Reports of the Death of the American Dance Critic

Are Greatly Exaggerated
By Christine Jowers

This summer I discovered that the dance critic in America is dead. This was written up in The Atlantic Monthly, so it must be true.

Imagine my shock. I have been publishing and writing criticism as well as feature articles on dance for my website created eight years ago, The Dance Enthusiast. We have built up a contributing staff of ten writers dedicated to dance communication (note: not just criticism) — interviews, profiles, features, videos — and boast more than 200,000 avid viewers a year with top readership from dance audiences in New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, and London. Since 2009 our site has grown 2000 percent. All writers receive a fee for their work. I have invested money in this project because I believe in the power of dance, appreciate the commitment and talent of our many writers, and insist that our ephemeral art is documented with passion for new audiences.

But I’m not the only one, and The Dance Enthusiast is just one example of this new age of communicating about dance. There is ArtBurst Miami, a free, curated online site that publishes reviews, previews, and interviews on dance and other art forms and is funded by the Miami-Dade County Department of Cultural Affairs and administered through the Arts & Business Council of Miami. In Philadelphia, thINKingDANCE features intelligent dance writing by dancers and others written for a dance-centric audience. The site, which is supported by the Philadelphia Cultural Fund and from Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, publishes reviews, previews, features and, what it calls, “as yet undiscovered forms.” The Washington, D.C.-based but nationally and internationally focused DanceViewTimes covers dance in the more traditional, longer review format, publishing well-regarded writers like David Vaughan, George Jackson, Rita Felciano, Alexandra Tomalonis, and Leigh Witchel. In Houston, Dance Source Houston, a city-wide dance service organization, includes space in its website to publish both previews and reviews.

Around the country there are increasing examples of a new wave of dance journalism taking hold. Traditional criticism is still being published, off-line and online, and now there are other ways writers are engaging with the work. Yet, there I was, logging onto Facebook to show off pictures of my son in a language immersion camp, when my newsfeed filled with exasperated comments about the demise of dance criticism in America. They were referring to Madison Mainwaring’s article, “The Death of the American Dance Critic,” published on August 6, 2015, in The Atlantic.

Mainwaring didn’t concern herself with web-based dance criticism venues that diligently offer alternatives to mainstream writing like Culturbot, Brooklyn Rail, InfiniteBody, thINKingDANCE, and Foot In Mouth, as well as the many other ArtsJournal blogs that come to mind. Without much work I could name a number of sources of quality dance writing on the web. Instead, Mainwaring chose to remind us that there are fewer mainstream print outlets for dance writing since the dance boom of the 1960s and ‘70s busted. That wasn’t news to anyone who follows dance, even cursorily. She also pointed out that selfies of Kim Kardashian, recently crafted into an art book by Rizzoli, receive more attention than dancers who spend their entire lives and energies working at their craft.

This is sad, but is it news? According to Joan Accocella, dance critic for The New Yorker, who is quoted in Mainwaring’s piece, “Dance is the least respected of the fine arts” and has been under-rated as an art form since the 4th century. Instead of crying over the fact that popular culture has trumped concert dance in the 21st century, we dance writers should jump into the conversation and lift its level. I would like to encourage Wendy Whelan, Misty Copeland, and their publicists to talk to Rizzoli about getting their selfies published. I would be happy to write any accompanying material. Dance writers should acknowledge and attempt to be involved in the popular culture that shapes minds.

Back in 2010, with my colleague, Cory Nakasue, formerly a reporter for DancePlug in Los Angeles, and I covered a panel on “Sustainability in Dance,” convened by the service organization for dance in our city, Dance/NYC. We were there to report not only for The Dance Enthusiast but also for the InfiniteBody blog written and edited by another very much alive and practicing American dance critic, Eva Yaa Asantewaa. The issue discussed was almost identical to the one articulated by Ms. Mainwaring: Print criticism was fading. Pages and space, dwindling; writers, fired. Editors weren’t interested in publishing copy about two- to four-day dance “seasons,” which meant that many of New York City’s companies and beyond were left unreviewed. Robert Johnson, the then-sole dance critic for the New Jersey Star Ledger, spoke of art critics let go from his paper, saying he thought the only reason he kept his job was because no one truly understood what he was doing. Today Johnson is very much alive, and writing not only for The Star Ledger but also writing and editing for The Dance Enthusiast, as well as other online publications.

