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Sculptures and Avatars: Mediating of the Memory of Odissi Dance

Shreelina Ghosh

The mediation of Odissi dance has had a profound impact on how the artists of the Internet era teach and perform this Indian classical dance. Digital technologies of instruction, like CDs, DVDs, online videos and synchronous videos, are transforming the practice and teaching of traditional dance. In particular, this study focuses on how dissemination in collaborative and discursive online spaces is transforming Odissi.  Digital technologies mediate the memory of this classic art form—from its mythical origins to its current remediation in “new” media. Aside from their impact on the teaching and practice of traditional dance, new digital technologies have affected how we understand performative cultural memory.

I am an Odissi dancer with over twenty-five years of experience as a student, teacher, and performer. I initially learned Odissi the traditional way—as a four-year old in Calcutta. Indian classical dance is not only an artistic expression, but also a way of living. Since I encountered the dance at a very tender age, Odissi shaped my perception of the world and the way in which I communicate. This influence became more evident when I joined an academic program in the United States and developed my rhetorical skills to communicate with the academic world. I realized that my dancer-self deeply influences my pedagogical stance and attitude toward learning and research. This identity has also shaped the theoretical and methodological stance I have taken in this paper, which is drawn from a larger project. Despite my traditional learning, I have used technological tools like CDs, DVDs, and online videos in my learning, teaching, and performance over the past decade. I have also taught college composition in fully online and hybrid (partially virtual and partially traditional) classroom spaces. As a dancer and an academic, I am situated in the crux of this tension between tradition and technology. This unique position allows me to raise crucial questions regarding the performance of cultural memory through several forms of remediation.

Historically, the body has acted as the mediator of cultural meanings in the performative practices of India. Online spaces virtualize the body, thus complicating the potential of the body to hold information and transmit it to the next generation. My interviews with and surveys of practitioners of the dance suggest that new technologies have created a divide in the dance community. To some, technology is an important tool for innovation. To others, it has the potential to spoil the authenticity of the art. The core value system of traditional Odissi involves sacred associations between the dance space and the dancing body. The memory of this traditional art was transmitted from one mode to another across generations over thousands of years. In this paper, I argue that senior practitioners of the dance resist the mediation of memory through technological tools and digital spaces because it might be disruptive to the core value system of the dance. I further contend that as we digitize composition teaching, the practice of an ancient artistic memory can be helpful in understanding the complexities of virtualizing pedagogies.

Memories Etched on Temple Walls: A Brief History of Odissi

Odissi originated in the temples of Orissa (recently renamed Odisha), a coastal state in eastern India. Thousands of sculptures showing Odissi poses are etched on the walls of the temples. Women known as maharis [i] originally performed this sacred-sensuous dance. Wealthy patrons and rulers supported them through donations given to the temple.

The Islamic and British colonization was a major setback for the maharis. When the patrons of Orissan temple dances, the Hindu kings, lost their power, support for the tradition dwindled. Furthermore, the 16th-century Muslim colonizers introduced the purdah system (the practice of covering the face and head). These rigid laws about women displaying their bodies affected temple dance as the culturally unaware British colonizers mistook the maharis for prostitutes or entertainers like the court dancers of Northern India. Although maharis were undeniably providing sexual services to the patrons, sex was not the primary function of the mahari tradition. The,19th-century British reform movements led to the banning of dance as part of an anti-prostitution campaign. Active practice of mahari and deva dasi traditions also stopped.

In order to keep the tradition alive, the practitioners of the temple dance began to teach the dance to young boys, many of whom were sons of the maharis. These boys were called gotipuas (“goti” means one, and “pua” means boy). Bandha [ii] is the acrobatic dance of the gotipuas. Maharis performed the dance only within the temple walls; gotipuas danced for the entertainment of the public. The maharis’ dance was lyrical and spiritual. Although gotipua dancers retained some of this spirituality and lyricism, the dance style transformed when it was adopted by male bodies. It became acrobatic and stronger, and it lost the lilting feminine charm that was characteristic of the spiritual temple dance.

