By Clyde Smith (1999)
Presented at the Inaugural Conference of the National Dance
Education Organization, Cincinnati, Ohio (May 1999)
This presentation of alternative writing forms emerged from an ongoing study of power relations in the dance classroom. The study, which is the basis for my doctoral dissertation, began with an investigation of the experiences of student dancers at a conservatory known for the cruelty of its faculty. This initial stage resulted in multiple conference presentations and a publication. The second stage has been more collaborative and focused on the application of insights from the initial study to the teaching practices of Susan Van Pelt, a faculty member at Ohio University, and myself. During the course of this work, in addition to traditional writing, I have explored the possibilities of alternative forms of data presentation in order to develop a fresh understanding of the dance classroom.
These experimental writings combine interview material, observations and quotations from relevant literature. The writings focus on specific themes which emerged during the course of this project. These themes are articulated in pieces which sometimes take on a poetic, collage-like form and, at other times, transgress the established norms for representing interview data through other means. I am reading two works at the conference. The first, Catherine’s Body (remembering the Conservatory), focuses on one respondent’s thoughts almost fifteen years after her experience of abusive training. It is a poetic arrangement of lines from interviews I conducted with her. It is followed by a three line piece, And Yet, that I consider an extension of the first, offering a sense of hope. The second piece, I See You, You See You the mirror as a technology of surveillance in the dance classroom, is composed of bits of theory, analysis, journal entries and articles. This piece came from the second phase of research when I observed one of Susan Van Pelt’s technique classes at the beginning of our collaboration. Though a bit heavy handed, it offers possibilities for juxtaposing a variety of texts.
These two works represent the meager beginnings of my exploration of experimental writing forms inspired by my earlier career as a performance poet and by research coursework with Laurel Richardson. Richardson is a sociologist who has become somewhat infamous for a work in which she arranged lines from an interview into poetic form. This work, Louisa May’s Story of Her Life (1997, p. 131) “displays how sociological authority is constructed and problematizes reliability, validity, and truth” (p. 165). Richardson justifies her experiments with interview material by pointing out that,
in the routine world of the sociological interviewer, the interview is tape-recorded, transcribed as prose, and then cut, pasted, edited, trimmed, smoothed, and snipped, just as if it were a literary text, which it is, albeit usually without explicit acknowledgement or recognition of such by its sociological constructor. . . The sociologist/poet . . . by violating the conventions of how sociological interviews are written up, [uncovers] those conventions . . . as choices authors make, not rules for writing truths. (1997, pp.140, 142)
Richardson as “sociologist/poet” is not simply relating art and research but doing artistic research, a possibility that should also inspire those who wish to focus their research interests on making dances. She further explains that,
we usually think about writing as a mode of ‘telling’ about the social world, [but] writing is not just a mopping-up activity at the end of a research project. Writing is also a way of ‘knowing’ – a method of discovery and analysis. By writing in different ways, we discover new aspects of our topic and our relationship to it. (1994, p. 516)
For me, exploring different forms of presenting data and analysis is a way of discovering new relationships to the material gathered in interviews, recorded in my research journal, collected from theorists. Though my own efforts are a rather simple beginning, they also gesture towards an expanded research imaginary. Such efforts offer additional ways to bypass our prior assumptions about teaching dance so that we may rethink our approaches to dance education.
Catherine’s Body (remembering the Conservatory)
It’s what they did to my body. That’s where I hold the biggest grudge.
i have things that i can’t clear in my body from that time period
I’m supposed to believe I wouldn’t have made it if I didn’t crash my body into some kind of technique. I developed terrible muscular habits from that in one year.
i just feel totally maimed by that technique
In a certain way you’re kind of stranded like you either sink or you swim. So if you can’t swim that well . . . think about how you struggle in the water. Class every day was like that for me on a physical level.
i feel completely physically scarred from that school
What happens too is because of the setup of the class being so intense and being relatively, I would say, frightening. Over fifty percent of your class time there was something derogatory at somebody. That got put into my nervous system along with my muscles.
you’re totally vulnerable because your body’s totally exposed
So when I got into dancing with T. and trying to do Alexander work or anything where I was listening to my body, my body was so tense. Like I had all this movement in my body and I squeezed all my movement to fit my body into a technique.
i think i’ll spend the rest of my life trying to let go
of this physical imprint that that school made on my body
I go into this company where there’s no designated technique. You’re completely responsible for your own body. It was really lonely. Like I remember feeling two years ago, I really started longing for a classroom situation.
these people have made me scared to death to teach
When I think about teaching I would want to set up the most independent situation for the person in the classroom . . . with a support structure and a structure for conveying and sharing as much as I could possibly know with them.
i don’t ever want to be responsible for anybody’s pain like that
If someone was doing something that looked horrible or doing something terrible to their body, I would want to get to them. If they’re doing something terrible to their body it’s because they don’t know any better and that might not necessarily be because they’re stupid. It might be because they came from a fucking shitty place like the Conservatory.
the big question [is] can you ever get from point a to point b
or point a to point c without the terror b in the middle?
