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Behind the Curtain Blog

NDEO's "Behind the Curtain" Blog features articles written by NDEO members about dance and dance education topics as well as periodic updates on NDEO programs and services. This is a FREE resource available to ALL.


Promoting Anti-Racist Practices within Dance Programs, Part 3

NDEO’s Guest Blog Series features posts written by our members about their experiences in the fields of dance and dance education. We continue this series with a post by Jan Erkert, who was Head and Professor in the Department of Dance at University of Illinois from 2006-2022. Guest posts reflect the experiences, opinions, and viewpoints of the author and are printed here with their permission. NDEO does not endorse any business, product, or service mentioned in guest blog posts. If you are interested in learning more about the guest blogger program or submitting an article for consideration, please click here.

This 3-part blog series explores how dance artists can utilize embodied knowledge and choreographic process to interrogate systemic racism in dance programs. Dance departments and their curricula entered academia in the mid-20th century primarily reflecting the values of the dominant white culture in the United States. Ballet and modern often became the pillars of these curricula and other dance forms were othered as electives, not as fundamental sources for learning. Many leaders of dance programs are working to dismantle the complex web of systemic racism (found in curricular policies, hierarchies, schedules and nomenclature), which has been actively woven into our programs and the threads continue to hold on tight. The first blog will explore our complex relationships with power and privilege, especially as leaders and advocates for change. The second blog will outline possible strategies for making an impact on who dances, what we dance and how we are dancing together. The last blog in the series will discuss ways to create non-hierarchical systems when offering multiple techniques. Read Part 1 and Part 2.

Part 3: Non-hierarchical Approaches to Advanced Dancing

This is the third blog in a series of three, which digs into the challenges of addressing systemic racism in a dance curriculum. Nyama McCarthy-Brown’s statement in Dance Pedagogy for a Diverse World provided a key for our journey at Dance at Illinois, “Dance is a cultural experience. It is a racial experience. It is a gendered experience. It is a kinesthetic body experience.”

Breaking down hierarchies formed by the dominant cultures is essential to this discussion. Choreographer and MacArthur genius awardee, Liz Lerman, makes a simple gesture of her forearm from vertical to horizontal. In her book, Hiking the Horizontal, she writes about a horizontal pole, “Each of these poles exerts an equal pull and has an equal weight…. And, if for a moment you take this continuum and bend it into a circle, you will see that the two ends can lie close, like next-door neighbors.”

Curricular standards and the interpretation of those standards can get in the way of shifting the pole. In Higher Education, Dance Programs with a B.F.A curriculum are charged with professional preparation of dancers for the field. Indeed, the standard for performance proficiency is stated in the Nationals Association of Schools of Dance (NASD) Handbook, “Skill in at least one major area of performance must be progressively developed to the highest level appropriate to the particular area of concentration. (NASD Handbook 2021-22 VII. B.1.a.).

Hierarchy is written into the notion of advanced dancing by requiring “at least one major area of performance.” Yes, the highest level of skill could be achieved in many forms, but that would take more time than a four-year program could provide, so historically dance programs chose one or two forms and those forms were primarily modern and/or ballet, any other forms were deemed auxiliary. For sake of argument, let’s switch it up and say programs chose African and Tap. Does that undo the hierarchy? Not really. While this would start to address racial bias –there is still a top/bottom.

What if, instead, the notion of advanced practice was addressed? Our community began by wrestling with our definition of advanced dancing. We all agreed “advanced dancers” gives us chills; they integrate their unique artistic presence with considerable and nuanced technical skills (defined broadly by the practice). Could an old woman twerking to Beyonce in her bathroom be considered an advanced dancer? Absolutely, if done with skill, nuance and artistry.

Some programs have eschewed the very notion of “advanced dancing,” choosing to highlight interdisciplinary and creative making, or social and political activism. These programs have made choices that move dance into a new realm, where “advanced dancing” is no longer relevant to the larger goal. But the faculty at Illinois agreed that they still wanted the full bodied, luscious, advanced dancing that sends chills down the spine, and they wanted to facilitate advanced dancing without establishing a hierarchy. Could it be done?