After decades of near-extinction, the revival and reconstruction of Odissi was initiated in the mid-twentieth century by a group of local theater practitioners and dancers trained as gotipuas by maharis, and by percussionists. This move was part of a post-independence nationalist agenda that fit a westernized model of celebrating national cultural symbols. The practitioners of the dance positioned it as a traditional exotic performance and judged authenticity based on its adherence to traditional practices that the previous generation of dancers had transmitted to them. The revivalists of Odissi, however, had their own interpretation of the dance and their own definition of authenticity. These differences led to the creation of several schools of Odissi dance in Odisha. The question of “authenticity” (when evaluating the various schools) remains controversial within the dance community.

The tradition of Odissi dance has absorbed innovation during these processes of mediating the memory of the dance, while holding onto the dance’s underlying values. In particular, spirituality remains core to the performance of this dance. Practitioners across generations have regarded the relationship between the master and the disciple as special and sacred. Orally transmitted chants in Sanskrit that are ritually sung by dancers before a performance of the dance reveal the position of reverence that the master enjoys. As a temple-tradition, the space of performance is also considered auspicious. When the dance began to be performed outside the temple, the association of sacredness continued. The sacredness of the body of the dancer and the space where the dance is performed has traditionally been regarded as central to its value-system.

In Odissi, the body internalizes the knowledge/memory received from the master and then expresses meaning through movements that adhere to the grammar of this dance. The rhetoric of classical dance is laden with these sacred meanings. When one learns this art, she/he immediately becomes the bearer of an ancient cultural memory that she/he can pass down to the next generation of dancers, orally and practically. The learning technologies of Odissi have served as keepers of memory over the centuries, but not necessarily as tools for students to experiment with in the production of the art. Historically, the memory has been transmitted from the body to scriptures to written texts, and then to videos. Over the past decade, teachers and performers of Odissi have used online pedagogical tools to transmit the memory of the dance. These different stages and forms of mediation help us to understand the evolution and endurance of this cultural memory.

Digitized Bodies, Mediated Memories

Temple sculptures bear the memory of this ancient tradition. Later, in the twentieth century, we started etching them in virtual spaces. The memory transmits itself from the physical body (the original keeper of memory of this oral artistic tradition) to the sculptures that represent the body. These sculptures were instrumental in the survival of the art form for several centuries. When sculptors sculpted the movement of the temple dancers on the temple walls, the memory of this artistic ritual was detached from the body of the temple dancers and mediated though other mediums that preserve/perform the dance. These bearers of memory also served as supplementary tools for teaching. For instance, a guru, or master, uses temple sculptures to understand and teach postures of the dance. However, oral transmissions of knowledge remain primary (pedagogically speaking). The meanings conveyed by the movements in Odissi are loaded with culturally specific connotations. As such, the performer’s body mediates deep cultural meanings in the poses, revealing a story with each piece of movement in a dance.

With new digital technologies, it is possible to record, replay, edit, and remix performances; virtual worlds allow dancers to turn into avatars, transforming their physical shapes and performing gravity-defying feats. Networked technologies allow for the instant transmission and retransmission of movements. The influence of these media on teaching, on practices of traditional dance, and on how we understand performative cultural memory creates interesting conversations within the community of artists, and raises provocative questions about the remediation of tradition. The dancing body mediates meaning through a set of hand gestures or significations through facial expressions. The transmission in videos, tapes, or avatars is a remediation of the dance, where the mediated message is mediated again with digital tools. Online spaces virtualize the body, thus complicating the potential of the body to hold information and transmit it to the next generation. The dance community has responded to these technologies with mixed attitudes. On the one hand, gurus and some traditional practitioners of the art find that the new technologies have the potential to damage both the transmission and performance of traditional dance. On the other hand, the new generation embraces the remediation of the dance with new technologies, and sees it as an important way to preserve, promote, and secure the survival of the art form. To some, these efforts are innovative and intelligent. To others, they are unnecessary.

In Odissi, the practice of the dance in virtual spaces results in the absence of the physically communicative connection between the dancer, the audience, and the co-dancers. In this art form, communication depends on forming inter-subjective experiences that create the impression of accessing the consciousness of the other person. When the physical connection is lost in a virtual collaborative performance, be it through Skype or Second Life (SL) dancing, the process of accessing consciousness and reacting to the layered meanings in a complicated story-telling performance of Odissi is challenging. Through the rhetoric of performance, the body conveys the meanings needed to perceive the world.

