Note to readers: I want to confess that I really struggled with this one. There was a lot of anger behind it and I am wary of sending that energy out into the universe without pointing towards a solution. Maybe the solution is wanting to raise awareness about this issue. I am open to suggestions…if you have the time, please click on “comments” above and read Ken Ludden’s words.
There has been a long-standing quarrelsome relationship between the arts and academia. While there are universities and high schools out there doing a great job with the arts, all too often the arts are relegated to an inferior status behind math, the sciences and humanities. Then, the arts themselves have their own hierarchy with visual art at the top, followed by music, then drama, and lastly dance scraping the bottom of the barrel.
It reminds me of the internalized racism of enslaved and/or colonized peoples with the lighter-skinned, straighter-haired people looking down on their darker, kinkier-haired sisters and brothers. It’s really no wonder that the evil legacy of our country’s origin and its resulting self-hatred have survived in education, the supposed doorway to a better future, but really a kind of intellectual class system.
Educators, many of whom are so-called liberals, uphold this hierarchy of study while paying lip service to the need for arts in an educational setting. The art form is not seen as worthy in and of itself; it has to latch onto other disciplines and courses of study in order to be validated in the eyes of the academic institution.
But here I am, just a stupid dancer who knows how to use a semi-colon. Recently, I was demoralized to hear of an advisor at a so-called arts school tell a student that she was too smart to major in dance at college. In another instance, a well-known dance educator lamented the limitations of just training dancers. Pew!
On the one hand, I sympathize with that educator. The dance world can be a narrow environment but it doesn’t have to be that way. Before we downplay the importance of training artists we have to ask ourselves what that actually takes. How many teachers can lead someone through the fire of transformation? I’ve seen a lot of people give class, but not many have the ability to initiate, to support, a student through the process of becoming an artist, to endure the sheer stamina of it. And of course, the reward. It’s like giving birth.
We used to say that such-and-such a teacher can make dancers. That was a compliment. It referred not to a teacher that had a star clientele, a trendy following, but to someone who could make stars. Where would I be without Madame Darvash? Those of us who’ve had someone like that take us under their wing are forever grateful.
I’m not saying that there’s no place for outreach programs, art appreciation and courses that link art to say, medicine. Of course there is. I celebrate that. The more the merrier. I’m saying that in academia, these kinds of programs are emphasized and taken more seriously than the actual training of the artist. Fine, that’s their prerogative. It’s their house. At the same time, they can’t run a respectable house by ignoring the arts completely and they know it. An absence of the arts would discourage potential students. And taking an arts class at these institutions ain’t free.
People are starving for experiences of authenticity, beauty and being moved in their souls. We have always needed that, but now more than ever as art is increasingly institutionalized and separate from every day life.
What I want to say is that of course there is lots of room for intellectual study around the arts, but I think we need to remember that the intellect is in service to something higher. Call it the great mystery. Call it spirit. Call it whatever you like, but what we are ultimately striving for is transcendence. The intellect has to work with other parts of our being. It is not a stopping off point.
All art is ultimately a way to transcend the intellect. It is a tool, like the body that I mention in the previous blog. Art is a way of connecting with the divine. Simply put, if spirit ain’t in it, you ain’t really dancin’.
I want to add here in case you skip the comments section above that I’ve received a lot of feedback since posting this blog. I want to make it clear that I am not against the role of “amateur” art. I am not in any way suggesting that those who teach “amateurs” are sell-outs or fostering mediocrity. I teach those who are professionally focused and many who aren’t. What I’m getting at, in summary is that a great arts class, dance class, is important and useful in and of itself regardless of the student’s ambitions. There is something that we as human beings need to experience through art that is not less important than say, math.
What I am against is the classist attitude against those that do choose to pursue it professionally. I am against figures of authority and influence telling someone that it is not worth their while to pursue the arts over other things. And I am against prioritizing the intellect above and against other aspects of our being, of our humanity, especially with regards to teaching the arts. A college doesn’t have to take on the arts if it’s not their thing. That’s fine. But if they do take it on, even in a secondary way, it should be respected and valued for what it is.
Also, though I personally prefer an apprentice/master relationship to learning anything in life, we are in a culture now that makes it more and more necessary to have “that piece of paper” as my mother calls it, meaning a degree. Many dancers are going to college because they feel that societal pressure; they feel that they will not be professionally validated without it should they wish to teach later on. We are making it harder on kids to choose not to go to college and that needs to be addressed.