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By Johanna Kirk
UC Irvine dance majors Darina Littleton, Shannon Leypoldt, and Katie Montoya in Ghana. Littleton and Montoya wrote about the trip for Dance Major Journal. Photo Courtesy Katherine Montoya.
In 2009, six years into teaching her “Critical Issues in Dance” course at University of California, Irvine, professor Jennifer Fisher felt a nagging frustration. While all of her students loved to perform, she struggled to convince them that they could also find joy and self-expression in writing about dance. “I kept asking myself how I could get them interested in analysis,” she reflects, “when they’d rather be in the studio perfecting their pirouettes.” Prior to pursuing careers in journalism and academia, Fisher had been a dancer herself, and experience had taught her the importance of being able to discuss dance intelligently and outside of the studio. She wanted to empower her students with this ability, but was hard-pressed to find a point of entry.
One day, she asked a simple question: “What kind of a reaction do you get when you tell people you’re a dance major?”
“The temperature in the room went up,” she remembers, and “the floodgates opened.” Animated students were eager to share their stories, and responses followed a similar tune. Students had heard, “What are you going to do with that?” or “That must be fun,” or “Hmmm, you must be very flexible.” Such comments, they felt, belittled their commitment to their daily mental and physical work. However, when Fisher asked how they had cleared up these misconceptions, the room fell quiet. Few had spoken up for themselves at the moment of being criticized. Few knew what to say. Realizing she had struck a nerve, Fisher gave her first assignment: “How do you make people understand why dance is worth studying at university?”
Appreciating the immediate relevance of such an assignment, her students dove in with fresh enthusiasm. So impressed was Fisher with the thoughtful papers she received in response to this and subsequent prompts, she wanted to share them with a broader audience. “I decided we should have something called Dance Major Journal,” she says, which would be “dance writing by dance majors, about dance majors, and for dance majors, and for those who want to understand dance majors.”
The first offering of its kind (to Fisher’s knowledge), the DMJ empowers Irvine students to discover their voices as thinking artists and to dialogue about the issues that are most pressing to them. Included in the information packets that will be distributed to prospective students this year, it also reassures aspiring majors and their parents not only of the degree’s legitimacy, but also of the diverse rewards it yields.
So far, two installments have been produced, and plans are in the works for a third. The first volume, Fisher says, was easy to fill with a sampling of insightful essays produced for her class, supplemented by a few outside contributions. Before it had even hit the press, there were inquiries about a second. The next edition was a bit more ambitious. An editorial staff of students helped Fisher select submissions and make decisions about DMJ’s priorities, design, organization, and distribution. The content spanned a broader range. Some articles took on big issues in dance culture such as auditioning, injury prevention, body image, and nudity in art. Others addressed more individualized topics such as life as a double major, dancing while studying abroad, and how skills acquired in dance class can facilitate studying other subjects.
Stephanie Deere, an editorial staff member who graduated last June, bravely wrote a piece discussing her challenge to overcome an eating disorder while at school. “It felt great to be able to share my story and help tear down some of the stigmas associated with dancers and their body images,” she remembers. “I grew as a person, a writer, and a dancer.”
Fisher and her volunteer staff hope that the third edition will reach a population beyond the Irvine community. The editorial board is seeking out contributors from other universities and expanding the journal’s readership potential by creating an online version.
Thinking back on her experiences with DMJ, Deere says: “Sharing information with our peers and others made us interested in our surroundings, our lives, and forced us to ask questions we normally would not have asked. This kind of critical thinking is what pushes boundaries. And what is dance if not an art form that is continually breaking boundaries?"
From the Inside
Two UC Irvine alumni and previous DMJ contributors share what they learned from their experiences:
“I read and edited many of my peers’ work. The sheer volume of topics combined with the heart and soul that went into writing about them was really inspiring. I enjoyed working on it so much that I now believe writing about dance is in my professional future.” —Jessica Hambright
“The DMJ is an invaluable tool for dance majors not only because it builds skills in research, writing, and communication, but because it could become a treasury of critical issues that pertain to the life of a dance major. I hope that the DMJ can continue a conversation that is ever evolving.” —Katie Montoya
To contribute or join the conversation, contact Fisher via the university site: http://dance.arts.uci.edu