- Valuing Dance: Commodities and Gifts in Motion by Susan Leigh Foster
Valuing Dance: Commodities and Gifts in Motion. By Susan Leigh Foster. New York: Oxford University Press, 2019; 264 pp.; illustrations. $125.00 cloth, $35.00 paper, e-book available.
The popularity of the panel honoring Susan Leigh Foster at the 2019 Dance Studies Association conference was a clear testament to her impact as a scholar and educator. Recognizing her influential research in the field of dance studies—which she has been central in creating—the session included words read or otherwise performed by past graduate students and current colleagues whose thinking has been shaped by Foster's persistent lines of inquiry. Her seminal work Reading Dancing (1986) uniquely brought linguistic theory to choreographic analysis, while the subsequent edited volumes Choreographing History (1995) and Corporealities (1996) assembled provocative perspectives on historiography and movement knowledge. Dances that Describe Themselves (2002), ostensibly on the improvised choreography of Richard Bull, was equally a profound conception of how a dance's voice speaks through participating human bodies. The more recent Choreographing Empathy (2011) then demonstrated—by narrating the evolving histories of the terms "choreography," "kinesthesia," and "empathy"—how understandings of dance shift in relation to societal changes. Overall Foster's oeuvre, which also includes numerous articles and performed lectures, is rooted in questions of how and why dance matters. Today, these issues are pressing not only for scholars but increasingly for dance educators, who continue to advance learning through bodily movement amidst a variety of ever-challenging market forces.
Foster's newest book, Valuing Dance, challenges us to become aware of how we conduct transactions within systems—particularly Western capitalism. Without frontloading her position, Foster allows her research to guide the reader through how and why dance practice is a valuable human resource whose exchanges build community. The book's scope is ambitious. Luckily, Foster is gifted in taking on large, complex topics, synthesizing them into digestible portions, and delivering them via approachable language and manageable concepts. The text provides examples of dance's circulation easily grasped by even the most casual cultural observer, including social settings, dance studios, and television. Historical trajectories on current dance phenomena like the global reach of hip hop provide insight into how localized practices gain broad appeal, then suggest how participation in these economies can shape future action. Broad strokes on the somatic features and histories of certain movement practices are coupled with finer bodily details—such as early-20th-century studio pedagogy and the observation that approaches in today's youth competition dance, in which so many local dance studios participate, tend to eliminate movement transitions between forms or "poses." It is rare to find dance writing that speaks to both the specialist and the novice reader. In dedicating the book to her students "who have given me so much," Foster acknowledges that research, like dance practice, is a generous form of knowledge exchange.
Foster's signature wit reveals itself in chapter formats that choreograph their content by structuring page layout and textual delivery. The book begins with a discussion of dance as "resource-ful" (chapter 1), meaning both possessing many assets and able to skillfully overcome difficulties. This first chapter identifies how dance practice is relational, energetic, and adaptive, which raises the persistent themes of dance as ephemeral and intangible—aspects that escape easy quantification or material evidence. They are hard to "evaluate" by common standards of measurement. Foster does not belabor these points ontologically, but rather shows how these features define dance as a practice that adjusts to many contexts, environments, ends, [End Page 170] and means. Small margin keyword listings provide tangible entry points into larger dialogue and are a valuable teaching tool for those using this text to instruct or invite discussion. The second chapter then demonstrates dance's adaptability to various contexts with an overview of commodity versus gift exchange. The reader traces their comparison across the recto and verso sides of the fold, attending to one...