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In this section, I highlight how dance studies have influenced my research. I start with a brief history of dance studies in relation to culture, in order to show the developments that led to the approach that I will be following.

Approach used for the dance study research project for the PhD on heritage and dance.

Authenticity, Folkloristics and the
State of Dance Ethnology

According to Giurchescu and Torp (1991), in the 19th century, folkloric dances in Europe were rediscovered as expressions of national identity, and the attention of researchers was primarily on the movements, rather than the social context of the dance.

The discipline of folklore was born out of politics of nationalism and aspirations of smaller communities to be recognised, within big empires.

Giurchescu and Torp (1991) highlight that, in the 19th century in Europe, there was an idealistic aspiration towards authenticity, as experts were trying to save ‘vanishing’ dances whose authentic expression could only be found in small villages, away from the corrupting influence of big cities (Giurchescu and Torp, 1991, p. 2):

The development of folkloristics was based on the opinion that the “spiritual roots” of a nation were to be found in the deeply hidden, unadulterated music-making and dancing of the village people. This romantic ideology led to a search for and study of “vanishing” dances, songs, and music. . . . In their search for “authentic folklore”, collectors rigorously excluded “new styles”, non-national or non-ethnic traits, together with all that which was marked by the “destructive” influence of town life.

(Giurchescu and Torp, 1991, p. 2)

This static and conservative approach to dance in the 19th century can be considered the equivalent of an essentialist paradigm in heritage which, according to Naguib (2013), originates from that same timeframe and was linked to nationhood and authenticity ideals.

World War II and Changes in Dance

Giurchescu and Torp (1991) argue that, after World War II, in Europe, the approach towards dance studies changed to include the artistic and social dimensions of dance.

However, the interest in the connection with society, culture and economics was still limited and the focus was still ‘exclusively on dance as a product’ detached ‘from its context’ (Giurchescu and Torp, 1991, p. 3).

At the same time, Giurchescu and Torp (1991) posit, in America dance was studied from an anthropological and cross-cultural perspective, with great focus on culture and society, but little interest in the choreological aspect.[1]

Prokosch Kurath (1960) summarises the state of dance ethnology up until the 1960s, depicting a field that had grown in the first half of the 20th century, but which was still in need of further developments.

According to Kealiinohomoku (2001), Franz Boas, Curt Sachs and Gertrude Prokosch Kurath were the first scholars who systematically studied dance in culture, both in the culture of origin and cross-culturally.

Kealiinohomoku (2001) mentions that these scholars developed an anthropology of dance, through ethnographic studies. Reed (1998) argues that the early anthropologists who included dance in their studies (such as Tylor, Evens-Pritchard, Redcliffe-Brown, Malinowski and Boas) emphasised the social functions of dance but with little attention to the movements.

Tahitian dance group

The Influence of Gertrude Prokosch Kurath

Conversely, Gertrude Prokosch Kurath stands out because she was one of the first dance scholars (between the 1920s and 1960s) who concentrated equally on culture and movements.

She was an American dancer and ethnomusicologist who, later in life, conducted anthropological studies of Native American dance. Kealiinohomoku (1992, p. 70) reports that ‘Gertrude . . . coined the term “ethnochoreologist”, to parallel the term “ethnomusicologist”. . . . She called her work “the study of dance and music in relation to a way of life”’.

As discussed in Table 1, the term ethnochoreology is used today by the International Council for Traditional Music (ICTM, no date) and by the University of Limerick (MA Ethnochoreology – University of Limerick, no date), and I have chosen to adopt an ethnochoreological perspective in my interdisciplinary investigation of dance, in relation to people and culture.

In 2.3.1 I will discuss in more detail some recent literature on ethnochoreology.

Prokosch Kurath

Prokosch Kurath saw dance as a multi-dimensional phenomenon and, as such, she encouraged a multidisciplinary approach to dance (1960, pp. 240–242).

This approach is now widely accepted and contemporary dance scholars, such as Butterworth (2012), stress the importance of using various disciplines and theories to understand dance.

Butterworth (2012) argues that we need to know about the cultural background of a dance piece in order to understand it fully and we should support our understanding with disciplinary, thematic and methodological tools such as theatre studies, anthropology, ethnography, sociology, semiotics, phenomenology, cultural studies, feminism/gender studies, race/ethnicity, politics, interculturalism, classicism, modernism, postmodernism.

In the 1970s, the connection between choreological and anthropological perspectives developed further.

Grau (1993) states that dance and social sciences started cooperating in a structured way only since the 1970s while, according to Giurchescu and Thorp (1991), it was then that the semantic dimension of dance started being explored, to better understand the relationship between the form and the meaning of dance.

Reed (1998) supports this idea, stating that it was in the 1960s and 1970s when the anthropology of dance emerged as a distinct subfield.

Belly dance congress
Learning about dance at the bellydance congress.


In that same period of time, Kealiinohomoku (1970) wrote her seminal article in which she considered ballet as a form of ethnic dance, highlighting the fact that every dance form derives from a cultural background and that, therefore, every type of dance is ethnic.

According to Kealiinohomoku, ballet is a form of ethnic dance because it is the expression of a precise culture at a certain moment in time.

This culture is reflected in every aspect of ballet, from the movements and aesthetic values to the choice of costumes, stories, gender roles, social roles, music and choice of flora and fauna that is represented.

Kealiinohomoku’s article was ground-breaking at the time, as it broke the barriers between theatre dancing and popular/folkloric dancing, as well as moving away from the old evolutionary approach in dance studies, affirming that (1970, p. 34) ‘there is no such thing as a primitive dance’.

This attitude is now embraced by contemporary dance scholars such as Buckland, who posits that (1999, p. 3) ‘all cultures are plural and relative to the peoples who create and maintain them.

