African-American Dance in Curricula: Modes of Inclusion

Article excerpt

Dance literacy has generally meant thorough knowledge of ballet and/or modern dance technique and history as well as a general knowledge of jazz, folk, tap, and other dance forms. African-American dance is usually counted as one of the "other" dance forms. The dance curricula "circle" must be enlarged to be more inclusive. This article delineates the incorporation of African-American dance as an inclusive and integral part of the dance curriculum in secondary and higher education.

Three areas concerning the inclusion of African dance in the dance curricula are insertion and substitution, location, and content. Taken together, all three areas constitute a paradigm for scholarship and praxis. Insertion and substitution deals with the issue of how curricula inclusion is achieved and continuity of discourse; location situates the African-American dance regionally, socially, and aesthetically and makes the necessary and appropriate connections with Africa, and content enables students to identify the characteristics of African-American dance and to diminish some of the ambiguity that presently exists. Additionally, one has to acknowledge and properly contextuaIize the influences on African-American dance.

Perspective, the operative difference in this discussion, must be carefully adjusted to appreciate the significance of African dance with more than just an eye for the "exotic" or the marginal. The fact that Africans have greatly influenced American culture means that African Americans and their culture can no longer be relegated to "the rimbone of nothing" as the late writer/anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston would have said (Hurston, 1983). Indeed this "rimbone of nothing" is metaphor for the marginalization of African and African-American dance forms in curricula. African-American dance must be included in dance offerings and not as an aside on the annual menu, mainly because African Americans not only represent the third largest ethnic group in America, but their representation is extended and enlarged by the size of their influence and contributions to American dance.

Insertion and Substitution

In the dance literature, there has been some understanding of the influences of African cultures but it has been tempered with an ethnocentric bias that has minimized those contributions and influences (Sachs, 1937; Kirstein, 1935; Jowitt, 1988; Sorell, 1981). This acknowledgement has taken the forms of what I call "insertion" and "substitution" to rationalize and explain the extent and limitation of African influences on American dance. Insertion in curricula is the conscious inclusion of a token so called minority in the literature to ensure representation. This method of insertion merely mentions a contribution of a personality, form, or group without revealing indepth analysis or substantive information. Katherine Dunham, Alvin Ailey, and Judith Jamison are popular candidates for insertion. Insertion is an important first step as long as there are several steps following it that provide artistic context and historical perspective.

Substitution, when allowed, acknowledges the ability of one group to perform something that has been assigned or created for another ethnic group. This information is important in chronology and other historical accounts but contributes nothing to the understanding of African or African-American culture. Dancers such as Janet Collins and Mary Hinkson and dance companies such as The Dance Theater of Harlem are often cited as examples of blacks who have mastered white genres of dance. While those achievements have a definite place within the context of a general American and world dance overview, they cannot be considered as adequate substitutes for a full discussion of black dance. In other words, the interpretation of African and African-American dances must be overhauled to adequately assess not only the influences and individual achievements, but the development and progression of these dance forms. …