Anthropology Of Dance Research Paper

Academic Writing Service

Sample Anthropology Of Dance Research Paper. Browse other research paper examples and check the list of research paper topics for more inspiration. iResearchNet offers academic assignment help for students all over the world: writing from scratch, editing, proofreading, problem solving, from essays to dissertations, from humanities to STEM. We offer full confidentiality, safe payment, originality, and money-back guarantee. Secure your academic success with our risk-free services.

Dance has been studied in anthropology for over a century, also in classical works, but mostly in passing as an element in ritual and ceremony. This neglect is likely to have come about because of the elusive nature of dance, in combination with the fact that dance has the potential of releasing emotional and erotic forces that are kept at bay most of the time in everyday life. There are many examples of political and religious control of dance, not least in colonial contexts. This has often produced resistance, expressed through the creation or revitalization of ethnic and national dances.

Academic Writing, Editing, Proofreading, And Problem Solving Services

Get 10% OFF with 24START discount code

In an article about the beer dance among the Azande, E. E. Evans-Pritchard (1928) was among the first anthropologists to show that the study of dance had a wider analytical potential and that dance needed to be addressed from a contextual perspective. But it was not until the 1960s and 1970s that the anthropology of dance emerged as a subdiscipline, evoking discussions about the origins and definition of dance that became complicated by the cross-cultural perspective. As Adrienne Kaeppler (1985, p. 93) has remarked, the concept ‘dance’ is a Western category which often fails to distinguish among different cultural activities. This concern is also paralleled, how-ever, in the anthropology of music and the arts. Drawing on her research in Tonga where movement around ceremonial pig presentations, kava mixing, and choreographed group speeches revealed hierarchy and social solidarity, Kaeppler suggested ‘structured movement systems’ as an alternative concept to that of dance. Another anthropological strategy has been to identify dance events as units of study, rather than to look for particular dances in isolation. On the whole, dance anthropologists seem to converge on a consideration of bounded rhythmical movements that are performed during some kind of altered state of consciousness, an elevation or even trance.

The pioneering dance anthropologists had to deal with the ethnocentric assumptions prevalent among the then mostly autodidact dance historians, about dance as a universal language and ‘primitive dance’ (often constructed in terms of a generalized ‘African dance’), as an early phase in a Western scheme of dance evolution entailing a hierarchicalization where ballet was regarded as a superior dance form. This prompted Joann Kealiinohomoku (1983) to write an article where she argued for a view of ballet as an ethnic dance, as one dance form among others. This is a crucial anthropological contribution to dance scholarship, but Kealiinohomoku’s idea that ballet reflects Western cultural traditions is perhaps a bit exaggerated, especially in the long run. Admittedly Western, ballet speaks to a limited historically dominant segment of the West, by contrast with the shifting multicultural landscape of contemporary Europe and North America. To state that ballet is a form of ethnic dance also disregards the traditional difference be-tween ethnic dance as a participatory ritual practice and ballet as a stage art performance separated from the audience, although ethnic and folk dance are now frequently moved from secular and sacred ritual to the realm of art in stage dance. The genres are further blurred by contemporary stage dance experiments with the audience taking part in the performance— even being invited to go on stage.

The central quest and raison d’etre for the anthropology of dance has been to find out what dance says about its society, informing about social or cultural circumstances that cannot be sufficiently expressed in any other way. This does not only come about through direct reflection, but also through social commentary and critique in the form of parody like (gender) role reversal or suggestions about alternative social scenarios and even predictions of political events. Dance has increasingly been recognized as having an impact on social change (Hanna 1988, Royce 1977). But there is also the cathartic view of dance as a safety valve, a structural outlet, which will keep the social order and its inequalities intact. Dance is moreover often a feature of socialization. One of the functional aspects of dance is that of transformation: the classical examples are rites of passage when people are moved from one stage in the life cycle to the next one, such as initiation rites, wedding celebrations, and funerals.