In the case of a virtual body performing a visible rhetoric and collaborating with the audience and a fellow performer who is physically distant, the communication takes place through both the visible and the invisible expressions of the collaborator’s body, creating an impression of identification and harmony of consciousnesses between the real bodies and digitally represented bodies. Learning a dance in such virtual performative and online social-networking spaces is a new practice. The tools of teaching in dance can be vital in propagating the dance, thereby keeping the memory of the dance alive. It is, however, crucial to understand that the ramifications of digital pedagogy might lead to too much openness in this dance, which started as an esoteric practice of temple dance. It can also lead to a subversive resistance to the tradition of the Guru-Shishya teaching method.

Mediated performances and dances in virtual spaces are non-traditional practices that open up problems as well as possibilities for the propagation and preservation of the art. Representations and transformations of the body in digital spaces are crucial factors in understanding the practice and teaching of Odissi dance. The body is central to this exploration.  Thus, this paper opens up space for critical conversations on mediation. I argue that several practitioners understand mediation of the ancient art of Odissi dance through technological tools as counter-discursive to the traditional practice. However, tradition also undergoes mediation. Practices change with mediation. This ancient art survived for two thousand years because of its ability to adapt, mediate, and imbibe innovativeness alongside careful attempts to preserve certain values of this dance.

Voices: What Dancers Say about Mediating Memories

The foundational aspects of the dance’s culturally performative memory remain in the remediations, theoretically at least. For those practicing traditional dance, however, these remediations have taken an evolutionary path over the centuries—from oral transmission, to stone templates, to videos and digital avatars. Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin explain that "The very act of remediation [. . .] ensures that the older medium cannot be entirely effaced; the new medium remains dependent on the older one in acknowledged and unacknowledged ways" (47). In the remediated form of dance, visual and aural semiotic artifacts that perform the function of maintaining the memory of the dance replace the presence of the body, forging new relationships among this sacred art, its pedagogy, and its performance. Remediations of Odissi dance have had a profound impact on the practice of Odissi dance. Practitioners are concerned about the authenticity of the practice of this dance and are concerned about technology potentially spoiling the traditional method of teaching and performance.

In order to examine if the values of the dance are changing with the technologization of its practice, I decided to carry out a qualitative, research-based inquiry into the field of dance through a series of surveys and interviews; participants included Odissi dancers of several nationalities and several stages of experience. My most important data came from my fifty hours of participant observations in real and online communities of Odissi dance performers. I also surveyed thirty-four performers and critics of Indian classical dances, mostly related to Odissi. For additional data, I procured extracts from discussions in the “Odissi Dance” group on Facebook and the Yahoo Odissi dance group. Additionally, my interviews with artists in Raghurajpur and Kolkata in eastern India, where Odissi is actively practiced, represent the viewpoints of some of the most respected senior teachers of the dance community. These conversations reveal the perspectives of practitioners who generally do not use technological tools in order to enhance the practice of the dance. My research shows that these practitioners acknowledge the body as central to the nature of the dance. Seniors practitioners resist innovation and mediation if these compromise the essential spirituality of the dance, the sacredness of the body, and the position of the guru. Attitudes towards mediation vary, depending on the participants’ age group as well as the accessibility of and exposure to the digital technologies of teaching Odissi dance.

Because most respondents expressed concern about remediations of this traditional dance, the practices of virtual dance and teaching through videos are still not widespread.  Learning this traditional dance with a guru is still the most popular teaching method. In spite of that, we cannot ignore the impact of remediations of this dance since more and more practitioners of Odissi are using second life, chat-spaces, social networking sites and YouTube, creating virtual “avatar” representations of themselves in order to teach and practice the dance. This virtual reality is especially common in the diasporic population and with dancers based outside of India.

The patterns in the interview data show that even when practices of the dance involve mediation through digital tools for teaching, the practitioners simulate real practice. Conversations and survey responses richly demonstrate the conflict that unfolds when new technologies remediate the traditional cultural practice. The three core values regarding the body, the guru, and the context of spirituality are historical constructs that are traditionally valued. The patterns in the data reveal that the moments of resistance towards technology are always the moments when technology negotiates these values.

