Questions on Studying Dance in it's Cultural Context: An Anthropological Literature Review
“If I could tell you what it meant, there would be no point in dancing it” --Isadora Duncan
Why anthropologists should study dance is an important question to address as almost all organized societies engage in structured movement systems or dance practices, as they are the main component of ritual, celebration, spectacles, death rites, and performances. Dance is unique, in relation to culture and society, as it functions as a form of expression, which speaks to many facets of society. Dance has the ability to reveal social structures or cultural ideas on identity, gender, religion, kinship, politics, economics, societal hegemony, and organization, to name a few. In the essay, The Mystique of Fieldwork, written by American anthropologist Adrienne Kaeppler, she begins by delineating three specific questions pertaining to an anthropological approach to studying dance. She asks, “What is the aim of an anthropological study of dance? How does an anthropologist do fieldwork? And what is the importance of the audience in the study of dance?” As all three questions provide a holistic framework to approaching the study of dance through anthropological methods, the premise of this paper will primarily address Kaeppler’s first question, “what is the aim of an anthropological study of dance?” Looking to questions asked by cultural anthropologists in their endeavors to decode the larger implications of bodily movement and performance, in terms of its relationship to culture and society, the main scope of this paper will address why anthropologists have found it valuable to study dance by addressing the questions and conclusions that have been made.
What is Dance? Various Anthropological Views
Performances of dance are usually not self-contained, or danced for purely aesthetical or entertainment purposes, but function as what Kaeppler refers to as “surface manifestations of the deep structure and underlying philosophy of a society.” She posits that is necessary to ask, "what is dance?" as she believes it is a distinct anthropological question. Most standard dictionaries define dance through purely aesthetic or kinetic terms thereby negating their cultural relativity. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines dance as: a series of rhythmic and patterned bodily movements, usually performed to music, whereas Kaeppler defines dance as, “a cultural form that results from creative processes, which manipulate human bodies in time and space. The cultural form produced, though transient, has structured content, is a visual manifestation of social relations, and may be the subject of an elaborate aesthetic system, surely the domain of anthropologists.” In his essay, The Dance, by British anthropologist E.E. Evans-Prichard, he views dance in sociological terms and cautions against marginalizing dance within ethnographic methods. He states
In ethnological accounts the dance is usually given a place quite unworthy of its social importance. It is often viewed as an independent activity and is described without reference to its contextual setting in everyday life. Such treatment leaves out many problems as to the composition and organization of the dance and hides from view its sociological function.
British anthropologist John Middleton proposes there are many ways to define dance and gives the examples of: a purely aesthetical form of expression via movements of the body, as a means to express certain psychological states, as a venue for entertainment for a watching audience, as a means of connecting with the spiritual world through trance or bodily possession and many others. However, he states, “Here I wish to see dance as part of a totality of social behavior and to avoid any suggestion that the question ‘what is dance?’ can simply be answered by stripping dance of its social aspects and functions so as to leave an irreducible basis of human activity.” Middleton is not concerned with defining, or understanding what dance is in itself. Like Evans-Prichard, he projects his uncertainty to whether it can stand as a separate and meaningful category, if taken out of its cultural context. American anthropologist and Haitian expert Harold Courlander defines dance through the performative efficacy it has on culture. He states, “Dance is a positive statement of life. It sets forces into motion. It is not only expressive, but creative. It has powers to cure and vitalize, to appease and aggravate, to satisfy and discover.”
In her book, The Anthropology of Dance, by American anthropologist Anya Royce Peterson, she posits that basic to all definitions of dance is the concept of rhythmic or patterned movement, which is done for some purpose, transcending utility. She states, “The medium of dance, composed by individuals and embodied by other individuals, creates meanings that are polysemous and multivocalic. It is a powerful, frequently adopted symbol of the way people feel about themselves.” John Blacking, British social anthropologist and ethnomusicologist, is skeptical of defining and using the term ‘dance’ due its Western influence as it is based on ideologies of dance familiar to Euro-American cultures. He stated, “Although ‘dance’ is a social fact, I assume that it is derived from species-specific capacities, and that it is therefore part of the human constitution and a basic force in social life, and not merely the consequence of human invention at some particular time and place.”
