Professor Jane Desmond is one of those people who you would want on a trivia team. Starting as a dancer and choreographer, Jane’s work has moved into academia and has covered a range of fascinating areas. This interview reveals just how much dance, as a practice, has informed Jane’s work in other fields and on other topics. Jane is now a professor in Anthropology and Gender and Women's Studies, and Co-founder, and current Director, of the International Forum for U.S. Studies, a center in International Programs.
Her research covers topics including embodiment, display, and social identity, as well as the transnational dimensions of U.S. Studies. Her work includes research on human and animal relations and gender and sexuality, which feature in this interview.
I was interested in talking to Jane as a result of her work looking at the role of dance in society and the ways in which dance can be used to question the status quo. Before the interview, we exchanged a number of emails about the topic of our conversation and the below text comes from one of our exchanges. It is included as an extension of our conversation.
30 Aug 2018, 13:47
Thanks for agreeing to participate. I have sketched out some proposed questions. The proposed questions are somewhat thematic and not all solid questions, I am pretty informal in approach, but this will give you a bit of an idea of areas I think would be interesting to talk about. I am not married to any of them so if there are other things you would like to talk about that is also fine as well.
Starting with Memory lane questions: Where did dance start?
Pathway to dance- dancing and choreography. What were you interested in? Are there things you miss about dancing?
Moving in to academia what was the process from dance in to academic study? What had to shift?
What where some of the things coming from dance that supported the new journey?
How useful is dance as a lens for viewing and understanding society? - I am thinking here particular around Waikiki to Seaworld.
Interested in dance gender and sexuality- you have written that dance history ought to also consider the history of sexuality, why is it important to considered the role of sexuality in dance?
- What can we learn from making sexuality visible?
- shifts in time (this season has looked at those who have used dance to question the status quo, or have often explored non-normative ideas around gender, sex and sexuality through their work. As well as dancers working in mainstream companies (Chase Johnsey and Harper Watters whose gender and sexual identities are warmly embraced). Dance has not always been such a progressive space, particularly in larger mainstream companies, what has been shifting?
I have just spent the weekend at Manchester Pride and I am always reminded that the body can be an act of protest- the body, dance and the party, taking on a counter narrative? What is it about the 'performing' body that becomes powerful? ......(this thought bubble will need some working as a questions)
I am interested in the shifts in desire and the ways that desire has informed dance practice and audience receptions..... (I am sure there will be a question that will form around this). Why has desire historically been downplayed in dance?
In regards to the body, I am interested in talking about the other arenas in which you have explored the body, including that of non-humans and taxidermy. What are there differences in display and presentation of what was moving object? Does a dance background inform your thinking and curiosity here?
Data collection, what are some of the weirder things you have witnessed and been apart of during data collection? (I was fascinated by the computer program for bulls sexual release, pet cemetery and many of the other things you listed). - I am sure there will be other things that will pop up from our discussions here.
You have such a vast range of interests what is it that drives your curiosity? What are you exploring at the moment?
Arts, academia, journalism, science and other central pillars of society are currently being questioned and blatantly attacked and disregarded by certain political leaders, part of the media and sections of society. How do we protect and defend these aspects of society?
and thank you for such a stimulating draft of topics and questions! I am excited to talk about these issues....the linkages of sexuality/dance/and social and political changes over time, and your questions about my own work over time...especially how a concentration on the body and dance continues to inform my recent work in performance studies and in animal studies, are great.
There is a way in which being a dancer, and having been a dancer, has been and continues to be so formative for how I encounter the world. Sometimes I am still shocked when I realize the profound effect that continues to exert not only on my daily life (right now, rehabbing my annoyingly contracting right hip muscles and knowing where my periformis muscle is!) to my larger sense of what an ideal community might be--one in which embodied individuals are free to engage in public discourse with equal impact..
I am sure i am not at all alone in this, and beyond the issues of sexuality in dance, and of embodiment more broadly, maybe this is a further arena for conversation...what does it mean for those of us who have spent part of our lives as professional dancers, have indeed spent decades learning and teaching in studios, in performing on the stage, (and, given the inevitable aging, and professional concert dance's limited realm for incorporating aging bodies---this is for most of us a part of our earlier professional lives...)--what does that experience as a way of being in the world, as a way of being part of the art world, and as a way of functioning as an adult in a world which largely de-authorizes the arts as a life-long career....have to do with the ways that our careers develop over time? And beyond that, can we talk about the ways in which such a deep involvement in dancing shapes our later concepts of (and hence endeavors in ) action in the world?
