Ethnochoreology: A Study of Culture Through Dance

Dance is a fascinating thing. Both something everyone can do as they hum to their favorite song, as well as an intricate sport that requires years of training. On the surface, dance is a beautiful art form that we can appreciate despite the language or story. When we analyse it further, dance becomes much more complex. Ethnochoreology studies just that, how dance is part of culture. Not only that, but dance is an active ingredient in what makes and propels our societies.

Dancing, the act of moving our bodies and swaying our arms to music, has long been part of history. Even before written language, dance was used to communicate and pass down the stories of people’s lives. It is an art form that embodies who we are and, at the same time, reinstates who we’re trying to be. Too much of a stretch? Just wait, the following examples will demonstrate how important dance is for all societies. But before we get to that, let’s address that big word, “ethnochoreology”. What does it mean and where does it come from?

Mosaic tile image of three ancient Roman dancers and a little boy watching

Ethnochoreology and its History

Let’s start with the word itself. Broken up, we can see this big cluster of ethnochoreology as three separate words, or rather roots of words: “ethno-”, “choreo-” and “-ology”. The root “ethno-” comes from the Greek word of “ethnos”, meaning “people, nation, class”. “Choreo-” also originates in Greek as “choreia” from the word “choros”, meaning “dance, or place for dancing”. And lastly, there’s “ology”, which is a suffix added to words indicating that the topic is also “a branch of knowledge”. We put it all together and we see that ethnochoreology, simply, is the study of people or culture through the lens of their dance traditions and practices.

Origins

So where did this complex and oddly specific study come from? The answer is all over. While the first university program emerged in the 1990’s, the study of dance can be traced back to the 50’s. Dunin (2014) describes the origins of ethnochoreology being from the interaction of four women; Ljubica and Danica S. Jankovic in Siberia, Gertrude Kurath in the United States, and Maud Karpeles in England. In 1947, Karpeles founded the International Folk Music Council (IFMC), an international group intended to study and appreciate folk music. Karpeles spoke with scholars all over the globe. Archaeologists, musicologists and folklorists alike shared their findings and theories.

Kurath and the Jankovic sisters were part of this group, communicating over long distances about their shared passion. As these four authors worked independently, they helped build the ideas and literature of each other’s publications. Some interactions were in person, such as the 1935 British National Committee of Folk Art Dance Festival. Most of their communication though was through their essays and articles.

While these women weren’t able to regularly meet in person, their distance did allow for some unique advantages. For example, each of these women is individually understood as a pioneer of ethnochoreology within their own geographic region. Being so distant from each other also allowed them to process and understand their studies specifically in relation to their own culture. Of course, they were able to compare notes and look to other counties as well. But the focus on their lived experiences helped them hone in on the anthropological methods that became the core of the field.

A large part of the IFMC, and many other organizations following the end of World War II, was to rebuild information. Realizing the horrors that can occur when people are not understood, there was a renewed interest in research and recordings. Part of the IFMC’s research included anthropological studies of culture, both near and far. But their research also included the collection of more mundane things, like magazines, theatre programs, and maps. This urgent sense of preservation and not just studies of dance, was also in response to the war. It makes sense to see now how quickly these programs grew, being just over 60 years old, and is is already a reputable field of study.

View of performers on stage from vantage point below stage with bright lights at top of fame, dancers with opposing leg and arm raised in mid-dance

What Do they Do?

Now we know where ethnochoreology came from, but what is it that these researchers do? While we know that they study dance, that could mean so many different things. Are they focusing on how people dance, why they dance, or what they are dancing? That’s the part that makes this field so interesting – they work to answer all of those questions. From the looks of the word “ethnochoreology”, I think it’s easy to assume that these scholars would focus on “ethnic” dance.

While they do study some dances that could be considered “ethnic”, it’s also a lot more complex. We saw above that the root of “ethno” actually relates to people, and society as a whole. “Ethnic” refers to a subculture or group within a larger group or society. Frequently, it’s connected to the ideas of race and nationality as well. While these researchers do take such elements into account, they learn about people as a whole, rather than just their ethnicity.

Before we talk about the fascinating things that they have found, let’s learn exactly how they study dance. I mentioned before that ethnochoreologists use a lot of anthropological methods to do their research. If you don’t know a lot about anthropology, this article from the American Anthropological Association has a great description. But for a brief overview, anthropology, much like our topic of ethnochoreology, focuses on people. Not just who the people are, but where they came from, what they do, and how it impacts culture. Anthropologists also look to understand what that idea of culture is and how people both create it, and are created by it. That seems pretty messy, I know. Yet anthropologists, and ethnochoreologists, are regularly finding sound information in such busy questions.