This sampling of anthropological definitions and ideas on dance vary drastically, however, they collectively suggest that even though dance is conceived in broad terms, it can be an important tool for analyzing the configuration of societies and imply that dance performance and ritual have deep meaning within social structures. British anthropologist Paul Spencer states, “dance may be defined in whatever way seems most appropriate to the study of any specific situation or society. Dance is not an entity in itself but belongs rightfully to the wider analysis of ritual action, and it is in this context that one can approach it analytically and grant it the attentions it demands.” As it is helpful to conceptualize, or define dance through anthropological methods, the importance lies with questioning how dance and culture, in various societies, are associated. In contrast to Kaeppler, Blacking states, “We should not be asking the question, what is dance? But rather, who dances? How and why?”
Outside of anthropology, dance is an important subject for analysis in other disciplines, such as Labanotation, folklore, and dance ethnology; however, they are strikingly different in their methodologies and goals. Historically, the nature of anthropological research on dance has relied on the collection of data, mostly fieldwork, conducted on living people or societies. The uniqueness of the field lies in the methods of field-based research, which provide the source for an ethnographic description. This is an important element to studying dance in detail, due to its ephemeral, fleeting nature. On the importance of studying dance through fieldwork and participation, Kaeppler states, While observing and participating in activities and events it becomes evident that people of distinctive groups move in distinctive ways and categorize their movements accordingly. Anthropologists try to find the systematic patterns that lead to understanding indigenous categorization- the emic dimension of movement. Anthropologists aim to attain insights of a sociocultural group by studying their movement systems, where dance notators and folklorists are more specifically interested in preserving the dance forms and analyzing their inherent structure and choreography. Systems of dance notation, notably Laban and Bensesh, as well as video and film recordings, are all useful tools for analyzing the subject of dance but can not fully measure how the dance correlates to culture or society. These systems do not have the ability to describe or explain the larger implication of the dance, as human experience. They record the intricacies of the movements and document aesthetical choices made by the dancer or the choreographer.
In her book, Shaping Society Though Dance: Mestizo Ritual Performance in the Peruvian Andes, written by American anthropologist, Zoila S. Mendoza, she addresses the binary between analyzing dance out of it’s cultural context and analyzing it on its own terms through the statements dance scholars and anthropologists have documented on the subject. Mendoza explains that in her study of dance she looked to the body, and the choreographed dances, as her central focus of inquiry, because they have “pragmatic efficacy and capacity for creating and giving expression to human and social experiences.”[16 ]However, she also explains that the dances can not be taken out of their larger context, in order to reveal how they shape or change cultural identity, because the complete significance of the techniques of the body, choreography, costuming, and masking, used by different groups, can only be understood by analyzing how the performers see themselves. Kaeppler shares a similar notion as she states, “Every society has cultural forms in which human bodies are manipulated in time and space. How these forms are regarded by the society itself seems a crucial question for an understanding of that society.” Mendoza mentions the previous work of Anya Peterson Royce, who cautions that separating the choreography from the context, meaning analyzing dance on it’s own terms, is problematic because it negates the sociocultural aspect of understanding how the events are understood or experienced locally. Royce believes that dance is inseparable from its means of expression, the human body making shapes and patterns through space and time and it cannot be detached from its social and cultural context. Mendoza also mentions dance scholars, such as Barbara Browning, Sally Ann Ness, and Cynthia Novak, who defend analyzing dance on it’s own terms as “the intricacies of movement hold the key to unraveling the particular significance of this kind of practice.” Mendoza also speaks to Jane Cowan’s anthropological work from her book, Dance and the Body Politic in Northern Greece, which was one of the most seminal and quoted books on cultural dance scholarship. Cowan situated dance as a context of social action and an authoritative force that influenced and reinforced ideas of gender in a small rural Greek community. She stated:
This study is relatively unconcerned with defining what "dance itself" is or does. Likewise, it is relatively unconcerned with delineating the structural or morphological features of particular dance forms or of dance more generally or with issues of classification. It is concerned, rather, with dance as a medium and as a context of social action. Indeed, in its concern with the social aspects of performance, it is closer in spirit to studies of other sorts of cultural performance than to some studies of dance. I am primarily concerned with dance "as event"
According to Mendoza, even though Cowan’s research was highly convincing that dance practices are “embodied discourses of individual and collective identities,” she states that dance scholar, Susan Foster, took issue with her lack of movement analysis and description as this fails to demonstrate the dance’s “discursive power.” As Mendoza utilized an interdisciplinary methodology to understand the dance fraternities she was studying in her book,she advocated for the cross-fertilization that had happened between dance studies and anthropology, by the end of the 1990’s. She stated:
Dance studies has not only profited from theoretical developments in other fields and disciplines, but, more important, has provided a fruitful and concrete subject for such developments. Humanists and social scientists are increasingly convinced by the calls from dance scholars to pay attention to movement as a primary, not secondary, social text. One of immense importance and tremendous challenge.
