“Racing” in “Place”: Dance Studies and the Academy

Brenda Dixon Gottschild Temple University
Abstract: Grounded in the author’s experience as a performance studies/dance studies artist/scholar and anti-racist cultural worker, this paper attempts a theoretical and practical intervention, interrogating issues of institutional/cultural hegemony in the dance/research/performance academic complex.

Part of this effort to achieve a sense of community is understanding that our generation of scholars is just an extension of other generations, of "many thousands gone." We are no smarter than they; we are just a bit more fortunate, in some ways, the accident of birth enabling us to teach at "white" research institutions, when two generations before we would have been teaching at black schools, overworked and underfunded. Most of us define ourselves as extensions of the tradition of scholarship and academic excellence epitomized by figures such as J. Saunders Redding, John Hope Franklin, and St. Clair Drake, merely to list a few names. But how are we different from them?

Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (1992, 149-50)

Excising the political from the life of the mind is a sacrifice that has proven costly. I think of this erasure as a kind of trembling hypochondria always curing itself with unnecessary surgery.

Toni Morrison (1992, 12)

I’ve combed through the Project Description for this FHI Seminar, reading between the lines and situating myself—African American, female, author and scholar—along the interstices between its concept-laden words and dense phrases. Where do my research, my discipline, and I fit into a picture that asks us to predict the future? Based on the assumption that the humanities disciplines—or interdisciplines—are poised on a brink of potentially momentous significance, the description asks us to assess how far we’ve come and "whether this new moment is one of the further expansion of the humanities or one of an incipient paradigm shift." My immediate, short answer is, first, that progress is not linear but wavelike; and second, it’s not a question of "either/or" but "and." Like the tides, human endeavor washes back and forth. From areas in social justice and gender equality to life in our ivory towers, there is no valid graph of progress without backwash. I believe that my discipline, dance studies (a subset of the field of performance studies), and arguably all disciplines in the humanities, are microcosms of society at large. In other words, dance is a measure of culture and a barometer of society (one of my favorite sentences). In the new millennium we are witnessing a riptide of retreats from affirmative action advances legislated in the 1960s–1970s Civil Rights era for people of color (African Americans in particular) and for women’s rights (where the retreats include the virtual dismantling of Roe vs. Wade and battling over maternity leaves and contraceptive coverage). Likewise, in the academy there are spheres of retractions at the same time that we can herald advances, the opposing movements occurring simultaneously. From this perspective, I realize what made me uncomfortable about this description: it was the suggestion that the past was over—obsolete—when what I see is that in the present moment we utilize past tactics and structures intentionally, unconsciously, affirmatively, or counter-productively—just in different formats or measures. We live, move, work, think, falter, and progress on the shoulders of the past, if not on its back—stepping forward, falling back.

Given my reservations, I was happy to come upon the Henry Louis Gates epigraph, quoted above, that referred directly to John Hope Franklin as one of our mentors, and to Toni Morrison’s timeless observation. Gates’s essay dates back to the cultural wars of the 1980s–1990s. ("‘What’s in a Name?’" the essay from which I extracted this quote, first appeared in Dissent, fall 1989.) Now we are in the next generation, or nearly two generations later—far removed from the days of "revising the canon" and even farther away from Franklin’s era. But we may be closer than we think. In this essay I reference Gates’s (1992) Loose Canons: Notes on the Culture Wars; Toni Morrison’s (1992) Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination; and my own first book (1996) Digging the Africanist Presence in American Performance: Dance and Other Contexts—three canon-revisionist texts— to discuss where we are in this two-step-forward, one-step-back motion of society, culture, and the academy.

"Racing" and "Place" in my title refer to movement(s): social, psychological, and intellectual, and scholarly efforts to stay one step ahead of the game; ethnicity, with its pride, prejudices, and discontents; establishment criteria, with pressures and needs to preserve tradition; stasis, sometimes even stagnation; and progress, including the illusion or lack thereof. Racing—the present participle of the word "race"—includes a metaphorical/metaphysical marathon, a social construct, a cultural stereotype, the pressure in the academy and in humanities scholarship to stay "in the race" and ahead of the pack. Racing: human beings who are raced, in a world where, willy-nilly, race is the place. Place: whose place? who are the "who" in "whose"? Which place is it that we inhabit and when can we own it (or own up to it)?

Dance is a measure of culture and a barometer of society.