The point is, dancers, writers, presenters, and administrators have bemoaned the extinction of the mainstream dance critic and print criticism for years. (The Atlantic Monthly article asserts it’s been 20 years. Yikes.) It is the favorite of two dismal conversations we movement-loving types regurgitate. The other usually concerns who writes about dance; are they qualified; and why are they so snarky?

Bored with these discussions five years ago, my attitude has not changed. Can we find something else to do, the key word being DO, other than languishing at this long and drawn out funeral? How about changing our mindsets for a minute? Does the loss of the mainstream “expert” dance critic signal a great American tragedy, or does it portend the beginning of a necessary metamorphosis — a communication revolution? Perhaps the dance field needs to open itself to new ways of thinking, writing, funding, and interacting with dancers, audiences and media. Perhaps all sectors of the dance world need to realize that we are interconnected and figure out how we can be more relevant and helpful to one another.

Back in 2007, I was put off by the bitchy tenor of much of dance criticism. Major publications seemed more interested in proving the expertise and authority of the critic rather than revealing the experience of dance work. The tone has since improved, especially with the addition of free-lancers at The New York Times, but at the time I didn’t believe such writing created curious, engaged, and (very important) paying and returning audiences.

Dance writing can and should encourage audiences to attend dance performances and create their own experiences. I started an Audience Review section on The Dance Enthusiast to empower audiences to speak their views. If they felt intimidated, I included a list of guiding questions — simple prods like, “What was your favorite moment? What would you have liked to see more or less of?” I didn’t realize how controversial this feature would be. A few professional writers wouldn’t contribute to The Dance Enthusiast because audiences were offered such a forum. The feeling seemed to be that an audience venue existing alongside a more “critical mind” might harm the critics’ reputation — a thought that never crossed my mind. I believed critics might be interested to read and respond to dance audiences, especially to novice audience members. Despite a few early negative reactions, today teachers at NYU and Barnard College use the Audience Review section of The Dance Enthusiast to encourage talented students to write about dance. Young choreographers eager for feedback also invite their audiences to talk about their experiences at performances. It is inspiring to read material from audience members who have never written about dance, sharing their authentic experiences of delight from a concert. The Dance Enthusiast continues to boost Audience Reviews, not to replace criticism from our field’s fine writers, but to promote new conversations, which we believe can energize the dance writing field as a whole.

While dance writing is not typically funded by many of the charitable foundations that support the arts — a fact that I am hoping will change in the near future. The Dance Enthusiast team has developed innovative programs that fit into the missions of open-minded funders in New York who appreciate the value of dance writing and new media. Other cities and communities with a dearth of dance writers could do the same.

As I write this piece, I am preparing for a busy publishing season for our team, as well as planning our upcoming events. Even if the mainstream American dance critic is dead, which I really don’t believe for a second, a vibrant, enthusiastic cadre of writers, thinkers, and do-ers continue to chug along passionately in the blogosphere providing a voice for dance. We certainly aren’t dead, perhaps just a bit stressed out.

The opinions and views expressed in this article are the author’s and do not reflect the opinions and views of Dance/USA.

Christine Jowers is the founder and editor-in-chief of The Dance Enthusiast — an extension of the non-profit company Moving Arts Projects. Prior to devoting her efforts to The Dance Enthusiast, Jowers worked as professional dancer, teacher, and producer. She has performed works by the early masters of modern dance Isadora Duncan, Doris Humphrey, Eleanor King, Jean Erdman, Anna Sokolow, Paul Sansardo, and Murray Louis as well as contemporary choreographers and performance artists such as Larry Keigwin, Charles Moulton, Jerry Pearson, Ann Carlson, Janis Brenner, and Margie Gillis (among others). In 1997 she embarked on a solo performance career, creating and producing shows celebrating the voice of women in dance history. Her work has been presented in New York City, the UK, and Caribbean. For her production The Singular Voice of Woman, Judith Mackrell dance critic for the Guardian UK, hailed Jowers as “not only a remarkable performer but an important dance historian…” Jowers began writing about dance at Sarah Lawrence College, later graduating from Goucher College with honors in dance history/criticism and communications. In addition to her writing and videography for The Dance Enthusiast, she has been published by Dance/USA’s eJournal, From The Green Room, The Dance Insider, The Johns Hopkins University’s Literary Journal:The Hopkins Review, and The Huffington Post. Originally from St. Thomas,Virgin Islands, where she grew up in a West Indian family dedicated to the arts, community and service, Jowers lives in New York City with her husband, two enthusiastic sons, and their cat, Gracie.


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