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NDEO's "Dance Education" 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.


Reframing a College Dance History Course to Dance in the USA

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 Elizabeth McPherson, Professor and Director of the Dance Division, Montclair State University. 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.

Historically, US dance has stood in comparison to European dance, often striving to emulate Western European aesthetics. Dance forms seen as lacking in these aesthetics have been deemed less artistic and less refined. While Western European influence on much of US culture including dance remains strong, there are many, many more influences and dance histories that comprise US dance. Perspectives on artistry, much like history, are often indicative of unequal power dynamics. In addition, many important and influential voices in dance have been less acknowledged and sometimes even silenced. My current dance history course seeks to highlight these voices. This article will provide one example of a shift in my teaching practice towards more equity and diversity.

History is moveable, told from particular perspectives, affecting not only whose names and achievements are carried forward but also how their stories are told. In the last two years, I shifted my framework for teaching undergraduate and graduate level dance history, moving away from a Western theatrical dance trajectory to highlight Dance in the USA. This provided a framework that could be wider and deeper in regards to the rich dance traditions in the USA. Tracing dance in the USA as it broke forms, crossed genres, provoked social and political change, and drove cultural exchange and collision, my course explores racial prejudice and injustice, intersectional feminism, protest movements, economic hardships, cultural appropriation, and more, demonstrating how socio-political issues, conditions, and movements affect dance and are likewise affected by dance.

My Prior Dance History Experiences

I have taken a variety of dance history courses, first a dance history course at Vanderbilt University that covered vernacular and ritual dance, more than theatrical dance. Then I had a movement-based dance history course at Juilliard, while also having the privilege of learning and performing dance works from the 20th century like Donald McKayle’s Games, and Anna Sokolow’s Ballade. We were embodying dance history, which is something I work to offer to the undergrads in my current teaching location in their repertory for the year. I then had a dance history course at City College that covered ritual dance, social dance, and Western theatrical dance. I recall my teacher giving us a boxload of photocopied articles! At NYU, I had Aesthetics and Dance, History of Dance in Higher Education, and Anthropology and Dance. All of these courses and professors influenced how I understood dance history and how I would teach it. I was also strongly influenced by whomever had taught the course before me when I began teaching dance history at various institutions. I generally started with the prior teacher’s syllabus and revised from that starting point.

When I began teaching dance history, first for the undergraduates at Long Island University-Brooklyn, then undergrads at Montclair State, then later for MFA students at Purchase College, and finally for MFA students at Montclair State, I followed primarily a Western Theatrical dance trajectory – basically tracing the history of ballet from Louis XIV to Russia, to the Ballets Russes, to developments in the USA, the development of modern dance in the US and following it through the 20th century to explode with postmodernism in the 1970s and beyond. The depth varied somewhat, mostly to do with whether it was a two-semester sequence or a one semester sequence. The courses explored the forms (largely ballet and modern) that were the focus of the curricula in each of these institutions. I used various texts, that I generally supplemented because I recognized that artists of color were often not covered well.

At Long Island University, Purchase, and at Montclair State, I taught the dance history courses with some movement components, so, for instance, students learned a sequence from Anna Sokolow’s Rooms and a Pavane and Minuet. While students got something from these experiences, they were all related to my background which was largely ballet and modern dance with a smattering of social dance forms mostly of the Western world. While not impossible to bring in guests, I had not done this, with some exceptions.

Around 2016, when I began teaching dance history to the undergrads at Montclair State, I revised the course to be hybrid, so we met one day a week in the dance studio and then students had extra work to do on their own time to make up for what would have been the second class meeting of the week. One main reasoning was that I believed that students could watch the course videos on their own with guiding questions. It was around this time at Montclair State, that we moved from two required dance history courses, to one required dance history course while adding a requirement of a semester of West African Dance or Latin Ballroom Dance. Capoeira, Cambodian Dance, and Kathak were later added as options. My colleague Dr. Carl Paris also developed and teaches an elective course available to undergrad and grad students titled: Black Dance in the USA. This first ran in the Spring of 2019.

The MFA required dance history course at Montclair State was and is asynchronous online because in the low residency MFA, dance history is one of the fully online courses, and students are from a variety of time zones and have varying work schedules.

