Philly’s thoughtful dance-writing model (p.s. We should copy it)

I went to Philadelphia for the first time in October. Summer was refusing to abdicate to Fall, so we drank cold beers under a surprisingly strong sun and looked up at the Benjamin Franklin Bridge. When I returned last week, I slid along sidewalks and puffed into my gloves. I honestly can’t decide which version of the city I prefer. Either way, I was still charmed, even more so when I was introduced to its dynamic dance community.

This visit came about at the invitation of thINKingDANCE, a unique two-year-old collective of writers committed to covering the wide spectrum of dance in their town. It was launched by Lisa Kraus and Anna Drozdowski, who got a grant to build a sleek professional website (because we cannot underestimate the value of aesthetics in presenting our writing) and pay writers a modest fee for contributing.

ThINKingDANCE is a clever grassroots response to the downsizing of arts journalism in recent years. It’s citizen journalism for the dance community, by the dance community, but with an eye to engaging folks beyond that community.

It’s not a blog. It has structure, editors and deadlines. It may not have the reach, or offer the rates, of the Philadelphia Inquirer (however much those rates have tumbled), but it’s a bold statement of action when so many are giving in to easy whining.

More than mere coverage, thINKingDANCE is a communal conversation. And better still, it has a stated mission to cultivate and encourage more dance writers, which means more dance writing.

On Saturday, in thefidget space, a cozy yet expansive loft about ten minutes outside the city center, I chatted with ten thINKingDANCE contributors about a range of dance writing issues: How do we consider new templates for dance writing? (i.e., Can we borrow from the listicle craze to attract readers but find a way to imbue it with thoughtful analysis?) How do we navigate perceived or actual conflicts of interest as both writers and creators? How do we consider our audience of readers?

None of these questions are unique to Philly. But thINKingDANCE is. After our daylong workshop, I observed the local writers gather around a spreadsheet to hash out writing assignments for the next two months. It was a long list and there were a lot of columns: author, editor, performance date, due date, etc.

It’s a serious, and seriously impressive, operation. The Philly dance community is lucky to have it. And other communities would be smart to emulate it.

Joining the Debate: Do we need professional critics?

Recently, the New York Times launched a discussion thread in the Opinion page section Room for Debate questioning whether or not we need professional critics. They solicited responses from eight practitioners in the field to weigh in with thoughts, including Meagan Bruskewicz, who shared with the DCA a few weeks ago about her decision to pursue a PhD in dance history.

The discussion was kicked off with the following prompt:

Everyone’s a critic.

Blogs and social media have empowered anyone with an Internet connection to weigh in on the movie or book du jour. This has had a profound effect on the newspaper industry, which continues to shed full-time critics, while the ones who stay enthusiastically defend their craft.

Is professional criticism still important? Can professional criticism stay relevant when media companies’ budgets are tight and the media landscape is overflowing with opinions?

Bruskewicz, in her response, wrote:  “I think there is room for anyone to add his or her voice to the discourse… Yet I feel the distinction between amateurs and professionals should remain and still does — even a cacophony of emerging voices cannot take away from the authority of well-established professional critics and renowned publications.”

To read all of the responses, from other critics, visual artists, a performer, a novelist, and a filmmaker, visit Room for Debate here.

Anton Ego, the critic of Pixar's "Ratatouille"

DCA Board Member Brian Schaefer responded to the conversation on his blog, My Two Left Feet, and finds an unlikely muse in the character of Anton Ego, the critic in Pixar’s brilliant animated feature “Ratatouille,” who he believes offers a model for broadening the conversation and reclaiming the positive contributions of criticism:

“Ratatouille presented what I consider the best contemporary representation of criticism in popular culture in the way it deals with the transformation of the critic Anton Ego and the way it celebrates the idea that “everyone can cook” or, in this case, that “everyone can be a critic.”  That doesn’t mean they are cooks or critics, it means they have the potential to be and our job as those who value and practice criticism today is not to protect it but to share it.”

So what do you think?  Do we still need professional critics or will a more democratic arena of voices serve dance just as well, and perhaps better in some ways?  Share your opinions with us.