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Tangoing Into The Future: Moving Society With Modern Dance

On Tuesday, December 5th, the UC Davis Humanities Institute held its first “book chat” of the academic year with Professor of History Edward Ross Dickinson, who discussed his book Dancing in the Blood: Modern Dance and European Culture on the Eve of the First World War. Dickinson argues that modern dance shaped turn-of-the-century Europe through its liberalization of gender relations, its flattening of class distinctions, its reinforcement of ethnic stereotypes, and its influence on future popular forms of entertainment such as film.

DHI Director and Professor of German and Cinema & Digital Media Jaimey Fisher moderated the book chat and led off the conversation in a Q&A format that began with a question about how Dickinson came to be interested in the subject of modern dance as a vessel for cultural change.

Dancing in the Blood grew out of research Dickinson did for his previous book, Sex, Freedom, and Power in Imperial Germany. As Dickinson explained, the tipping point came when he realized that people were intentionally using modern dance to make a cultural and political statement.

Among the effects of modern dance was its ability to cultivate a following that crossed class boundaries. Both social and intellectual elites, as well as lower classes of people, could enjoy what modern dance offered.

The business of running modern dance operations was also more open in terms of gender compared to older forms of entertainment like ballet and opera. Most modern dance pioneers were women who were not dependent on men, and more than a few were able to achieve economic independence.

Modern dance impacted and modified other social and political norms as well. Many of its practitioners designed performances that latched onto leftist social movements like eugenics and the religion of love. It also promoted a more revealing and liberal sense of bodily movement, especially compared to traditional dance, the impact of which could be seen in the fashion industry and cinema.

Echoing debates over the influence of “low brow” forms of entertainment in the Progressive Era United States, European critics of modern dance worried about whether audiences had “sufficient aesthetic and moral sophistication” to view essentially nude (for the day) female bodies without being overtaken by animalistic urges. In other words, could audiences appreciate the art of modern dance while maintaining moral purity?

Modern dance developed alongside growing racist and ethnocentric sentiments in Europe. The aesthetic quality of dances was often deemed to be tied to the race or cultural makeup of the dancers, e.g. Italian dancers might be seen as being more “free-spirited.” Mixed-race people were seen as having a wider range of “aesthetic potential” because they could supposedly draw on the styles and attributes of multiple ethnic groups.

Dickinson ended by noting that the history of modern dance is one that goes beyond Europe. In fact, he argues that “modern dance developed within a circuit that is transnational,” with its tendrils reaching out to the United States, China, and India. His next project would like to place the subject of modern dance in relation to cultural movements in Bengal, Guangdong, and the 20th-century United States.

This book chat was recorded and will be available soon as a podcast through the UC Davis Humanities Institute website. The next DHI book chat will take place on Tuesday, January 16th, where Leopoldo Bernucci will discuss Paraiso Suspeito: A Voragem Amazonica. 


Remaining 2017-2018 Book Chat Schedule

(all events are in Voorhies 228 from 12:10-1 PM)

Tuesday, January 16: Leopoldo Bernucci, Paraiso Suspeito: A Voragem Amazonica

Tuesday, February 6: Bruce Haynes and Syma Solovitch, Down the Up Staircase: Three Generations of a Harlem Family

Tuesday, March 6:Caren Kaplan, Aerial Aftermaths: Wartime from Above

Tuesday, April 3: Stephanie Boluk and Patrick LeMieux, Metagaming: Playing, Competing, Spectating, Cheating, Trading, Making, and Breaking Videogames

Tuesday, May 15: Mairaj U. Syed, Coercion and Responsibility in Islam: A Study in Ethics and Law


This page was last updated: July 26, 2018



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