I’m feeling right now in my life
that I really got to be in beautiful places
with my relationship to my body and my dancing.
I See You, You See You
the mirror as a technology of surveillance in the dance classroom
A relation of surveillance . . . is inscribed at the heart of the practice of teaching.
(Foucault, 1979, p. 176)
In Western concert dance training the studio is the primary site of activity. The stage comes later and then only intermittently. Most of the dancer’s time is spent in the studio where the mirror is omnipresent. When there is no mirror, someone always wishes they had one. The studio is incomplete without a mirror.
Part of my analysis will focus on the mirror which is a constant reminder to the dancer of surveillance. The mirror is objective. The mirror does not lie.
(from my research journal)
When a dancer begins to train, s/he first encounters the mirror as a tool which allows for the observation and correction of minute details. While the mirror may reflect one’s vanity, more often it f
unctions as a reminder of inadequacy. All too quickly the dancer’s work centers on the mirror’s reflection, displacing bodily experience.
Are dancers too often working to achieve an image of what they think dancing is, rather than achieving an understanding and an experience of the dance?
(Van Pelt, 1996, p. 11)
The mirror is also a tool for the teacher, offering multiple vantage points for observation. Pedagogical vision is enabled by the even dispersal of dancers in an empty space, who wear revealing clothing, who do the same thing at the same time. They are docile bodies under surveillance, their detailed activities designed by the teacher to replicate his/her beliefs about what is acceptable in the dance class.
This enclosed, segmented space, observed at every point, in which the individuals are inserted in a fixed place, in which the slightest movements are supervised . . . constitutes a compact model of the disciplinary mechanism.
(Foucault, p. 197)
Such surveillance is eventually internalized if the dancer is to succeed and have a professional experience, if not a career. The mirror facilitates the process of internalization which coexists with simultaneous self observations. These overlapping modes of surveillance create an endless feedback loop of fractal complexity.
Hence the major effect of the Panopticon: to induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power.
(Foucault, p. 201)
The mirror turns the studio into a Panoptic site where surveillance becomes part of the dancer’s daily life. Because most dancers are women, this mobile surveillance links with social discourse regarding the female body. Not only is the mirror on the wall at home but media representations, conversations with friends and other forms of social feedback interweave with one’s dance life and one’s self perception.
There are two images, then, of discipline. At one extreme . . . the enclosed institution . . . at the other extreme . . . a functional mechanism that must improve the exercise of power by making it lighter, more rapid, more effective, a design of subtle coercion for a society to come.
(Foucault, p. 209)
There are multiple reactions to this state of affairs. Exposes are written and dance departments start the season with lectures on eating disorders. Somatics, a catchall term for practices which oppose the objectified body and propose the bodymind as subject, is increasingly incorporated into dance training. This emerging paradigm suggests that bodily knowledge is no longer to be found in one’s mirrored reflection but in one’s experience of the movement.
This [introduction of somatic techniques into dance training] presents new challenges for the modern dance technique teacher, as many of these modes of learning encourage self-correcting or self-observing skills, experience not effect, internal not external feed-back.
(Van Pelt, p. 17)
This shift in dance education is epistemological, from knowing by seeing to knowing by feeling. Yet this work is also about revealing inner processes to the teacher’s vision through subtle movement cues and about increasing the sophistication of the dancer’s internal surveillance. The mirror remains on site. It is transformed and dispersed, reappearing in other configurations, further facilitating epistemologies of surveillance.
Psychology–all of it–is a branch of the police; psychodynamic and humanistic psychologies are the secret police.
(Paul Richer in Kvale, 1992, p. 118)
Foucault, M. (1979). Discipline and punish: The birth of the prison. New York: Vintage.
Kvale, S. (Ed.). (1992). Psychology and postmodernism. London: Sage.
Richardson, L. (1997). Fields of play: Constructing an academic life. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers Univ.
(1994). Writing: A method of inquiry. In N. K. Denzin & Y. S. Lincoln, (Eds.), Handbook of qualitative research (pp. 516-529). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Van Pelt, S. (Fall 1996). Making modern dance history. Ohio Dance, 20 (1), 11, 17.