By Kate Mattingly, author of Shaping Dance Canons: Criticism, Aesthetics, and Equity

This book is available at a discount price through June 30, 2023. Order here and use code DSA23 at checkout.

Have you ever wondered who decides which artists go into our history courses and textbooks? And what criteria are used to establish greatness or canonicity?

These questions hit me when I was teaching dance history in a public school in New York City and a guest speaker/hip hop dancer was asked to name artists who inspired him. He said, “The Nicholas Brothers.”

Here I was a dance history teacher, and I did not know about these phenomenal artists. It was then I realized I had been taught a highly curated version of “history” by people who defined “dance” in very exclusive ways.

Over the last century, newspaper critics in the United States have wielded enormous influence on the books and courses taught in universities. John Martin, the dance critic for the New York Times from 1927 to 1962, was especially powerful because he also lectured about dance, wrote books about dance, and named the genre, “modern dance.” While using his preferences as the criteria for modern dance, he decided which choreographers were examples of this approach and which should be excluded. His racialized biases and evaluations have influenced decades of dance critics, courses, and teachers.

The protests of 2020 led to calls for justice and equity in arts and education, which led to many universities posting statements in support of Black Lives Matter. Around 6% of university faculty are Black, and many dance departments teach a version of dance history that is primarily composed of white artists. Dance techniques taught in universities tend to support and exemplify the artists and styles presented in these history courses.

In my book, Shaping Dance Canons, I trace these imbrications of dance criticism in the popular press and university curricula. I show why dance canons are more linked to critics in the popular press than canons in other fine arts: music, theater, and visual arts. I compare critics’ writing to a flashlight that illuminates some performances and casts others into darkness.

By focusing on how dance criticism shifts over the course of a century I reveal why critics wield such power and what steps might be taken towards more intentionally inclusive forms of criticism. A chapter on digital dance criticism spotlights four platforms that offer generative and dialogic feedback and insights.

I draw from my own experiences as a freelancer writing for the New York Times and the Village Voice when I was living in New York City. In 2000 I wrote a Sunday New York Times Arts & Leisure article about a Dutch choreographer performing at a small theatre then-called Dance Theatre Workshop. It sat about 200 people and the show happened three or four times. Fewer than a thousand people could have seen it, but approximately 100,000 people (10% of New York Times readers) looked at the Arts & Leisure section. It was then I comprehended the enormous reach and impact of critics’ words. Far more people could read about performances than attend them, and the critic’s perspective could stand in for, even replace, a theater full of different responses to the event. Historically and currently, dance critics’ words are often the recording or document of an art form that is ephemeral and fleeting.

Kate Mattingly is assistant professor of dance at Old Dominion University. She has written for the New York Times, the Village VoiceDance Magazine, and Pointe Magazine, and she is associate editor of Dance Chronicle.

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