In Memoriam: Sally Banes, A New Kind of Dance Writer (1950-2020)

June 16, 2020

The brilliant dance writer Sally Banes, who pioneered a new way to write about dance as a social phenomenon, died on June 14, 2020 of ovarian cancer.

Banes visited New York in October 1973 with a standard assignment: to write a book on modern dance for Chicago Review Press. Because of her curiosity about choreography, instinct for the experimental, and scintillating prose, she produced, in 1980, an essential dance book of the twentieth century: Terpsichore in Sneakers: Post-modern Dance.

Shifting her attention from SoHo to the Bronx, Banes was the first dance critic to write about the exciting new urban form known as break dancing. Her article “To the Beat Y’All: Breaking is Hard to Do,” in the Village Voice in April 1981 described break dancing before there was a name for hip-hop culture.

Although these were her two favorite subjects—the (largely white) avant-garde and (largely black) urban dance—she investigated many other passions over time. In seven additional books on dance and a myriad of essays, she explored subjects ranging from the influence of black dance on Balanchine, to the drunk dances of Fred Astaire, to the knotty problem of appropriation. She’s been a leader in the burgeoning field of dance studies, challenging her peers to rise to her level of intellectual rigor paired with vibrant prose.

Banes grew up in Silver Spring, MD, taking ballet lessons in Washington, DC. She graduated from University of Chicago in 1972 with an interdisciplinary degree in criticism, art and theater. The following year she started writing criticism for the Chicago Reader and the Chicago Daily News. She founded the Community Discount Players, which she called “a motley collection of performers, dancers and wizards.” She created performances that were part dance, part theater, part every-day happening. In 1974 she was a co-founder of MoMing Collection, which was a collective as well as a presenter. It was at MoMing, after a 1975 performance of the improvisational group Grand Union, that she met her future husband, philosopher and critic Noel Carroll.

Banes and Carroll moved to New York in 1976. She took workshops with many people and performed in Simone Forti’s large improvisatory group work, Planet (1976) at P.S. 1 in Queens.

Banes wrote for the “Concepts in Performance” page of the SoHo Weekly News’ from 1976 to 1980, becoming editor the last two years. She was given her own column called “Performance” in the Village Voice from 1980 to ’85, where she reviewed singular performers before they became big names like Whoopi Goldberg (“careening from bathos to pathos”), Eric Bogosian (“a raw, cognitive screech”) and Karen Finley (“this messy scabrous conduct exhilarated us”). These reviews are reprinted in Subversive Expectations: Performance Art and Paratheater in New York 1976–1985 (1998).

Banes wasn’t wowed by mere virtuosity but was attracted to the questions posed by the mind/body of an enquiring artist. Whether she was writing in Dance Magazine or Dance Chronicle, she situated every artist in a social context. She wore her socialist feminism on her sleeve; she never tried to be “objective.” Her prose was informal, witty and spontaneous, and she could paint a picture in words that was as startling as the performers themselves.

For Judson choreographers and for break dancers like the Rock Steady crew, she was an advocate. She took her advocacy further when she decided that Yvonne Rainer’s solo Trio A from 1966 had to be preserved. Partly because of her filming Rainer dancing Trio A in 1978, this dance has become a symbol of, or gateway to, postmodern dance.

In 1980 Banes earned a PhD from the department of graduate drama at NYU, (now the department of performance studies). In 1983, she turned her dissertation into a book, Democracy’s Body: Judson Dance Theater 1962–1964, reprinted by Duke University Press in 1993. She framed the unruly Judson collective as democracy itself. This book has been a touchstone for younger scholars.

Making the shift from journalism to academia, she edited the scholarly Dance Research Journal from 1982 to 1988. Whether journalistic or academic, Banes’s writing possessed both intellectual heft and sensuous description.

Her later books include Greenwich Village 1963: Avant-Garde Performance and the Effervescent Body, published in 1993, which described the intersecting constellations of Andy Warhol, jazz musicians, underground film, and beat poets; and Dancing Women: Female Bodies on Stage (1998), a feminist take on women’s roles in the dance canon.

In Writing Dancing in the Age of Post-Modernism, her 1994 collection, her interests range from post-Judson choreographers Bill T. Jones and Molissa Fenley, to emerging Latino choreographers, to, of course, break dancing.

Sally was a radiant person, bursting with life. Her enthusiasms were contagious and her knowledge was vast. She championed artists from Yvonne Rainer to Urban Bush Women, Merce Cunningham to Tim Miller. She delved into historical pockets like Ballet Suédois of the 1920s, the leftist Workers Dance League in the 1930s, and Soviet experimental choreographers.

Banes’s teaching career included stints at Florida State University, SUNY Purchase, Wesleyan University, Cornell and the University of Wisconsin Madison, where she was named the Marian Hannah Winter Professor of Theater History and Dance Studies in 1996.

Lori Brungard, a faculty member in Hunter College’s dance department, studied with Banes at SUNY Purchase in the mid-80s. She said, “She had this glow. Light emanated from her and she induced a light in me.”

Banes suffered an incapacitating stroke in 2002. Her last collection, Before, Between, and Beyond: Three Decades of Dance Writing was compiled by her then-assistant Andrea Harris. It has two forewords that sum up Banes’s prodigious output, one by historian Lynn Garafola, and the other by New Yorker critic Joan Acocella. Acocella wrote, “Underneath it all…is an anarchic spirit, walking on the wild side. And joined to it is exactly what one needs with it: scholarship, moderation, wisdom.”

Walker Art Center posted this wonderful conversation between her and Yvonne Rainer in 2001.

Banes garnered lifetime achievement awards from the Congress on Research in Dance, the Society of Dance History Scholars, and the New York Dance and Performance Awards (the Bessies). Li Chiao-Ping, on faculty at University of Wisconsin, has been awarded a named professorship and has chosen to be named the Sally Banes Professor of Dance.

On Facebook, Dena Davida wrote, “She will be leaving us with an epic body of insightful and radiant texts about our dance world.”

Disclosure: Sally and I were friends and colleagues. We edited each other’s writing, participated in each other’s projects on Judson Dance Theater, and appeared in each other’s performances. See an expanded version of this post here.