Preservationist Pedagogy: “Visibilizing” Culturally-Specific Language in Ballet Curricula
In The African Aesthetic (1994), Kariamu Welsh-Asante shows how two close synonyms – the words “stance” and “posture” – are actually respectively descriptive of two very contrasting aesthetic lineages. The dynamic, primed “stance” describes a body in readiness for the improvisation, and change that are emblematic of many African-derived art forms. Linear, vertical “posture,” on the other hand, describes a European-influenced body, one that stands in deference to the hierarchy and conservatism that underlie a great deal European art. This is, of course, a simplification of several hundred years of artistic and historical change, but I believe the assertion at the heart of it holds true: some of the broad truths held within any cultural tradition are revealed in the words that tradition uses to describe the human body in action.
I propose to dive into the vocabulary that acts in stewardship of Europeanist dance traditions by unpacking some of the key terms used in major ballet curricula of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. I will examine the deployment of words like “posture” and “aplomb,” seeking to illuminate their very specific relationship to European aesthetic and spiritual traditions. I will also examine the universalizing language in these curricula that works to obscure their own cultural specificity: words like “natural” and “clean”. It is my great hope that a fully historicized understanding of the language ballet teachers use will help them make informed choices about both the preservation of ballet’s cultural heritage and its enrichment with other aesthetic and pedagogical approaches.