Indoor room with dancer in front center of picture, posed in dance position, with two male researchers in the right background

Research Methods

Here’s how they do it – they get busy themselves. The act of studying people doesn’t allow the researcher to simply sit and take notes. To understand who a group of people are and how their actions impact their world, the researcher also has to take part in the actions. This type of research is called participant observation and is the ground work for many of the social sciences. Actively participating with the topic and subjects that they’re studying, researchers get a better sense of it’s importance and meaning. It’s also beneficial to learn of something first hand because often times people don’t, or aren’t able to, convey they meaning with just words. Particularly with the subject of dance, it can’t always be so easily explained.

This leads to another question, or issue, with ethnochoreology. If researchers don’t study dance by writing about, but by dancing themselves, how do they remember anything? And how is this different than my Zumba classes? Firstly, researchers do take notes, they just don’t rely on them as the primary source of information. Other data collection methods include photographs, videos, interviews, and outside literature. Like I mentioned above, these scholars are trying to understand dance in context to all the surrounding culture. Because of this, they study dance from all perspective, both literally and figuratively.

Note Taking

Videos and photographs are fantastic ways to capture the dances they witness, or even participate in. Ethnochoreologists are able to record the performances and later analyze them slower, in reference to the other information they have gathered. In the field, however, researchers don’t always have access to digital equipment. They also might not have time to gather it before a dance begins. What then? Luise E. Scripps describes the way that ethnochoreologists create “A System of Ethnic Dance Notation”.

Firstly, the researcher takes detailed notes before and after the performance on the mood, behavior, costumes, lighting, and all other elements of the performance or practice space. Many times, the researcher will use the participation as a way of memorization to later put down notes on the routine. Instead of long sentences describing the movements of each person in the routine, they will often use drawings. Intricate drawings take a while to put together though, so each researcher creates their own sort of code. Specific movements have specific markings, making it much easier to jot down. The image below shows an example of this code from Scripps’ text.

A description of how notes are taken of a performer’s head movements during a dance performance
Credit: University of Illinois Press

This type of code is also used with other dancers and music. The ethnochoreologist is able to create a code for each element of the dance and performance that they need to remember. Scripps explains that often the researcher will look for a signature to the dance. A signature can be a specific position, stance, or movement that the performers regularly use. Knowing the signature helps the researcher know what is the difference between intentional movements and the baseline position. In other words, which motions have meaning and which are repetitions. Knowing the signature, the research can code accordingly. Put together, all of the individual codes will look something like this:

Notes of a performer’s movements with basic shapes representing each body section (head, arms, legs, torso) complied into rows
Credit: University of Illinois Press

A code allows the researchers to remember more accurately when they are later doing a deeper analysis. Frequent analysis of their notes is the second part of their research. Ethnochoreologists are able to focus on the events they experienced more intently. This allows them to learn not just the literal things they witnessed, but also the meaning behind them. Often researchers will reach out for further information in their analysis. Interviews, literature, and group discussions and some of the ways that researchers are able to better understand the importance of a dance.

Group of dancers in street clothing seated in a circle discussion.
 Credit: University of Southern California

Community Research

I mentioned previously that ethnochoreologists will use participant observation because they cannot solely rely on the words of the community members. This is true, but in perspective with the fact that they also cannot solely rely on themselves either. In trying to understand all that dance is and contributes to society, the researcher must also understand all that goes into dance. For this, all view points must be considered. Part of such consideration includes as many community members as possible.

Interviews will be conducted with dancers, costume designers, choreographers, and even audience members. The ethnochoreologist want to know why this dance was performed in this way. As physical of a sport as it might be, it’s also a very organized performance. Dancers do not simply leap where they like, or wear their favorite costume. Sure, the set up is greatly attached to the story line, but that doesn’t explain all of the performance choices. This is why the researcher asks the community for help. They can explain that a blue dress indicates sadness, elements that are not directly obvious.

