UI Dance Professor to talk cultural dance history at Prairie Lights reading

On Jan. 28, Prairie Lights will present a reading and discussion of UI professor Rebekah Kowal’s upcoming novel, Dancing The World Smaller: Staging Globalism In Mid-century America. Kowal will explore and investigate the history of American dance in the social-political context of a globalist society.


Photo of Professor and Chair of the UI Department of Dance Rebekah J. Kowal. Contributed.

Parker Jones, Arts Reporter

The idea of dance as a mode of cultural progress in the context of a globalist society might seem like an intimidatingly niche concept to most. To University of Iowa Dance Professor Rebekah Kowal, however, it’s a pertinent subject of discussion, especially in the light of recent political events.

On Jan. 28, Professor and Chair of the UI Department of Dance Rebekah J. Kowal will present a virtual reading and discussion over Zoom of her new book, Dancing The World Smaller: Staging Globalism In Mid-century America. The event can be accessed through Prairie Lights’ website.

Kowal will read a portion of the book’s introductory chapter, and then open a conversation with a few other speakers — who are also scholars involved in researching dance as a social and political art form — as well as any audience members who want to participate. During the discussion, she will also cover how dance continues to play a role in the cultural progress of a modern globalist society.

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Dancing The World Smaller is Kowal’s second book on the topic, and brings to light a hidden history of American concert dance, which is examined in-depth through a social-political lens. Specifically, the Dance professor investigates mid-20th century American dance performance, and the concept of what she defined as “ethnologic” dance, or the genre of non-western traditional folk dances, and how they were forced to assimilate to the Western ideals of the time period.

“This whole genre of dance has fallen off the map because it was not subscribing to conventional notions of concert dance aesthetics,” Kowal said. “In part because of white supremacist notions within the United States and of whose bodies we value, but also what kind of dance is viewed as beautiful or important.”

The book also focuses heavily on the globalist ideals of the United States at the time, and how those relate to America’s current foreign politics. After World War II, much of the world focused its efforts on establishing world peace and unity, with the US at the forefront of promoting cross-cultural understanding, she said.

However, as Kowal described, even though these were good intentions there remained a power structure that played to the advantage of Western conventional notions, leaving many cultural aspects of the United States behind, including in the realm of dance.

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“I think with the end of the era of President Trump and thinking about ‘America first,’ the people are really questioning whether globalism serves the U.S.,” Kowal said. “What is the role of the U.S. as a global leader? Is it important for this nation to be involved or should we just pay attention to what’s happening within our own borders? I think this book is raising questions that really relate to those contemporary issues.”

The dance professor mentioned that while the book tackles these heavier political questions, she also said she wishes to discuss the aspects of the performing arts that bridge cultural divides. Kowal said she believes performances of both the past and present to be illuminating in terms of progressing towards the global inclusion of all cultures.

“I think that the book is speaking to questions that many people have, but I think that dance can be something where people think, ‘Oh, I don’t know anything about that.’ It’s hard to be curious,” Kowal said. “I’m excited to have the opportunity that this event offers, and I just hope that anyone that has an interest in any of these issues would feel welcome to participate.”