Dancers and Dance Historians: 4 Clear Cut Ways to Help You Keep Dance Alive

Carmen de Lavallade and Alvin Ailey at the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival in 1961.Credit John Lindquist/Harvard Theater Collection

Carmen de Lavallade and Alvin Ailey at the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival in 1961.Credit John Lindquist/Harvard Theater Collection

In Demand: Archived Dance, Especially Across Digital Platforms
As a dancer, choreographer, dance anthropologist or dance historian, you know there are huge benefits to preserving dance both short and long term. As current research suggests and unanimous best practices for reconstructing dance trends among many, we find accessing dance archives integral to reconstructing works and fundamental to teaching and learning about dance and movement within a historical, cultural and social context. Whether researching culture or history, choreographing a new work, seeking inspiration, reconstructing a historical piece, or simply looking at dances for fun, archiving and archived dance are essential to our society.

In addition to that, the popularity of classical, historical and cultural dance on YouTube to dance in museums, dance on prime-time TV and a movement toward more diversity across industries prompting people to seek and learn more about one another and cultures we derive – behavior shows that people want access to history and culture through dance. Its both entertaining and informative.

People want to see what movement and dances were like, understand them, understand people who did them and how yesterday’s moves connect to today’s. They want to hear music seeing the steps that went hand in hand and want to see movement and gesture in its constant evolving but earliest forms.

Dance on film, reviews on dance, accessing music scores and composition that accompany choreographed or improvised dances, dance notations and dance in photography, are some of the type of dance archives in high demand. What is nice about living in the age of technology is that we can get much of what we want on demand and across digital platforms.

The only way for us to access it on demand however, is to archive it first. Document it.

The Importance of Archiving Dance
As a dancer/dance archivist and someone passionate about performance, education and STEAM, I recently came across two articles that struck a few chords for me, reminding me of the importance of dance preservation.

Firstly, how important it really is. Secondly, the significance archiving dance has on both preserving and promoting dance and thirdly, how important it is to take advantage of using technology to preserve dance in various ways. As life moves forward and people pass on, (nope, we just don’t live forever), it is imperative we think about the importance of carrying dance and moving it beyond ourselves so others.

The first article, Tap, Look and Listen: The Decline of an American Art, where Terry Teachout writes how tap dancing, a “quintessential style of American theatrical dance in the 20th century” is no longer a large part of theatrical choreography. Her article published in Commentary Magazine contrasts the popularity of tap dancing specifically on broadway and on Hollywood screen movies throughout the 1930’s, 40’s, 50’s and 60s to the dismal trend of tap dancing in theatre performance today. She notes that as recent as 2015, the Broadway revival Dam at Sea only lasted two months on off-Broadway in comparison to its 1966 New York City debut which ran for 575 performances.

All About Tap Dance: Footnotes from Hoofer HistoryCourtesy of Theatre Dance

All About Tap Dance: Footnotes from Hoofer HistoryCourtesy of Theatre Dance

Imagine the impact preserving or building collections could have on studying, choreographing and performing tap dance. How building a personal library of tap dance on film could also assist with both preserving and promotion of the art form, a genre which seems to be fading out. What researching archives can do to revive tap dance study and practice is key. When it comes to tap dancing, writing about it, discussing it and digging up old works could bring forth dormant conversations around performance and choreography, evidence of its’ contributions to society and inspiration for new works or reconstructions of historic ones.

Members of the cast from Broadway’s BRING IN 'DA NOISE, BRING IN 'DA FUNKCourtesy of Houston Theatre

Members of the cast from Broadway’s BRING IN ‘DA NOISE, BRING IN ‘DA FUNKCourtesy of Houston Theatre

Bring in ‘da Noise, Bring in ‘da Funk (debuting November 3, 1995), was one of the first Broadway shows I saw in NYC and a performance that would touch my life forever. It was an amazing broadway production that starred Savion Glover and was a story about African American history and experience told through tap dance. Taking it back to its’ early beginning, tap dancing originated from African dancers brought to north America through slavery who articulated, “rhythmic patterns through chugging, scooping, brushing and shuffling movements of the feet”, in the midst of the drum being stripped and their desire to engage in traditional practices of dance and creating rhythm and sound. They were called the Levee Dancers throughout the south.

Finding fame in minstrel shows performing what was called Shuffle Dance, white performers copied and performed many of the intricate and creative steps. With the rich history of tap dancing, it’s incredible deep roots both tap dance and Irish Clogging share and it’s ability to tell story through movement, rhythm and music, can you imagine tap dancing no longer being a part of theatrical choreography in our society?