A major issue I discern in dance studies is possibly a subtext throughout the humanities and a microcosm of its iteration in the world at large—namely, systemic and cultural racism.[1] Toward the end of the Project Description the question is asked, "How might we harness the energies that continue to animate discipline-based and ‘first-era’ interdisciplinary scholarship toward a broader project of reimagining the humanities disciplines for a post-interdisciplinary age?" My response is this: we must get at the root source of the issue that was the driving force behind the so-called "first era" of interdisciplinarity, the issue that continues to thwart a fully egalitarian approach to the humanities—we must tackle systemic and cultural racism. In the 1980s–1990s the reason for revising the canon was to expand the notion of culture beyond the Eurocentric.[2] In plainspeak, the reason for the first era’s efforts was to overturn the racism that undergirds our understanding of what constitutes "the humanities," if not what constitutes the Americas. Although the terms systemic and cultural racism were not in 1980s–1990s parlance, Gates and Morrison eloquently dealt with these issues in the texts I’ve chosen. And I’ve returned to theirs and my text, because all three are relevant today, thus bringing into question the idea of the present moment as poised on the brink of a "post-interdisciplinary age." Morrison focuses on invisibilized Africanist presences in "white" American novels, without which these literatures could not exist.[3] Gates deals with a barrelful of race-related issues within essays clustered in three broad sections titled "Literature," "The Profession," and "Society." My way of dealing with the sometimes deliberate, often unwitting racism in the arts, humanities, and society is to utilize dance as "a message in a cultural envelope" that can be "read" like an atmospheric barometer to calibrate the pressure and pulse of society. The who, what, when, where, why, and how of dance on stage and in life have much to tell us about who, what, when, where, why, and how we are human—as much as do religion, philology, philosophy, anthropology, history, economics or any other branch of the humanities.

Morrison avers in her preface that she is

a black writer struggling with and through a language that can powerfully evoke and enforce hidden signs of racial superiority, cultural hegemony, and dismissive ‘othering’ of people and language which are by no means marginal or already and completely known and knowable in my work (1992, x).

In his introduction Gates quotes Edward Said, who claimed that "it is the role of the academy to transform what might be conflict, or context, or assertion into reconciliation, mutuality, recognition, and creative interaction" (Gates 1992, xv).

These quotes address the need for the humanities to become more humane inside our disciplines, and I certainly see that need in dance studies. Likewise, and to close my chapter on the role of Africanisms in choreographer George Balanchine’s "Americanization" of ballet—a topic regarded as repugnant in significant dance circles (as in, "how dare she mention the revered name of Balanchine in the same breath as the word, ‘African’!")—I said the following:

The body—the Africanist body as mover, shaper, and shaker of the American body—is the origin and the outcome of my thesis. I call this chapter "Stripping the Emperor," but we all know that this is impossible, for the emperor is what he is—a naked body. What needs stripping is our way of perceiving. Once we dare see the naked truth, as the child in Andersen’s tale, we shall see a body, the American dancing body. It is a black-and-white portrait, an affirmation of opposites, in which the negative contains the positive (1996, 78).

These three quotes were written in the 1990s. The issues they address are a cold case in year 2015.

The need for the humanities to become more humane inside our disciplines.

I feel edgy when I read the term, "post-interdisciplinarity" in the Project Description. It’s too close to "post-racist"—the place where we are supposedly situated in the new millennium, with the election of an African American president—and I see an uncomfortable relationship between these post-prefixed phrases. "Post" becomes "poster," which is always a reductive simplification. The root problems persist, with band-aids substituted for the major surgery needed in American arts, culture, and society. What I mean is that the new disciplines embraced by the humanities may be new wine in old bottles—or is it old wine in new bottles—old ideas in new packaging, or new ideas squeezed into old structures? Either way, I am concerned that ancient biases continue to animate emerging disciplines, including genetics and neuro-science. Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins talks about memes—and racial memes have a diehard resilience.[4] I am reminded of a conversation I had at a dinner party I attended at the turn of the millennium with a writer working on a book about Crick and Watson, co-discoverers of the structure of DNA, who helped establish the Human Genome Project. According to this source Watson casually admitted he was convinced that people of African lineage were inferior.[5] His genetic findings did not, could not, erase what was lodged in his cultural DNA, the "blacks are inferior" meme—and racism trumped the science of his own discovery! Imagine the issue, then, for us non-quantitative, qualitative researchers. Post-interdisciplinary, post-racist: not yet. But how far away?

