Given the recent focus on embodied knowledge in dance and dance studies, I would like to draw attention to the field of physical education. Both dance and “physical education” are founded on the notion of education through and of the body. It is also true that in many schools and colleges one can get “phys. ed.” credit for taking dance classes. Yet the world of professional and experimental dance still feels very divorced from the world of physical education.

For one thing, dance is still seen as a small sector of culture, a kind of niche or special interest, while physical education — primarily sports — is part of the national curriculum in a way that dance certainly is not. But isn’t dance training a kind of physical education? For that matter, aren’t practices like Alexander and Feldenkreis and Pilates and Yoga and Laban Movement Analysis all modes of physical education? Can we imagine these practices having a significant impact on the shape of physical culture in the twenty-first century, including the arena of “phys ed”?

The volume Body Knowledge and Control: Studies in the Sociology of Physical Education and Health is edited by John Evans, Brian Davies, and Jan Wright (Routledge, 2004). It begins with the following statement:

In recent years ‘health’ has become a major, multi-million pound [UK currency] industry, a topic of routine everyday conversation, a matter of political concern. So much that many are inclined to accept the health knowledge and advice that is offered in ‘the public interest’ and define health issues and agendas as well-meant, ideologically innocent, even incontrovertible matters of fact that should be better reflected in the curriculum of schools. (ix)

Compare this with the first quotation from my blog post on Mark Singleton’s Yoga Body. Here again we see physical culture and embodied knowledge described not as a small subculture or niche but as one of the major governmental and commercial arenas of our time. Although many of the chapters in this book focus on the U.K. and Australia, its main points are still relevant to the U.S. These have to do, on the one hand, with the development and codification of “physical culture” as a practice related to exercises, drills, and sports; and then, on the other, with the need to reconsider somatics and other forms of bodywork as deeply relevant (and perhaps revolutionary, in the sense of a paradigm shift) to physical education.

While not exactly a fat politics (see here or here) book, many of the chapters do critique healthism and fat-phobia and clearly distinguish between the body ideals promoted in most phys ed and the much wider and deeper understandings of “health” that are available to those who search for them. Analyses of racism, sexism, and homophobia in a variety of contexts are also included, and the gap between scholarly analysis and mainstream practice is highlighted:

[N]otwithstanding what we know as a result of our theorizing and research about how certain cultural practices contribute to limited, restricted or oppressive bodily practices, we have seen little significant systemic change in such practices. While acknowledging that some young people have positive and healthful attitudes to their bodies, many young people still graduate from our schools oppressed by the tyranny of the cult of the body. (219)

This book is extremely valuable in that it tackles embodied knowledge in its most mainstream incarnation — physical education — and deconstructs it using Foucault, Butler, and other critics familiar to theorists of embodiment. This critique needs to go much further, however, in at least two ways: 1) through incorporating more recent theories of embodiment; and 2) by drawing connections between mainstream physical education and the developments of alternative modes of embodiment such as those found in the Movement Research community.

Dancers and experimental movement practitioners should not only wait for sociologists like these to come to them. We should also pick up books like this one and use them to help us think about how embodied knowledge can impact physical education. Among other things, this book calls for a reevaluation of “the role of physical educators in the world” (76). Perhaps it is already a radical step for many of us to think of ourselves as “physical educators” in this sense. For example, I would love to see a Movement Research Studies Project that engages with teachers and school administrators working in phys ed.

Ben Spatz
Artistic Director
Urban Research Theater
MR-AIR 2010-2012


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