June 17, 2020 at 7:50pm
Cultural historian Sally Banes, whose pioneering criticism opened new conversations about what she called postmodern dance, has died at age sixty-nine from ovarian cancer. Best-known as the author of Terpsichore in Sneakers (1980), Banes often drew connections between mainstream and marginalized dance cultures, championing downtown Manhattan’s Judson Dance Theater and the Bronx’s Rock Steady Crew with equal enthusiasm. Other landmark texts include Democracy’s Body (1983), a foundational account of Judson dance that emerged from her dissertation, and “To the Beat Y’all: Breaking Is Hard to Do,” a 1981 article that introduced breakdancing and hip-hop culture to thousands of Village Voice readers. Her most recent book, Before, Between, and Beyond: Three Decades of Dance Writing (2007)—a wide-ranging collection that includes essays on Paul Taylor, Russian ballet, appropriation, music videos, and African American dance traditions—was compiled by her assistant Andrea Harris after Banes suffered a debilitating stroke in 2002.
Born in Silver Springs, Maryland, Banes attended ballet lessons as a child and later studied criticism, art, and theater at the University of Chicago, where she graduated in 1972. She began writing for Chicago Reader and Chicago Daily News, and cofounded MoMing theater collective. She met her future husband, philosopher Noël Carroll, at a MoMing performance in 1975. A year later, they moved to New York, and Banes immersed herself in the city’s avant-garde dance culture, attending Judson workshops, performing as an elephant in Simone Forti’s famous Planet at P.S. 1, and publishing performance reviews in SoHo Weekly News and, beginning in the 1980s, the Voice. She maintained an editorship at Dance Research Journal throughout the ’80s and taught at several institutions, including Cornell University and the University of Wisconsin – Madison. In 1998, her articles, including pieces for Dance Magazine and Dance Chronicle, were collected in Subversive Expectations: Performance Art and Paratheater in New York 1976–1985. Banes often informed her writing by moving her own body, attending classes at the studios of Martha Graham and Merce Cunningham and practicing ballet with Ed Parish and Peter Saul.
In 1980, the same year Banes earned a PhD in performance studies from New York University, Wesleyan University Press published her Terpsichore in Sneakers: Post-Modern Dance, which offered the first critical review of “postmodern dance”—in this case referring to a group of radical New York choreographers known for rejecting tradition and emphasizing everyday movements. Analyzing the practices of Trisha Brown, Simone Forti, Steve Paxton, Yvonne Rainer, and their peers, the book remains a touchstone in ongoing debates about the term “postmodern dance,” and eventually led to a notable exchange between Banes and scholar Susan Manning in the pages of The Drama Review after Banes reprinted Terpsichore with a new introduction in 1987. Banes went on to publish Greenwich Village 1963: Avant-Garde Performance and the Effervescent Body (1993), a cultural history of the year 1963, and Dancing Women: Female Bodies on Stage (1998), a feminist reassessment of the Western dance canon.
Repeatedly, Banes’s dance criticism elaborated a belief that dance can change society and the world, not just reflect it. “For dance history to take its place on the stage as a branch of cultural history, dance historians need to show that dancing bodies have not simply created divertissements,” she once wrote. “Perhaps then cultural historians will be convinced to take seriously the centrality of dance in our culture.”