Most people in the artistic community consider the sacredness of the dance as valuable to its practice. Respondents acknowledge the sacredness of this dance as an essential value in several ways. To many dancers, purity lies in the authenticity of the dance. The artistic community conceptualized authenticity over several generations. Though the definition of authenticity has evolved across generations, the association with spirituality has remained in this temple dance tradition. Senior Odissi master Gangadhar Pradhan expressed disapproval of dancers who are “slipping” from the classical tradition by attempting to change the dance style. To him, if a dancer changes the form, context, and costume of Odissi, and if they do not perform according to the grammar of classical Odissi dance, they should not call it “Odissi.” They should simply call it “Creative Dance.” To him, the dance of a classical Odissi artiste needs to align with the approved performative grammar that the community recognizes.

In a more moderate position, Ratikanta Mohapatra, an eminent Odissi teacher and choreographer, expressed support for creativity and innovation as a departure from the strictly traditional, as long as the innovations are culturally relevant. 
According to him, Odissi dancers and dance teachers expect to preserce spirituality in the dance. Mohapatra considers cross-cultural contamination of Odissi obscene, offensive, and sacrilegious. The association of sacredness comes from the cultural attitude of the dancers. The Odissi practitioners rejected the hip-hop interpretations of Odissi performance mainly because the rendition potentially hurt the authenticity of the dance by infusing a style that came from a different culture. Mohapatra said, “If those are at all used, they should be relevant, both thematically and culturally.” It makes sense to Mohapatra to experiment with more subtle and “relevant” collaborations across cultures and media.

To Odissi master Maguni Das, music in Sanskrit can be translated as Sangeet, where “Sang” means union. Sangeet is the union between the body of the dancer and the music accompanying the dance. It is important for people to come together and perform. To him, this communion of the dancer and the musicians creates an ambience of sacredness and purity. Use of stage and sound technologies in the performance of the dance (instead of live music) breaks that sacred bond between the dancer and the musician.

Several practitioners, especially senior dancers, expressed disapproval, suspicion, and resistance towards unregulated use or overuse of digital technologies in traditional dance. While these dancers think that the memory of the dance transmitted to the next generation might lose its authenticity, digital technologies are instrumental as keepers of memory. A dancer of non-Indian origin writes in a response, “Dance can be preserved, performed and taught authentically” even if teachers use technology. Here, she defends her practices of learning with technology by demonstrating her awareness of the association of Odissi dance with authenticity and sacredness. Mediation, through online videos, brings Odissi closer to non-Indian audiences. The videos admittedly substitute for the body of the guru; however, teaching tools like DVDs and online videos bring Odissi closer to learners all across the globe.

Several dancers actively use remediating tools such as videos and DVDs for learning dance and often replace the body of the teacher by employing dance videos to learn. A non-Indian student wrote the following in an email correspondence: “I can view the video and remember the sequence and incorporate the rasa if the video is clear enough.” She opined that this tool “does not affect the form of the dance. Dance can be preserved, performed and taught authentically.” Using technological tools like CDs and videos might not be traditional, but the respondent does not think that this innovative approach to teaching the ancient art will transform the style of the dance.

An Odissi dancer from the Middle East wrote, “The technology is used in several ways: 1) remembering the poses and sequence, 2) criticizing later and improving the movement...” Technologies of dance serve as memory-keepers and as a pedagogical tool for this dancer. A video played repeatedly ingrains the steps in the memory of the dancer. Since the learner is able to watch her/his performance through videos, she/he can locate and improve imperfections in her/his rendition. Here, the survey respondent seems to project more extensive use of technological tools for teaching the dance in the future.

A non-Indian dance student wrote, “We use DVD players for rehearsals, we record our new compositions and video record it during choreography so that we can improvise if need be. At times, to give a different feel I use pre recorded audio track even for teaching basics to my students.” In traditional teaching, the teacher would usually chant a set of sounds at different paces, and the students would dance to the rhythm of those chants. This respondent replaced the chants with pre-recorded music, and students dance to those rhythms. The “different feel” indicates the emotional responses of the performers to the performance of the dance. The same respondent reflected upon the experience of using technology in dance. She wrote that using technological tools “strongly affects” traditional dance: “It alters the form and soul of the dance completely.” This dancer has used a number of learning tools and believes that the dance transforms when mediated. “Soul” indicates the spiritual response of the audience to the dance performed. To this respondent, the dance is deeply associated with spirituality. The meanings mediated by the dancing body evoke different emotional and spiritual responses in the dancer and the audience when remediated through technological tools. The meaning mediated through the body is direct. When the body appears on screen, the meanings in the dance are distant from audience. Although this dancer uses technological tools in teaching and performing dance, she realizes that the use of technology alters the form and the soul of the dance