This potentially results in the non-hierarchical treatment of all dance practices’.

Anthropologist John Blacking

A very influential figure in the field of dance studies in Britain, active from the 1970s, was the ethnomusicologist and anthropologist John Blacking.

He (1983, p. 95) contended that dance must be analysed in context, together with dancers’ and spectators’ notions of what they are doing, what they experience and how they make sense of it’.

In Blacking’s (1983) view, dance, cannot be properly understood outside its context of use; it is a social institution expressing culturally encoded feelings and it is shaped by audiences and their expectations, as much as by the dancers and the choreographers.

For Blacking (1983), dance has to be studied cross-culturally; we cannot use a Western theory of dance and apply it to dances from other cultures, but we can use different theories from various cultures to try and create a general theory of dance.

Since the late 1980s, there has been a proliferation of dance studies in different cultural contexts, which connected culture, body and movement. Helen Thomas (2003) mentions Adrienne Kaeppler, Drid Williams and Judith Lynne Hanna, active from the 1980s/90s, as exponents of a new generation of American dance anthropologists, influenced by the dominant anti-ethnocentricity in anthropology.

The new generation of dance anthropologists sought to understand different dance forms using communication and linguistic models.

Cohen Bull (aka Novack)

A dance scholar who brings together cultural and physical approaches is Cohen Bull (aka Novack).

She analysed dances from the physical and cultural points of view. Her analysis is based on the idea that the body and the mind are connected and analysing one without the other is limiting.

According to Cohen Bull, (Novack, 1988, p. 103) ‘to detach one aspect from another for analytical purposes can contribute valuable insights into the nature of movement, but if one aspect is taken as the whole, distortion results’.

Physical movement and cultural background in dance are two interconnected elements, which cannot be separated without creating misunderstandings or excessive simplification.

Cohen Bull adopted this approach in her study on contact improvisation and disco dance (Novack, 1988), in which she analysed how changes in dance movements and styles reflect changes in society.

In another study, Cohen Bull (2003) focused on the senses and how they are used in dance genres that originate in different cultures.

She selected three dance genres as objects of her investigation: ballet, contact improvisation and Ghanaian dance.

She then analysed them from a sensorial and kinaesthetic point of view, looking at the movements, as well as at society and the context in which dance is lived and to which it belongs.

The outcome of her analysis is that: in ballet, the strongest element is visual, in contact improvisation it is tactile and in Ghanaian dance, it is auditory.

This does not mean that all senses are not involved, but just that one is privileged over the others. This preference is culturally influenced. Cohen Bull states (2003, p. 270) that:

A primary interest of recent ethnographies of dance is the conjunction between the sensible and the intelligible, taken as different but profoundly interrelated levels of analysis, description, and understanding . . . to consider experience as intrinsic to meaning, action in dialogue with thought.

Cohen (2003)

Cohen Bull is suggesting that we need to overcome the dichotomy between body and mind, material and immaterial domains, because meaning is created by human beings as unities of mind and body. As Burkitt states (1999, p. 2) ‘the way in which we sense our body in the world seems to be just as important in creating meaning as cultural meaning is itself in shaping the image of our body’.

Indeed, Sklar (1994, p. 11) stresses the importance of being kinetically involved in dance research:

I had discovered that to “move with” people whose experience I was trying to understand was a way to also “feel with” them, providing an opening into the kind of cultural knowledge that is not available through words or observation alone.

Sklar (1994)

Grau (2011, p. 5), emphasizes that ‘dance is a somatic, kinetic and linguistic phenomenon; that these three domains are inextricably intertwined; and that all are culturally and socially rooted’.

However, because dance is socially and culturally situated, she warns against the temptation of applying our own cultural understandings on the concepts of space, senses and the body to dance genres belonging to different cultures. Grau (2011, pp. 5, 6) argues that:

The terms . . . ‘dancing bodies’, ‘space’ and ‘place’ . . . cannot be accepted as universal concepts since they are embedded within typically western understandings. . . . Similarly . . . the commonly understood concept of the five senses is an ethnocentric construct, and . . . such a narrow framework is not very helpful in understanding the multisensory practice that dance is.

Grau (2011)

The Multisensory Practice of Dance

In this research, it will be important to consider, for example, how non-Egyptians need to learn not only a new movement vocabulary when learning Egyptian raqs sharqi, but also a different way of thinking about the body and space.

For instance, the research will highlight how their sense of time may differ from that of people from different countries/cultures, and this is reflected in the dance and its relaxed feeling.

Also, the concept of tarab (ecstasy that the dancer communicates to the audience), although it is not a sense per se, is a disposition, an embodied way of engaging with the music and the audiences, specific to Arabic performing arts.

Approach to the dance study for this PhD.

Dance Study Developments

Table 4 – Dance studies developments. Table 4 summarises the changes in the field of dance studies in relation to culture from the late 1800s until now, as outlined in this section.

This thesis adopts the most recent developments, bringing together culture with its embodied expressions in dance movements. I will now discuss some recent literature on ethnochoreology.


1 – Giurchescu and Torp (1991, p. 1) explain that European dance scholars came from a musicology background, which developed methods and theories from the dance material (its choreographic features). Conversely, they (1991, p. 1) argue, American dance scholars came from the field of anthropology, so they applied already elaborated theories and methods to dance focusing on ‘dancing people’, seldom analysing the choreographic structure.

Next Page >> Analysis of the ethnochoreology Literature and dance. 

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Hi - I'm Dr Valeria Lo Iacono and I am a dance researcher with a PhD in dance as a form of living heritage. I also teach belly dance and love to travel to discover new dances around the world. I have worked also as an academic and in the UK and in Korea. Thank you for visiting my site.