Like all subdisciplines, the anthropology of dance has followed main theoretical currents in its parent discipline. Dance has thus been analyzed through structuralism, symbolic anthropology, semiotics, and linguistic theory, generating studies of the deep structures of dance and dance as nonverbal communication. Taking these theoretical approaches as points of departure, some of the first dance anthropologists worked out their own elaborate models and classificatory schemes for movement analysis. Drid Williams’ (1976) theory of semasiology, the meaning of human movements as action signs, for instance, has been developed further by Brenda Farnell (1995) in a study of Plains Indian sign language.

There are basically three kinds of anthropological studies of dance. One kind has dealt with meaning, function, and the cultural context of dance, another kind has concentrated on the choreographic form. The majority of anthropological studies of dance, however, have combined these approaches by taking both meaning, function, and context and choreographic form into account, as well as including textual descriptions of the movements and/or illustrations such as photographs or simple movement transcriptions consisting of circles and arrows that indicate directions and patterns of dance.

In the United States, research on dance in its cultural context has dominated, just as in the United Kingdom where John Blacking was a key figure in the emerging interest in the anthropology of dance. In continental Europe, dance ethnologists, also called choreologists, who came out of a long nationalist folklore tradition, documented folk dances in their own societies, for preservation and revival, stressing formal characteristics along the lines of music research there. During the Communist era in Eastern Europe, dance (and other folklore) researchers found themselves in ideological conflict over state manipulations of their objects of study and control of their investigations (Giurchescu and Torp 1991).

In the 1980s a new generation of dance anthropologists joined the growing interdisciplinary area of dance and movement studies. Engaging with feminist and gender critiques, notions of the body, identity politics, and literary and cultural studies, scholars of dance and movement studies became more visible in the academic world, also because there was an in-creasing number of them. Dance historians have moved towards ethnography and social and cultural theory redefining their field as critical dance studies, while dance anthropologists have added Western stage dance and culture, as well as European folk dance, to their previous focus on non-Western dance and movement. Most dance scholars, including dance anthropologists, have been trained as modern and/or classical dancers. The anthropological study of dance usually requires participation in the dancing, at least some kind of bodily knowledge of the steps that are investigated. The fact that dance anthropologists learn sequences of steps and movement that are completely different from their earlier movement experiences is something they often report on in a humble spirit, while it actually deserves recognition not least as an important methodological strategy. Some dance anthropologists have thought of their own dancing in the field as a part of the recent reflexive turn in anthropology, which has also had an impact on the anthropology of dance. The presence of the ethnographer in the field seems to have been more of a problem for neighboring dance scholars, however, who have worried that this would entail undue subjective influence, than for those who have been trained in anthropology.

1. Moving Bodies, Gender, And Sexuality

In the upsurge of studies in the human and social sciences on the body as culturally constructed, the moving body has nevertheless continued to be marginal (Reed 1998), except in recent dance scholarship including dance anthropology where it has been prominent often in tandem with issues of gender and sexuality. Such issues, also including gay dancers, were early identified by Hanna (1988) in a cross-cultural review. Since then a few monographs that combine attention to moving bodies, gender, and sexuality have appeared. Jane Cowan’s (1990) work on the body politics of gender in a town in Northern Greece focuses on dance events, including for example lively wedding dances which unite a contradictory ideology of in-equality and visions of closeness in the dancing bodies. For the women, dance is an ambivalent pleasure since they have to balance their sexual expression carefully between release and control; unlike that of the men, women’s dancing demeanor always runs the risk of being interpreted as indecent.

This is also a problem for the professional female entertainers, singers, and belly dancers in Cairo that Karin van Nieuwkerk (1995) writes about, who see their job as ‘a trade like any other.’ Performing at celebrations such as births, engagements, and wed-dings, these Egyptian entertainers create much happiness and are in fact crucial for the success and prestige of these occasions. Nevertheless, they are regarded as dishonorable in the context of Islam and class in Egyptian society because they make a living out of disclosing their bodies in public, thereby tantalizing men. In Cynthia Novack’s (1990) ethnography of contact improvisation, the American communal art-sport that emerged in the 1960s, gender relations are quite differently featured in line with the prevailing ideology of egalitarianism. Although the body is constructed as nongendered in contact improvisation, the performers’ touching and supporting of each other’s weight while moving together, usually in duets, sometimes produce sexual and sensual feelings both among them and the observers.