“Listen to my feet and I will tell you the story of my life.” -John Bubbles

In How Five American Indian Dancers Transformed Ballet in the 20th Century the second article, this one by Allison Meier and published in Hyperallergic, Meier reports the passing of Yvonne Chouteau, one of the Five Moons. Yvonne Chouteau who passed on January 24th, 2016 was 86 years old and is noted as rising “in the ranks of dance when ballet was still not widely appreciated in this country”. The five Native American ballerinas, known as the Five Moons, all originating from Oklahoma, were well accomplished and esteemed professional ballerinas. Jenefar De Leon reports in Graceful Heritage in her article Five Indian Ballerinas, a 1982 interview in a New York news service where Chouteau shares her perspective on the connection between her Native American culture and studying and performing dance professionally:

“The Indian people are very artistic as a whole… we are also very non-verbal, and so I think dance is a perfect expression of the Indian soul.” -Yvonne Chouteau

Five American Indian Ballerinas, The Five Moonscourtesy of NewsOK in Five Ballerinas

Five American Indian Ballerinas, The Five Moonscourtesy of NewsOK from Five Ballerinas

Without recordings, interviews, photos, documentaries and dance on film, we would not know who these women were in the way we do or their contribution to dance and performance, ballet history, American culture or Native American History. Their legacy would not be as impactful as it is today. As noted by both Meier and De Leon in their respective articles, the Five Moons include Yvonne Chouteau (1930–2016), Moscelyne Larkin (Shawnee, 1925–2012), Rosella Hightower (Choctaw, 1920–2008), Marjorie Tallchief (Osage, b. 1926), and, most famously, Maria Tallchief (Osage, 1925–2013), with the only surviving member being Marjorie Tallchief at age 90.

Five American Indian Ballerinas, The Five Moonscourtesy of NewsOK in Five Ballerinas

Five American Indian Ballerinas, The Five Moonscourtesy of NewsOK from Five Ballerinas

Call to Action
As time goes on, people change, our culture changes, people pass on, new ideas and technologies, industries and the like emerge. There are many ways to keep dance alive. There is an absolute necessity for dance preservation through archives and an absolute necessity to reference dance archives. So how do we preserve dance and this moving culture when the people themselves who embody movement won’t be here forever? How does this knowledge get passed down to the next generation of dancers and artists? There are many way to pass it down from generation to generation for centuries to come.

Drawing from these articles, I’ve illustrated four clear cut ways to keep dance and the people (including yourself) who lived it, alive:

  • Document, archive, preserve your work – whether it be on film, through photography, through a collection of saved choreographic notes or sketches, it is important you document and archive your work in both process and progress – dance teaching, choreography and performance. Moreover, we are in the digital age and the ability to digitize photographs, audio, film, sketches, notes etc. is simple and convenient. With big data storage and the cloud, it’s low hassle to acquire enough storage space for the data you know for developing your own archives and constructing someone else’s. Stay tuned for upcoming resources that go deep on how to document and archive dance.
  • Grow your dance library – Dance on film is something any one of us can get a hold of. Rare dance on film from decades even a century ago is not as easy to grab but when the sources are available, it is definitely a good investment. As dancers/choreographers, educators and parents, there is so much we can learn from archived dance, especially on film. History, social dynamics, culture and customs are only a few important things we can teach from watching and understanding dance on film. Archives are great for inspiration for new works or for reconstructing dances or dance styles, movements and gesture. Most importantly, growing your dance library keeps dance of yesterday alive today because it becomes a part of our culture when we reference it, explore it, and discover its relevants.
  • See & Support Dance – Connect with online sites like and others to stay connected to other dancers and to be in the loop about the latest in dance news, trends, culture performances and events. Sign up for newsletters on various dance and performances, art and theatre news sites to know where dance is and how to get yourself there. You can also find discounted tickets for students or seniors, info about free performances as well as performance opportunities and free company dance classes. Go see free dress rehearsals open to the public. Keep your eyes open and your ear to the ground.
  • Advocate for STEAM – the more STEAM and arts integrative teaching and learning embraced, the more people outside of dance and dance studies are involved in teaching and learning through dance about dance and of dance. Dance is not only a creative modality but it is also a gateway to technology in many aspects and most importantly, its culture. Something everyone needs to understand. Individuals outside of dance studies will find dance on film and other dance archived material relevant to whatever subject they are studying or teaching. Its intersectionality is at its core and is an apt framework for cross disciplinary and interdisciplinary exploration. The more learning about this area of inquiry from outside, the more people will find it relevant and engage in its existence and preservation for tomorrow. From language arts to writing and literature to math, science and technology, to social studies, cultural studies, anthropology and mixed media, these are just a few areas to explore through dance.

Starting today if you have not already, begin archiving dance. If you already do it, check out ways to go deeper, how you can use archives and how you can advocate for them and grow your own library. Check out dancers of yesterday and their contributors to our society. Connect other’s work to yours and continue your legacy as a continuation of what has been trail blazed before you.

As featured on this article Hyperallergic you’ll find dance on film featuring the Five Moons.

About Yauri Dalencour

Yauri is a professional dancer, dance archivist and educator. She has run an arts education consultancy she founded almost ten years ago and is now head of product and brand ambassador at Dancetime Publications. Yauri’s forte as a dance journalist is writing short insightful and reflective posts as well as featured articles featuring guests and experts.

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