We know, we know: print journalism is dead. Yup, the daily papers are disappearing. Sure, full-time staff writers are being let go. Ok, ok – the arts section is being hit the hardest and, within that, dance (as always) gets the short end of the stick. We got it. What’s new? And what do we do about it?
The one panel on dance writing at the Dance/USA conference this year (Just one?! We’ll get to that in a moment…) bore the near self-fulfilling title Writing About Dance: Past Relic or Persistent Craft? And essentially it offered the following message: the idea of a dance critic as a full-time staff writer for any print publication belongs to history. Today’s dance writers are freelance, write online, and cover many topics other than just dance.
That revelation aside, where is dance writing headed? Of course this was addressed to a degree and of course the answers are as foggy as a San Francisco summer. The same questions that have been popping up for the last several years remain: Who is writing? What are their credentials? How as a field do we sift through the truly insightful and the merely entertaining (at best) or downright destructive (at worst)? And how does the best of our writing make its way to the public so that it may actually educate, develop interest, and give dance any sort of visibility in our society?
Yet those questions were nowhere to be found on a panel that mostly gave critics from around the country an opportunity to talk about their career paths and weigh in on the current state of the field. Practical solutions to the challenges aside, what was also lacking from the conversation was a substantial discussion on the content of dance writing. Is what we’re reading today, both in major papers (i.e., the New York Times) and in online blogs, really serving Dance?
Everyone seems to agree that dance writing is important. We all know the importance of documenting performances, the use of reviews for grants and press kits and faculty review files. We know that the best dance writing can build excitement for a new voice, give insight into work that sometimes artists don’t even see themselves, and provide a guide for non-dance audiences to try to understand this peculiar art form.
We need writing about dance because it makes dance concrete – something to grasp onto (which, I argue, does not undermine the uniqueness and beauty of this ephemeral art but rather translates it to a form that is easier to spread, so to speak) and because it takes dance seriously enough to analyze and contextualize it and treat it as a valuable mirror to our identities and communities.
So where is dance writing to be found at Dance/USA? Single conference panel aside, what is Dance/USA prepared to do to make sure this under-represented component of our field is given a boost into the future so that it may benefit us all? What is this organization doing to identify and support current and future writers, finding or providing a platform for their work, and seeking out opportunities to create stable and sustainable models for dance writing in the future?
As a member of the Dance Critics Association as well, I wonder at that organization’s conspicuous lack of presence at the Dance/USA conference. President Robert Abrams was in attendance but the organization itself was barely mentioned in the panel and, as far as I could tell, nowhere at all outside of it.
What are the organizations doing to work together to address this crisis in dance writing? How might the two hop into bed together to develop constructive solutions – or at least collectively and publicly raise the difficult questions – that can only strengthen dance?
It was a poignant moment, at the end of the dance critics panel, when Abrams presented a well-deserved gift to writer George Jackson for decades of contribution to the field of dance writing. In twenty years from now, who will we honor for their words about dance?
If we hope to develop a new generation of writers to carry the torch, we must clear a path and make a place for them at the table and demonstrate – to ourselves and to those outside our field – that dance is worth talking about.