Creative Culture Exchange: A Reflection on Modern Dance

By Amanda Reitenbach '14

With the holidays just around the corner, visions of sugarplums are beginning to dance in my head. Ever since I was young, I have loved dance. As a child I took lessons in jazz, tap, and ballet, and while I would love to say that it made me a more graceful adult, that would in fact be a gross overstatement.

I was ten years old when my dreams of being a prima ballerina were crushed. After tripping over my own feet and off the stage on more than one occasion, I began to feel I was better suited for a spot in the audience rather than main stage. Dance has been a constant in my life. From watching Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly musicals with my mother, to seeing the Nutcracker with friends, I have learned to love many forms of dance. One form of dance, however, has missed my radar: Modern dance. I profess a great love of tap, ballet, hip-hop, ballroom and more but have never looked at modern dance in depth.

This past month I had the opportunity to attend a Creative Culture Exchange that discussed the future of dance in contemporary America. It was an interesting conversation that I wish could have been pushed further than it was due to time constraints. Making up the panel was Richard Mosley (Artistic Director of UD’s Dance Ensemble), Crystal Michelle (DCDC), Rodney Veal (Dayton choreographer and interdisciplinary artist), Garrett Coleman (Hammerstep), and Jeanne Mam-Luft (MamLuft & Co Dance). Many of these people are also part of the Ohio Dance Board of Trustees and have backgrounds in multiple forms and styles of dance.

The first question asked how modern dance will assure its survival and relevance in an inundated 21st century. Veal responded by saying “we need to get away from pigeon-holing dance, what it is, what it can do.” This was expanded on by Coleman who said “society is evolving so fast with technology and how dance is portrayed.”

These ideas are seen in fusion styles like Hammerstep. The group brings together traditional Irish dance with hip-hop, body percussion, and tap. These types of dance grab people’s attention because it is something entirely new that still seems somewhat familiar.

James Pate, a Dayton artist, was in the audience and said something that really resonated with me. He said that people are not manufactured to appreciate the arts, especially dance. It has to be relevant and sometimes that means using interdisciplinary means to sell it to the next generation. We, as a culture, crave stories. We want to come away from a performance with a message and many people do not automatically know how to decode modern dance.

The question was then asked if modern dance is a hard sell and inaccessible to audiences. Across the board, the resounding answer was that sadly, you cannot make art without an audience and you cannot have an audience without community. They all believed that the audience is never at fault; however, I find that statement flawed. I believe that people who are educated about the arts should be held responsible to explore further. The arts cannot grow without people stepping outside their comfort zone. Modern dance never had a “heyday.” Sometimes there were personalities present that raised attention to the dance form but still failed to validate it in a way. Michelle said, “although their outlet was dance, they never failed to comment on politics, religion, and life.” It raised awareness but did not reach far outside the dance community.

Another main issue of keeping modern dance relevant is the lack of discretionary income and shorter attention spans of younger audiences. Mosley has shortened UD Dance Ensemble shows to one hour which many traditionalists call “microwave dance.” It is criticized for lacking substance but in my mind, it is merely a way of adapting to the needs of the audience.

Traditionalists argue that modern dance and fusion styles are watered down versions of original forms. I believe that it is an evolution and modernization. A point of reference is needed in new forms of dance to resonate with audiences. Dancing is about “teaching your body to move, not teaching your body to be a ‘blank’ dancer” said Mam-Luft.

Modern dance is a new wave of dance that refers to a generation and a shift away from the traditional. Flashy shows like So You Think You Can Dance and Dancing With the Stars gain exposure for dance but do not inform people about the technical aspects behind performances. It is the job of the performers to spark audiences’ interest and the job of audiences to ensure the dance form’s survival. Without a community there is no audience, without an audience there is no art, and without art, there is no beauty.

Amanda Reitenbach is a senior Electronic Media major with big Hollywood dreams. She is an obsessive traveler, blogger, and art lover who can almost always be found with a cup of coffee and a good book in hand.
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