Re-Thinking Curricula: Remarks from the 2014 Collegium for African Diaspora Dance Conference

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by Takiyah Nur Amin, Ph.D. Assistant Professor of Dance, UNC Charlotte
What follows is an edited version of my remarks at the 2014 Collegium for African Diaspora Dance Conference,
” Dancing the African Diaspora: Theories of Black Performance”.

When I think of dance as a discipline I tend to think of it primarily in three ways: as a method of inquiry or way of knowing, as a cultural practice or way of being and/or as an art form. To me, these approaches are not discrete but are overlapping and inform each other. My hope is that as educators we can move to a place where advocating for the addition of African diaspora dance classes is supplanted by a full consideration of the various contours that shape dance as a discipline and that resists placing primacy on performance. What would it mean to begin the development of curricula not based on what existing faculty can teach but in a manner that centers on what students need to learn vis a vis  what education experts refer to as 21st century skills (Communication, Collaboration, Critical Thinking, Creativity, Digital/Media Literacy, Global Awareness?) What would it mean to develop curricula based on the various overlapping practices that ground dance as a discipline? How might we use this approach to de-stabilize the historic emphasis on western and historically privileged movement vocabularies and approaches ( a phrase I prefer in lieu of the more loaded term “technique”) such that Africanist approaches to dance and dance making find an equitable place in dance curricula in higher education?

As a faculty member who interacts regularly with prospective and incoming students and their parents, one thing that comes up repeatedly is the idea that central to the study of dance is the act of performance. My thinking is that, especially when it comes to development of curricula it is critical to trouble this assumption. Central to the study of dance is the act of dancing, not necessarily the act  of performing. Notions of performativity and identity aside,  most people in the world will never “perform” in a formal sense while most will have some understanding on the corporeal level of dance, gesture and the notion of communicating ideas through the body.  A move toward inclusive dance curricula then would require honing in on dance not just as a performing art but as a humanities discipline and in so doing, necessarily resist the prioritization of certain body types and movement vocabularies, creating a dynamic opening for other ways of approaching dance. This approach would rather hold the differences in movement vocabulary and creation in tension, resist hierarchy and allow our students an increased opportunity to wrestle with ambiguity, a skill that is increasingly necessary in an ever-changing, complex global environment.

Part of the challenge to developing holistic, inclusive dance curricula in higher education is that as a discipline of scholars and practitioners, we haven’t really decided what constitutes a well-rounded, quality education in dance in higher education. While the National Dance Education Organization (NDEO) has done a formidable job  of guiding and shaping this discussion in the K to 12 space and the National Association of Schools of Dance (NASD) has developed assessment and accreditation criteria, there is very little clear consensus  on what makes a well-rounded program that grounds students in dance as a discipline (as opposed to grounding students in particular movement vocabularies.) While similarities in programs abound particularly with regard to their heavy priority placed on western-derived movement vocabularies, there are no agreements about what is “foundational” knowledge of the discipline for a dance student at the university level. It almost seems that as a community of scholars and artists  we’ve been so busy trying to secure a place for dance within the academy that this kind of identity formation for dance or dance studies as a discipline has been left to the wayside – or perhaps to the next generation of scholar-artists to contend with.  Better yet, and more to the point, it may be that curricula have been developed based on the discrete competencies that various faculty could teach and not based on what students might actually need to learn about our discipline beyond concerns for professionalization to enter the field as performing artists. If we think about the skills needed for students to thrive as human beings–whether they make a life in dance as a career  or not, how might that provide a different way of approaching the development of curricula? What would it mean if we began to  think about dance in higher education not as a performance-based discipline, but as a practice-based discipline? Thinking about dance as constituted by a set of practices/endeavors might enable us as a community of scholars and practitioners to proceed from a place that considers fully what practices might sit at the center of a dance program and the multiple ways to approach dance-making, without centering any one approach above the other or movement vocabulary above the other. In this manner, we create space for bringing in  movement vocabularies–those that are both nascent and historical–to facilitate engagement with the various practices that make dance what is as a discipline. In this way we need no longer yield to the idea that certain western approaches to dance and dance-making are necessarily foundational  to understanding or excelling in dance or that only certain forms of inquiry are possible. As a discipline, this approach creates the space for us to do more–do better –do different in our programs by making room for multiple perspectives and ways of thinking. This isn’t about adding courses here and their or beefing up elective offerings by bringing in African Diaspora dance but rather that we develop programs from the bottom up, by taking seriously the task of propagating dance as a discipline of study and not primarily as a field of professional endeavor tied to performance.

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