It Depends on Whom You Ask
By Karen K. Bradley
This coming November, I will speak to local high school students about dance. After a career of 40-plus years in the field, I plan to tell them about dance as performance, education, therapy, community building and fitness. I will make sure they understand the value of embodied knowledge, thinking on one’s feet, and shifting perspectives — soft skills any 21st-century employer should desire.
On September 12, 2017, Matt Bevin, the governor of Kentucky, suggested that college and university programs, such as those that teach “interpretive dance” (a Jules Feiffer cartoon comes to mind …), ought to be eliminated. “If you're studying interpretive dance, God bless you,” he said earlier this month, “but there's not a lot of jobs right now in America looking for people with that as a skill set."
What exactly IS taught in dance programs these days? Well, in Kentucky here’s a sampling:
- University of Kentucky: As an art form, the study of dance incorporates and develops problem solving, collaboration, communication (visual, aural, written, and performative), critical thinking, peer mentorship, and project management — soft and hard skills that students can incorporate into a wide variety of career outcomes. The major in dance in the University of Kentucky’s Department of Theatre & Dance educates its students in the history, theory, creativity, practice, and performance of dance within the context of a broad liberal arts education.
- Berea College: Berea College offers 25 classes in dance and a dance minor, and nine student dance groups perform in a variety of styles, including African dance, swing dance, stepping, modern dance (contemporary concert dance), Middle Eastern dance, folk dance, Latin dance, hip hop, and gymnastics …. Dance opens doors to personal creativity and expressiveness. Dance provides physical and mental exercise simultaneously. Dance is a way of socializing and participating in healthful recreation. For many, dance is a great stress reliever.
- Western Kentucky University: By integrating dance and general studies, we strive to create “thinking artists,” individuals who work to achieve their highest potential as artists/technicians and scholars.
- Morehead State University: As a student of our dance program, you will develop the imaginative, critical and technical skills essential to career success. This program provides a foundation for careers in the following:
- Administrative professional for dance companies
- Artistic director
- Professional dancer
- Rehearsal director
The governor’s contention that higher ed “courses that don't produce graduates filling high-wage, high-demand jobs” should be eliminated does not take into account that positions in dance, including some described above, are actually comprehensive positions, requiring skills that many employers are indeed demanding. At one time or another, and sometimes several at the same time, I have worked in all of those roles, plus more, as have many of my former students who majored in dance.
“You’re maintaining something that’s not an asset of any value, that’s not helping to produce that 21st-century educated workforce," Governor Bevin continued. Yet, the 21st-century educated workforce that the governor wants for his state would do well to include some of the very real and desirable skills that dance artists bring to the workplace across a variety of fields. These skills are not limited to: flow of ideas, persistence at task, discipline of mind and body, collaboration, refinement of product, critical thinking, pervasive perspectives, and originality/innovation. All of these are 21st-century skills that feed into positions of leadership, the creative workforce, education, and invention of new products and processes.
Former dance majors are now neuroscientists, engineers, doctors, lawyers, teachers, therapists, scholars and more.
But the more serious threat to the dance field and to dance in higher education lies not only with the Kentucky governor’s statement. As one university president put it:
The University of Louisville’s interim president, Greg Postel, said the school's engineering program has been growing, and continuing on that trajectory would be a ‘natural fit.’
‘Universities have to be aware of where the jobs are, and that has to advise us as to which programs we choose to grow and put resources in,’ he said in an interview with the Courier-Journal after Bevin’s speech.
The belief that the role of universities is to produce a workforce, particularly a STEM- and business-based workforce, has been percolating just under the layers of new policies and austerity thinking in higher education. Now it is emerging as assumed and shared belief, by academics as well as politicians and policy makers. This is a true danger to the dance field, because it not only denies the value of embodied knowledge and kinesthetic connections among us, it means we have to prove our worth through economic impact data rather than through our own measures of impact. It also means resources will be distributed according to the data being sought, rather than by the very real evidence that dance majors are not only happy, effective, and employed, they make a difference.
The Strategic National Arts Alumni Project (SNAAP) surveys college graduates in the arts and in 2013 Dr. Raymond Tymas-Jones from the University of Utah pointed out what that data reveals:
All in all, college students who major in the fine and performing arts acquire skill sets that serve graduates in a myriad of ways and opportunities. Significant percentages of responding alums in the 2011 SNAAP survey indicated that they were gainfully employed and content with their lives as contributors to the public good.
The important fact is that most alumni with a fine arts degree do not consider that they are without options and opportunities. It is inherent that artists can create for themselves and for others through the power of their imagination, creativity, and innovation. In other words, artists are alchemists.
As alchemists, we must tell our own true stories about the very good lives and contributions to a greater good that we create as dancers. And we must strongly and directly resist the chronic assumption that higher salaries equal greater contributions to the world today.
Karen K. Bradley is newly retired from the University of Maryland, College Park, where she served as the head of dance and director of graduate studies in dance. For the past two years, she held the Dorothy G. Madden Professorship in Dance, through which she developed seminars and workshops on dance and peacemaking and dance and community building. She is a Certified Movement Analyst and president of the Laban/Bartenieff Institute of Movement Studies. She teaches Laban Movement Analysis around the world, applying it to leadership studies and coaching, dance and neuroscience, dance therapy, somatics, and dance education and learning theory. Bradley is the author of numerous articles and chapters, including the Routledge series on 20th-century performance practitioners volume on Rudolf Laban. She currently lives in Nova Scotia with her husband and two cats, where she continues to observe the political scene, watch herons take off and land, run a local newspaper, cook local, organic, sustainable food, and write.
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