tl;dr Instead of looking at “good dance” and “bad dance”, which I do not believe exist, I prefer to consider “lazy dance” and “cruel dance” which is limiting us from making “better dance”
One of the biggest word-tangles I get into is this concept of “good” dancing, which, of course, then suggests there is such a thing as “bad” dancing.
So, to make this clear forever and ever and ever: I do not believe there is such a thing as “good” dance and “bad” dance, and that is why I often put them in quotation marks.
Yes, I believe there is such a thing as strong technique and weak technique. I believe there is such a thing as dangerous dancing (ie. if the knees aren’t in line with the toes, that person is going to get injured). But that doesn’t mean someone’s a bad dancer. It just means they might get injured, or that the way they use their body is less stylized than is considered the norm in dance.
And yes, there is definitely some dancing I prefer. I have my personal aesthetics, but just because I enjoy a certain dancing doesn’t mean it’s “good”, it just happens to be what I like.
To be honest, I believe that all dance is “good” dance because it is dance and dance is good.
That said, I do believe in lazy dance and cruel dance.
Lazy dance I use particularly to discuss choreography. Lazy means it is obvious the choreographer or creator didn’t put thought or depth into what they’re doing. My favorite example of this is when I went to see Pilobolus and, in one of the pieces, they duct taped a plastic bag around a woman’s head. Yes, it definitely got an emotional reaction from me, and it definitely showed off the skills of that particular dancer (she got herself out, no worries), but it was surface level – created more to get a rise out of the audience than to cultivate meaning within the dance itself. It was a cheap trick (and a dangerous one) and it was lazy.
This example is also cruel dance. And this, I may admit, may count as “bad” dance in the moral sense (not the artistic sense). Dance that causes harm to the dancers or to others or advocates harm in any way is cruel dance. In this case, it was putting a dancer in a needlessly risky situation. In another case, it could be a director or choreographer forcing dancers to commit to too many rehearsals. It could be using loud noises and flashing lights to shock an audience without an appropriate warning (when I attended Fuerzabruta the first time, the warning sign was too vague and the gunshots in the opening scene had me running for the door because loud, sudden, unexpected noises are very uncomfortable for me). It could be forcing an audience member that would rather sit in their seat on stage in the name of audience participation. Or it could simply be expressing harmful ideals (for instance, I started watching Mats Ek’s Giselle the other day and had to shut it off in disgust because it was obsessed with Giselle’s fertility to an alarming extent and when these golden eggs were paraded out, my brain just went “nope” and moved on to something else. Women are more than clingy baby-making machines, I’m sure there may be more to that piece, if I had continued watching or seen it live, but that’s what my viewing got me).
Quite often, these two things do work in conjunction, like with putting a plastic bag over a person’s head, or the use of a sudden, loud gunshot to wake up the audience instead of putting in the effort to really engage the audience without terrifying them (I mean, the rest of the show is brilliant…it’s ridiculous for the opening to have been so disconnecting when the rest of it was so engaging), or representing fertility with giant, golden eggs, instead of maybe exploring the many other identities a character like Giselle may possess when taken out of her glamorous romantic ballet role (that said, I did really appreciate how the Eks ballet actually made her look sickly…the original Giselle always made that plot point a little suspect).
Note that every time I mention lazy or cruel dance, I use the word “instead” to explain it. That’s because lazy and cruel dance is holding us back. We fall into the established, easy patterns that perpetuate social norms and the general exploitation and harm that happens in the dance world (because, face it, existing messages in dance are extremely harmful, no matter how much it has “gotten better”, dancers are still overworked and forced past their limits by themselves and each other with encouragement from teachers, choreographers, and directors). Thinking about dance as lazy or cruel is a way to open up creative possibilities.
Here is a lazy thought. What could it be instead? Where could it go next? What does it become? How do we move into something more thoughtful? Suddenly, the thought isn’t that lazy anymore.
And avoiding cruelty forces creativity – how does a choreographer work differently if they can only have dancers for a limited number of rehearsals? What other ways can we get a reaction from an audience without putting a dancer at risk? How do we make spotting and other safety precautions part of the dance? Why are we assuming the audience will accept this social norm propping up this dance? How do we defend or challenge it? How do we make our art more accessible to more people?
See, there may be no such thing as “good” or “bad” dance, but there is definitely better dance. Because dance is a constant process of becoming and changing and moving forward, becoming better.