What is a dance archive?

It’s going to be a memorable summer. I haven’t even graduated with an MLIS yet (the ceremony’s in four days!), but I am already immersed in my Dance Heritage Coalition (DHC) archives fellowship. I’m excited to be a visiting fellow at Arizona State University’s Cross Cultural Dance Resources collection. I have received a lot of congratulations from friends and loved ones. After a beat, though, I get a lot of questions and perplexed faces. What is a dance archive? How do you preserve dance? Are you just recording dance steps? 

To be honest, I am still learning how to articulate the answers. It’s been a long-time goal of mine to contribute to the preservation and revitalization of traditional Khmer dance in post-genocide Cambodia. Now I am training as a DHC archives fellow to learn tools to preserve dance and create dance archives. It involves much more than just recording dance choreography. Dance is language, cultural history, and a universe. Yes, there’s the choreography, but there’s also the story of origins, the relationships between people, the influence of cultures, rites and rituals, resistive practices of the body, and sometimes, as in the case of dance during the Khmer Rouge, the story of destruction. Dance movements reflect cultural movements. I hope I can capture the relationship of dance and culture as an archivist. That could involve oral histories, dance notation, photography, video, artists’ personal notes and correspondence, ephemera and much more. Indeed, the constellation of possibilities for dance archives causes me to stumble at the question of “what is a dance archive?” I don’t lack an answer; I am just too excited about the prospects!

My fellow archive fellows and I met in Chicago last week to get an introduction to dance archives. Our orientation week was busy with workshops, tours, and collaborating on an archival assessment for a Chicago-based dance company. A personal highlight from the Newberry Library is pictured below: a 17th century Italian book of dance notations and text translated from French.