Saturday, September 29, 2012

teaching "cultural" dance forms (part 2)

Another BIG question in this for me, of course, is that label itself: "cultural dance," "ethnic dance," "world dance," "folk dance"… If hula, Haitian, Kathak, and kolos are defined as "cultural" dance, then does that leave ballet and modern dance, the western "concert dance" forms, as the norm? Do we look upon ballet and modern as "high art" and relegate "ethnic dance" to lesser performance status because of the label? What criteria do we use to define ethnic or cultural dance?

I might start with one distinction within what we usually think of as ethnic dance — folk versus classical. On the one hand are the true folk dances: dances that do not demand a lifetime of study, but were traditionally performed by anyone in the community, or the community as a whole — like those Bulgarian dances I am so fond of, and including social dances from many cultures.

On the other hand, among the forms commonly labeled and presented as world or ethnic dance are classical, studied traditions such as the classical dance forms of India (among them Kathak, Bharata Natyam, and Odissi) and the court dances of Java and Cambodia — all of which demand many years of rigorous training to learn and perfect. Likewise, though not often spoken of as a "classical" form, Hawai'ian hula is a dance tradition handed down over the centuries from kumu to haumana, with a gestural language recognizable to all students of the form — much as any ballet dancer would recognize a frappé or grand battement. Many of these forms developed in royal courts, just as ballet originated in the royal courts of France… so why is ballet not usually considered to be a "cultural" dance form? (In my own teaching, I do treat it that way — I first introduce ballet to my beginning dance classes in the Spring semester, when we explore forms from various cultures). It is not presented in "world dance" venues like San Francisco's Ethnic Dance Festival or Cal Performances' "world stage' series — is that simply because ballet companies already have copious opportunities for performance, or does it have to do with its culture being European and not "other"?

As we talked about this, I realized that there may be another distinction I had not thought of: between dance forms that originated from certain cultures (whether classical forms such as Kathak, ballet, or hula, or folk dances such as Balkan kolos or Appalachian clogging), and dance techniques that were developed by one person, often as a means of personal expression. This may be the distinction between what we call cultural forms and modern dance techniques, as most (all?) of those were the vision of one person — often as a reaction against previous dance forms, or at least breaking away from a mentor to begin a new style. What we call cultural forms are generally a result of years or decades of tradition — whether formally taught (as in classical forms) or passed along informally (as in folk dances). There are social dances — such as Charleston or Lindy hop — that seem to be a radical departure from what came before… but even those, if viewed in the context of dances of the African diaspora rather than American social dance, fit into a tradition.

There are so many issues tangled up in this — I pull one strand, and so many more questions come tumbling out! I will have to stop, but I would love to know what any of you out there think...

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