In her essay, Ethnology and the Anthropology of Dance, Kaeppler elaborates on Mendoza’s thoughts by asking what constitutes the field of dance studies, she states, “should dance studies be primarily about movement products or should they incorporate more anthropological notions about process, event, and cultural constructions about movement?’ She answers her own question by stating that the field of dance studies would benefit greatly from utilizing methods of anthropological fieldwork and participant-based research methods. She states, “fieldwork is not only recommended but is necessary in order to bring movement into focus as part of a total cultural system.” In tandem to utilizing anthropological methods to evaluate dance, she believes that an ideal system for movement studies would analyze all activities in which human bodies are manipulated in time and space, in relation to the social processes that generate them.
What is the aim of an anthropological study of dance?
Anthropologists look beyond the pure aesthetics of codified steps and movements in order to understand dance as a social fact or cultural phenomenon. Kaeppler decodes the larger implications of dance as “systems of knowledge, as they are products of action and interaction as well as processes through which action and interaction take place. These systems of knowledge are socially and culturally constructed, created, known, and agreed upon by a group of people and primarily preserved in memory.” Dance, as a topic of anthropological study, aims to study subjective action and conscious human intentions. Kaeppler states, “Anthropologists are more interested in the larger subject of human movement and the abstract concept of dance; anthropologists study dance to understand society. Movements are cultural artifacts, which, in their specific combinations and uses belong to a specific culture or subculture and can be activated for specific purposes.” In the book, Society and the Dance: The social anthropology of process and performance, Spencer, believes studying dance through anthropological methods offers finite possibilities as he states, “there are a number of recurrent themes and that dance can be relevant even for those who (like me) regard themselves as left-footed, though curious.” Blacking also believes that the field provides a vast range of research possibilities and explains that the aim and attraction of conducting an anthropological study of dance lies within the fact that dance is a uniquely special type of social activity, which cannot be reduced to anything else. By decoding the semiotics of dancing body, the inherent symbols “can communicate and generate certain kinds of experience that can be had in no other way.” The aim of the academic discipline of cultural anthropology is to understand other sociocultural systems and to understand ourselves better, seeking to draw out the diversity and commonalties between. The main purpose to studying dance through anthropological methods is an extension of anthropologies’ main objectives, drawing connections between dance’s function and meaning. The ultimate objective of an anthropological study of dance is to facilitate description for cross-cultural comparisons by placing specially marked or elaborated structured human movement systems into a theoretical framework, in order to distinguish the way the movement systems express and organize meaning.
