Friday, February 22, 2013

The Hindu/ Footloose/ Dance Scholarship

Many dancers in India are considered, by others and even themselves sometimes, to be exclusively performers. People who work on dance in spheres other than performance are wrongly but commonly construed as having first failed as a performer. I’m not sure if this is an ignorant assumption or a sad truth, or a bit of both.

I say a bit of both because it might be true that some people who work on dance today were first desperately trying, and failing to be performers. But loving dance and all it encapsulates too much to let it go, they ‘resorted’ to becoming public critical spectators, dance critics, writers or dance scholars. But it may also true that some dancers recognize the importance of theorizing about dance, academically engaging with it along with performing it. Moreover, there are a handful of people in India who do not dance and are dance scholars and thinkers of great repute, and have attempted to give dance scholarship a position that is equal and not subordinate to the performance of dance.

I do not know for certain which of these scenarios is more prevalent. But as I said, one does often hear of young aspiring scholars and critics that they first ‘tried their hand at dancing’. If this is the impression of dance research and scholarship in India, then it is problematic on many levels.

First, it builds a mythical and harmful hierarchy where the performer is at the pinnacle, and the researcher, critic or spectator is below the performer. This not only disturbs the equilibrium of the dance world but invents power relationships (between performer and audience, performer and student, performer and critic – which I have written about in previous articles) that are distorted and harmful.

More importantly, it creates the wrong impression that performance is more important than scholarship and research on dance. This hierarchy might be the reason why a comprehensive conference or seminar on dance is not possible in India without the presence of at least some international dance scholars. Perhaps performers in India shy away from scholarship and research because they will be seen as having ‘resorted’ to it because they failed at what they ‘really’ wanted to do.

Finally, if it is true that dance scholarship was a ‘last resort’ to staying within the realms of the dance world, then young scholars and critics are likely to be resentful and not appreciative of the field they are in. Such a situation presents problems of its own – where spite, malice and envy inform their research and work, rather than academic inspiration and an intrinsic value in what they do.

This disturbance of equilibrium in the dance world further complicates ‘what dance is’ in the minds of young people, aspiring dancers, critics and scholars. It pits one aspect of learning against another. Young dancers are more keen to ‘get on stage’ than to even learn the basic theoretical aspects of dance. As a dance educator, I come young across dancers who claim to have been trained for a decade and have no knowledge of the basic theoretical tenets of dance; I stumble upon dance students who sleep through discussions on the importance of dance criticism, history and theory; I fumble to explain to a student in his or her second class that it will be a long while before he or she ‘gets on stage’; and I struggle to keep students whose parents I have told this to. Performance seems to have overridden all other aspects of dance! The ambition to be on stage, then, crushes all other learning in its path.

In such a scenario, it becomes easy to cast off research and scholarship as subsisdiary or optional aspects of the training and learning process of a dancer. And under such circumstances, dance scholarship in India will never be what it is becoming in other parts of the academic world – a serious and crucial study.

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