Digital media extend the boundaries of artistic bodies in ways that might challenge the spiritual rhetoric inscribed on those bodies. Merce Cunningham, a legendary choreographer, asserts, “With the computer one can make the figure do things the human body couldn't do” (qtd. in De Spain 8). However, he immediately adds, “That doesn't basically interest me because I'm really concerned about people dancing” (8). Many dancers acknowledge that technology has enhanced the performance of Odissi across the world; however, dismissal and suspicion are two emotions that dominated some of the conversations I had with some legendary dancers and choreographers of Odissi.

Exploring the Complexities of Mediated Memories

Mediation through technology is not a smooth system. In "From Pencils to Pixels: The Stages of Literacy Technology," Dennis Baron examines the stages of mediation in advancing communication and literacy technologies. He argues that in spite of the initial resistance to these technologies, they ultimately become integrated into a culture as if they had always been a part of it. Mediating the traditional art of Odissi through technological tools might not necessarily be harmful. However, it is important to understand the effect of this mediation on the dance to preserve the ancient art’s spiritual authenticity, which is valued amongst the Odissi practitioners. The patterns of conversation above show that to some gurus, sacredness is intrinsic to the dance. Students practicing Odissi dance need to understand this aspect. For some gurus, it is important to help students across cultures recognize these values.

Classical Indian dance has moved from one phase of mediation to another and one context to another, from folk to classical to digital. Mediation of the dance in online spaces and teaching videos has led to destabilization, confusion, and some resistance from the veteran practitioners of the art. These practitioners welcome some changes but think that sacredness is essential for the ultimate survival of this cultural art form, for its continued performance and preservation.

The research on the transformation of Odissi dance in digital space helped me identify the implications of traditional values of teaching and mediated pedagogies for my own teaching in a composition classroom. I have taught both traditional and hybrid courses in Michigan State University and Arizona State University. My role in the virtual Writing Center at Michigan State reinforces my attempt to explore the experience of instructing in virtual spaces. In each of these experiences, I have intensely considered the role of my body as an instructor in the virtual space. The negotiation of the body with the value systems involved in composition pedagogy will be an effective way to understand the transformation.

This study shows that in the eastern rhetorical tradition, the presence of the body and the immediate interactions with the teacher in the process of learning are important and valued. Disrupting the values of Odissi is problematic for mediating the cultural memory of an ancient art that has survived over thousands of years by basing its pedagogy and performance on certain core values. This realization has shaped my understanding of the digitization of the traditional practice of composition teaching. As we explore cutting-edge technological tools to create collaborative virtual composition and collaborative spaces for students, it is important to also explore the ramifications of remediated pedagogy on learning.

Body and space are central to the value system of teaching composition. These values are comparable to the concept of sacredness or exclusivity in Odissi dance practice. I argue that the simulation of a real body and spaces can enhance the teaching and learning experience. Course management systems are designed in ways that simulate real teaching strategies in web-based and mediated teaching environments. Instructors and students carefully negotiate the absences and presences of their bodies in the process of teaching and learning writing.

Online composition class spaces are colossal and chaotic, but also interconnected and integrated. Co-operative coordination and collaboration in the classroom activities synergize students. Peer reviews, chats, discussion forums, and wikis are examples of such synergizing tools. Teachers carefully regulate the construction of these pedagogic spaces in order to simulate a sense of “real” presence. In my own teaching of online classes, I use the chat tools in the course management system. I set up smaller chat rooms with a limited number of students for each one so as to simulate a small-group discussion session in a traditional composition classroom. This format makes the online environment less chaotic and potentially overwhelming. By doing so, I try to give students a sense of the real presence of a few other students with whom they can discuss on a more personal level.