Working on this paper while in Berlin in August, I read a compelling sentence in a review of a new book on Dietrich Bonhoeffer: "Bonhoeffer realized finally that genuine humanness would forever wander into abstraction if it were not anchored in the history, suffering and religion of the Jews" (Balmer 2014, 22). As American humanists, we need to extend this to include the Africanist presence and resonance in society and in the academy. The idealized academy projected in the Said quote needs anchoring in the history of suffering of Africans in the Americas and the need for reparations.[6] "Genuine humanness" wanders into abstraction when the arts and science advocate theory unleashed from practice, theory loosed from history and engaged in self-referential exercises. I see this trend taking hold in dance studies, driving my home discipline away from its potential to be a humanistic social force beyond the limits of the ivory tower. Dance departments granting the doctoral degree are moving away from dance as a measure of society toward dance as a measure of theory. Of course, we movement scholars had to fight to show that dance history, theory, and criticism form the foundation of a valid humanistic study deserving a place in academia. Nevertheless, now that we have a firm footing in the academy, a growing chasm is separating dance doctoral programs from individuals working in the field, particularly individuals coming from and/or working with underserved dancers and communities of color. Their spheres of interest and they themselves are rejected when they apply for graduate school.

In plainspeak, the reason for the first era’s efforts was to overturn the racism that undergirds our understanding of what constitutes "the humanities," if not what constitutes the Americas.

Here’s an example that, in my reading, illustrates systemic and cultural racism. Frequently, dancers return to graduate school after retiring from a stage career. In 2012 while on tour for my most recent book (2012), I met a dancer who had performed and toured professionally with what is known as a black dance company, retired about ten years earlier, earned a master’s degree in counseling, and was now an administrator and advisor in a counseling center servicing many black students at a major university. She wanted to return "home" to the dance field and interviewed at one of the universities offering the doctorate in dance. She explained that she was interested in pursuing the subject of Africanist somatic healing techniques and their application, particularly for women of color. She was told that her topic wasn’t critical enough and that there was no faculty member on board who could supervise her subject matter. Her application was rejected. Now, isn’t a doctoral program the "place" for honing critical skills and learning how to apply theory to practice (and also to extrapolate theory from practice)? And doesn’t the relationship between doctoral advisor and mentee reach beyond the student’s specific topic and content and engage more specifically with the logic, structure, presentation, and follow-through of the student’s ideas? And isn’t it a given that doctoral programs in interdisciplinary studies such as dance, women’s, ethnic, American, and African American studies invite faculty members from related disciplines to be on a student’s doctoral committee? In my seventeen years’ teaching at Temple University, I advised successful dissertations on Appalachian, Flamenco, belly dance, and Brazilian ritual dance forms—none of which are my specialty. I have also sat on committees in departments of religious studies, African American studies, anthropology, and performance studies so as to bring my expertise to dissertations whose subject matter encompassed areas beyond the major advisor’s specialty. I believe this returning student was rejected because the faculty was simply not ready to leave their comfort zone to deal with a "foreign" topic and to teach doctoral-level critical skills to this woman of color. They were telling her their program was not her place, and she was out of place—displaced. This is not how I wish the next generation of graduate students to be treated!

And then there was the dance faculty professor in a London university who, when I gave a presentation on the British leg of my book tour, asked me about "corporealities" in her response to my presentation on black ballerinas. I had no idea what she was getting at, so I probed a little, and it turned out that she was talking about anatomical differences between black and white dancing bodies. I was floored that "our people"—that is, dance researchers—would still buy into the racist fiction about black peoples’ bodies being unsuited for ballet. Again, old memes die hard. On another campus stop in the United Kingdom, a Swiss graduate student asked why a black person would want to do ballet. I answered her question with a question: Why is the question still asked? And then I asked her another question: why would a white person want to do ballet? The underlying premises of systemic racism continue to drive our course and, like the Crick-Watson example, continue to function like cultural DNA coming at us through the genes of our Europeanist history. We need aesthetic, social, and academic reparations for the toll exacted by systemic and cultural racism. We need to perform corrective surgery on the historical record. Post-interdisciplinary? Not in my field; not until we uncover the dirt and clean house!

Examples like these derail the auspicious outlook expressed in the FHI Project Description. Other examples come to me with alarming frequency in emails from graduate students who have been refused admission to programs, and from other students struggling for their voice to be heard in their departments, and from junior faculty members denied tenure. What is taught in millennial graduate dance programs? Who is allowed to study? Who is permitted to teach? Look at the number of students and tenured faculty of African lineage in dance and doctoral programs across the humanities compared to their non-black counterparts, and a sorry picture emerges. Incensed by these injustices and determined to counter them, in 2012 I founded The Coalition for Diasporan Scholars Moving. Here is our Mission and Manifesto Statement:

Coalition for Diasporan Scholars Moving (CDSM)

Manifesto & Mission Statement

As movement researchers and performing scholars of the African Diaspora, we have all experienced some form of either outright discrimination or subversive, exclusionary tactics—micro-aggressions and implicit biases—by the academic community. CDSM is our response to millennial-style racism in our supposed post-racist era. Like those involved in the Civil Rights Movement of the mid-20th century, we are resolved to be proactive. Our fledgling organization is creating a database, disseminating our Mission Statement, and gathering resources (including legal counsel). We welcome new members from across the Diaspora as we extend our base. A voluntary, not-for-profit coalition of concerned dancer/scholars, we do not collect dues or elect officers. We are a service organization, ready to "trouble the waters" in order to embrace our future fully and fairly.