Connecting dance and society: various anthropological conclusions
In the essay, Techniques of the Body, by French sociologist Marcel Mauss, the body in motion is the main subject of analysis in which Mauss looks to everyday, quotidian movements as they embody aspects of a given culture. He defines this term through “the ways in which from society to society men know how to use their bodies.” Mauss stated. “I was well aware that walking or swimming, for example and all sorts of things of the same type, are specific to determinate societies; that the Polynesians do not swim as we do, that my generation did not swim as the present generation does. But what social phenomena did these represent?” Mauss looks to pedestrian movements, such as running, swimming, sitting, eating and walking and the premise of his essay concludes that these movements are not natural occurrences, but rather learned habits. These movements embody aspects of a given culture. Mauss uses walking to elucidate how it functions as an acquired technique due to environmental, educational and geographical factors. He stated
A kind of revelation came to me in the hospital. I was ill in New York. I wondered where previously I had seen girls walking as my nurses walked. I had the time to think about it. At last I realized that it was at the cinema. Returning to France, I noticed how common this gait was, especially in Paris; the girls were French and they too were walking in this way. In fact, American walking fashions had begun to arrive over here, thanks to the cinema. This was an idea I could generalize.
Mauss goes into further detail by examining the gestures and positions of the hands and arms while walking and explains that they form a “social idiosyncrasy” that is not a product of individual consciousness, or “simply a product of some purely individual, almost completely psychical arrangements and mechanisms.” To give an example, Mauss explains, “I think I can also recognize a girl who has been raised in a convent. In general she will walk with her fists closed. And I can still remember my third form teacher shouting at me: " Idiot! Why do you walk around the whole time with your hands flapping wide open?" Thus there exists an education in walking, too.” Mauss surmised all of these movements are “physio-psycho-sociological” assemblages of series of actions. He stated, “these actions are more or less habitual and more or less ancient in the life of the individual and the history of society.”
Franz Boas, pioneer of American anthropology, also studied pedestrian movements and dance as a point of entry into understanding social formations of a given society. In his essay Dance and Music in the Life of the Northwest Coast Indians of North America (Kwakiutl), Boas is interested in studying the KwakiutlIndians of Vancouver Island, British Columbia, as music and dance were central practices performed “from the cradle to the grave” and almost every important event is centered on a performance. He utilized descriptions of movement to relate to the larger significance of the rituals, as the movements were used as a means of corporeal storytelling. Boas gave short descriptions on the various rituals and their corresponding dances; he stated “It is impossible to give anything like a complete description of these complicated dances in a short space. They are performed in winter months from November to February and the social life of the tribe during this period centers entirely around the performance of dances of this kind.”Within this time frame, Boas observed many different rituals and dances, which had various meanings, objectives and also varied in character. He relegates the title of the most sacred and important dance to the Cannibal dance, which is a solo dance in form. Boas describes the Cannibal dancer as one “who is supposed to bite pieces of flesh from the arms of bystanders and who, it is said, in olden times would kill slaves and partake of their flesh.” He describes the movements of the dancer to be in a hunched-over, crouching position, while circulating around the fire with slow steps that are almost a crawl. He relates the movements of the War dance, which is always performed by a woman, to the story the ritual tells. He states she “enters the room with very short steps, resting long on one foot then making a short step forward with the other foot. She holds her arms with the elbows close to the body, the forearms stretched forward with palms upward. This movement indicates she is trying to conjure up supernatural power from the underground.” Boas found it important to analyze the dance movements, even in small detail, in order to show how they are inextricably linked to understanding the deeper meanings found in the rituals. He stated, “song and dance accompany all the events of Kwakiutl life and that they are an essential part in the culture of the people. Song and dance are inseparable here.” In relation to Mauss and his sentiments on walking, Boas stated:
The relation between general motor habits and the dance is a complicated matter. I think everyone will agree that when you see an Indian of one tribe walk, you realize it is an entirely different gait from that of another. Although I cannot prove it, I believe that the peculiar dancing movements have to do also with the general habit of walking.
He continues to state that the habits of gesture cannot be easily reduced to external conditions. “Some people have free-gesture motions and others have restricted gestures, and these are generally determined by social environment in various ways; but the actual reason is very difficult to determine.” Another anthropological essay, Form and Function in the Dance of Bali, co-written by anthropologist Gregory Bateson and dance ethnologist Claire Holt, also is concerned with looking to the habits and gestures of the moving body in order to gain perspective on the relationship between the dance and the performer’s subjectivity, or consciousness, and how it relates to the entire pattern of their culture. They stated:
To an anthropologist, next to the question of who, when, how and why certain members of a given society dance, arises the problem of the relationship of the peculiar character of the dance to the character of the people concerned, and to the whole pattern of their culture. What is the relationship between the movements characteristic of a given dance and the typical gestures and postures in daily life of the very people who perform it? Gesture and posture in daily life are certainly expressive of a people's character, but how are their gestures and postures in a stylized, heightened and intensified form, as they appear in the dance, related to their particular character? 
