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Dance: Insert Definition Here

Written by Jacqueline Louise Brock

Cherdonna and Lou (Jody Kuehner and Ricki Mason).
Photo by NARK.
What qualifies as dance? How do you define dance? How do you experience dance? So You Think It’s Dance, a performance and panel discussion hosted by Velocity’s Executive Director, Tonya Lockyer, and presented by Velocity Dance Center with the CityArts Festival, made an attempt to search for the answers of why qualifiers and definitions exist to begin with and why they are so difficult to challenge. The event began with a series of works by Jessica Jobaris, The Cherdonna and Lou Show, Douglas Ridings, and Maile Martinez.

Within each eye eyecatching, entertaining, engaging, full piece, there were sounds, lights, and bodies moving, jumping, crouching, crawling, rolling, spinning, and skimming through space. Sounds like dance, but in fact, these performances were captivating examples of pieces that have had difficulty being accepted, viewed, and reviewed as dance.

The panel, which included art critics and performers (Brendan Kiley, Sandi Kurtz, Leah Baltus, and Waxie Moon), discussed many reasonings behind art categorization. One reason being restrictive definitions used in funding and grant applications and review boards. The little money that does exist in the form of grants only allots so much money per art discipline so one must be clear which discipline their work falls into in order to benefit. 

Another major contributor is a theatres’ need to sell tickets to audiences. Marketing becomes key in this process. It is in this interest that art work becomes labeled, to ensure that potential ticket buyers are prepared for what they can expect from their purchase.

So are we to look to the consumer to blame or to the venue that books the performers for the narrowing definition of dance? To this question, the panel discussed the general audience’s lack of knowledge in the lineage of dance history as a culprit in not being able to accept a more experimental approach to dance. And while this certainly plays a role, it still doesn’t tell us who is to blame for this lack of awareness. If a venue never books any dance performers except those that execute pretty turns in pretty dresses to pretty music, how is an audience to know the broader world of dance? On the other hand, if there are continuously bad ticket sales for experimental dance performances, how is a venue to be blamed for not booking said performances?

There were many more points brought up by the panel, but, like the point above, the discussion never truly reached the root or cause of the reasons due to too many voices and too many new thoughts being thrown out. At times, even, questions brought up by the audience members were too quickly passed over or dismissed to the detriment of the conversation as a whole.

Nevertheless, minds were prodded, motivations questioned, and topics were explored. Walking away from this event, one starts to direct questions internally. Do labels and categories prepare our eyes or restrict our experiences? If a piece is labeled as a work of theatre, does this restrict our ability to see the underlying choreography, the underlying dance? Does this matter?