Dance in higher education at Hope and beyond

In last week’s Arts article, Matthew Farmer (’04) discussed the unique activity of dance and how there is much debate concerning where to put it on the spectrum of sports and arts among many different groups.  Farmer drew on his unique insight based on his wealth of experiences as an athlete, professional dancer, choreographer, former Hope College student, current Hope professor and chair of the Dance Department. He continued the discussion of dance in higher education and how Hope treats the Dance Department, while also touching on the complicated history of dance and what he hopes for the future. 

The Dance Department has gone through many changes throughout the years, and Farmer witnessed them firsthand, first as a student and now as a faculty member. “Particularly in the last couple years I would say that [Hope] as a whole has supported dance more than I have even seen it before, which is wonderful.” He said. “Proof in the pudding is that they are working on new facilities for us. When I approach the Dean, or the Provost, or sometimes even the president I [feel] heard.”

Although Hope has come a long way in its support for dance, “It hasn’t always been that way historically,” Farmer said. “…but I will also say that Hope isn’t unique in that. Higher education in general doesn’t see dance as valuable.” There are many reasons why educational institutions are falling short in their dance programs, and it is all twisted up in a combination of historical, cultural and religious factors that, like many injustices and inequalities, is only recently being seriously discussed. 

A big start to the reason dance gets sub-par treatment comes down to the founding of our country. “The reality is,” said Farmer, “[is that] we were settled by the Puritans, and the Puritans thought that dancing was sinful.” Those kinds of cultural beliefs are difficult to lift since they are so embedded in our institutions and psyches, and they are still around today. Since eternal damnation was contingent on whether one danced or not, some of the reasoning for the suspicion and prejudice against dance becomes more clear.

The United States’ cultural ideals also play into why dance is so hard to pursue as a career in this country. “Having danced and lived in Europe is so different [than the US].” Farmer said. “Dancers are paid a lot better, and it is actually a state position. In a lot of the dance companies, you get a paycheck from the government because the government values art.” Apart from a financial standpoint, in a lot of other countries and cultures dance is just inherent. In many sub-Saharan African, Latin American and South American countries, dance is embedded in traditions and celebrations of their respective cultures. It isn’t seen with such a critical eye. 

Kankouran West African Dance Company performing at the White House. Photo by Eric Draper. 2007.

Another factor is that throughout the founding of higher education, particularly in large institutions, dance was never a part of any curriculum or program, and even the fine arts struggled to be included. The original basis of the liberal arts, the Trivium and the Quadrivium, never included fine arts or dance. The closest discipline to art was music, but it was seen through the lens of math and physics, not art. That was the foundation of higher education in the first institutions in the middle ages. 

Coming out of that era in western culture, specifically western European countries, physical art was viewed as the highest of the art forms. This ideal translates to the very human idea of ownership. “As people, we like ownership, we like to own things.” Farmer said. “So physical art, be it paintings, sculptures or whatever, [we] can buy it and own it.”

That brings up the idea of tangibility. “Sculptures and paintings are easy, you actually pass the object.” Farmer said. “Music, while you can only hear a certain symphony once, I can play that piece of music over and over again because there is a sheet of music that I pass through history. Theatre is the same way.” With theatre, the audience can only experience that moment in time with those actors once, but the play itself lives on with the tangible script that can be passed on forever. 

However, dance doesn’t have any of those privileges. Until the invention of the video camera, there was absolutely no permanence to any aspect of dancing. “From a capitalist standpoint, dance isn’t very interesting,” said Farmer, “…because dance is forever never owned by anybody. I can’t buy it, keep it, and sell it for more.” That’s the unique quality of dance that not many other art forms can touch. “You see it once and it is gone.” Farmer said. “Hopefully someone in the performance remembers what happened or the choreographer remembers what they did, but it is always going to be a little different because the human memory is fallible.” 

All that being said, dance as an art form, particularly in a culture like America that values ownership, independence and passing things on, has had a hard time fitting in. Those larger cultural issues have made their way to Hope’s campus, too. “Hope itself, as an institution, has its own history.” Farmer said. “Like the foundation of America, you can’t understand how you’ve gotten to where you are without examining that history.” Hope is an institution that was founded by Dutch Americans and the Dutch reformed church. “So it would make sense that Hope as an institution didn’t value dance, just by that history.” Farmer continued, “Slap on the fact that it is a religious institution, [which] even today, is still suspicious of dance.”

Only by dealing with its own history can Hope move forward, “Since I’ve been here in my ten years, the campus as a whole has begun to appreciate dance more,” Farmer said. “However I would also argue that most of that [change] has come on the hard work and backs of the dance students and the dance faculty.” It has been them driving forward and working hard to make themselves seen on campus. 

Farmer continued by talking about how Hope as an institution, not just with dance, is grappling with its historic identity, mostly as a result of the greater culture. “I think it is easy to write dance off as not as important — and understandably so — as things like race relations and sexual identity.” he said, “However I would argue that dance has always been within those communities. They have always sought refuge in dance, theatre, art and music, so I would also argue [that] investing in those disciplines will inherently address those other things in small ways.” 

Hope student dancer in 2015 with the H2 Dance Company.

Dance has always been with minority communities, and to some extent becomes one of its own. Farmer said that “It is an interesting thing to me, ironically, being a cis, straight, white male, how much being a dancer in this country and in West Michigan and at this institution has allowed me to have sympathy for those groups,” he said. “I think there is a cultural, religious and higher education institutional inherent bias and distrust towards dance. I would argue in a similar way that they have biases towards race and sexual identity.” 

Connecting to the previous points about how the history we inherit affects the problems we are facing today, Farmer added that “There are historic systems in place that work against certain races, genders and gender identities, and, yes, even dance.” Of course, dance doesn’t face the same extent of challenges, rather, “some of the very same systems that oppress certain people are, ironically, some of the very same systems that subjugate dance,” he said.

Although there has been immense improvement in the dance department throughout the years, due mostly to those within the program, there is always more to be done from those outside of it. Farmer said, “Until you are willing to confront the demons of the history that you have created, you will never advance to where [you want to be]. You’ll just keep putting new paint on a bad house.” We hope that Hope continues to make progress, not only for the dance program but for our entire campus community. 

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