What is Endangered Dance?

By Sangita Shresthova

"We live in a society that mistrusts the body. It doubts the connections between the world of the body and the world of thought. But how can we convince people of those connections? How can movement make people think?" (Jill Sigman)


The value of dance as a crucial form of cultural expression has become increasingly recognized by both academic and public organizations. UNESCO's Intangible Heritage Program recognizes dance as an essential source of identity, deeply rooted in the past. Unfortunately, the fluid, undocumented form of many traditional dance forms makes them particularly vulnerable in situations of rapid change and socio-political upheaval. It is at these times, that special efforts need to be made to preserve these dance treasures. Responding to this need, Core of Culture is an organization committed to the preservation of intangible world heritage. The emphasis is on ancient dance forms and endangered movement traditions in the healing, meditation and martial arts.

Why dance matters:

Dance, whether social, theatrical, or ritually based, is a form of cultural expression. Like visual art, sculpture or architecture, dance encapsulates, reinforces and transmits cultural traditions and values. While dances tend to be thought of as distinctive movements and steps, every dance exists in a complex network of relationships to other dances and other non-dance ways of using the body.

As codified movement, dance may be learned informally in families or formally in various ways: tradtional guilds, ritual transmission, and in schools for social or theatrical dance forms. Whether dance training is formal or informal, the parameters of effective, acceptable and desired movement are directly related to culturally specific norms. By asking: "who dances, when and where, in what ways, with whom and to what end?" (Jane Desmond), we learn not only about the culture that practices the dance form but also about the complex relationships that exist between apparently disparate cultures and societies.

Ways of holding the body, gesturing, moving in relation to time, and using space (taking a lot, using a little, moving with large sweeping motions, or small contained ones) differ across various social and cultural groups and through time. For example the decline, subsequent revival, modification and codification of the dance of the temple dancers in South India (today known as Bharat Natyam) was influenced by, and in turn exerted influence over, post colonial cultural identity debates regarding India. Through dance, culture is learned, communicated and preserved.

A living and practiced art, passed on from teacher to student (from guru to disciple) dance is a fluid, constantly evolving tradition. While dance has historically responded to changing cultural conditions, it has recently been strongly influenced by unprecedented, rapid social, political and economic upheaval in many countries (mostly in the developing world). This has disrupted the continued practice of many ritual, community based dance forms. Rapid population growth, uneven economic development, urbanization, environmental degradation, and changing labor migration patterns are only some of the factors which have brought practice of certain, especially ancient, dance traditions under threat.

Dance Under Threat

Over the last decades, the rural life patterns of Nepalese villagers have undergone fundamental changes in response to the Maoist insurgency, increased pressure to migrate for work, and changing ecological situations. Even a cursory global overview reveals the dances of the Kalahari Bushmen, Tibetan Buddhists, Vietnamese villagers and Australian Aboriginals to be only a fraction of the traditional movement practices undergoing fundamental, and in many situations highly destructive, change. In some cases, dance forms are not only ceasing to exist as fluid expressions of culture; they are on the verge of ceasing to exist altogether.

Once these largely undocumented dances are no longer practiced, they will cease to exist. In the South Asian and Himalayan context, many dances including those practiced since pre-history in remote Nepal are examples of dance traditions in real existential danger.

Why Dance Should Be Saved

Dance is a continually evolving art form. As communities have disappeared, grown or changed over time, so have their dances. Much of the future of indigenous dances depends on the will of the communities practicing them. It doesn't take a dance long to disappear once the will of the community to continue with it leaves. A dance dies along with its last practitioner. One day it is a part of a community or culture, and the next day it is gone.

One of the significant results of colonialism and globalism is often cultural assimilation. This has been continued as explorers and travelers have pushed into ever more remote locations around the globe. As the world becomes 'smaller' due to amazingly improved means of communication, and the ease and speed of travel, it is simultaneously becoming more homogenous. As a result of the integration of cultures inherent in this evolution, traditional art forms, means of expression, and cultural identities are being lost. Overall the world is experiencing an unprecedented decline in diversity; we are on a steady march towards homogeneity and monoculture.

While dance is an obviously valued component of virtually every society around the world, in the west it is degraded: it is easy to look at it as frivolous, merely a means of entertainment. Where in an eastern tradition, dance can be regarded as the apotheosis of human knowledge; in the west it is less than 50 years that dance has been recognized as a serious object of study. When communities around the world are suffering from such horrors as disease, malnutrition, lack of access to clean water, and war, why should anybody care about preservation of traditional dances? In addition, it is easy to dismiss the significance of what will be lost if dance forms practiced by relatively few people die away. If these people can't be bothered to teach their heirs the dances then why should anybody else care?

Rather, we should recognize the rarity and endangerment. Dances are worth saving. They are worth saving for both the communities that have traditionally practiced them, as well as for the world as a whole.