In contrast to Mauss, Bateson and Holt ask the question “if dominant kinesthetic awareness of certain parts of the body is related to psychological factors and posture and movement of an individual are closely interdependent with his psychological state, would not stylized posture and gesture in the dance of a people be relevant to a general psychological trend in their life?” Mauss set up his argument in opposition of this idea, as he believed that movement patterns were forms of mimicry that were reinforced by education, geography, and social influences, less by the psyche. Specifically, their study looked to the range of dynamics, within movements or dances, to reveal generalizations about a specific culture’s disposition. They asked:
Are peoples who have belly-dances, with rhythmic, rotating movements of the pelvic region different in cultural temperament from those whose torsos and hips are rigid in dancing? I so, wherein does the difference lie, and is the mass character of the people to be considered similar to that of their dance and expressed by it, or opposite to it and compensated by it?
Through analyzing the movements of the dancers, Bateson and Holt conclude that the cultural temperament of the Balinese shares commonalities with the dances. Balinese dance is completely devoid of any visible emotional expression with cold, angular gestures of the arms and movement trajectories of straight, rigid lines, which reflects the “seemingly subdued and even tone of social relations among the Balinese.” They stated
There is an outward equanimity bordering on indifference. Rarely does one discover any passions given expression at village gatherings or courts, at cremation ceremonies, temples feasts or in the market place. This detachment, which characterized Balinese dancing, would thus not be a departure from normal life, but an extension and intensification to further cold passion of everyday Balinese behavior. Bateson and Holt deduce that more work in this field is needed in order to understand the connections between dance and cultural temperament. They ask:
Are peoples whose dances call for high leaps and jumps more aggressive, braver or more cruel that peoples who only step or shuffle along the ground, or are they less so? Does a predilection for soft, continuous undulating movements disclose a particular psychological feature or total character different from that of peoples whose movements in the dance are abrupt? What is the difference? 
Similarly, in Mendoza’s book, Shaping Society Though Dance: Mestizo Ritual Performance in the Peruvian Andes, sheanalyzes ritual performances to reveal how they function in ethnic identity construction. More specifically, how dance fraternity members embody key sociocultural markers, which establish a basis for societal distinctions of character and identity. Mendoza argues that their dance performances not only reflect societal attitudes, but also are a catalyst for transforming society, as dance, music and drama are powerful forms of social action in their own right. This argument can be contrasted to the previously mentioned studies as they each situate movement and dance as a reflection of the society, not as the vehicle that shapes it. Mendoza’s key objective of her study is to understand the dialectic between the ideologies about ethnicity and race, which the fraternity members perform and transform through their ritualistic dances. In order to elucidate how fraternity members embody key sociocultural markers that contribute to identity formation, Mendoza maps out a cultural differential between the Majeñosand Qollas dance fraternities ofSan Jerónimo, Peru,which is perceptible through their dance performance. Fundamentally, the Majeños represent European ideals of “whiteness” and wealthy haciendados (landowners), where the Qollas represent Indigeneity and poor llama headers from the highlands. Through the bodily movements and gestural dynamics of the choreography, the binary between the dance association’s identities, economic status, character and cultural capital are made visible. Mendoza explains that the visible difference in posture and movement qualities, between the Majeñosand Qollas, is more than just an aesthetical or choreographic choice. The way they hold their upper body during their performance is indicative of cultural, economic, and geographical identity. For example, the Majeños dance with a very straight, rigid posture, while incorporating light footwork and swaying movements that denote ideas of “elegance,” “decency,” “modernity” and “masculinity,” where theQollas dance with their weight lower to earth, with the upper body hunched over while stomping heavily into the ground, resonating with ideas of “indigeneity,” “genuineness” “peasantry” and “wit.”
