Reflection II

Jane Alexandre

The Dancer-Citizen was founded as an online, open-access, peer-reviewed scholarly journal to explore the work of socially engaged dance artists.  The first issue went live in November 2015; subsequent issues have gone live every 6 months thereafter.    The journal grew out of the founding editors’ belief in the role of the artist as public intellectual, our curiosity about how dancers observe, explain, and comment on the world, and an understanding of the obligation we hold to seek and develop solutions for the challenges facing the communities in which we live and work.  It marks our recognition that our diverse roles, experiences and perspectives as practitioners constitute a unique body of knowledge in the world.


The statements above were developed after a long period of searching and discussion among the three founding editors—Jane Alexandre, Julie B. Johnson, and Anne C. Tucker—all of whom were at that time directors of Evolve Dance Inc., the parent organization of which The Dancer-Citizen is a publication project.  Our common practice concern for a number of years was around developing dance communities through a wide range of education, performance, and collaboration projects in the US and internationally, all in service of the Evolve Dance Inc. mission statement:  to pursue understanding, advancement and realization of the human experience through dance.

At the same time, the three founding editors were all engaged in doctoral and post-doctoral work exploring issues of leadership, social change, access/exclusion, and community development. 

After considering a number of different ways we might apply ourselves to issues of our collective concern—creating a think tank, consulting, publishing and the like—we decided to continue, develop, and highlight the work of the practice communities to which we belonged, and by so doing focus on the question of what it means to be a “dancer-citizen”.  This enthusiasm of practice, the initiating point of practice-led research, was a curiosity about what we were calling, for want of a better term, “socially engaged dance artists”:  how those artists were observing, explaining and commenting on the world.  We moved ahead, then, with a stated goal: “formalizing, acknowledging, publicizing, and encouraging the contributions that dance artists make as citizens to the communities and societies in which they live and work” by creating an online, open access academic journal presenting contributions in any form—danced, written, other (and we were sure there would be other)—from any area of dance practice (performance, education, research, and again, other). 

Foundational Discussions

Envisioning the shape of the journal entailed discussion of issues global and minute, philosophical and pragmatic.  Among the recurring questions were whether the journal should have a standardized format of some kind; and whether specifically themed issues would be generative, helping to steer and create an identity in the early stages when a primary concern was how we might define the term “the dancer-citizen”.  We considered whether a period of written theoretical research/development, drawing material both from practice and associated disciplines, should be our primary pathway.  Eventually it became quite clear that the journal itself should constitute a primary act of performative research—that is to say research that performs an action.  Thus, the journal would put out an open call for contributions with no more guidance than the founding statements cited above.  The accepted submissions would begin to define the field, the discipline itself.

The term “scholarly” was also of particular concern; a concern answered via Julie B. Johnson’s proposed definition of scholarship.  The definition of “scholarly” which was adopted and which has been applied to this publication is “an investment in and a commitment to an idea and/or process”. 

Finally, we identified from the outset a jointly held editorial imperative that the full breadth of work being done in the field be recognized and represented—however the field came to be defined.  As Anne C. Tucker pointed out,

Academic thinkers and a select few ‘high visibility” or “virtuosic’ choreographers/performers/community workers are heard from a lot in dance journals and discourse…but how might we reach beyond that circle to other forms of dance workers, thinkers and citizens?

The answer to this question, from the start, has been the careful, creative and continuing curating of an outreach list—one that reaches to institutions, organizations and groups, yes, but that primarily relies on an ever-extending reach through individual contacts in all our various communities.

The First Issues

Issue 1: Call for Submissions, and Going Live

The result of our discussions and deliberations appeared as the first call for submissions, in which the editors of The Dancer-Citizen invited colleagues to join an exploration of the dance artist/scholar as public intellectual.  Rather than posing a focused question, establishing a theme, or posting a prompt as guidance, we opted to see where the process led, posting an open call that cast as wide a net as possible as the first step in describing our field of practice as dancer-citizens:

We begin by claiming a space to have a conversation arising from our unique knowledge as dancer/scholars: what do we know, question, investigate, work on, interrogate around questions of citizenship, belonging, mutual obligation? What are our disparate views, how are we working, in what forms and methods are we reporting? What connections are we making, can we make, with each other and with other disciplines? Submissions are now invited and are welcome in any form, from any area of dance practice.

The resulting first issue of The Dancer-Citizen was introduced by a letter from the editors describing, in part, our individual motivations in creating the journal.  As Jane Alexandre said then,

I see from my notes that I initially posed the question “Accepting that the artist is a public intellectual, who is the dancer citizen?” And I would like to acknowledge Carol Becker as instigating this line of thought in my practice. I’d also like to thank Anne C. Tucker, our third founding editor, for posing the question of “Why are we doing this now?” For my part, I can answer that my research interests are dance leadership, dance and human rights, and how we search for solutions to the world’s so-called “wicked problems” through artistic practice. As an artist/scholar, I hold the convictions that dance is an intrinsic and universal human activity, that each of us has a social responsibility to all others; and that the opportunity to reach our individual capabilities in every realm is a basic human right. I identify my process with that Becker (2009) ascribed to artists generally: that those of us “who grapple with the development of ideas into forms have a fundamental faith that if [we] give ourselves over entirely to the process of creating, then an object, event, or environment will change”. I indeed have such faith—that knowledge generated within dance practice can and should contribute to solving our intractable problems. I take as given that as artists, scholars, and citizens, we are legitimately part of any discussion of human rights, problems, solutions, and policy. As artists, we have our own ways of working, and our own knowledge that originates from who we are and how we work. We know things that others will not. We hold unique knowledge—as do other practitioners/scholars of other disciplines. I believe the problems facing us are complex, and deserve/require scholarly input from all quarters as we search for solutions. I also believe in an evolving/emergent—not to say wandering and chaotic—process: the need to have space and time to let ideas develop. My hope was and is that The Dancer-Citizen provides time, space, and the forum for those ideas.