A team of brilliant faculty/student artists (Professors Sara Hook, Dr. C. Kemal Nance, Linda Lehovec, and students Faith Brown, Elliot Emadian, Mary Kate Ford and Danzel Thompson-Stout), struggled with this conundrum for years, wrestling with the question of how to shape a journey toward advanced practice within a four-year program.

Dance curriculums have traditionally achieved “advanced dancing” by offering one or two techniques every day for four years, so students have an immersive experience in those forms. Neurologists would confirm that repetitive practices with focused attention builds efficient neural pathways; a ballet class every day makes a better ballet dancer. But the scientific principle of neural plasticity gives balance to the idea of repetition. Repetition causes deep ruts - the neural system becomes rigid over time, and thus can lead to injuries. Concepts from neural plasticity invite us to consider diversifying training in order to keep the brain, nervous system and muscles flexible. This principle guided the shape of a new curriculum.

The attainment of skill could now be viewed through the lens of versatility. Advanced proficiency was related to a dancer’s ability to fluidly adapt principles of movement to a particular style or technique. For instance, connectivity (currently defined in our program as the ability to coordinate the body in relation to breath and weight) is a skill valued in all techniques, but connectivity varies within techniques. For instance, the use of weight in relationship to gravity is different in a ballet class, Umfundalai class, and hip-hop class. To that end, we remain committed to the spirit of the NASD standard to achieve the highest level of skill, but we reject the idea that this must be achieved in at least one major area of performance.

The other overall principle which shaped curricular choices, was the belief that all dancing and dancemaking are intimately connected to the cultures in which they were created and evolved. (Thank you Professor McCarthy-Brown). Therefore, all techniques and dance making practices needed to be studied in relationship to their context. This led to changing the ways the curriculum was historically delivered and necessitated collaborative teaching and learning methodologies. In the new program, students will study four days a week for three hours in five-week blocks, thereby intensely studying with six faculty by the end of a year. For instance, First semester: Block 1-Umfundalai, Block 2- Cunningham, Block 3 - Hip Hop. Second semester: Block 1- Contemporary, Block 2 - Ballet, Block 3 - Poc-Chuc. During each block the faculty is charged to deliver the physical practice, historical context and the unique approach to dance making rooted in the form. The students are deeply immersed within each form and must fluidly transfer concepts from one block to the next. With this move, the hierarchy of one form dominating was struck down, while a rigorous approach to “advanced dancing” was maintained.

Hierarchies are not easily broken; this bold move will require faculty and students to work as teams, change teaching/learning methods and embrace new schedules and approaches. The implementation of this curriculum will not be easy, but a horizontal landscape now mirrors the plains in which we live.

Jan Erkert was the Head of the Department of Dance at University of Illinois from 2006- 2022. As Artistic Director of Jan Erkert & Dancers she created over 70 works that received recognition from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Illinois Arts Council. Erkert’s current research explores leadership from an embodied perspective. She has been awarded two major awards from the University of Illinois - the Executive Officer Distinguished Leadership Award (2020), for her outstanding leadership and vision, and the Larine Y. Cowan Make a Difference Award for Leadership in Diversity (2014) for her work to undo racism within the department, college and university. She was selected to be a Public Voices Fellow in 2020 as part of the national OpEd Project, and has published numerous OpEds in such publications as CNN Opinion and The Chicago Sun-Times. She is a Fulbright Scholars Awardee, author of Harnessing the Wind: The Art of Teaching Modern Dance (2003), and served as a commissioner on accreditation for NASD. She is seeking publication of her manuscript, Every Body has a Body Full of Wisdom, Stories of Leadership and Life and working as a leadership coach for teachers and dance administrators.

Photo Credits: All photos courtesy of Dance at Illinois by Natalie Fiol.


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