Dance Research Paper

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Dance, or the human body making rhythmic patterns in time and space for a purpose transcending utility, has been approached by anthropologists as one aspect of human behavior inextricably bound up with all those aspects that constitute what we call culture. Early ethnographers attended to dance as an adjunct to ritual or as an accompaniment to leisure social activities. Contemporary scholars examine it as belonging to the more general category of embodied knowledge. Their scope extends to classical performance traditions, modern popular forms, and communally embedded traditional dance.

Throughout human history, dance has always elicited powerful responses—on one hand, it has been banned, feared, seen as a corrupting influence, criticized for its sexual nature, and anathema to those who privilege the mind; on the other, dance has been praised for its ability to entertain, viewed as the essential element in rituals of healing, transformation from one state to another, and thanksgiving, and as ordered movement, a symbol of a cosmic “great chain of being.” Through its performance by the human body and its ability to elicit a kinesthetic response in performer and viewer alike, it becomes elemental. Its universality across cultures is equaled by the strength of human responses to it, in which there appears to be no neutral position. Anthropologist Maurice Bloch, in his influential 1974 article, argues for the language of song, dance, and music as a special form of assertion toward which no argument is possible. Whatever meanings are encoded in these forms, the listener or viewer may only agree or disagree. There is no dialogue possible.

The medium of dance, composed by individuals and embodied by other individuals, creates meanings that are polysemous and multivocalic. The choreographer of a piece or a ritual may have one message to convey, the performers other interpretations, and the audience yet other understandings. This quality compounds the difficulties faced by scholars who wish to understand how and why dance occupies the position it does in society. Dance can be viewed for its formal aspects, its meanings or content, or for the relationships it has to its larger social context. In the history of American anthropology, the last approach has been the most popular. The reasons for this have to do with an implicit hierarchy of ethnographic areas of inquiry with the arts being relegated to the least central to understanding society. Even within the arts, visual arts have always been favored, perhaps because they are easier to document, unlike performing arts, whose “products” are ephemeral. Secondly, dance is notoriously hard to observe, record, and analyze. A focus on who participates in dance and how it functions within society made dance seem like other social categories. Early descriptions paid minimal attention to form, preferring the safer ground of functional analysis.

Ironically, French anthropologist Marcel Mauss (1872–1950) had no such hesitation in exploring the body in motion. In his article “Body Techniques” (1934), he examined body actions in ordinary life, relating them to expectations about gender, about practice, and about habits of the body. His definition of techniques of the body—highly developed body actions that embody aspects of a given culture—was the foundation for Pierre Bourdieu’s (1930–2002) habitus, a notion that has influenced much of contemporary social science.

American anthropologist Franz Boas (1858–1942) acknowledged dance as a universal human phenomenon and, in the case of the Kwakiutl of the northwest coast of North America, as an essential part of their culture, but he found the form of dance more difficult to describe than visual arts, house types, music, or kinship systems. He was one of the first, however, to use film to record dance. Although the first system for notating was published in 1588 (Orchesographie by Thoinot Arbeau), it would not be until the 1930s, when Hungarian dancer Rudolf von Laban (1879–1958) created a dance and movement notation based on universal and arbitrary symbols, that it was possible to make an adequate record of dance that might be a basis for formal analysis. Laban’s system, labanotation, and its offshoot, effort-shape notation, revolutionized the way in which dance is described and preserved. While most dance ethnographers prefer their own shorthand systems, supplemented by film, for field research, these two notation systems prove invaluable for both structural analyses of dance as well as for permanent records. European folklorists and ethnomusicologists were much quicker than their American counterparts to document such formal aspects of dance as steps, choreography, movement patterns, and floor plans. They were also quicker to use labanotation and effort-shape in their work (Royce 1977).

Attention to the formal aspects of dance did not occur in the United States until dancers trained as anthropologists entered the field. Katherine Dunham (1909– 2006), who worked in Haiti and the Caribbean, and Pearl Primus (1919–1994), who examined West African dance and its American forms, approached their subject as dancers and as anthropologists. As dancers, they were comfortable with the dance itself, settling it in their own bodies. As anthropologists, they documented its purpose in those societies they studied. Both women ultimately focused on theatrical performance as a way of bringing the richness of African diasporic cultures to the widest possible audience. Regarded as performers rather than as scholars, their important work was largely ignored.