Contributions to the first issue provided a beginning picture of the dancer-citizen at work:  some of the forms that work might take, some of the processes that may be involved, how the work is instigated, what it hopes to do.  Three contributors offered written articles; three submitted video pieces with and without written accompaniment.  Five reported on their own practices, one offered an historical appreciation of a role model. 

            Across the contributions, certain themes emerged:  a deep investment in collaboration, a willingness to endure discomfort and risk conflict for the sake of open dialogue, a faith that personal experience has immense value when making art that aims to resonate with a broader community or the wider public, and an orientation toward creative solutions even to problems that at times seem insurmountable.

            The range of submissions demonstrated the range of methods contributors have developed to explore their unique embodied knowledge, and the ways in which they address the specific needs, interests and goals of their communities.  As Julie B. Johnson wrote at the time,

Whether written, performed, conveyed through interviews, photos, or videos; whether uplifting, disturbing, or unresolved, this body of work maps that movement of scholarly commitment to observing, understanding, and responding to challenges. It is a contribution to a larger discourse around civic/artistic practice that connects the corporeal to the social, opening channels for thought and experience.

As we moved toward the second issue, we recognized that many submissions assumed an American contemporary western concert dance framework, without explicitly claiming that point of view.  It was agreed that the work of future issues must intentionally move beyond that single framework.

Issue 2:  Exploring Themes

            With the guiding proviso of reaching beyond a single framework, we also experimented with the possibility of narrowing the issue focus, providing a theme for the second issue:  “Locate, Shift, Escape, Obliterate?  Framing ‘Systems’ in dancer-citizenship”, asking if/how an understanding of “systems” might drive artists’ work.  We sought a range of perspectives investigating how socially engaged dance artists employ, exploit, uphold, improve, shift or dismantle established organizations, networks, or policy-making structures; or create new mechanisms for practice, policy and theory.  Submissions loosely approached the theme from perspectives of philosophy of practice, social action, protest, movement, and dance education—but more markedly, continued to define a widening field wherein the identity of “dancer-citizen” might be located. 

Issue 3:  The Continuing Inquiry

            Of particular note, most if not all submissions for both Issue 1 and 2 were accompanied by the same question posed to the editors:  whether the material was within the purview of our journal specifically, and the concept of “the dancer-citizen” generally.  By the third issue, we sought to clarify an expanding reach:  as an exploratory effort, based in a philosophy of emergent practice, The Dancer-Citizen welcomes all submissions as they contribute to the development of the understanding and definition of our subject, our field, our area of concern.  With the third issue call and going forward we invited artists, in the words of Adam Benjamin, to “resist dissection, neat conclusions, or a singular perspective.  Instead I position myself in the midst of my research and allow it to ‘open up to me’ (Pernille Østern 2009:44)”.  The resulting contributions reported research in movement, words, photographs, painting and music that investigated and commented on gender-based violence, racial divides, the violent and hope-less dislocation of individuals and populations—and, as well, proposed and modeled exploration of interdisciplinary collaboration offering possibility for connection, community, and change.

Issue 4:  The Global Self/The Self as Practice

            The ever-widening lens of “the dancer-citizen” brought a new question to the editorial process, as the contributions ranged so widely that patterns were difficult to discern.  Very generally, we could identify that contributors were thinking about implications of one’s practice in the context of globalism, or examining relationships between self and practice-led research.  As Julie B. Johnson said in her introduction to the issue,

When I let go of the need to identify (or create) connections between the works, I am able to more deeply engage with each contributor’s individual practice. They are negotiating issues of cultural appropriation and cultural border-crossing, grappling with the role of the artist in times of conflict, sharing practice-led research that creates space for participants to identify and hone their dance-making skills, critically examining collective action and activism in the U.S. through the lens of embodiment, embodying relationships between dance practice and public art, and pondering the effect of globalization and multiculturalism on human life.

The Dancer-Citizen

Over the first four issues of The Dancer-Citizen, contributors have addressed issues facing the communities in which they live and work:  issues of race, of migration, of gender, of violence, of the environment, sustainability, and more; through submissions written, in video, musical composition, poetry, and painting; as solo artists and in collaboration.  We understand the body of work received thus far as a collective aesthetic of labor toward dancer-citizenship, affirming the power of the performative nature of participation in dance — that is, what the dance does.   In the way of emergent research, we continue to move forward in myriad directions from this beginning, spurred both by the contributions we receive and the feedback they provoke.  The driving force underlying all our exploration continues to be development of a deeper understanding of an idea: “dancer-citizen”.  At the core of the concept of the dancer-citizen is the transformational power of people’s potential to reflect, respond, and act on the world’s problems from wherever they practice. The response to the question “What does it mean to be a dancer-citizen?” is demonstrated through unique artistic practices and roles within their communities as dancer-citizens excavate, demonstrate, create, and illuminate both shared and vastly divergent experiences and the ways in which they shape and are shaped by social structures and systems.  This is the work of the dancer-citizen.