- The Oxford Handbook of Dance and Ethnicity ed. by Anthony Shay and Barbara Sellers-Young
Oxford has been a leading publisher of influential scholarly collections on dance for decades; the 1983 anthology What is Dance? remains a goto resource for dance history educators, while the six-volume International Encyclopedia of Dance (1998, updated 2004) is the most comprehensive reference work on dance available in English to date. In 2014, Oxford University Press (OUP) launched its newest project in this area: Oxford Handbooks. Thus far, eight dance-related handbooks have appeared: Dance and the Popular Screen (2014), Dance and Theater (2015), Dance and Ethnicity (2016), Screendance Studies (2016), Dance and Reenactment (2017), Dance and Wellbeing (2017), Dance and Politics (2017), and Dance and Competition (2018). Explicitly marketed to "scholars and graduate students," these dictionary-sized tomes are designed for academics; they aim to "offer authoritative and up-to-date surveys of original research in a particular subject area" and to "give critical examinations of the progress and direction of debates, as well as a foundation for future research" (OUP website).
From the vantage point of a scholar of Asian performance like myself and most readers of Asian Theatre Journal, Asia is woefully underrepresented in these handbooks. In volumes containing between thirty and over forty essays each, typically one to two, or at most three, center on Asia-related material. At least one of these essays almost [End Page 246] always involves Asia "on the international stage"—usually code for dancers from Asia performing in Western contexts—leaving Asian subjects geographically marginalized. When essays on Asian dancers in Asia do appear, they tend to deal overwhelmingly with India, a country that (due to the history of British colonialism) has more representation in English-language dance scholarship and is already quite familiar to dance studies scholars. The comparatively more groundbreaking work on dance across diverse regions of Asia that has appeared in ATJ over the years seems to be entirely off the radar of these handbooks' editors and reviewers, despite the fact that many contributors to ATJ attend dance and performance conferences, receive degrees in dance and performance studies programs, and publish widely.
With these caveats in mind, The Oxford Handbook of Dance and Ethnicity is a welcome contribution toward a more meaningful incorporation of Asia-informed perspectives into the Oxford Handbooks series. Of the thirty-one essays included in the volume, nine center Asia-related content, of which three focus on artists and activities based in Asia. The latter, which would be of primary interest to ATJ readers, are Leonard Pronko and Jonathan M. Hall's "To Call Dance Japanese: Nihon Buyō as Ethnic Dance," Ida Meftahi's "Dancing Angels and Princesses: The Invention of an Ideal Female National Dancer in Twentieth-Century Iran," and Rachmi Diyah Larasati's "Crossing the Seas of Southeast Asia: Indigenous Diasporic Islam and Performances of Women's Igal." Also of possible interest are Nancy Lee Ruyter's "La Meri: Purveyor of the Dancing Other," Rebekah J. Kowal's "Choreographing Interculturalism: International Dance Performance at the American Museum of Natural History, 1943–1952," and Miriam Phillips' "Spectacles of Ethnicities: The San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival," all of which critically examine presentations of Asian dance forms in the United States. Also of interest may be Andrea Deagon's "Orientalism and the American Belly Dancer: Multiplicity, Authenticity, Identity" and Barbara Sellers-Young's "Men and the Happiness Dance," both of which deal with transnational circuits of Middle Eastern dance, and Christine Emi Chan's "Beyond Colonization, Commodification, and Reclamation: Hula and Hawaiian Identity," which deals with issues of Orientalism as they relate to Polynesian dance in colonial contexts. Insofar as they move beyond Indian subjects and the handful of other Asia-related topics addressed in the other volumes, the above essays take an important step toward offering more varied and substantive treatments of Asia-related material in the Oxford Handbooks dance series.
The fact that such a large and original representation of Asia-related content is...