sometimes explain. Only 17% usually explain origins or sources.

Apparently, whether teachers acknowledge others or not, they don’t overwhelmingly take credit for their content either. 27% reported never having a teacher claim ownership in any way of any material taught. 18% said teachers rarely claim ownership of material for themselves. 45% said that teachers occasionally claim ownership and no one said it was a usual circumstance.

Regarding sorting, while 15% of the students surveyed claimed that they would be able to usually sort out the origins of movements in a class with mixed sources, most students said they would not be able to sort out the origins of movement, with 40% saying they would sometimes, and 40% saying they would not be able to do it at all. The most fascinating finding for me was that 83% of the respondents said that overall, they would really prefer that their teachers would reference origins or name names as long as it doesn’t slow down or interrupt the flow of class. The remaining participants stated no preference. Though it was also an option, no one said they really like the idea of just dancing/moving/experiencing a blend of things and not having their teacher(s) referencing origins or naming names.

Though this article provides just a summary of some of the findings from this study, and though there is more research underway with a larger sample size, the findings here seem to imply that teachers ought to divulge more, not less, regarding their own influences along their own journey, without sacrificing the pacing and rigor of the technique class. The findings might lead us to question the common and highly acceptable practice of fusion without regard for sources, in which historical origins are rendered the purvey of dance history seminars alone. Today’s students seem to be in tune with the idea that they are connected to a history that is not always revealed to them in its fullness. Today’s teachers of modern/contemporary dance, in doing more to reflect on and reveal their own sources, may engage and enlighten a student’s sense of purpose, belonging and groundedness in the art form. Perhaps too, dancers who witness a teacher’s practice of naming names might be more likely to honor that teacher later for any enduring, unshakeable notions, approaches or forms that continue to enliven and inform their practice as artists.

KRISTIN KUSANOVICH, a graduate of NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts was artistic director of Kusanovich Dance Theatre of Minneapolis for a decade. She leads modern/contemporary master classes at prestigious conservatories in the US and Canada and has recently created what might or might not be original choreography for Cabaret at Broadway by the Bay, Friel’s Aristocrats at the Master Playwrights Festival in Winnipeg and Hwang’s M. Butterfly at City Lights Theatre in San Jose. She publishes and presents on embodied knowing and teaches courses in dance, theatre and pedagogy at Santa Clara University.