Dance History: An Introduction

By Janet Adshead-Lansdale; June Layson | Go to book overview

Chapter 14

Pathways to studying dance history

Janet Adshead-Lansdale

The purpose of this chapter is to discuss ways in which the dance student learns to become a dance historian. Part II is used as a source since its contents are typical of research papers that both the lecturer and the student might be expected to become familiar with at conferences and in dance research journals. Reflection on the approaches and content of the preceding chapters suggests fruitful pathways for the development of dance history teaching and learning. The basic principles and methodologies of dance history that are discussed in Part I serve to underpin this review of the historical process and the fundamental skills that need to be acquired. The material in Part I can be employed in an exemplary way when initiating undergraduate and postgraduate students in a critical review of the dance history literature.

A further purpose here is to challenge traditional stereotypes of history teaching in general and dance history teaching in particular. These stereotypes are of dull, boring sessions in which so-called ‘facts’ are recounted, in which indigestible quantities of information are gathered, culled from more or less respectable secondary sources but presented in a manner totally devoid of any spark of involvement on the part of student or teacher. A much better introduction, however, can be found in sharing the excitement of dealing with ‘raw’ materials and, in so doing, developing a sense of the period and the social and artistic context of the time. Practical exercises based on actual sources can generate both enthusiasm and insight, while old narratives, however well-respected the author, may often simply deaden the experience and suggest that history is indelibly written, fixed in tablets of stone. The idea that history can be continually rewritten is a much more exciting and challenging one to convey to students.

By inviting students to make comparisons between sources and to analyse interpretive accounts in secondary texts, critical skills can be developed and lively debate encouraged. Exercises in discriminating between types of sources enhance perception, enable the student to understand historical method and enliven the learning process. Identifying gaps in historical accounts may offer opportunities to explore an alternative interpretation, for instance from a feminist position (see Carol Brown’s Chapter 13). Investigation of current local dance culture can be another point of entry encouraging the student to see the relevance of history and to begin independent research. Patricia Mitchinson’s Chapter 6 on the dance of Harrogate is just such an example. Choosing appropriate topics that match students’ interests is also crucial. While a study of the history of ballet across eighteenth-century Europe might seem the right beginning for the ballet history teacher it is at best remote and possibly irrelevant for the student of late-twentieth-century dance forms, irrespective of her or his experience in ballet.

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