Book review: History of Dance by Gayle Kassing

The new edition of Gayle Kassing’s History of Dance claims to offer readers “a panoramic view of dance from the prehistory to the present.” While the content is broad, that has necessitated quite a bit of skating over people and events. Ultimately, it doesn’t deliver on its promises.

The book is well laid out. Chapters are well-organised, and the text is easy to read and broken up into well-defined sections in a way that’s ideal for dipping in and out of. Some of the best parts of History of Dance are the web resources and experiential learning activities designed to promote student-centred learning, and their critical thinking and investigative skills, that teachers can use as a starting point for project work.

History of Dance is presented in three parts. Part I covers early dance history. Kassing starts with prehistoric times before moving through Ancient Greece, Egypt and Rome, up to the Renaissance. Part II explores dance from the Renaissance to the 20th century, including a chapter on dance in the United States from the 17th through 19th centuries. Part III looks at the development of dance in America through the 20th early 21st-centuries, touching on imported influences, and new directions for both American ballet and modern dance.

Each chapter includes numerous well laid out timelines, a vocabulary list (strangely it is just a list of words and names, with none defined or explained), possible assignments and more. There are some excellent illustrations.

New to the second edition is an instructor guide with media literacy assignments, and teaching tips and strategies; a bank of questions for creating tests and quizzes; presentation slides; web resources with much needed extensions of chapter content and more. Also new to this edition is a chapter entitled “Global Interactions: 2000–2016,” which purports to examine dance in the 21st century.

It all sound wonderful; just what any dance history student needs. Sadly, the grand assertions do not stand up. Kassing tries to cover too much and repeatedly ends up covering nothing satisfactorily. The phrase ‘Glance at the Past’ is used several times in headings. It just about sums the book up. Notes about people, events and dances are frequently superficial. The book may be a basic primer that provides an introduction to a wide range of dance topics, but no more.

Just who the book is aimed at is also somewhat confusing. Kassing mostly uses language and terminology that suggests the target audience is those at university. The lack of depth renders it almost useless for them, however. Oddly, she sometimes deems in necessary to explain absolute basics; for example, that “each century is divided into 10 decades of 10 years” and that “history doesn’t always fall into these parameters.” Doesn’t say much for students in higher education, does it?

The title is also misleading. Choices have naturally had to be made about content but there are some notable omissions. It is an American book, and as such perhaps it’s not surprising that, post 17th-century, it focuses almost exclusively on American dance, and within that, American modern dance and especially American ballet. So much so, in fact, that there are times when you could be forgiven for thinking that dance anywhere else in the world simply does not exist. Looking further back, while dance in ancient Greece, Egypt and Rome is discussed, and there is a brief explanation of how European dance made its way to America, there is nothing about Asia and, even more surprisingly, nothing about dance among indigenous American peoples.

Each chapter includes brief (sometimes very brief) notes on significant dancers, choreographers and dance works from the period. Within those dealing with 20th and 21st century dance, some of the selections of choreographers to highlight are surprising to say the least. Included, for example, is Pam Tanowitz (described as “emerging” despite having been born in the 1960s), while more influential names are left out. Looking back, the hugely important Christiansen brothers are deemed worthy of just a single sentence under the heading ‘Regional Ballet Companies’.

Listed under major figures 2000-2016 are William Forsythe (you can argue with some justification that most of his known work was done before then, but put that aside), Alexei Ratmansky, Christopher Wheeldon, and… Claudia Schreier rather than the likes of Edwaard Liang or Jessica Lang, who have made an impact with major companies in the US and internationally. What this also highlights, is the dreadful dearth of female choreographers in America who have any sort of important mark in recent times.

There are more striking international omissions. Glance down the index and you’ll find not a mention of Pina Bausch, Kenneth MacMillan, Yuri Grigorovich or Wayne McGregor. There’s very little acknowledgement of Canadian dance either with no mention of James Kudelka or Crystal Pite, and these days you can’t get more in demand than the latter. If you want anything on jazz, musical theatre, tap and hip-hop, and contemporary dance (as opposed to modern dance) you will need to look elsewhere.

Human Kinetics have produced a lot of good textbooks about dance, but in trying to be all things to all people, History of Dance actually ends up being none. While the book might just work as a very basic starter for non-dance specialist students and teachers, the latter are going to have to do a lot on expanding and adding flesh to the content.

Given Human Kinetics and Kassing’s other excellent dance texts, all in all, very disappointing

History of Dance (2nd edition)
Author: Gayle Kassing
Publisher: Human Kinetics
Paperback, 308 pages
ISBN: 978-1-4925-3669-7