Scholar-in-Residence Program 2016: Q and A with Dr. Harmony Bench

Temple University 

INSTITUTE of DANCE SCHOLARSHIP

Scholar-in-Residence Program 2016: Q and A with Harmony Bench

Harmony Bench is Assistant Professor in the Department of Dance at The Ohio State University, where she is also affiliated faculty with Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies and Translational Data Analytics. Her writing has appeared in numerous edited collections, as well as Dance Research JournalThe International Journal of Performance Arts and Digital MediaParticipations, and Performance Matters, among others. Projects underway include a book in contract with University of Minnesota Press, tentatively entitled Dance as Common: Movement as Belonging in Digital Cultures, as well as Mapping Touring, a digital humanities and database project focused on the performance engagements of early 20th century dance companies.

M.F.A. candidate Amanda Keller had the opportunity to ask Dr. Bench, a few questions about her experience as a scholar and artist and her upcoming residency at Temple.

Q: What has surprised you most about the field of dance?

This is such a huge question! One thing that has really surprised me is the extent to which amateur and professional dancers and dance-makers have taken to the Web to promote themselves and share their work through studio videos, clips of performances, and even entire films. There is such a strong academic narrative of dance being “of the body” or about “liveness” or the centrality of oral transmission of dance histories that one might have been led to believe that social media would not have a profound impact on the broader field of dance. While I’m not surprised that this has proved to be untrue, I am surprised at the extent to which it has been refuted. I think dance scholars must now go through the work of deciphering what this treasure trove of continuously updated movement content means for movement and cultural literacies, for dance education, and for practices of transmission.

Q:  As a faculty member in the Department of Dance and in the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Department at Ohio State, how are these fields related to each other? Do you think there is a wide gap between the two fields that need to be addressed?

I think dance and feminist studies are highly complementary fields of investigation. If we look at the beginnings of what some now call critical dance studies, we see feminist inquiry as a fundamental component of that work. I’m thinking here of Susan Leigh Foster, Ann Cooper Albright, Cynthia Novack, and Jane Desmond. Of course there are many others, but these were the scholars I first encountered as an undergraduate student majoring in ballet and women’s studies. They made me feel like there was something both useful and urgent in bringing these fields together. As both areas of scholarship have continued to evolve, I think they have found even more common ground in their mutual interest in (mostly human but also non-human) bodies, and how culture shapes what bodies do and what they can be said to mean—including but not limited to questions of representation. Further, more scholars are thinking aesthetics and politics, and aesthetic practices and political practices, together. Colonization, global migration, and protest, for example, are pressing concerns for dance scholars as well as political theorists, and concepts such as choreography, technique, practice, and performance enable scholars to think about how movement emerges from or is organized in contexts other than dance. As for whether or not there is a gap between the two fields, I think that’s the place of investigation—whatever choreographic, written, or other form that inquiry might take. The point is not to seal the gap shut, but to see what previously unthought possibilities arise in trying to bridge it.

Q: How can dance fit/remain current in an ever increasing digitized world?

I hear some version of this question a lot, and I think there’s an underlying fear that dance is losing its cultural relevance, and by extension, its economic viability as a career path. But I think we really need to examine what is meant by “dance” in questions like this. If we can expand our definition beyond artistic works crafted for a theatrical context and the training systems that have developed to support those types of productions, then I think the question we need to ask is not how dance remains current in a digitized world, but what dance or movement practices have currency within a digital norm, and what digital practices facilitate access to and cultivate fluency in dance or other movement practices? Then we can also ask how dancers, dance-makers, dance educators, and dance scholars position themselves in relation to technological change, and how we individually and collectively navigate aesthetic commitments and ethico-political responsibilities under new circumstances of mediation.

The anxieties that still surround digital technologies once accompanied other media such as print and cinema, and they will similarly greet whatever paradigm supersedes the digital era. As long as dancing continues to offer a vehicle for questioning and manifesting what it is to be human and have a body, experimenting with entering into and exiting from systems of relation among human and non-human parties, and offering a way to apprehend motional and emotional (affective) ideas, it will be current. Dancing will be current as long as people find reasons to keep dancing.

Q: What excites you the most about your upcoming residency at Temple?

Temple has a very impressive faculty, and I’m excited to exchange work and have conversations with such stellar scholars. There is incredible generosity built into the residency, and I’m looking forward to all the opportunities to share in an intellectual community with faculty and students. Additionally, every dance program has a unique profile. I’m interested to experience first hand the kinds of inquiry taking place at Temple, and the atmosphere and ethos of the program.