The presence of the bodies of the students is important to learning in traditional classrooms. In an online classroom, participation in online activities or submission of an assignment during an assigned time simulates the presence of the body. In traditional classrooms, students are penalized for not being “present” for an adequate number of days. In online classes, students are penalized for being “absent” if they do not make their “presence” felt in the form of activities, peer responses, and so on. Assignments, feedback, and chat-texts replace the student’s body. The presence of the student is important in building a classroom community that includes the students and teacher. Teachers attempt to build a strong classroom community in order to facilitate shared learning through interactive activities like small group discussions, presentations, peer reviewing, and collaborative projects. Replicating this experience in an online environment is often difficult. In my experience, I have had students participate in peer reviews and blogs very actively. Students who are reticent in traditional classes are often more active online. However, creating a situation where students collaborate in a completely online space might be difficult. To me, physical presence is important in reaching the shared learning goals in a composition class, and providing the ambience that replicates this situation is crucial.

In a virtual classroom, a set of instructions and assignment descriptions generated by the teacher replaces the physical body of the teacher. A teacher facilitates this process of learning; the presence is not an immediate requirement in the instructive moment. Composition teachers of hybrid/online classes often create instructional videos. Again, the avatar or the virtualized body in the video replaces the real body. Active responses to student emails on queries regarding assignments simulate the immediate presence of the teacher. In an online class, the responses to the queries of the students are often more immediate.

In “Teaching Online - A Time Comparison,” Economics professor Joseph Cavanaugh presents statistics-based arguments on the experiences of teachers and students in online and traditional classes. This study provides a useful overview of the role of students and teachers in these two class formats. Cavanaugh includes several statistical references in this paper to illustrate that instructors find teaching online courses more difficult than traditional courses due to their unique requirements, including more individual interaction with students, complicated grading systems, and so on (Cavanaugh 3). This article alludes to the pedagogical value placed on the presence of the body in the process of teaching. When the body is absent, teachers put forth extra effort in an attempt to compensate for this absence. Instructors simulate an over-active communicative ambience with students through the group feature on course management systems, wikis, forums, virtual office hours, and individual emails.

This study's goals, therefore, are two-fold: (1) to understand how cultural memories are mediated through Odissi dance performances and (2) to apply those insights to the modern composition classroom. The advent of technological teaching tools in a composition classroom has transformed the structure of the classrooms and power relations within the classroom. Composition as a discipline is continuously transitioning from being immediate, embodied, and authority-centered to a state of being networked, collaborative, and mediated. Multi-modal strategies in composition and instruction are widely used by instructors. However, some are resistant and apprehensive about the changes. Dona Hickey expresses her concern that students and teachers might sometimes get overwhelmed by the tool itself, thereby missing out on the opportunities for face-to-face interactions with students, where they can actively help students to become better writers. At one point in the article, she justifies her doubt by presenting a student's perspective: "Students not only resisted, but rebelled. In the classroom evaluations, they complained that they did not learn enough about writing and that this was not supposed to be a technology class. Despite his painstaking directions in the use of technology, they nevertheless identified him as a novice teacher who didn't have 'control' or 'presence." Hickey seems to be worried about the potential loss of control when the teacher assumes a de-centralized position in a traditional classroom. The instructions, activities, and communications work mostly on a binodal model in a traditional classroom, with the teacher and the student being on either end. The student procures information from the teacher and generates written products for the teacher, thereby improving his or her composition skills. Digitization opens up the composing space to include multiple resources for instruction, modes of composition, and audiences. The "sacredness" of the student-teacher relationship and the space might be lost. The traditional ritual of practicing the composition pedagogy transitions towards a de-centralized system of learning and teaching.

In a discussion about digitized pedagogies of compostion, James Porter writes that the question "Is technology harming or improving how we teach writing or how we write?" is unhelpful. Digitization will happen in a composition class. It is more important to understand what technology is doing to the performance of writing and ask, "How will we use technology? How will we engage technology?" (Porter 14)? The field of computers and composition values the necessity of engaging students in critical analysis of the technological tools and includes these considerations in the process of rhetorical decision-making. Techno-centeredness is an evolution of the pedagogical process, just as it is in the case of Odissi dance, which is transitioning from a traditional space to a technology-rich space.


[i] The etymological origin of the word mahari is debatable. It is commonly believed to have come from mahat nari, meaning “great woman.” Shashimani Devi is the last living mahari of Orissa.

[ii] This is an acrobatic performance by a group of gotipuas. Acrobatic formations depicted on the ancient temple walls suggest that it is one of the original rituals of the temples performed by both men and women.

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