Dancing Histories: Using popular dance films to teach critical theory

Published on June 7, 2022

Bridget Cauthery

Assistant Professor – Teaching Stream
Department of Dance, York University

In 2012, I was asked by the chair of my department (Department of Dance, York University) to create a blended, service course that combined in-person and online learning for 300+ students. Loosely based on a course previously taught to dance majors, the course combined dance history with popular culture. I developed a twelve-week course called Dance, Film & Culture that explored popular dance films through the lens of critical theory. In its original iteration, students watched a minimum of eight Hollywood and international films, attended in-person lectures, read scholarly articles drawn from the field of dance studies, participated in online forums, and wrote short papers critiquing the ways in which race, class, gender, and sexuality intersected with dance-infused narratives. This was the first blended learning course in my department, and I received the faculty eLearning award in 2014. 

Since it debuted almost ten years ago, the course has featured more than thirty dance films –  Honey to How She MoveBilly Elliot to Girl, Saturday Night Fever to Mad Hot Ballroom to Flashdance to Black Swan, Moulin Rouge to Saawariya, The Full Monty  to Anybody Can Dance (ABCD). Each film was framed by connecting historical context to the setting. For Dirty Dancing, I lectured on the Vietnam War, the anti-war movement, and the history of abortion rights in America. For Cabaret, I discussed the upsurge of anti-Semitism in Europe in the 1930s and the political rise of the Third Reich. For Mao’s Last Dancer, I explored the Cultural Revolution in China and the political implications of defection. For Footloose, we looked at the ways in which dance has been portrayed as threatening to the status quo by various world religions and colonial administrations. Over the years, the university increased the number of students permitted to take the course to 700 students.

In 2017, the university adopted a new financial model that made programs accountable for the amount of physical space they occupy. To maintain quality of instruction, a dance program needs large, open spaces with, relative to the size of the space, a small number of students. To help offset the costs associated with running the dance program, I was encouraged to pre-record my lectures. I spent one summer term to writing comprehensive lectures, spent a week in an on-campus studio filming with two video cameras, a sound person, and a teleprompter, and collaborated with an editor to animate text and make each lecture AODA-compliant. The resulting lectures accurately captured the key ideas and theories integral to the course. Unfortunately, they also became locked in time.

 In the 2019/2020 academic year, two events fundamentally shifted how people interacted with the world – the COVID-19 pandemic and the murder of George Floyd. The former created tremendous anxiety, hardship and social isolation, and the latter crystallized recognition of systemic racism and support for the Black Lives Matter movement. In response to the pandemic, universities in Canada went virtual and professors looked for ways to adapt content to the online environment. In response to BLM, many educators looked critically at their course content to ensure it was diverse and inclusive.

Since the course was anchored in critical race theory and was already in a blended format with pre-recorded lectures, I believed that I was well-positioned to manage these concurrent challenges. What I did not anticipate was that the combination of isolation, heightened awareness of systemic racism, and white students’ desire to demonstrate allyship, precipitated by the pandemic and BLM, would catalyze a series of misunderstandings about the purpose and intention of my course.

It started when a group of students had started a Discord chat – standard practice amongst undergraduates – to share comments and reactions. Over time, some students began to share opinions that the films and my framing of them were indicative of a white supremacist agenda. My prompts to engage in critical race dialogue were interpreted as tone deaf. The dance films themselves, instead of being viewed as historic texts that illustrate a persistent lineage of prejudicial treatment of racialized people, were called out as out-of-date and irrelevant. Online commentary shifted to statements shared in the chat or spoken aloud during Zoom tutorials. Students raised objections and began to question the basis upon which assigned films were selected.

I was fortunate that one of my TAs asked some of the students who had begun to actively distance themselves from the course to stay behind after tutorial one day. They complied and eagerly shared their concerns about the course content. The TA asked if the students had brought their concerns to the course director. They said they had not because, as a non-racialized person, I “wouldn’t get it.” The TA insisted that I would get it and to give me a chance.

We met one Saturday morning via Zoom and the spokesperson for the group brought a list of very articulate questions. The first asked by whose authority had I determined that Fran, in the film Strictly Ballroom, was of Romani heritage? I explained my rationale for this conclusion, which was based on interviews with the film’s director, a study guide created by the Irish Film Institute, my own understanding of the contested history of flamenco, and research I completed and published during my Masters on the ways Romani people had been represented and stereotyped, but agreed that it was open to interpretation. We moved on to the next question and the next, developing a varied and dynamic dialogue. When asked why I chose these films in the first place, I explained that they represent a history of ideas and that those ideas are often minimized or distorted for popular entertainment. At the end of our meeting, the student asked if I would be willing to meet with other students in the group. I readily agreed.

After I met one-on-one with other students, I began to understand that they believed I was offering these films, not for the purpose of deconstruction, but to revere. Many students were upset that I was asking them to watch films that contained racist, shadeist, sexist, classist, sizeist, and heteronormative plotlines. When I suggested that recognizing the problematic representational issues in the films was a critical step towards understanding why such films are produced, students explained that engaging with the films in this way made them uncomfortable. They asked for less history and more trigger warnings. For these students, watching the films was akin to participating and reflecting on representations was condoning.

In 2022, I revamped the course. I added dance films available via other accessible platforms, gave students the opportunity to write about music videos and allowed them choice in the film they watched each week. I added links to online sites that summarize potential triggers. I lectured live every Monday, focusing on the ways that we read bodies, drawing on references to popular culture and current events in order to situate reception in the present. Students wrote about how the movement itself was intersectional – how dance could be inscribed with race and class, or gender and sexuality. I moved away from treating the films as historical texts and committed instead to teaching students the skills and the vocabulary to be critical viewers of visual culture. I learned that, for my students, demonstrating allyship in the here and now outweighs examining the missteps of the past.

Bridget Cauthery - june 7

Bridget Cauthery (she/her) is an Assistant Professor, Teaching Stream in the Department of Dance at York University. She is the recipient of a the AMPD eLearning Innovation Award (2014) and the President’s University-Wide Teaching Award (2019). She taught as a member of the part-time/adjunct faculty at York University and Toronto Metropolitan University from 2008-2019, becoming full-time at York in 2020.

Photo Credit 1st image : Don Sinclair
Photo Credit 2nd image : Anthony Cohen


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