The Role of Dance in the University

Dance as a field of academic inquiry is relatively new. The first dance major in the United States was founded in 1926, at the University of Wisconsin, housed within the Department of Women’s Physical Education, under the leadership of Margaret H’Doubler. (Kraus, 118) For many years thereafter, until the 1970’s, most dance programs were affiliated with physical education. Following the enactment of Title IX (1972) and Equal Educational Opportunity (1974) legislation, dance as a field, embarked on a three-decade long migration to the performing arts, within academia. (Bonbright, 2)

The unfortunate result of housing dance under physical education for so long, and perhaps the reason for it, is the Western perpetuation of belief in a mind-body split. Though Descartes, the father of this belief, is unarguably one of the great intellectual contributors to the development of contemporary, Western civilization, this contribution laid the foundation for the destructive, Western, ideological dominance of the mind over the body. 

As a dance scholar, and research-practitioner I reject the dictum of Cartesian duality that has shaped much of Western society since the Enlightenment, in favor of a holistic perspective that unites mind and body. If nothing else, the most important idea that dance brings to the academic table is proof that the mind-body split is a fallacy, that there is truth in physical experience as much as in thought, and that these truths are in actuality one truth. In dance, knowledge is obtained though the perfectly concerted effort of theory and embodied practice.

Dance, which engages the entire body-mind, the platform through which we interface with the world and with other people, can serve us individually and collectively in our interactions with both. According to the American Anthropologist Joann Kealiihonomoku, dance is a microcosm of the larger culture to which it belongs. (Kealiihonomoku) If we accept this as true then dance becomes much more than either physical exercise or artistic expression. It serves a much broader purpose in human life, a purpose that many non-western societies continue to acknowledge. Dance provides us with a means to not only know ourselves better, but to know each other and our surroundings.

Within academia, dance should be viewed as both a distinct discipline, a home for critical inquiry and practice that holds just as much weight as STEM disciplines, and as an agent of connectivity, a bridge to transdisciplinary, collaborative research. 

In my own work, I have brought dance together with such varied fields as conflict resolution and peacebuilding, architecture and urban planning, theatre, the sociology of community and culture, arts management and business, law and justice, psychology, and physical and mental health. My current work with conflict resolution specialist José Pascal da Rocha bridges dance, movement analysis, and peacebuilding in search of a deeper understanding of the nonverbal aspects of conflict, and through this, a more effective process by which conflict can be prevented and/or resolved. Continuing research, that unites dance and theatre, utilizes Laban/Bartenieff Movement Studies to develop character movement profiles, which allow dancers and actors to more fully realize and embody the characters they are tasked to portray. Past research that bridges organizational theory with dance, finds parallels between patterns of bodily organization and organizational structures of communication in corporations through the use of Laban/Bartenieff Movement Studies.

By downplaying the role of dance in academia we negate the fact that we experience the world through our moving, interacting bodies. Only by acknowledging that embodied research is as valuable as intellectual research, will we fully realize the potential that dance holds for human advancement.


Kraus, Richard and Sarah Chapman. History of the Dance in Art and Education. Prentice Hall New Jersey. 1981.

Bonbright, Jane. National Agenda for Dance Arts Education: The Evolution of Dance as an Art Form Intersects with the Evolution of Federal Interest In, and Support of, Arts Education. Presented at the Dancing in the Millennium Conference,  Washington, DC, 2000.

Kealiinohomoku, Joann. “Dance culture as a microcosm of holistic culture,” New dimensions in dance research: anthropology and dance – The American Indian. Tamara Comstock (editor), Research annual 6: 99-106. New York: CORD