Why Do Dancers Have to Prove Ourselves “Smart”?

Last weekend I saw a performance called Tropical Escape—a duet between Csaba Molnár and Márcio Canabarro studying “queer eroticism, escapism as resistance, and the labor involved in the pursuit of pleasure, fantasy and freedom.

Presented by Abrons Arts Center, Tropical Escape overwhelms the intimate space of the Underground Theater with Molnár and Canabarro’s spectacularly camp performance. There was a giant trash bag blowing up to the King Kong triumphant theme song; there were a multitude objects flying out of balloons being popped; there was melodramatic acting and lip-syncing to a porn soundscape. All of which made me laugh uncontrollably.

Photo credit: Tom O’Doherty

Then suddenly, everything switched halfway through the piece. The light became cold and the performers snapped out of their camp characters—they started delivering a lecture. In an earnest manner, the two of them took turn introducing us to all the historical references that informed their process: Marcel Duchamp, Paul Preciado, Guerrilla Girls, José Muñoz, Jack Smith, Karen Finley, the Olympia painting, Native performances that they saw yet without names, and many others.

At one point, Molnár told us, and here I paraphrase: “Most people don’t take dancers seriously. They don’t think that we’re smart. So here, we decided to give a lecture.”

Laughter sprinkled in the room.

But this baffled me a little. I’m sure it was a joke—a joke that is revelatory of the social perception that dancers have to negotiate with. What Molnár plays with is the history of dancers’ objectification, which often confines dance within a binary theatrical structure of voyeuristic seeing without allowing dancers to speak and to be a speaking subject. By proving that they can speak and even give an art history lecture, Molnár and Canabarro insist that dancers not only move but they also know things—i.e., capable of producing knowledge.

However, to assert that dancers, too, are legitimate knowing beings is to buy into the system of rational knowledge that excluded dance in the first place. Here is where discourse of postmodernism can be helpful: if we go directly against the system, we already accept its existing terms of engagement and follow its underlying logic in order to do the opposite thing. Can we just embrace the affective and corporeal potential of dance without having to explain it in the language of rationalism?

Perhaps not… There is a real economic imperative for dancers to intellectualize their works and legitimize themselves in the eyes of institutions who can only quantify and qualify a certain form of knowledge. When we apply for grants, for instance, our work has to prove itself worthwhile of funding in writing and sample videos; in other words, we have to translate what we do into a system of rational values that is far removed from the body and its affects in order to demonstrate that we are serious about our art.

But we should not take dance that seriously, nor especially what we write down about dance. If we translate dance into rational language for economic reasons, it should stay a translation and not a blueprint that guides our work. Ideally, we have to do what we have to do, and then we can leave all of that bullshit behind when we enter the studio and the theater.

I think a significant reason for the increasing intellectualization of dance is the institutionalization of dance within academia—it is not coincidence that the word “research” is now ubiquitous among dancers when we talk about movement exploration. On one hand, this migration of dance into academia allows for a more collaborative exchange between theory and practice, which is particularly necessary when it comes to issues around racism and colonialism that are uncritically embodied in dance. On the other hand, I am worried that the balance of this exchange is always tipped toward theory because academic institutions and society at large value rational thought more than oral/corporeal/affective knowledge. If theorists are never required to go on stage and dance their writing, dancers are now under constant pressure to articulate their works in intelligible language in order to be “included” as legitimate research.

This blog post is definitely not to bring down Molnár and Canabarro’s work. Rather, I want to use this opportunity to address the current blurring between theory and practice that very much privileges the former. If this is always the case, perhaps we should insist on an urgent (re-)separation of theory and practice. It doesn’t mean that we dancers should abandon theory, but we need to read theory for its own theoretical sake without trying to apply to our practice in a short-sighted manner. Of course, one can say that there is actually no division between theory and practice because both are forms of doing that are co-constitutive of each other. Sure, and yet, this seemingly arbitrary division is very historical and therefore real; the result is two disparate systems of values where one always tries to assimilate the other. Thus, an insistence of re-separation of theory and practice is not at all ontological—it is an urgent form of resistance that takes a lot of work involving code-switching and double-speaking, and it allows us to fight against the assimilationist pull toward rationalism and maintain two parallel sets of values.

4 thoughts on “Why Do Dancers Have to Prove Ourselves “Smart”?

  1. “If theorists are never required to go on stage and dance their writing, dancers are now under constant pressure to articulate their works in intelligible language in order to be “included” as legitimate research.”

    yes, if there is to be parity between practice and theory then theorists who want to write about dance should be required to take dance classes, just as many MFA students are required to take theory classes.

    Some concepts of theory that have been useful to me are ones that open up the idea that theory is more than text/words. The idea from Deleuze that theory is what bridges different practices. And Davey that theory is what reveals more potential in a practice. The former for me then show that what two different practices have in common is a form of theory. And the latter that something that expands my practice is a form of theory.


  2. if you read the descriptions in art museums, youll notice 50% are pseudo intellectual chains of words that dont mean anything.
    the moment you try to point out any of that people greet you with shock and outrage, cementing your suspicion that youre taking part in the story of The Emperor’s New Clothes

    other arts are suffering the same fait,
    but this situation is self inflicted.
    overselling and shaping your projects to fit the incentives of power made you a victim of your own doing.

    since ancient times artists have been in bed with power,
    as long as youre dependent on power you have to abide to their wishes.
    what will you do?


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