These studies have shown that much can be revealed to understanding culture and social structures, through the body and movement, as they have the agency to reflect, reinforce and model existing ideas and institutions. They also elucidate the diverse questions that have been asked by anthropologists on, methodologies, scope of work, objectives and importance for studying dance in its cultural context. Spencer stated, “What is anthropologically interesting about dance and music is the possibility that they generate certain kinds of social experience that can be had in no other way and that they constitute a link between the behavioral and biological aspects of movement and the social and cultural aspects of ritual. They can be regarded as primary modeling systems for the organization of social life.” Dancing reveals modes of communication, whether mimed or explicit, planned or spontaneous, signaling skill or rapport of play, these are regarded as symbolic acts with various levels of meaning. Dance functions as an epistemological system of knowledge, which is socially constructed and has cultural implications, which not only benefits from, but falls within the criteria of study of sociocultural anthropology.
Kaeppler, Adrienne. “The Mystique of Fieldwork,” Journal for the Anthropological Study of Human Movement Vol.11 (3): 377-386. pg.377
Kaeppler, Adrienne. "Dance In Anthropological Perspective." Annual Review of Anthropology 7.1 (1978): 31-49. Pg. 32
Evans-Prichard, E.E. Africa: Journal of the International African InstituteVol. 1, No. 4 (Oct., 1928), pp. 446-462 pg.447
Middleton, John. "The Dance among the Lugbara of Uganda." Society and The Dance: the social anthropology of process and performance. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985. 165-182. Pg. 165
Boas, Franziska. Courlander, Paul "Dance and Dance-Drama in Haiti." The Function of dance in human society: a seminar directed by Franziska Boas. 2nd ed. Brooklyn, N.Y.: Dance Horizons, 1972. 41-53 pg.43
Blacking, John. Movement and Meaning: Dance in Social Anthropological Perspective,Dance Research: The Journal of the Society for Dance Research, Vol. 1, No. 1, The Proceedings of the First Conference of British Dance Scholars Sponsored Jointly by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation and The Radcliffe Trust, 2-4 April 1982 (Spring, 1983), pp.89-99 pg.89
Spencer, Paul Society and The Dance: the social anthropology of process and performance. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985.p.38
Labanotation and Benesh Movement Notation are standardized systems for analyzing and documenting any human motion, mostly utilized for recording dances, made for the stage.
Mendoza, Zoila S. Shaping Society through Dance: Mestizo ritual performance in the Peruvian Andes. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000 pg.33
Royce, Anya Peterson. The Anthropology of Dance. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1977 pg.7
Cowan, Jane K. Dance and the Body Politic in Northern Greece. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1990. Pg.18
Kaeppler, Adrienne. Dance Ethnology and the Anthropology of Dance.Dance Research Journal, Vol. 32, No. 1. (Summer, 2000) pp.116-125. Pg.118
Kaeppler p. 378
Lock, Margaret M., and Judith Farquhar. Mauss, Marcel "Techniques of the Body."Beyond the body proper: Reading the Anthropology of Material Life.Durham N.C.: Duke University Press, 2007. 50-68. p.50
Mauss p. 66
Boas, Franziska. Boas, Franz“ Dance and Music in the Life of the Northwest Coast Indians of North America (Kwakiutl)” The Function of Dance in Human Society: a seminar directed by Franziska Boas.2nd ed. Brooklyn, N.Y.: Dance Horizons, 1972. (5-19) p.5
Boas p. 7
Boas, Franziska. Boas, Gregory Bateson and Claire Holt. “Form and Function in the Dance of Bali”The Function of dance in human society: a seminar directed by Franziska Boas. 2nd ed. Brooklyn, N.Y.: Dance Horizons, 1972. 55-63. p.55
Bateson and Holt p.62
Bateson and Holt p.62
Bateson and Holt p.60
Bateson and Holt p.61
Bateson and Holt p.63