A need to understand dance

Near the end of his Nov. 16 column on the “Questionable value of arts programs,” Samian Quazi describes “interpretive African dance” as a class that exemplifies the problem with arts education. Interpretive African dance is not an actual course but rather a fabrication that demonstrates a lack of knowledge about what dance is, how it functions culturally and globally and how it is actually taught.

Interpretive dance is an invented genre that is usually invoked to parody modern dance and dance improvisation. Using the term suggests that modern dance is not really dance, like ballet, or that it has no merit because dancers are perceived as simply expressing themselves or making up movement without structure or purpose. Courses in modern dance immerse students in long-established training systems that cultivate both body and mind, while movement improvisation, like jazz improvisation in music, is a foundational course for emerging choreographers that teaches them how to compose movement in the moment in concert with others.

The critique of “interpretive African dance” is even more problematic, as this term devalues the significance of African art and performance and its contribution to higher education. We do not offer a course on interpretive African dance, but we proudly offer introduction to African diasporic dance, a course cross-listed in the Department of Theatre and Dance and the African and African Diaspora Studies Department. African dance, as it is traditionally taught within university settings, aims to introduce students to specific dances, music and techniques that come from particular groups and countries in Africa. There is nothing interpretive about it. Students who take the class learn about African diasporic cultures, forms and aesthetics through the historical study and practice of dance. Courses such as this one are physically and intellectually rigorous, bring students together across disciplinary and racial lines, encourage them to develop an appreciation and knowledge of art and culture globally and provide a model for experiential learning.

We welcome students unfamiliar with theater and dance, including Quazi, to enroll in one of our many courses open to the general University population.

Rebecca Rossen, Charles Anderson, Andrea Beckham, Paul Bonin-Rodriguez, Charlotte Canning, Yacov Sharir and Holly Williams
Department of Theatre and Dance faculty