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Dance scholars turn editors for new book on dance training practices


Rebecca Nettl-Fiol
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Photo by L. Brian Stauffer
Rebecca Nettl-Fiol co-edited “The Body Eclectic: Evolving Practices in Dance Training” (University of Illinois Press), a recently published collection of essays and interviews with some of today’s most successful dance professionals.

Melissa Mitchell, Arts Editor

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — According to University of Illinois dance professor Rebecca Nettl-Fiol, published research on modern and postmodern dance was fairly sparse until about a quarter of a century ago. Most of what existed was limited to books on dance history or biographies of dancers and choreographers, or was otherwise narrowly focused.

“Then there was a burgeoning of dance scholarship in the 1980s; prior to that, I used to feel like I had all the dance books ever written on my bookshelves,” Nettl-Fiol said. And yet, she and Melanie Bales, a friend and colleague on the dance faculty at Ohio State University, believed a noticeable gap in the literature remained. Together the pair decided to try to fill it, teaming up as co-editors of “The Body Eclectic: Evolving Practices in Dance Training” (University of Illinois Press), a recently published collection of essays and interviews with some of today’s most successful dance professionals.

“We wanted to bring the discussion back to dance itself – to what was happening in the studio,” Nettl-Fiol said.

The resulting book, which has at its core descriptions and discussions of current dance training practices and trends by leading practitioners of the art form “is unique in dance scholarship, and essential for future understanding of our discipline,” the authors note in their introduction.

Nettl-Fiol said the book’s content was inspired by the co-editors’ participation in a roundtable discussion at the “Dancing in the Millennium” conference in Washington, D.C., in 2000.

“People at the conference seemed to be really interested in dance training and how it’s evolving,” she said.

In extending the discussion into book form, the authors were motivated by a multipart goal: “We wished to know what people were doing, why they were doing it, and how it fit into their view of dance and themselves as artists.”

“As dance scholarship grows, it seems vital that so-called insider knowledge be integrated into the fabric of our field,” they said.

Before examining current practices, Nettl-Fiol and Bales briefly considered the history of the art form. Modern dance – distinct from ballet, which has been taught in dance academies and performed on world stages for centuries – is a relatively new performance art. And when it emerged in the early 20th century, it wasn’t classified as art.

Dance training programs at universities typically were housed in physical education departments, and eventually became part of liberal arts curricula.

“In other words, the idea of dancing to learn has shifted toward learning to dance,” Nettl-Fiol and Bales write.

As universities added fine-arts dance programs and faculties, which produced more and more dancers and choreographers, the logical progression was that more dance companies were formed, and universities played a larger role in producing professional dancers and dance makers.

In an earlier era, Nettl-Fiol said, those newly trained young dancers typically signed on with well-known, established dance companies and learned the style and method of dance promoted by a particular choreographer/company director. For instance, she said, they might learn the Martha Graham technique, or perhaps the signature style of Merce Cunningham or José Limón.

That’s not so much the case today.

 “It was apparent in speaking with the vast majority of dancers interviewed that choreographers are no longer training dancers, at least not in the traditional sense of giving technique classes that train the dancers in their personal movement style separate from the rehearsal process,” Nettl-Fiol and Bales write in the book. “The rehearsal replaces training for many; dancers are expected to come to rehearsal warmed up.”

And they’re increasingly expected to enroll in what amounts to continuing education classes on their own time, on their own dime.

Though many professional dancers are still taking traditional classes, particularly ballet, the scope of their movement training is more far-ranging and fluid.

“Dancers today also are taking yoga, going to the gym, doing Pilates,” Nettl-Fiol said. It also is common for today’s dancers to augment their formal dance training with at least one of the so-called somatic, or “mind-body” disciplines, such as the Alexander Technique, Laban Movement Analysis and Bartenieff Fundamentals.

The editors themselves are proponents of integrating such study into traditional movement and dance training. Nettl-Fiol is a certified Alexander teacher who has studied Laban; Bales, a certified Laban/Bartenieff movement analyst who practices yoga.

As for today’s working choreographers and dance companies, their practices have evolved along with those of the dance programs and dancers, but over a slightly longer period, according to Nettl-Fiol and Bales. 

For the past 40 years, they noted, there’s been a trend in dance they refer to as “going Hollywood.” Just as the tightly controlled Hollywood studio system eventually lost its firm grip on the film industry when small, independent producers entered the picture, the dance field has been affected by the proliferation of smaller, “pick-up” companies. Some of the old standards – such as the Merce Cunningham and resurrected Graham companies, Ailey Dance Theater and Mark Morris Dance Group – continue in their roles as fairly stable standard-bearers. But now those companies exist alongside the leaner, hungrier upstarts.

A related trend that has emerged since dance went “Hollywood” has been greater opportunities for dancers to hone their individual styles.

“Today choreographers are often interested in, and in fact inspired by, the idiosyncrasies of their dancers,” Nettl-Fiol and Bales write. “Dancers work to become more themselves rather than strive to mirror those they work for. Dancers become their own guides in putting together their training packages, according to their needs and interests at a given time.”

Cynthia Oliver, another Illinois dance professor and one of the dancer-choreographers interviewed in the book, is an example of that new breed of dance professionals.

While living and working in New York, Oliver, who spent her childhood there and in the Virgin Islands and has danced with the David Gordon Pick-up Performance Company and Ronald K. Brown/Evidence, and managed Urban Bush Women, insisted on sticking with ballet as a foundation of her continuing training. At the same time, however, she also returned to her own roots by studying Afro-Caribbean dance, took yoga classes and even mixed in dancing in clubs at night. After moving to Illinois, she continued the yoga work and also began working with a local Tai Chi master.

“Also, sometimes I take master classes, like the Zimbabwean class that was offered several years ago,” she said. While acknowledging that it’s somewhat awkward taking classes with her own students, “that’s how I am trying to keep up.”

Other dance professionals sharing training stories in the book are Chris Aiken, David Dorfman, Kathleen Fisher, Karen Graham, Angie Hauser, Sara Hook, Stephen Koester, Ralph Lemon, Bebe Miller, Jennifer Nugent, Tere O’Connor, Janet Panetta, Lisa Race, Kraig Patterson and Shelley Washington. Those contributing essays to the book, in addition to Nettl-Fiol and Bates, are Glenna Batson, Wendell Beavers, Veronica Dittman, Natalie Gilbert, Joshua Monten and Martha Myers.

Nettl-Fiol said the new volume of training stories and reflections on changing training practices is just a first step in communicating a larger, still-evolving history.

“It’s just a reader, not a comprehensive work,” she said. “We’re hoping it will serve as a prompter for conversation and dialogue. We just wanted to get that conversation started with this book.”