Gertrude P. Kurath (1903–1992), a dancer with degrees in music, drama, and art history, was initially more successful. Invited by anthropologist Sol Tax (1907–1995) to write an article on dance ethnology for the first issue of Current Anthropology, Kurath defined and laid out the shape of research on dance within American anthropology. Sound research on dance, she wrote, could only be done by “dancers who have achieved the insight and point of view of the ethnologist, or by musicians and ethnologists with dance training” (Kurath 1960, p. 247). This, indeed, has been the pattern, with dance-trained anthropologists forming the majority of dance scholars. Kurath herself documented dance in cultures as widely separated as the American Southwest, Mexico, eastern and southern Europe, and ancient Mesoamerica, as well as Iroquois dance. Her most long-lasting contributions to the anthropology of dance have been her meticulous ethnographic description, and her development and use of a notation system easily learned and easily understood by readers. Kurath’s superb monograph, Music and Dance of the Tewa Pueblos (written with Antonio Garcia, 1970) provided ethnographer Jill Sweet a foundation on which to trace the trajectory of Tewa dance. Sweet, with forty years of involvement with the Tewa, published a second edition of her book Dances of the Tewa Pueblo Indians in 2004. Most significantly, she included the voices of Tewa themselves, who reflect on the continuities and disjunctures of their dance.

In the late 1960s and 1970s, a small group of anthropologists elaborated different approaches to dance within anthropology. Adrienne Kaeppler used linguistic analysis to explore the structure of Tongan dance. Drid Williams argued for a linguistic approach based on transformational grammar. Judith Lynne Hanna, working initially with West African and African diasporic dance, employed communications theory as a way to examine dance. Joann Kealiinohomoku took the work of Boas and Melville Herskovits (1895–1963) in new directions, looking at dance holistically as performed by the biological, language-using, social, culturally embedded human being. Anya Peterson Royce weighed the merits of historic, comparative, symbolic, and structural approaches to dance as an aspect of human society. The early contributions of these scholars to the emergence of the anthropology of dance as a scientific field of inquiry is the subject of a 2005 volume, Anthropologie de la Danse (Anthropology of Dance). Its editors, Andrée Grau and Georgiana WierreGore, included important European scholars whose work is both fundamental and provocative. These include Rodryk Lange, John Blacking, György Martin, Ernô Pesovár, Anca Giurchescu, and Egil Bakka.

Since the 1980s, dance scholars have kept pace with the discourse of anthropology as it has dealt with issues such as borders and boundaries, postcolonial societies, exile and appropriation, gender, power and agency, the articulation of us and them, and not least, an embodied anthropology of the senses. The tango and the samba provided a multivocalic point of entry into matters of exile, identity, agency, and embodied memory and action for three anthropologists and their work: Barbara Browning’s Samba: Resistance in Motion (1995), Marta Savigliano’s Tango and the Political Economy of Passion (1995), and Julie Taylor’s Paper Tangos (1998). All three authors capture what it means to be embodied in the dance, and communicate it in their writing. Browning writes of the way in which the dancing body communicates as a complex speaking of the body. Savigliano, an Argentine herself, describes the tango from the inside out in words that allow the reader not only to “see” the dance but also to “feel” it. Taylor, who lived in Argentina for more than twenty years, takes us beyond the observable steps into the meanings deep in the dancers’ bodies, and does so in language that situates the reader in the tango itself. Taylor and Savigliano speak eloquently and powerfully to the issues of exile and appropriation, the recombination of old stereotypes with new territories, and introspection and memory in the face of political terror. These key themes in contemporary anthropology gain new significance from their embodied treatment.

Browning’s important contribution is to speak of the agency in the body, especially the danced body. She writes, “the insistence of Brazilians to keep dancing is not a means of forgetting but rather a perseverance, an unrelenting attempt to intellectualize, theorize, understand a history and a present of social injustice” (Browning 1995, p. 167). The active, creative, and creating body in dance is the subject of studies by Susan Leigh Foster in her perceptive commentaries on theory, by Cynthia Novack (1947–1996), who examined contact improvisation and American culture, and by Kazuko Yamazaki, who describes changing Japanese notions about the gendered body and its implications for innovation in dance.

The nuanced complexities of cultural perceptions and the social manipulations of dance and embodied movement have been the focus of several recent studies. Two of those are Jennifer Nevile’s The Eloquent Body: Dance and Humanist Culture in Fifteenth-Century Italy (2004) and Anne Décoret-Ahiha’s Les Danses Exotiques en France, 1880–1940 (2004). Nevile discusses the moral divide between the noble dances of the Italian court and the graceless dances of the peasants. Dancing masters, and the court humanists who were the arbiters of intellectual and moral engagement, molded their pupils’ bodies into the ordered, virtuous symbols of nobility. The peasantry, in contrast, were divorced from any philosophical foundations of morality, their dances therefore reflecting that lack in their sensual formlessness (Nevile 2004, pp. 2–3).

