Student Bodies: Dance Pedagogy and the Soma
I was asked to write a chapter on the body in dance education. In contemplating
such a task, the first question I asked myself was “How does one write a literature review
on something like the body in dance education?” There are many bodies of literature on
the topic. Any literature review on this theme will surely be limited. Additionally, I was
faced with a word limit. So I decided to focus on a few broad areas and omit some major
bodies of literature. For example, I did not include the research in dance science, but
focused on the qualitative scholarship in dance education.
I approached the task by attempting to look for broad areas of research on the
body. Of course, I am coming from my own theoretical stance and paradigmatic
viewpoint so the trends I see will certainly be colored by my perspective. I acknowledge
that knowledge is socially constructed. So what I see will be what Patti Lather refers to
as a partial truth (1986, 1991, 1995, 1999). Thus, there is much missing from this
Moreover, I did not go into as much depth as I would have liked to (again since
there was a word limit). In the future, I would like to use this chapter as a basis for a
Thus, the structural limitations, breadth of literature on the topic, and
acknowledgement of my own biases, affect what is included and what is left out of this
literature review. With this in mind, I asked myself what stood out as the major themes in
this area. I found a number of patterns. First, I realized that the topic was clustered in
three large areas, Somatic Dance Research, Critical Pedagogy Research in Dance, and
Postpositivist Research and Cultural Studies. Although Cultural Studies often falls
outside the realm of dance education it certainly informs pedagogy.
I did, however recognize that the boundaries of these categories are fuzzy and fluid.
There is much overlap in these areas. Additionally, these areas are not distinct
chronological phases but rather coexist and take circuitous routes.
By titling one section of the chapter Somatic Dance Research, I am referring to
the practices defined by Thomas Hanna as a field that generally views the body from a
first person perspective (1998). With Hanna’s ideas seeping into dance in the 1960s and
1970s, many educators explored somatic practices such as Alexander, Feldenkrais, and
Rolfing. Additionally, a number of dancers and dance educators and therapists such as
Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen (Body-Mind Centering), Lulu Sweigard (Ideokinesis), and
Elaine Summers (Kinetic Awareness) created their own somatic systems, opening the
field for research and study. Much of the theory and practice in this area were based on
the individual’s experience of body, although some somatic theorists began to explore
moving somatics to a socio-cultural context. I call this body of literature “social somatic
Moving from social somatic theory, the second category Critical Pedagogy in Dance Research probes how the body is socially habituated through dance training and
education. A number of scholars in this area investigate how issues such as body image,
teacher and student power relationships, and pressure to meet aesthetic and bodily ideals,
affect dance students and the ways dance is taught. As critical pedagogy tends to focus
on social justice issues and marginalization regarding levels of status such as race,
gender, culture, class, sexuality, ability, and so on, critical dance pedagogy often focuses
on how these levels of status play out in traditional western dance training.
The third category of research on the body in dance education moves from a
critical perspective to a postmodern approach. Although the lines between these two
categories can be fuzzy, basically, while critical pedagogy is concerned mainly with
inequities and injustice, postmodern research moves to a more fluid positioning and fuller
questioning of all paradigmatic stances. Postpositivist inquiry basically highlights the
multiple views and perspective of those involved in a particular research setting. A
number of dance education researchers have used poststructuralist displays, such as spilt
page formats, poetry, etc. as a way of juxtaposing ideas about the body in dance
Additionally, some dance educators have borrowed from themes in cultural
studies such as performativity and post colonialism. Like critical pedagogy, this
perspective reflects the shift in dance scholarship of operations of social and cultural
power (Desmond, 1997) and the disciplining of the body. Like the postpositivist literature
in dance education, it often addresses how the body is shaped and molded in dance.
However, with this literature comes a move back to the idea of embodiment (as in the
somatic literature). For example, Jane Desmond professes that this cultural analysis
(which is often found in humanities literature), includes, “proprioception, kinesthesia,
emotion, and the concepts of expressivity without lapsing into scientism or transcendent
conceptions of subjectivity” (p. 16). Sub-categories of performance studies,
anthropology, history, etc. (and dance education) fit into this definition and inform dance
Thus, this body of literature employs a cultural context for looking at the
body. Since so many indigenous cultures bring reverence to the experience of the
body, this literature tends to bring back the body as a soma, or living and breathing
construction, without conceptualizing it as a static, objectified , or a mechanical
material entity. The embodied dancer is recognized and embraced but with an
awareness that all bodily experience is fluid and defined by the culture in which it is
danced. Deidre Sklar, for example, often refers to somatic experience when
describing her research methodology as a cultural ethnographer. Her description of
communal sacred time as “a somatic mode of attention” (Sklar, 2001, p. 184) is
similar to my “somatic sensitivity as a research tool” (Green, 2004). Thus, these
ideas move through and across fields and disciplines.