Written Assignments

Each of these dance history courses required or require a research paper. For the undergrads, I used to leave the topic fairly open, but borrowing ideas from other professors of dance history, I began giving more structure. The research project is now called Diary of a Dance. Students pick a choreographer, one of their dance works, and then follow that work through time. My intent is to empower them with choosing a topic that interests them, maybe a choreographer with whom they want to work. It does not need to be someone we covered in the course. I am recognizing that this really needs further thought and revision because this requires students to select a dance with a specific choreographer, and that prioritizes a particular category of dance. For instance, I had a student one year ask to do her research on Vogueing. This did not quite fit the Diary of a Dance project as I had structured it, so I asked her to choose a choreographer who explores vogueing in their choreographic work. The Montclair State MFA students were and are free to pick a topic of their choosing related to any aspect of dance history that is pulling their interest.

Nothing revolutionary here, but for both undergrads and grads, students submit a topic, followed by an outline, followed by a first draft, and then a final draft. I did not always do this, but I have found this supports more success because they are getting feedback all along the way, mirroring more what a publication process is like. It also mirrors the kind of feedback they receive on their choreography. I have heard some professors say they do not have time to give all of the feedback this requires, but I find it makes grading the final draft easier because it is usually so much improved and also I am very familiar with the material already.

The undergrads and grads have readings and video viewings each week that they answer questions about and/or participate in discussion boards. The undergrads also create their own dance history timelines at the end of the semester. They pick 10-12 moments in dance history that resonate with them and then write a paragraph explaining why this is an important moment in dance history. It does not need to be something we covered.

Evolving the Dance History Curriculum

Beginning in 2017, with my dance history course for our Montclair State MFA students, I saw very clearly that the two people of color in the course were not as engaged as their white peers. I spoke with each of them about this at various times. With their comments, I began to understand very clearly that the course needed major revision.

I looked for how I could unseat my own lens in terms of how I viewed dance history – how I had been taught – my own indoctrination really, and I settled on shifting the perspective to Dance in the USA. Starting in 2019, I abandoned using primarily a single textbook with a few supplements, and instead used readings from various texts and online sources as well as many videos. This was an online course, so students were given material to investigate on their own with my guidance. I provided opportunities for many online group discussions. I very quickly felt a more “buy-in” from the full cohort of students. I also encouraged them more specifically to choose a research topic that lined up with the direction they were anticipating for their thesis projects, not to choose a topic that they thought I would “like.” This encouraged students to feel more ownership of dance history, and then this research often became material that was inserted directly into their written thesis and informed their performative thesis.

With the success of the MFA course and with the outpouring of need for change after the murder of George Floyd on May 25, 2020, I recognized that it was imperative that I change my Dance History course for the undergraduates immediately. By Fall 2020, I had restructured the course also to be fully online and follow the history of dance in the USA. We went fully online because it was in the early days of the pandemic. I made the course asynchronous because I recognized that students would likely get weary of Zoom very quickly. The course ran successfully in Fall 2020 and Spring 2021, so I kept the asynchronous format. I include numerous discussion boards, and I am available to meet with students in person regarding their research projects or whatever else they might like to discuss.

In reframing my courses to Dance in the USA, I drew on some of the work I had done for the NYC Department of Education – lectures for dance teachers on dance history topics such as: “Social Commentary in American Modern Dance: Awareness, Justice, Action” and “A Diverse View of Americana: American Culture Reflected in Dance.” Developing these presentations with input from Dr. Tina Curran and Ana Nery-Fragoso (former director of dance in the NYC public schools) influenced my evolving college courses.

For both the MFA and undergraduate course, the topics covered went in this order:

  1. What is American Dance and Who Decides
  2. Native American Dance (covering primarily the Ghost Dance, and pow wows)
  3. Ballet as Transported to the USA
  4. African Dance and Culture Brought to the USA by African People Who Were Enslaved
  5. West African Dance in the USA in the 20th and 21st Centuries
  6. American Theatrical Dance in the 1800s, including vaudeville and minstrel shows
  7. Tap Dance, an American Original
  8. Jazz Dance, an American Original
  9. American Ballet in the 20th century and Beyond
  10. American Modern Dance
  11. Social Commentary in American Modern Dance
  12. Postmodern Dance
  13. Contemporary Voices in American Concert Dance, including a diverse range of artists.