Décoret-Ahiha contrasts nineteenth-century French popular dance with popular dance between 1900 and 1940. Both periods were fascinated with the “exotic,” but how exotic was defined differed. Nineteenth-century exoticism in the form of world’s fairs and ethnological exhibits found a welcome audience of people who flocked to see these “primitive” and strange peoples and customs. At the beginning of the twentieth century, exotic dance dominated the music hall scene and drawing rooms. This shifted as artists and companies from all over the world made their way to Paris. Sergei Diaghilev’s (1872–1929) Ballets Russes, with its lush ballets on Oriental themes and works that evoked the Russian soul, was one such company. The author’s interest lies in the discourses produced by these periods of fascination with the exotic and their impact on society and on the dance itself. Hers is a richly textured commentary that enriches our notion of the “exotic other.”

Anthropology of dance has expanded its scope to include studies of form as well as meaning, Western and non-Western dance, historic and contemporary phenomena, classical forms as well as popular or traditional dance, comparative and cross-genre performance traditions, and such issues as aesthetics, virtuosity, and the relationship between creator, performer, and audience. These topics have allowed scholars to move beyond ethnographic description and surface meaning to the kind of theorybuilding that contributes to all those fields concerned with human thought and behavior. It builds, interestingly enough, upon the generalizations, comparisons, and theories about style and structure that Boas and Claude LéviStrauss developed in the visual arts and oral genres. The shifts within anthropology toward process rather than structure, and performance rather than competence, have led scholars to an acknowledgment of the body, embodiment, and embodied knowledge as essential ways of being and of knowing (Royce 2004).

The field has not only grown since Kurath’s 1960 statement of its potential. One has only to compare Kaeppler’s 1978 review of the field with Susan Reed’s 1998 review. Since 1998, dance scholarship has expanded still further. Most importantly, the field has established itself within anthropology as a focus and method that contributes to general theories of culture and society. Whatever issues anthropologists define as worthy of examination, they must pay attention to their embodiment in the repertoire of individual actors and societies. Anthropologists will not be successful in that endeavor unless they acknowledge and practice embodied ways of knowing. They have recognized that dance and performance provide unique and subtle entryways to artistic expression. They have now begun to see the value of that lens for examining cultural understanding as a whole.


  1. Bloch, Maurice. 1989. Symbols, Song, Dance, and Features of Articulation: Is Religion an Extreme Form of Traditional Authority? (1974). In Ritual History and Power: Selected Papers in Anthropology: 19-45 London: Athlone.
  2. Browning, Barbara. 1995. Samba: Resistance in Motion. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
  3. Décoret-Ahiha, Anne. 2004. Les Danses Exotiques en France, 1880–1940. Pantin, France: Centre National de la Danse.
  4. Grau, Andrée, and Georgiana Wierre-Gore, eds. 2005. Anthropologie de la Danse: Genèse et Construction d’une Discipline. Pantin, France: Centre National de la Danse.
  5. Kaeppler, Adrienne. 1978. Dance in Anthropological Perspective. Annual Review of Anthropology 7: 31–49.
  6. Kurath, Gertrude P. 1960. Panorama of Dance Ethnology. Current Anthropology 1 (3): 233–254.
  7. Kurath, Gertrude P., and Antonio Garcia. 1970. Music and Dance of the Tewa Pueblos. Santa Fe: Museum of New Mexico Press.
  8. Mauss, Marcel. 1979. Body Techniques (1934). In Sociology and Psychology: Essays, trans. Ben Brewster: 95-123. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
  9. Nevile, Jennifer. 2004. The Eloquent Body: Dance and Humanist Culture in Fifteenth-Century Italy. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
  10. Reed, Susan A. 1998. The Politics and Poetics of Dance. Annual Review of Anthropology 57 (1): 503–532.
  11. Royce, Anya Peterson. 1977. The Anthropology of Dance. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
  12. Royce, Anya Peterson. 2004. Anthropology of the Performing Arts: Artistry, Virtuosity, and Interpretation in a Cross-Cultural Perspective. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press.
  13. Savigliano, Marta E. 1995. Tango and the Political Economy of Passion. Boulder, CO: Westview.
  14. Sweet, Jill D. 2004. Dances of the Tewa Pueblo Indians: Expressions of New Life. 2nd ed. Santa Fe, NM: School of American Research Press.
  15. Taylor, Julie 1998. Paper Tangos. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

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