This brings us a bit beyond dance studies per se, but since dance studies as we know it now was, since the 1990s largely developed by folks who themselves were not trained in such an academic discipline, which did not exist but had to be invented, I wonder how the experience of being dancers shaped not only the emergent field but also continues to shape actions in the larger world of academia and beyond. I'm thinking here of work by folks like Susan Foster, Ann Cooper Albright, Brenda Dixon Gottschild, and myself as well as so many others who took that leap from the stage to the page in the early '90s.
Now it is possible to study for post-graduate degrees in "dance studies" or "performance studies" without having been a professional dancer or performer...this is a good thing of course. We don't ask literary scholars to be published creative writers. But this might be a good moment also to think about the origins of that new academic field of "dance studies" and how it relates to "dancing." Beyond that we might begin to ask also how dancers perceive the world both individually and in terms of political infrastructures (the state support for the arts, for example) that make an ongoing political difference, referring to "politics" in the largest sense of course.
Here we are in the terrain of trying to think through the current and possible relations between kinesthetic embodiment, public discourse based on embodied categories (race, gender, sexuality, ability, etc.), and the intersection with the power of the state to authorize or de-authorize some relations ( or public performances of some identities, including those of non normative sexuality) and not others, both in the US and in so many other countries abroad, with their own cultural and political specificities--including Australia! (and India which just yesterday de-criminalized same-sex relations.)
While I continue to write about dancing per se (and recently did an article on the politics of movement of forms and practices across multiple communities and countries to take us beyond a simplistic notion of "appropriation" --for the Oxford Handbook of Dance and Politics last year)--my larger concerns now are in theorizing how embodiment functions in both daily life and in the national discourses of belonging and un-belonging, with all of the ensuing impacts that might imply. such a framing could take us from issues of the funding of ethnically-identified art forms by local governments to so called "ethnic cleansing" in Myanmar with the Rohinga communities.
What does dance have to do with all that??? As dancers and dance scholars we have the ability to articulate how embodied senses of self in the world and how specific embodied practices come to have social meaning, and how those presumed meanings circulate in public discourse, influencing public policy and political claims, with long term and complex results.
Well, now you've got me thinking!!! I hope we can talk about some of these largest issues of how dancing makes a difference in the world and how dance scholars can step up to claim their broadest scope of expertise in how moving bodies come to matter.
8 Sep 2018, 15:37
A range of Jane’s publications:
Desmond, J. (2017). “Make ‘America’ Smart Again”: A Response to Trump’s First 100 Days. Comparative American Studies, 15(1-2), 4-6. DOI: 10.1080/14775700.2017.1406723
Domínguez, V. R., & Desmond, J. C. (2017). Global perspectives on the united states: Pro-americanism, anti-americanism, and the discourses between. University of Illinois Press.
Desmond, J. C. (2017). Reading “America” across and against the grain of public discourse. In Global Perspectives on the United States: Pro-Americanism, Anti-Americanism, and the Discourses Between (pp. 1-3). University of Illinois Press.
Desmond, J. C. (2016). The Sounds of Silence: Commissions, Omissions, and Particularity in the Global Anthropology of the United States. In America Observed: On an International Anthropology of the U.S. (pp. 164-171). Berghahn Books.
Desmond, J. C. (2015). "And never the Twain shall meet?": Considering the legacies of orientalism and occidentalism for the transnational study of the U.S. In The International Turn in American Studies (Vol. 7, pp. 89-102). Peter Lang AG. DOI: 10.3726/978-3-653-03657-2
Displaying Death and Animating Life: Human-Animal Relations in Art, Science, and Everyday Life Chicago University of Chicago Press 2016.
Staging Tourism: Bodies on Display from Waikiki to Sea World Chicago University of Chicago Press 1999.
Can Animals Make Art?: Popular and Scientific Discourses About Expressivity and Cognition in Primates Experiencing Animals: Encounters Between Animals and Human Minds edited by J. Smith, edited by R. Mitchell. Columbia University Press 2012.
Animal Deaths and the Written Record of History: The Politics of Pet Obituaries Making Animal Meaning Michigan State University Press 2012, p. 99-111.
"The Sounds of Silence: commissions, Ommisions and Particularity in the Anthropology of the United States America Observed: On an International Anthropology of the United States Berghahn 2017.
Dancing Desires: Choreographing Sexuality on and off the Stage Madison University of Madison Wisconsin Press 2001.
Meaning in Motion: New Cultural Studies of Dance Duke University Press 1997.
Global Perspectives on the United States: Pro-Americanism, Anti-Americanism, and the Discourses Between University of Illinois Press 2017. Desmond, Jane, and Virginia Dominguez