Community research also allows the ethnochoreoogist to make connections and befriend those they interview. It’s important when doing participant observation to truly participate in the community. Yes, much of the researcher’s time is spent gathering information. But they also work to build relationships with the people they gather information from. Such connections have a double purpose. Firstly, it allows the researcher to gain a better insight into the community and dance if they are welcomed. Secondly, and more importantly, it shows the community that they are not lab rats. While the researcher is studying them, it is not a critical analysis of their actions. It is an interesting attempt to understand the depth and vibrancy of a culture or group of people.

Four frames of silhouetted dancers; far left, red background with a ballet pose; second from left, pink background with dancer leaning back; second from right, blue background with dancer twerking; far right, red background with dancer dabbing
Credit: Buzzfeed

Organization

Performing, note taking, interviews, and reading. There’s a lot for an ethnochoreologist to accomplish while they’re in the field. Organization is a vital skill for researchers to have as they are routinely busy with their work. Such organization is necessary both in the tactile research as well in the theoretical understanding. Segmentation of dance practices can help the scholars contextualize their work and not become overwhelmed. Basic classifications of dance can be sectioned into four categories:

  1. Secular
  2. Ritual
  3. Abstract
  4. Interpretive

Dancing is a very conventional element of society, something that is routinely accepted and respected. In analyzing its importance, researchers dissect it from larger society. Using categories like the ones above, ethnochoreologists are able to analyze the details independently. New information they’ve gathered can then be reapplied to the culture and to other individual elements.

As mentioned previously, ethnochoreology is looking at understanding all parts of dance. Comparing this field to others focused in dance, we see just how complex it is. Dance historians study the previous setting and evolution to modern dance. Dance ethnologists study the art solely in relation to cultures. Indigenous scholars will focus on dance practices performed by indigenous communities. Idea to essay, organization is a key aspect of ethnochoreology.

To learn more about research methods and participant observation, read this article!

Group of Jamaican dancers leaning with arms stretched looking to top left of frame, women dressed in bright green dresses and men in red pants and vests

Culture Through the Lens of Dance

Now that you know how ethnochoreologists study dance, let’s take a deeper look into what they learn from their studies. Some aspects are obvious, such as the dances that researchers study and often participate in. At the same time, they are also learning about the underlying conditions and meanings behind the art. These components aren’t always directly visible. Sometimes, they aren’t realized until well after studies. But the ethnochoreologist is studying them nonetheless.

As we’ve seen from the above information, the study of dance can take on many forms. Where other subjects focus on dance in relation to the outside culture, Ethnochoreology understands dance as culture itself. To these researchers, dance isn’t just one element within a larger society. Rather, it is a subculture that creates culture and is created by culture. Confusing, isn’t it? Let’s look at some examples of ethnochoreology to get a better understanding on the topic.

A Multi-Dimensional Art

Dance is able to form connections to social values and work as a way for the public to interact with those values. Northern Cameroon is an example of this. Their traditional dances have been used to engage in political conversations. Specifically, “talking” about a post-colonial society, the dance acts as a life line. Bringing pre-colonial practices into the heart of present-day Cameroon, it acts as both a vehicle for, and a message about the past. The importance of these dances is entirely fueled by the local people. This allows such historical practices into the modern art form.

Art acting as a device for knowledge also allows for a subculture to exist. Being enjoyed by society for it’s beauty, dance can exist on the “surface” of society. This relates back to the idea that dance is a socially accepted art form that doesn’t need further explanation. It acts as a layer, the top, most visible and socially accepted part of dance. The symbolism and ideas within a dance are able to send a whole other message. While the performance entices the general audience, the cultural message can be read loud and clear by members of the subculture. It acts as a second layer, elements that need further knowledge or connection to the community to understand.

That may sound secretive and dangerous, but often it is just a history or story that can be understood in multiple ways. Particularly in countries that have a pre- and post-colonial history, dance works as a resolution. On stage, community members are able to address complicated issues and find safe resolutions. Dance provides a safe place to play with potential changes. Government or ruling powers do not have to be confronted with these possible resolutions. Because of this, community members can still have autonomy in their beliefs, rights, and social groupings.

Black background with dancer light by blue light in a sideways lunge with mask on face

Digging a Little Deeper

Agnes Locsin, Filipina ballet choreographer, demonstrates how far these layers can go. In the ballet Igorot, originally from Holland, Locsin was able to represent core elements of being Filipino. She did this so well that Igorot has now become known as a Philippine transnational ballet. This performance represents a lot of non-Western ideas that are important to Filipinos. It “talks” about the importance of being non-colonial and non-oriental. 