Novack’s study spans more than two decades, showing that the movements of contact improvisation, and thus the construction of these moving bodies, and the arts organizations around them, followed changes in American culture so that this dance form gradually diminished together with the egalitarian agenda of the 1960s and 1970s. Body and space are in focus in Sally Ann Ness’s (1992) interpretation of the sinulog danced in Cebu City in the Philippines. Ness connects dance movements and space to everyday movements like walking and the urban landscape of Cebu City. A Philippine ballet, Igorot, which Ness (1997) discusses, produces neoethnic bodies in a structure of post- colonialism and transnationalism. J. Lowell Lewis (1992) also links everyday movement and dance movement in Brazilian capoeira, the martial art and dance with roots in Brazilian slavery and, further back, in Africa. Lewis analyzes capoeira as a cultural style through the metaphor of play: bodily, musical, and verbal.

2. Ethnicity, Nationalism, And Transnationality

Ethnicity and nationalism are often negotiated through dance, but in different ways depending on historical and political circumstances. J. Clyde Mitchell’s (1956) small classic monograph on the Kalela dance in colonial Northern Rhodesia is an early instance of ethnic dance. The Kalela dance was performed every Sunday by labor migrants who had moved from the countryside to the town of Luanshya. While describing colonial society, the dance was also a marker of a ‘tribal’ group identity called for in contrast with other groups in the town. The European folk dances which European dance ethnologists have long been documenting can be categorized as ethnic dances. Yet it was the growth in studies of nationalism in the social sciences generally that inspired dance anthropologists to investigate ethnic and national dance, for example, by relating Irish traditional dancing and Javanese court dance to the wider escalating concern with questions of representation, authenticity, and appropriation. In a study of the de adasis, female temple dancers in South India, Joan L. Erdmann (1996) points out that it is time to rewrite the history of Indian dance without orientalism such as the Western label ‘oriental dance,’ in order to make room for indigenous categories. This is a completely different situation than that in post-revolutionary Cuba which Yvonne Daniel (1995) discusses in her study of how the government replaced ballet with rumba as the Cuban national dance. Rumba was associated with the working class and the African heritage, which suited the socialist state ideology. Although most dance anthropologists seem to agree that all dance forms are more or less mixed, with increasing global contacts, ethnic and national dance forms are be-coming even more mixed than before. Igorot, the Philippine ballet which is a mixture of classical ballet and traditional Philippine dance, has been described as an instance of cultural hybridity (Ness 1997). Helena Wulff (1998) discusses homogeneity and diversity in the transnational world of ballet, drawing on Howard Becker’s (1982) notion of art worlds.

3. Transcription, Technology, And Property Rights

To convey movement through the text is an obvious ambition for dance anthropologists. In her little book on tango and the multidimensional national Argentine identity, accurately entitled Paper Tangos, Julie Taylor (1998) has inserted small black-and-white photo-graphs in the margin on every page. A quick flipping through the pages thus creates an image of live movement, of a film as it were, of couples dancing the tango.

In addition to simple figures illustrating the text, some dance anthropologists have learnt advanced standardized notation systems for transcription of movements, such as Labanotation, which is the most widely used, or Benesh or Eskhol–Wachmann notation systems. As it takes about two years to master any of these systems completely, it is like learning another language. In the Western dance world, trained notators, or choreologists, document ballet and dance productions through these systems, and they have also been important in the medical rehabilitation of dis-abled people. There is, however, a degree of interpretation involved in the notating process, which means that different notators may describe the same movement somewhat differently. There has also been a discussion in dance anthropology about the applicability of these Western notation systems to non-Western dance and movement forms, although there seems to be an agreement that they can be used for such purposes as well. Certain conventions have developed to deal with cultural translation problems, so that the particular use of Labanotation, for ex-ample, may be explained in a ‘key’ for readers.