I also went through each assignment and module to make sure I was using photos that showed diversity and was using writers who reflected diversity. I honestly thought, before taking a closer look, that this would not be an issue in my courses, but as I looked closely, there was work to be done.

Developing a Textbook to Accompany the Revised Course

In the summer of 2020, after doing a peer review of a book for Taylor and Francis-Routledge, I was contacted by the publisher to gauge my interest in creating a textbook on the history of American Dance. Routledge was developing a Milestones series. Each book would be an edited collection of ten essays on various topics related to the overall theme. The Taylor and Francis editor helped me narrow down the topics with input from reviewers. These topics evolved as I found chapter authors who were experts in their areas.

I sought out authors for each of the topic areas who then further refined the topics. Several of the authors are or have been professional dancers and choreographers, performing with such figures as Martha Graham, Alvin Ailey, Mikhail Baryshnikov, and Yvonne Rainer. Others have published acclaimed books and articles and curated major exhibits. They range in age from mid 20's to mid 80's and provide a variety of perspectives based on their diverse backgrounds and experiences. I have deep respect for all of them, and I have learned so much from their research and writing. Here are the names of their chapters:

  1. Native American Dance and Engaged Resistance by Robin Prichard
  2. An American Take on Ballet by Dawn Lille
  3. Black Women Keep the Tempo: The Impact of Black Women on Jazz and Tap Dance in the USA by Alesondra Christmas
  4. Gendered Politics and the Female Dancing Body by Julie Kerr-Berry
  5. An Exploration of Inspiration, Imitation, and Cultural Appropriation in Dance in the USA by Miriam Giguere
  6. Dancing for Social Change in the 20th and 21st Centuries by Hannah Kosstrin
  7. Challenging the Distinction between Art and Entertainment: Dance in Musical Theater by Joanna Dee Das
  8. Postmodern Dance: Laboratory of Rupture by Emmanuèle Phuon
  9. On Black Dance and Postmodern Representation from Black Power to Afro-Futurist Performance by Carl Paris
  10. From The Serpentine to The Renegade: Milestones in Dance and Media Technology by Jody Sperling.

Final Thoughts

I am fortunate that I was invited to create a textbook that aligned with the new focus for my two dance history courses. Milestones in Dance in the USA now provides the foundation for both. Although the chapter titles give an overview of content, they can also be somewhat misleading. The breadth of American dancers and choreographers goes beyond what the chapter titles might indicate, including many Asian, Native American, and Latinx artists whose contributions are woven into the ten chapters. I have also added a few extra short readings and many videos to my dance history course content that tie in with the text. I am eager to hear student responses to the newest course revision.

Elizabeth McPherson is a tenured Professor, Director of the Dance Division, MFA Dance coordinator, and Deputy Chair of Theatre and Dance at Montclair State University. She received her BFA from Juilliard, followed by an MA from The City College of New York, and a PhD from New York University. She is the author of The Contributions of Martha Hill to American Dance and Dance Education, 1900-1995, co- author of Broadway, Balanchine and Beyond: A Memoir, and editor of The Bennington School of the Dance: A History in Writings and Interviews. Her newest book Milestones in Dance in the USA, an edited collection, was published by Routledge in September 2022. Executive Editor of the journal Dance Education in Practice, she has also written articles and reviews for Ballet Review, Dance Teacher Magazine, Attitude: The Dancers’ Magazine and the Journal of Dance Education. She has worked as an educational consultant for the National Dance Education Organization, the New York City Department of Education, and the New Jersey Department of Education. She is a board member of the Martha Hill Dance Fund (since 2005) and on the advisory council of the National Dance Education Organization (since 2014).

Photo credits: Illustration by Joel Cadman, Headshot by Cora Cadman



Hi Dr. McPherson,I loved your article! I was wondering if and how I could purchase your book Milestones? Also, I was wondering if there is a way I could ask you a quick dance question, please?I have taught dance in Florida, NYC, and California for the past 25 years. Dance is the love of my life. My family and I moved to the Boston area this year. The Dance Test is unusual here compared to the NYC test. Is there a way we could connect? I can't thank you enough!With Gratitude,
7/2/2023 8:14:22 PM |
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