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Dancing on the Canon: Embodiments of Value in Popular Dance by Sherril Dodds (review)
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If there ever was a canon of dance scholarship to be unseated by transgressive dancing in "Doc Marten boots, stiletto heels, old skool trainers and all other kinds of vernacular footwear" (200), the dirty deed was a fait accompli a decade before the release of Dancing on the Canon. Over the past fifteen years, popular dance scholarship has exploded, outpacing scholarship on Western art dance to such a degree that it seems anachronistic to suggest that popular dance is still undervalued in the academy. Granted, dance departments in the United States and Britain still value teaching technique and performance of art dance over teaching popular dance practice (you are much more likely to find university technique classes in ballet or contemporary dance than in Burlesque or headbanging). However, popular dance as a scholarly subject of research has not only become acceptable, it is downright trendy. The political intervention turned academic discipline of cultural studies, whose founding fathers examined how power structures were maintained and disrupted through popular culture, has influenced dance scholarship since the early 1990s to the degree that, as Gay Morris has suggested (2009), the field has been renamed "dance studies." Given the relative cornucopia of popular dance scholarship compared to that of the 1990s, I had difficulty accepting the basic premise of Sherril Dodds's project—to elevate the value of popular dance within dance scholarship. Setting aside her somewhat outdated portrayal of the field, however, Dodds does contribute to continued expansion and depth in popular dance research through rich and nuanced analysis of her own ethnographic data presented later in the monograph.

The book is divided into two sections. In the first, "Understanding Value," Dodds undertakes a systematic exploration of the major concepts that undergird her project—dance scholarship's canon, cultural studies, popular dance, and value—examining how each has been defined and delineated by existing scholarship. Her literature review is impressive in size and will no doubt serve as a key reference for many readers. The seemingly encyclopedic catalog does, at times, come up short. For example, Dodds rarely cites any scholarship published more recently than 2000, especially in her first two chapters when she makes a case for the marginalization of popular dance scholarship in both dance studies and cultural studies. Thus, although her characterization of these fields accurately represents their situation in the 1990s, she misses an opportunity to celebrate the progress that has been achieved over the past decade in this area, due in part to the work of scholars like Dodds, herself. Not only has Dodds been publishing scholarship on popular dance since 1997, but she has been the driving force behind the formation of an Society of Dance History Scholars (SDHS) working group on popular dance and the annual PoP Moves symposium on popular dance research. The fruits of these labors have been bountiful, and it strikes me as ironic that Dodds is still trying to wage a war that she has already helped to win.

One of Dodds's major theoretical contributions is to examine a contested definition of "popular dance" and its relationship to concepts such as social dance, folk dance, vernacular dance, mass culture, and culture industry. After brief summaries of how other scholars have conceived of the popular in relation to these terms, Dodds proposes a working definition of popular dance that includes so many qualifications and contingencies that it extends several paragraphs. For example, she writes:

In relation to context, popular dance occupies a range of sites that include stage, screen or "street" locations (by which I mean common public spaces such as municipal halls, clubs, ballrooms, village greens, high streets and leisure centres), and can be performed by amateurs or professionals, depending on the "performance context." Although I would argue that it is generally positioned as distinct from "art culture," it can occupy "art spaces" such as galleries, museums, and subsidized performance venues.

(63)

As with other aspects of her definition, it seems accurate, if somewhat cumbersome. Although I was persuaded that her working definition was plausible, I was never convinced that the project of trying to define popular dance served her greater goal of destabilizing a perceived hierarchy within dance and dance...



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