Photography and film are other, often complementary techniques, for conveying dance and movement. There is, however, an element of cultural selectivity in their use, as in video recording which has increased substantially during recent years. Video has also become a significant aid in the mechanical work with drawing the symbols for the scores of Labanotation and the Benesh notation system. The expanded use of technology in dance research has accentuated questions of copyright and ownership which are further complicated in a transnational context. The area of dance and technology (also including television, CD-ROM, and choreography software computer pro-grams) is generating a growing amount of new research.

Future research in the anthropology of dance is likely to include more systematic reception and audience research. The anthropological inquiry into dance is already being extended to popular dance genres such as rave, dance shows and dance in musical videos, and to world dance, both in Western and non-Western contexts. Unlike ethnomusicology which attracts mostly men, the majority of dance anthropologists have been women. This may have played a role in the relatively modest position of the sub-discipline. Another circumstance that works against an accumulation of knowledge that would produce major growth in the anthropology of dance is that anthropologists often write one book on dance and then move on to other research interests.

Still, the anthropology of dance contributes to central debates in the human and social sciences, especially to an understanding of culture in terms of process and diversity. Importantly, dance and move-ment are not only shaped by society—dance and movement also shape society. This occurs in in-creasingly complex ways as the genres of dance and movement in society shift and grow, inviting more studies of the anthropology of dance.


  1. Becker H S 1982 Art Worlds. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA
  2. Cowan J K 1990 Dance and the Body Politic in Northern Greece. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ
  3. Daniel Y 1995 Dance and Social Change in Contemporary Cuba. Indiana University Press, Bloomington, IN
  4. Erdmann J L 1996 Dance discourses: Rethinking the history of the ‘oriental dance’. In: Morris G (ed.) Moving Words. Routledge, London
  5. Evans-Pritchard E E 1928 The dance. Africa 1: 446–62
  6. Farnell B M 1995 Do You See What I Mean? University of Texas Press, Austin, TX
  7. Giurchescu A, Torp L 1991 Theory and methods in dance research: A European approach to the holistic study of dance. Yearbook for Traditional Music 23: 1–10
  8. Hanna J L 1988 Dance, Sex and Gender. University of Chicago Press, Chicago
  9. Kaeppler A L 1985 Structured movement systems in Tonga. In: Spencer P (ed.) Society and the Dance. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK
  10. Kealiinohomoku J 1983 [1970] An anthropologist looks at ballet as a form of ehnic dance. In: Copeland R, Cohen M (eds.) What Is Dance? Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK
  11. Lewis J L 1992 Ring of Liberation. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago
  12. Mitchell J C 1956 The Kalela Dance. Institute by the Manchester University Press, Manchester, UK
  13. Ness S A 1992 Body, Movement and Culture. University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia
  14. Ness S A 1997 Originality in the postcolony: Choreographing the Neoethnic body of Philippine dance. Cultural Anthropology 12(1): 64–108
  15. van Nieuwkerk K 1995 A Trade like Any Other. University of Texas Press, Austin, TX
  16. Novack C 1990 Sharing the Dance. University of Wisconsin Press, Madison, WI
  17. Reed S A 1998 The politics and poetics of dance. Annual Review of Anthropology 27: 503–32
  18. Royce A P 1977 The Anthropology of Dance. Indiana University Press, Bloomington, IN
  19. Taylor J 1998 Paper Tangos. Duke University Press, Durham, NC
  20. Williams D 1976 Deep structures of the dance. Journal of Human Movement Studies 2: 123–44
  21. Wulff H 1998 Ballet across Borders. Berg, Oxford, UK
Human Relations Area Files Research Paper
Anthropology Of Cultural Relativism Research Paper


Always on-time


100% Confidentiality
Special offer! Get 10% off with the 24START discount code!