There are many reasons why dance should be documented and then encouraged within a community. The first and most apparent is the real opportunity for such an endeavor to generate valuable resource materials, media and research documents to be used by dance practitioners, connoisseurs and theorists. The next is strictly academic. The dances have inherent value and deserve to be studied and documented in their own right. In addition to the specific learning related directly to the dance movements, dances can teach us practical knowledge about a culture, such as its agricultural traditions or the historical migrations of the people. With every dance that dies, another source of data about the nature of human communities dies with it. Dance is a lens to reveal much about art, religion and higher consciousness.

The next reason gets to the heart of why anyone should care at all about the loss of dances. We should care for the very same reason that we care when an animal or plant becomes extinct: the diversity of our planet is reduced. In the case of dance it is cultural and intellectual diversity, not biological diversity, but the underlying values and principles are the same. A culture's dances are a living repository for its history, values, struggles, hopes, and aspirations. In short, a community's cultural identity is expressed through its dances. In many cases, ancient dance provides sophisticated examples of attainment in exalted states of body, mind and spirit.

Dance diversity forms a component of the world's overall diversity. Some may argue that similarities between cultures and global outlooks are what will lead to mutual understanding. Surely another demonstrable path to a peaceful world is the acceptance and encouragement of cultural diversity. Documenting and encouraging traditional dance forms shows respect and acknowledgment of the beating heart of a culture; it promotes awareness of cultural identities ( even to practitioners themselves ), and may ultimately play a part in encouraging cultural understanding. The benefits of this cannot be disparaged, especially in the often hostile world in which we currently exist.

In short, there are good ecological, social and cultural reasons why we should care about the death of dance. Dances are worth saving because we need diversity, because they express identity, because they are repositories of history, because they contribute to the sum of human knowledge, and because they are interesting in themselves. When a dance disappears, it can no longer contribute to any of these things.

Components Necessary for the Revitalization of Dance

While certain dances in many parts of the world are facing extinction, revitalization is entirely possible and has been achieved with immense success in many situations. The kecak dance in Bali, for example, has undergone an impressive revitalization. In addition to the traditional practice of the dance, it is now performed regularly for tourists. The community has benefited on several levels, including the creation of a new source of revenue and the revitalization of a powerful dance that is now widely practiced. Visitors to the island benefit because they come to understand more about its incredible culture, its history, vision and values. Ultimately both the community and the travelers from around the world who have experienced the dance are enriched.

A global conscience to undertake actions to save endangered art forms has been regrettably recent and small. Efforts to save many dance forms have emerged only recently, too late for many of which have already disappeared. For those where revitalization remains a viable option, there are a number of necessary components. First, the culture of which it's a part must have at least a seminal respect for the dance, and its practitioners must have a certain level of prestige within the community; and sufficient skill to build upon. There needs to be funding to enable documentation and analysis of the dance, and ultimately to assist living transmission of the dances. In addition, creating opportunities to educate others beyond the community about the dance are important to ensure its survival and galvanize popular awareness.

There are, of course, several inherent challenges in preserving dance: the dynamic nature of dance; finding non-invasive means of documentation; ensuring full credit and benefit is given to local communities; and ensuring that representations of the dances are respectful, authentic and approved by the communities.

The Role of Core of Culture

Core of Culture is born of awareness and concern for dance endangerment and extinction. It resonates with a deep-rooted desire to retain the rich artistic and cultural mosaic of communities around the globe. It seeks to build on recent initiatives undertaken by organizations such as UNESCO to collect data on dance in remote parts of the world. By documenting and promoting indigenous dance forms, Core of Culture is creating tangible products (video footage, photographs, showcasing practitioners of the art) that can then be used to encourage deeper knowledge of ancient dance forms, respect for diversity, raise global awareness of ancient cultures, and even potentially create opportunities for economic enhancement among the practicing communities.

There are many, many dances where the remaining practitioners are elderly and very few in number. Dances are like people in that when they die they are gone forever. When the last practitioner of a dance dies, there are no remaining traces left behind, no way to recreate their existence of forms requiring life itself. When a dance that has never been documented dies, it is as if it has never been. It is already too late for hundreds, maybe even thousands of dances. For the rest, the time is now.

Need to Preserve Dances:

Culturally sensitive dance documentation is a valuable and necessary tool for preserving the dances, traditions and values of cultures as they undergo rapid change. This non-intrusive preservation is the practical mission of Core of Culture. Core of Culture's effort to document threatened dance forms echoes and complements UNESCO's Intangible Cultural Heritage preservation efforts, such as the remarkable restoration of Cambodian classical dance in the past decade, following the destruction of culture by the Khmer Rouge and the diaspora of the so-called 'boat-people'.

UNESCO recognizes that for many population groups, the intangible cultural heritage is the essential source of an identity deeply rooted in the past. Unfortunately, a number of its manifestations, such as traditional and popular music, dance, festivals and know-how for craft production, oral traditions and local languages have already disappeared or are in danger of doing so.

