When Susan Leigh Foster gets in front of an audience, she doesn’t spend much time standing behind a podium or pointing at slides. The choreographer and scholar dances freely around the stage, her movements underlining and sometimes building on her words.
“I needed to provide the audience with an example of what I was talking about and an example of why it’s so difficult to talk about,” she said. “I also wanted to offer them the opportunity to reflect on the fact that all lectures are performances, and the best lecturers are people who know that.”
At the 129th Faculty Research Lecture, titled “What Dancing Does,” Foster, distinguished professor of world arts and cultures/dance at the UCLA School of the Arts and Architecture, will describe some of the ways that dance functions in our individual lives and within society. The talk will be held on April 14 at 4 p.m.
Foster, who has been studying dance theory for four decades, says she was honored to be invited to deliver a faculty research lecture — especially because it’s the first time the annual lecture has been devoted to dance studies.
“I think it’s quite extraordinary, given that 105 years ago, it was illegal to dance on a University of California campus,” she said.
Foster points to the UC Berkeley Academic Senate’s 1916 vote to rescind the campus ban on dancing in order to allow a global dance performance in the Berkeley amphitheater, accompanied by the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra.
“There are long-standing associations with dance concerning sexual impropriety, irrationality, the base appetites — all those incredibly misguided stereotypes,” she said.
While serving as chair of the dance department at UC Riverside in the 1990s, Foster established the first doctoral-level program in critical dance studies in the United States. She also taught choreography and dance scholarship at UC Davis, joining the faculty at UCLA in 2001. Her research aims to deconstruct positive and negative stereotypes about dance.
“Part of what I’m trying to do in the lecture is suggest that dance is really a very, very complex phenomenon — physiologically, psychologically, socially and politically,” she said.
In one part of the talk, Foster explores dancing as a form of thinking, connecting the physical movement of dancing to recent developments in cognitive studies.
The body “has intelligence built into the tendons and connective tissue and the muscles,” she said, and this growing field of research complicates long-held beliefs about the nature of perception.
Foster also seeks to understand how movements convey context and narrative. For example, in the 18th century, holding your middle finger to your temple and pointing at your eye was done to suggest envy — a meaning that would be lost on viewers today.
“Rhetoric books from classical literature are full of gestures that no longer have those meanings,” she said.
Foster also examines the history of dance during the trans-Atlantic slave trade, which was used as a tool for both coercion and survival.
“Black slaves were called upon to exhibit dancing, either as a form of assessment — enabling possible slave owners to decide which slave they want to buy — or as a form of entertainment. And in both cases, it was very much coerced and placed the dancer in a situation of extreme duress, even while dancing,” she said. But at their own parties, the slaves would create highly satirical and exaggerated versions of the white plantation owners’ dances, a chance to regain agency over their bodies.
Dance can also be a form of gratification and release — think of the dance clubs that will fill up again when the COVID-19 pandemic is over.
“The power of coming in to synchrony with others and with music, and the fact of moving collectively together, while at the same time celebrating individual distinctiveness, is an immensely pleasurable and affirming activity,” she said.
The Faculty Research Lecture — a UCLA tradition since 1925 — will be held on April 14 at 4 p.m. If you’d like to attend the virtual event, which is free and open to the public, please RSVP here.