- A Report from the Savage Frontier of Dance Studies
In this book the sociologist/dancer Randy Martin joins a vanguard of late twentieth-century dance scholars who have sought to intervene in the theoretical discourse of literary criticism, politics, and cultural studies by citing the ways in which dance practices exceed textualization and mobilize ideas as well as people. The history of dance is rich with such interventions in which the very effort to clear a dancing ground—whether for dance or for talk about dancing—is impeded immediately by the question of who has the right to do so and especially in what terms. Fearless before this history of abbreviated conjecture, Martin argues that the “resistance to theory” in dance studies is not something to be overcome but rather harnessed for its wild ride across the conceptual divides of more well-established disciplines (201). He doesn’t speak in exactly these terms, however. The wild beast is mine. Martin prefers to leave the character of dance “resistance” largely unspecified in order to switch attention to “the means through which bodies gather and are assembled” (208). Critical reflection on dance gatherings, he believes, can empower political theory, which is “full of ideas” but “has scarcely grasped the language of mobilization” (3–4). Unfortunately, political theorists anxious to improve their fluency will find the reflection of very few dancing bodies in this text, so obsessed is its author with avoiding human referents that might appear as unitary, fixed objects rather than as “a complex circulation of identity effects” (210). The proposed transport across conceptual divides via dance studies remains mostly a very good idea.
The second half of Martin’s title, Dance Studies in Theory and Politics, could be read so that it is in politics that dance studies occur. Another reading would emphasize the political aspects of Dance Studies. While the book supports both interpretations, its overall procedure of embedding a dance study within the discourse of political theory reduces the status of dance to that of a sample rather than an emerging interdisciplinary field. This is a surprising outcome, given the fact that Martin conceived his initial drafts among dance scholars during a residency in 1993 at the University of California Humanities Research Institute in Irvine. Shorter versions of his first two chapters appear in the 1995 collections, Choreographing History and Corporealities: Dancing, Knowledge, Culture, and Power, edited by the director of this institute‹Susan L. Foster. Chapter One, entitled “Dancing the Dialectic of Agency and History,” begins with a first-person account of Martin’s participation in a dance concert at Judson Church in New York City (29–31) but then takes up recent debates, outside of Dance Studies, “over the constitution and representation of historical agency” (39). Chapter Two, “Overreading The Promised Land: Toward a Narrative of Context in Dance,” subjects a videotaped version of Bill T. Jones’ famous 1990 production to a lengthy “overreading” in order to mobilize “the [dance] text in the service of context” (61). In both chapters, Martin’s reconstructions of performance work like bookends or dividers for the development of topics like the “politics of scarcity” that seldom refer back to the dance that prompted such reflections.
Martin selects performances for Chapters Three and Four from the dance studio and MTV, indicating how the scope of Dance Studies goes well beyond a concern with theatrical dance. The “dance” sections within these chapters are noteworthy for their recuperation of the diverse social worlds in which dance goes on. In Chapter Three, “The Composite Body of Dance: Re(w)rapping the Multicultural Nation,” Martin juxtaposes a high-tech analysis of Wicked—a rap music video by Ice Cube—and a first-person narrative of a hip hop aerobics class in Orange County, California (130–146). This is a hip hop class in which most of the students are women and the only African-American is the teacher. Martin argues that the mastery of a dance technique associated with black nationalism by nonblacks in an aerobics class suggests that “technique does more than tool the body to...