The intangible nature of this heritage also makes it vulnerable. There is an urgent need to stop further losses. One of the most effective ways of safeguarding the intangible heritage is to conserve it by collecting, recording, and archiving. Even more effective would be to ensure that the bearers of the heritage continue to acquire further knowledge and skills and transmit them to the next generations (source: www.unesco.org). Core of Culture is committed to furthering this aim.

Recent advances in media technologies open up new, unobtrusive opportunities for dance preservation in culturally sensitive settings. HD cameras provide unprecedented breadth and quality in pristine places and traditions; lightweight digital technologies allow documentation in remote and unserviced areas; and internet broadband supplies direct connections between fieldwork and archiving bodies, as well as sustaining long-term connections between dancers, institutions and repositories worldwide.

Why Core of Culture?

With its multidisciplinary team of dancers, dance scholars, media experts and development consultants Core Of Culture as an organization is uniquely positioned to carry out culturally sensitive dance preservation interventions. As a clear testimony to the organization's professionalism and qualification, many institutions have approached Core of Culture with requests for collaboration over the last 18 months. These institutions include: Art Institute of Chicago, Rubin Museum of Art (New York), Banff Center for Mountain Culture (Banff, Canada), Newberry Library (Chicago), New York Public Library of the Performing Arts, Songtsen Library (Dehra Dun, India), UNESCO International Council on Dance (Paris, France), and International Association of Tibetan Scholars at Oxford University. These requests have come to Core of Culture following the dance research field trips carried out by the organization in 2000 (Ladakh, Nepal), 2001 (Ladakh, Pakistan, Nepal), and 2002 (London, Paris). An essay by Joseph Houseal entitled "Vanishing Dances of Ladakh", originally printed by the Ballet Review, has subsequently been re-published in four publications covering dance, asian art,, current affairs, and indigenous contemporary art. Core of Culture is qualified to carry out this research in a way that will ensure not only its immediate success but also its lasting impact.

In other words, it is precisely this moment of rapid change and rupture that opens up new opportunities for the preservation and continued 'life' of the threatened dance forms through innovative use of media technologies. These media technologies are not only documentary tools but will also facilitate the continued life of these dance forms beyond their geographically located practice.


Core of Culture will meet many pressing needs in the fields of dance preservation, dance scholarship, sustainable development and economic growth. The immediate deliverables and applications of this research include:

1. Archival Material (NYPL)
As an immediate outcome of Core of Culture's activities, substantial archival materials in the form of video, photographs and text will be added to the world's foremost dance collection, the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts Dance Division. This is one of the most widely used and easily accessed dance collections in the world and through it material gathered and produced by CoC will reach its maximum audience, expanded further with possible internet connections.
2. Cross-Cultural Dialogue:
In the US, collected footage and related publicity will be used to acquaint audiences and practitioners with previously inaccessible non-western dances. In the future Core of Culture will also undertake a pioneering survey of traditional dances and their condition within immigrant, diasporic, and ethnic communities living within the United States.
3. Contribution to UNESCO'S Intangible Heritage Initiative
Core of Culture's work will inform the lobby to include dance under the WORLD HERITAGE designation. The designation does not currently apply to intangible treasures. Core of Culture plans to support this effort.
4. Dance and Sustainable Development
Much of the work carried out by Core of Culture will have immediate international development applications, particularly in the area of communication. The success of HIV/AIDS and reproductive health education programs, gender empowerment and rural development relies on organizations' ability to communicate effectively. To make communication effective it needs to be culturally relevant and understandable to its audiences. The cultural specificity of the material collected by Core of Culture will be particularly relevant to development organizations working in these regions. This implementation will be carried out in partnership with local organizations.
5. Dance and Education
Dance in education both in developing and developed countries will benefit from the footage of previously undocumented dances provided by Core of Culture in education/school curricula. Core of Culture plans on working to include its materials in school curricula, in partnership with government and bilateral aid organizations. (e.g., Sangeet Natak Academy, ICCR, Nepal Academy )
6. Applications in Entertainment Media
Core of Culture is currently planning several applications for its documentary footage in the entertainment media field. These applications will allow the organization to achieve its goals of reaching a broader audience. Possible projects include: a documentary tracing the "journey home" of a Canadian modern dancer of Nepalese origin, popular films) HIMALATION: an ambient dance DVD for the Clubbers, coffee table books, and TV documentaries.
7. Encouraging Economic Growth
Stressing respect and cultural sensitivity, Core of Culture plans to use the footage collected to encourage eco-cultural tourism by highlighting dance where it has not been done, staging festivals, linking with rural development and collaborating on media and broadcast projects.
8. Engaging Diasporic Communities
The research carried out by Core of Culture will contribute directly to the recently emerging discourse around the priorities of intangible cultural transmission in the diasporic communities. In the future, Core of Culture will also execute a survey of selected diasporic communties to an effort to document the "buried treasures" of dance mastery in these groups.