One Educator’s Response to the Gap in Online Dance Resources

by: Melanie Aceto, Associate Professor, University at Buffalo

Access to recordings of complete dances

One of the greatest challenges in teaching dance technique and composition that I have faced over the past 15 years is my limited access to recordings of complete dances. In this post, I share a bit about my needs and challenges as an educator in an effort to begin to address some of these deficiencies as part of the Dancing Digital working group.

When I started teaching dance composition 15 years ago, I was not interested in showing my students the handful of professionally published DVDs of the reputed pioneers of modern dance that I saw in dance history class many years prior. I wanted to show them the works of the artists I had just left in NYC. So, I called up David Dorfman, Brian Brooks, Monica Barnes, Kate Weare, David Parsons, Ron Brown, Doug Varone, Sean Curran, Stephen Petronio, and many others, asking them to share their work with me. Most did. These DVDs were largely recordings of recent complete concerts typically sent to presenters and granting agencies. At first, I worked with the library at the University at Buffalo where I was on faculty. The library would purchase the DVDs for a small fee, incorporate them into their catalog, and make them available for in-library viewing only. In an effort to make works even more easily accessible for my students, the works were later sent directly to me by the artists in online links with passwords, under the agreement that I was only sharing these works with my composition classes. For a few years this worked well, but it quickly became challenging to show a current body of work that was also diverse.  For instance, some choreographers would only share works that were 10 years old or more. In addition, as years passed, some choreographers grew in fame and were no longer responding to my emails. I was having to navigate increasingly through management companies instead of communicating directly with the artists. The pay-off was very little for the great effort it took to connect with artists and managers for records of work. Through this process, it became evident that my early success in acquiring works to show was based on my personal relationship with these artists, not on the choreographers’ eagerness to share works with my composition classes. Personal relationships are great for acquiring resources, but they often too narrowly reflect of our own training and aesthetic biases and are difficult to maintain over time. I largely gave up on acquiring new works from choreographers in the U.S. and started purchasing Dance for Camera DVDs because they were easy to obtain, affordable, and showed complete works. It was during these “I give up” years that I was put in touch with Rebecca Salzer at the University of Alabama who shared my passion for the need for accessibility of dance for teaching in higher education.

Access to live dance presentations

I have found that it is not easy to see live dance while residing on most college campuses, the majority of which are not situated in urban cultural centers.

I was straight out of New York City my first year on faculty at the State University of New York (SUNY) College at Brockport. Brockport brought in guest artists each semester for full evening performances.  One hour west of Brockport was The University at Buffalo’s (UB) Center for the Arts, which brought in companies as well. In an effort to expose my Brockport students to more live dance, I arranged for tickets and carpools to the dance concerts at UB. Two years later when I took a position at the University at Buffalo, I arranged for tickets and carpools to the dance concerts at Brockport. This proved unsustainable. The students were unfamiliar with the companies that were performing, so not many were eager to spend the time and money to see the concerts. If the dancers had a weekend night free from rehearsals and performing, they did not want to drive one hour to see a performance.  Even though students were concerned that they were unfamiliar with artists in the field to know who they wanted to work with when they graduated, they were not able or willing to put in the effort during the academic year to see the few artists that were “nearby”. I no longer wanted to press students to go – so I now go alone.

I am still on faculty at UB, and I drive one hour to Brockport or the University of Rochester, 1.5 hours to Nazareth college (Rochester), two hours to Toronto, two hours to Alfred University, three hours to Cleveland, and seven hours to NYC to see live dance. That is a lot of work to see live dance. I feel it necessary to note that I do not have children or aging parents to care for. I can more easily afford the “luxury” of seeing live dance than can those who must attend to family.

Access to streaming of dance events

What is it that I am hoping for? Starting with concert dance, something in the model of Met Opera on Demand[1] would provide much needed access to complete dances from around the globe[2]. While I would still make the drive to dance events “nearby,” more access would allow me to experience the diversity of the field as well as share that with my students. The thought of being able to pull up a dance as easily as I can play a piece of music is invigorating.  Sharing lectures, sports games, public events, gaming, music concerts, and many other events in real time has been made possible by fields enduring growing pains and addressing problems of access. I envision the same for dance. The ability to easily access the vast richness of my own field would sustain me for another 15 years of teaching!

Access to repertory

It is typical in higher education for students to learn complete dances (repertory) from a primary source dance maker or a secondary source répétiteur. Although I understand that this method allows for dance to be transmitted in a way that attends to concerns about appropriation, attribution, and authenticity, it reaches only a limited number of students. I wonder about new ways of sharing repertory via video that would meet the needs of both educators and dancemakers. With younger artists more and more comfortable sharing, and the internet becoming the center of information exchange, I am hopeful that thoughtful new ways to transmit repertory via video might be possible.

Access to archives

While individuals, public and private institutions, and universities are moving to publish more recordings, photos, written materials and physical articles, I have not found a centralized way to search these archives, and I have found it especially difficult to find complete recordings of dance. I would like easy online access to these rich archives that exist throughout the world.  Being able to make use of what is already available would be a huge step forward in terms of access.

Access to supporting materials

In addition to recorded performances, I would also love access to process footage, rehearsal footage, annotated footage, artists’ notes, interviews, essays, and commentary for current and historical works. These materials would undeniably inform the study of dance past and present for me and my students, as historical, cultural, and contextual resources offer a unique window into understanding, responding and connecting to dance. 

Moving Forward

I acknowledge the unique complexities that dance presents as a time-based, visual, and largely collaborative form. Concerns about navigating intellectual property rights for online materials are very real, and misunderstandings of legal issues (such as Fair Use) and attitudes within the field contribute to the dearth of access. However, I believe that, fundamentally, artists want to share their work with audiences. I maintain that it is possible to approach legal, ethical, and aesthetic obstacles to access with communal energy and with inspired, creative thinking.


[2] I acknowledge that embedded in this need is the assumption of the ability and desire to record the dance. Not all dance should be, wants to be, or can be recorded.