Our Mission:

  • To offer strategic advice for Diasporan scholars and movement artists in academic settings
  • To maintain a database for networking and announcements
  • To configure an organized process of pairing mentors and mentees in times of growth and crisis
  • To serve as an accessible hub for national/international collaboration and partnering for efficient processes of sharing resources and social capital
  • To serve as a medium through which members can share experiences and advice, discuss best practices, and offer support.

We can be reached at cdsm@iabdassociation.org and on Facebook.[7]

In my years of teaching Graduate Research Methods at Temple University, my dictum to our students was that their research was for naught, if not in the service of the greater good for humanity—adding that it was their creative, scholarly agenda to ascertain just how that assignment translated into their individual research trajectory. I stressed this overarching task because I believe that the humanities need to be aligned with humanity—that scholars have a responsibility to society. This is a lesson that I hope will be foremost in the agenda for present and future humanities graduates. There are wonderful dance scholars whose work combines theory, practice, and social activism and can be role models, including mid-twentieth-century legendary figures like Katherine Dunham, Pearl Primus, and Joann Keali’inohomoku; and contemporaries, including Ramsay Burt, Jane Desmond, Jaqueline Shea Murphy, Thomas DeFrantz, Priya Srinivasan, Meira Goldberg, and Ananya Chatterjea.

In 2006 Mary Pipher, clinical psychologist, Buddhist, and author of numerous works including Reviving Ophelia, declined her American Psychological Association Presidential Citation due to the organization’s endorsement of psychologists’ involvement in ethically questionable government interrogations such as those conducted at the Guantanamo prison camp. In her rejection statement she said that she writes in order to help expand the reader’s moral imagination. Graduate interdisciplinary faculties would do well to heed Pipher’s call. Can we help students see and act upon the moral connections between their academic work, the worlds they touch, and society at large? Can we rekindle the spirit of humanism in the humanities?


  1. As defined in the Crossroads Antiracism Institute’s Participant Manual, Understanding & Analyzing Systemic Racism, (published by the Institute in Matteson, IL, for workshops conducted by its members)—cultural racism occurs when "a racially defined dominant societal group uses systemic power to impose its way of life onto oppressed groups, destroy, distort, discount and discredit their cultures while simultaneously appropriating aspects of their cultures without accountability to these communities" (p. 25); and systemic racism, also known as institutional racism, is the result of the intentional and legal structuring by Europeans and European Americans of United States institutions "to serve white society exclusively or advantageously. Institutional racism is the result of institutions structured to function without accountability to people of color" (p. 28; see also www.crossroadsantiracism.org).
  2. I use that term, rather than Western, because a good part of Africa is western, geographically speaking. Western becomes a discriminatory euphemism when what we mean is European, Euro-American, Europeanist—in a word, Eurocentric.
  3. Riffing on Ralph Ellison’s title, Invisible Man, I coined the term, "invisibilized," in my first solo book (1996), Digging the Africanist Presence in American Performance: Dance and Other Contexts, to indicate a condition beyond and deeper than invisible, a circumstance not chosen but enacted upon the subject so as to make the subject the object of another’s gaze.
  4. Meme—an element of a culture or system of behavior that may be considered to be passed from one individual to another by nongenetic means, especially imitation (Apple systems dictionary, emphasis mine).
  5. For the entry on James Dewey Watson Wikipedia states the issue in euphemisms, declaring that he "resigned his position [as chancellor of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory] after making controversial comments claiming a link between intelligence and geographical ancestry."
  6. Regarding reparations, see Coates 2014.
  7. The International Association of Blacks in Dance, IABD, is CDSM’s umbrella organization.



Balmer, Randall. 2014. "Between God and the Führer," International New York Times, (August 9-10, Weekend Arts–Books):22.

Coates, Ta-Nehisi. 2014. "The Case for Reparations," Atlantic (June). http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2014/06/the-case-for-reparations/361631/.

Dixon Gottschild, Brenda. 1996. Digging the Africanist Presence in American Performance: Dance and Other Contexts. Westport, CT: Praeger.

——. 2012. Joan Myers Brown & the Audacious Hope of the Black Ballerina—A Biohistory of American Performance. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. 1992. "’What’s in a Name?’ Some Meanings of Blackness." In Loose Canons: Notes on the Culture Wars, pp. 131-152. New York: Oxford University Press.

Morrison, Toni. 1992. Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press.

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