Although these authors write from an anthropological perspective, they
share many aspects addressed in the work of educational and somatic researchers
in dance. Some even write about dance training and institutions. For example,
Susan Foster’s experience is grounded in her own bodily experience and dance
training (1997). This allows her talk about the body and dance training as a social
that cultural study in dance may provide a critical dance scholarship that asks new
questions about key concepts of embodiment, identity, and representation, through
an investigation of the operations of social power. It does not neglect bodily
experience, but questions rigid binaries. It refers to dance as an “embodied social
There are many other performance scholars, as well as educational scholars
who write about the body in dance performance and practice. The field is ripe and
So as I began to research these major bodies of literature, I began to notice some
trends. I will share from the published chapter to conclude my remarks and to share what
Within discussion about these rather fluid categories of Somatic Dance Research, Critical Pedagogy Research in Dance, and Postpositivist Research and Cultural Studies, one may find some overriding trends or movements. Two major
developments/shifts may become apparent. First, there is a movement from the
body as individualistic and essentialist—devoid of social meaning and
influence—to an emphasis on an awareness of the social construction of bodies.
This social/theory/language approach is then followed by an emphasis back to the
body as an embodied (but not essentialized) concept, which still regards social
power as a major influence. Secondly, the study of the body in dance moves from
a more certain (grand theory) viewpoint through critical analysis of dominant
paradigms to more self-reflective and reflexive modes of inquiry. These
movements are not dictated by any particular area or type of research though
critical, postmodern, and cultural/social bodies of literature tend to provide these
One final point in the chapter is related to dance scholarship and categories in
general. It may be apparent that these separate categories that I discussed are used as a
device to clarify different types of scholarship from different arenas in dance. However,
these categories may be problematic as well. I trouble or problematize
categorical distinctions which directly divide the scholarly disciplines and halt the
dissemination of bodies of knowledge throughout disparate academic disciplines.
I contend that by focusing on what many in performance studies have referred to as
“dance studies,” without acknowledging the broad and relevant body of
literature in fields such as education and somatics, these “outside” disciplines may
be marginalized. I call on dance scholars to break disciplinary boundaries and include
the body in dance education in the overall work done on the body in dance. Only through
an understanding of how we can explore categories and boundaries of dance scholarship
without abusing or leaving behind any one particular field of study can we enrich the
Desmond, J. C. (1997). Introduction. In J. C. Desmond (Ed.), Meaning in motion: New cultural studies of dance (pp. 1‐25). Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
S. L. (1997). Dancing bodies. In J. C. Desmond (Ed.), Meaning in motion: New cultural studies of dance (pp. 235‐257). Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Green, J. (2004). Postpositivist inquiry: Multiple perspective and paradigms. In R. F.
Cruz & C. F. Berrol (Eds.), Dance/Movement therapists in action: A working guide to research options (pp. 109‐124). Springfield, Ill: Charles C. Thomas.
Hanna, T. (1988). Somatics: Reawakening the mind’s control of movement, flexibility, and health. Reading, MA: Addison‐Wesley.
Lather, P. (1986). Issues of validity in openly ideological research: Between a
rock and a soft place. Interchange, 17(4), 63-84.
Lather, Patti (1991). Getting smart: Feminist research and pedagogy with/in the postmodern. New York and London: Routledge.
Lather, P. (1995) Post-Critical Pedagogies: A Feminist Reading. In: McLaren, P. (Ed) Postmodernism, Postcolonialism and Pedagogy. Albert Park: James Nicholas Publishers, pp. 167-186.
Lather, Patti & Smithies, Chris (1997). Troubling the angels: Women living with
Sklar, D. (2001). Dancing with the virgin: Body and faith in the fiesta of Tortugas, New Mexico. Berkeley: University of California Press.
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