Let’s pause for a moment and understand the ideas of West and on-West (it’s relevant to the topic, I promise). These words of “west” and “non-west” create a binary that isn’t as separate as it seems. A false idea of “west vs the rest” is created when we only look at the binary. Originally, people believed that the west was more advanced than the rest of the world. People truly believed that, due to Roman roots, Christian belief, European languages and the use of laws, that certain geographic regions were better than others. 

Now, we know that those binary beliefs aren’t fact. In reality, those ideas came from power-hungry colonialism. It’s not that European countries and their people were able to learn more, they were lucky with their conquests. Still, we often use these terms to discuss the general geographic regions below. While in this blog, and many other places, it’s solely in reference to areas, it makes sense why it can still be a harmful thought process. This is why it’s important to remember that ethnochoreology just means the study of people through dance, and not a focus on “ethnic” dance practices. Many other words and studies also have this root of ethnos, so it’s helpful all the way around to be aware of it’s meaning. 

2-D map of Earth in blues and grays representing which countries are considered “west”
Credit: Medium

But back to Locsin and her Philippine ballet! Like we learned before, dance can work as a way to convey multiple messages at once. That’s exactly what Igorot does. The choreography, music, and lighting all tell a story of the country and its people. Igorot specifically focuses on the historical context of colonialism in relation to Philippine traditions. Here, dance acts as a way to communicate more complicated ideas without needing difficult words. 

Performing a modern dance about a history long ago also creates a bridge between generations. Similar to the communicating of complex ideas, it connects people without direct contact. This is extremely useful for sharing information as the nation grows. Beliefs and ideas can be passed down to younger artists, with full anticipation that they are going to fit those old ideas to their new needs. As the younger generation does so, it in turn teaches them their own lessons they are able to pass on to the generation after them. 

This is where the cycle comes from. Dance, as with many other art forms, has the ability to teach people in a different way. It provides the voice of another culture, people, and way of life that allows the audience to visually understand without any other necessary context. Of course, other information can be extremely beneficial and would open those other layers we talked about. But the main point can still be understood and carried beyond the stage. Dance absorbs the society that already exists, reacts and responds to it through the performers, and then creates substance for continued cultural growth. 

Still interested in Irogot? Read Locsin’s article here

Why it matters

Now we can see how fascinating this study, and all of the dance, really is. Interesting, no doubt, but is such a study necessary? And what do we gain from it? Let’s remember all the things we’ve learned about ethnochoreology so far. Through notes, videos, and performances, dance tells the story of people. This field allows researchers and scholars to look at dance up close and in person. Understanding the movements as well as their meanings, we get a clear picture of the story. Often, this story represents a lot more than the characters and plot points. 

Cameroon and the Philippines show that multiple messages can be shared within one dance performance. Layers of information are carefully weaved within the dance and highlight key elements of a people and their history. Dance embodies so much more than spins and leaps, it exemplifies prominent elements of culture. The above examples are just a few ways that dance can transcend generations and exist through multiple lives. Intricate in both it’s tactile and theoretical composition, ethnochoreology can tell us so much about both who we were, who we are, and who we could be. 

Sources

Bryant, Joseph M. “The West and the Rest Revisited: Debating Capitalistic Origins, European Colonialism, and the Advent of Modernity.” 2006. The Canadian Journal of Sociology, 31 (4).

“Dance”. Chapter 13, Lumen Learning.

Dunin, Elise Ivancich. “Emergency of Ethnochoreology Internationally: The Jankovic Sisters, Maud Kerpeles, and Gertrude Kurath.” 2014. University of California.

Huntington, Samuel P. “The West Unique, Not Universal”. 1996. Foreign Affairs, 75 (6).

Ignatowski, Clare A. Multipartyism and Nostalgia for the Unified Past: Discourses of Democracy in a Dance Association in Cameroon. 2008. Cultural Anthropology, 19 (2).

Kaeppler, Adrienne L. Dance Ethnology and the Anthropology of Dance. 2000. Dance Research Journal, 32 (1). 116 – 125.

Ness, Sally A. Originality in the Postcolony: Choreographing the Neoethnic Body of Philippine Ballet. 2008. Cultural Anthropology, 12 (1).

Scripps, Luise E. “Brief Contributions: A System of Ethnic Dance Notation”. 1965. Ethnomusicology (9) 2.

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