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ASU professor examines intersection of dance, ethics in new book

Cover of the book "Dance and Ethics: Moving Towards a More Humane Dance Culture."
August 31, 2023

Arizona State University Professor Naomi Jackson has been working in the area of dance and human rights since 2000. Recently, she published the book “Dance and Ethics: Moving Towards a More Humane Dance Culture,” which examines the ethical issues within the history and field of Western theatrical dance.

Jackson’s book emphasizes the importance of examining the ethics and changing values of the dance world, especially as they pertain to young dancers entering the field.

“I am interested in social justice and human rights and how they intersect with dance,” she said.

The inspiration for the book came from Jackson’s work with Margaret Walker through the Lincoln Center for Applied Ethics at ASU. Walker is currently the Donald J. Schuenke Chair Emerita in philosophy at Marquette University. Before her appointment at Marquette, Walker was the Lincoln Professor of Ethics, Justice, and the Public Sphere at ASU.

As part of her work with Walker, Jackson taught a course on dance and ethics. Her book was developed from her research and experiences in teaching that class.

“Dance and Ethics: Moving Towards a More Humane Dance Culture” is published by Intellect Books. It is available through the publisher and at booksellers online.

Jackson shared about her inspiration for the book, why she feels this topic is relevant today, the messages she hopes readers take away and the challenges writing this book posed.

Editor’s note: The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Question: Why did you decide to write this book?

Answer: I was interested in how ethics and dance relate to each other. I had been teaching a class called “Dance and Ethics” once a year. It’s a topic that I’m really passionate about. I started researching back in 2009, and it took over a decade to write. I decided to focus on each chapter, to focus on one topic and write a chapter on that. When the pandemic hit, I was encouraged to finish it. I spent a good part of the pandemic working on it. I wanted to write a book that wasn’t purely academic, that could reach a broader audience. I did a lot of revising, and I also worked with a professional editor. With her behind me, I felt like I could do it. 

Q: Why do you think this topic — dance and ethics — is so relevant?

A: There is a long history of abusive practices that have been normalized within the dance world, especially the elite world of dance. It crosses over all forms of dance, in one way or another, but especially across styles that are taught within typical Western studios. 

Also, there is a tradition of seeing dance as immoral or unethical, seeing it as sinful. I thought that was also very interesting. It’s true in places like Iran as well as in New York, where it took many years for a law to be overturned that forbade dancing in nightclubs. It’s fascinating. A lot of it goes back to issues around the body and seeing the body and dance as sinful. 

Q: What message do you hope readers will take away from this book?

A: That things should change. That you can be a decent human being and a talented human being as well. There’s a myth that in order to make work that is great, the artist has to be eccentric, so if they act abusively or weirdly, that’s just how it is. That somehow it’s part of their genius. In the dance field, that is still accepted because those ideas were handed down from teacher to teacher. 

The very first chapter is about what it means to be a good human being and how does that relate to being a good artist. That’s where I start from. I think of a young dancer and why would they care? How can we work with other people? How do you go through these transformations in a way that is much more civilized and humane?

Q: Were there any particular challenges that came from writing this book?

A: It’s a very complex topic. I wanted to present issues and encourage people to think about those and allow them to decide where they fit into it. That’s also how I teach. That is hard — to bring subtlety to this topic. One thing I found is that when you start to use the term “ethical,” some people think that means just one thing. There are many ethical lenses to apply. There are different ways of thinking about what is ethical. 

Another challenge is that I’m a historian by nature. The way I look at things is through a historical, ethnographic lens — looking at the time period, who is involved, what’s the situation — in order to make decisions about what is ethical. That creates an inherent conflict. Dance studies today are approached from a very historically rooted and politicized perspective. 

A personal challenge was writing in a way that was accessible. I don’t really know if I’ve achieved it. I’m looking forward to seeing if dancers say that I have accomplished that.

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