Anthropology of Dance

Dance in Anthropological Perspective
Adrienne L. Kaeppler

In this article, Kaeppler talks about the creation and doing of an anthropology of dance. Dance is defined 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”.

The studying of dance as a sphere for anthropologists is not a common practice, as it is considered to be a less significant aspect of one’s culture, as compared to other domains such as economics, gender relations and kinship. However, Kaeppler wants to put forward the view that one can understand a particular culture better and know more about the structures of that society through a study and analysis of (that culture’s) dance (or dances). Dance gives insight into social relations, a society’s rituals and ritual-making processes and its philosophy; it is a functional aspect of one’s society.

Kaeppler also mentioned the methodology one should employ in the study of dance – that of choreology. This involves taking notes and focusing on the ground plan, the style and structure of the dance, in order to discover the cultural symbolism in the dance.

Early anthropological works about dance took on a Western-centric point of view, where non-Western dance is seen belonging to the primitive stages in the evolution of Western dance, and hence is compared to “Western concepts, categorization, structure, function, or aesthetics”. Kaeppler then mentioned Franz Boas, who called for the analyzing dance “in terms of one’s own culture rather than as a universal language.”

Hence, there is a need for a comprehensive understanding of dance in an individual culture, in its own cultural context first before comparisons across cultures can be made. “Each culture has a unique configuration of dance characteristics for movement, patterns, styles, dynamics [and] value which are distinguished when comparing dances from one culture with those of another”, even though the dance of different cultures seem to share similar aspects due to the limits of human bodily movement.

Like Kaeppler, I feel that the dances of a particular culture, and even the performing arts in general, are often neglected areas of study in anthropology, in that they are not used as sources to gain a deeper understanding of that culture – they are not studied and analyzed as extensively as other aspects of a particular society such as exchange systems, kinship and gender roles, for example. However, dances and other forms similar to dancing such as trance-making can be found in all cultures in all societies. This shows that there must be a reason for this prevalence and continuity over time.

So how is studying dance helpful in guiding us towards a better understanding of a society and its culture? One way we can do so is to study the dance itself – the steps involved, the structure/ positioning of the dancers, the roles of the female and male dancers, the costumes, and the content of the dance. Through this, certain features of a particular society can be made known to us.

For instance, by observing the different way female and male dancers move in a dance, we are able to establish an idea of the gender roles and expectations of a society. In the Sovan Macha, a form of Cambodian classical dance, the female dancer moves slowly and in a controlled way, playing up on their femininity. There is also a lot of focus on the movement and shape of their hands, further demonstrating their gracefulness and gentleness. In contrast, the movement of the male dancer exhibits his strength and masculinity, with bigger movements (leaps and cartwheels) and mobility. The female is thus hyper-feminized and the male hyper-masculinized. Through analyzing just one aspect of the Khmer traditional dance – the body movements/ choreography, it is evident that patriarchy still exists in the society, where the female is thought of as the vulnerable and submissive one, in need of ‘protection’ offered by the dominant male.

We can also look at dance in relation to other aspects and spheres of a society, such as dance being an integral part of ritual-making activities. (This is a reflection of the structural functionalist view) It is then closely related to the religious beliefs of the culture. The ritual dance has a functional role in providing the people with an avenue to channel and direct their expressions of emotions such as hope, frustration and distress to a higher deity or being. Hence, through understanding the dance-sphere of a ritual or ceremony of a particular culture, we can gain a deeper and fuller understanding of the concept and workings of that ritual or ceremony. This will ultimately help us in understanding a society from their point of view, in a non-ethnocentric way.

By looking at the origins of certain types of dance, issues regarding power/ authority and power-relations become more explicit. Dance can be treated as a way to express and demonstrate power and/ or break away from those in authority. Take for instance, capoeira, a Brazilian martial art form with features of dance and music. Capoeira started by Africans held in slavery by the Portuguese in Brazil because of their desire to attain freedom from slavery. Escape and defense techniques were incorporated and these techniques were concealed as being a dance form to escape detection from the colonial officials. Thus, through dance, the disempowered is provided with an avenue of empowerment from the colonial officials. Another example of empowerment can be found in modern dance which started out in opposition to the rigidity and disciplinarian feature of classical ballet. Modern dance, in contrast to the structured and technical ballet, is more fluid and flexible, with more focus on one’s emotion and expression, rather than on technical mastery.

There are many ways dance can be studied and analyzed in anthropology in order to better understand a particular culture. It has a functional aspect, is a site of empowerment (and disempowerment as well – if the dancers are perceived to be ‘controlled’ by the choreographers), is a channel of expression, and is related to other features of culture. We have to note that when studying dance, it is better to adopt the performers’/ participants’ point of view, instead of the audience’s, to avoid being ethnocentric and to move away from the performance aspect of the dance to get to its deeper meaning and symbolism (sort of like Erving Goffman's foreground/background theory).