Learning the Language: Conversations Between Dance and the Academy

My name is Victoria LaFave and I am a third-year PhD student in the Theatre Arts Department pursuing a degree in Theatre and Performance Studies. My research focuses on queer studies, affect, and cultural memory in twentieth century popular entertainment.

This summer I had the pleasure to continue my relationship with the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre (PBT). The Humanities Engage Summer Immersive Fellowship gave me the support to develop a dance cultural history curriculum for the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre School’s dance students and professionals. This project is part of PBT’s ongoing mission to increase “equity, access and opportunity in the art of ballet” by “bringing together people with diverse perspectives, histories and life experiences will make ballet richer, stronger and more innovative.” Through this curriculum, the Education and Community Engagement team aims to give PBT’s dancers the knowledge and vocabulary to articulate cultural issues within ballet and understand their position within the legacy of dance. I am eager for this curriculum to be implemented in the 2021-2022 school year!

I developed six instructional aids and lesson plans across four cultural history units. Below are snippets from the instructional aids for two of the lessons. The first two come from the introductory unit, Ballet as Global Dance. This lesson sets the foundation for understanding ballet in conversation with other technical dance forms, such as Bharatanatyam, through videos and physical exercises.

Slide: We all use dance to...

Slide: Aramandi vs. Demi-plie


The next set comes from the third unit of the curriculum, America's Dance Forms. This unit highlights the influence jazz and tap dance have on American ballet. The first lesson explores the history of what we broadly call “jazz dance,” from the experiences of enslaved African people in the Americas to vaudeville to appropriation in Broadway dance to jazz’s influence on “the Father of American Ballet” George Balanchine. This lesson effectively traces the lineage of Black artists in American dance through video footage and archival photographs. Students will see how ballet has become what we recognize today through its exposure to the work of Black artists and dancers.

Slide: Jazz Dance History

Slide: From the Cakewalk to BroadwaySlide: Similarities between cakewalk and contemporary jazz

Slide: Balanchine Technique

Developing this curriculum built upon my pedagogy and research skills. Although I am not an expert in ballet repertoire nor a trained dancer, I found my ability to read and synthesize information to be the most useful. While I was gaining a working understanding of ballet repertoire history, I was able to connect that history to social movements and critical conversations we often engage with in the humanities. For example: The Nutcracker reads differently when one understands orientalism. As an American holiday staple, it is critical to understand the power wielded by choreographers when representing other cultures through character dances. The ballet dancer’s control of their body is more than just a demonstration of skill. Through understanding the history of orientalism, dancers and audience members can develop a richer understanding of the complexities of power dynamics in dance. Designing pathways for dancers to deconstruct the history of this classic piece in the repertoire while also honoring the labor of generations of dancers who have built it was a rewarding challenge.

Through this immersive fellowship, I was reminded of the balance between the academy and the arts. I found that diversity, equity, and inclusion conversations have been happening in ballet for years, especially through amazing projects such as Theresa Ruth Howard’s MoBBallet and the Final Bow for Yellowface. These organizations have initiated changes in the world of ballet. I entered an on-going conversation with the specific goal of helping PBT’s students find the language to describe what they were seeing and experiencing. While I brought the theoretical and cultural studies vocabulary, I had much to learn about the language of ballet and they were kind enough to teach me; we taught each other. It was a refreshing experience that underscored the importance of a dancer’s embodied knowledge as theory.

Practically, I was able to develop my public-speaking skills through delivering presentations to multiple audiences. Whether it was a board of community members invested in ballet education in Pittsburgh or the Community Education and Engagement Affinity Group through Dance USA, I learned to speak clearly and openly to new audiences. Additionally, working outside of the academy reminded me of the importance of my own voice. Often in graduate education we find ourselves working towards the expectations of others but, in our future careers, we will most likely build our own pathways to success. This means that we will build our own timelines, measure our own success, and make decisions that benefit us. Learning to voice these goals is a skill I will take with me.

As I move toward the milestone of doctoral comprehensive exams, I am revitalized in two ways. On the one hand, I have a newfound interest in nineteenth century dances, particularly the classed and gendered conversations around ballet and burlesque. More than that though, I am energized by the practical application of my dance history knowledge in shaping the next generation of dancers.

Victoria LaFave
Theatre Arts
September 2021
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