Body Matters: Essays on the Sociology of the Body

By Sue Scott; David Morgan | Go to book overview

Chapter 3

Dance and the Culture of the Body

Joyce Sherlock

Breath-taking moments create the memorable in dance and lend themselves to explanations of dance ability rooted in the metaphysical. Thus, it is not surprising that such explanations are widely taken-for-granted in British theatre dance even though the milieu provides professional work. Dancers, choreographers, critics and audiences commonly share an idealist philosophy which implies that art is outside society and artists' achievements arise from natural talent. This belief is largely unchallenged in much dance study too, for few British studies which emphasize the cultural nature of dance have been undertaken. That the breathtaking moment depends on long and arduous training to become part of the cultural memory of a company is rarely noted. Nor is it considered in movement observation and dance notation, widely employed as starting points for study. Developed to precisely record bodily movements, they perpetuate what has happened in most dance teaching, namely that style has become separated from cultural knowledge so that dance movements are rarely recognized as bearers of cultural values. Concern with step precision and personal skill has perpetuated naturalistic attitudes towards the body overlooking the reality of its social construction and the transformation of the cherished values of a social group into movement imagery. However, once dance movements are read as signifying such cultural values and the responses of different social groups towards them, it is then possible to reveal dimensions of the British way of life mediated through dance.

Contemporary British studies of dance which emphasize the cultural pay oblique attention to the way it and the body relate in dance. Some, featuring dance as part of the way of life of highly visible youth sub-cultures, focus on the 'awkward question' of youth as it has manifest itself to the media and the authorities since the late 1950s. Richard Johnson (1983) referred to 'awkward questions' as aspects of British culture which arouse conflict between social groups. One group's moral objection to the behaviour of another, such as generational conflict resulting from the music, dance and style of youth culture is the stuff of 'awkward questions'. For example, Geoff Mungham (1976) showed how the Mecca Dance Hall was an integral part of the lives of working-class young people in the 1970s. John Fiske and John Hartley (1978) read television's 'Come Dancing' as a text to show how the format of commentary, camera shots and competition, embody codes of meaning. These reaffirmed the ideology

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