20 November 2010

Review of 'Dance and Human History'

Alan Lomax was an American ethnomusicologist and folklorist known for collecting and bringing to public attention a wide variety of folk music from the United States, Europe and Latin America. He was an early proponent of what is today commonly referred to as 'multiculturalism.' He received numerous awards and honors, including the Library of Congress Living Legends Award in 2000, two years before his death at the age of 87. In addition to his work in music Lomax was interested in dance, for which he developed the theory and method of 'choreometrics,' which was designed to observe and interpret the relationship between dance and social structure. Although the social sciences, particularly anthropology, have moved away from what came to be known as structuralism, Lomax produced a number of enduring works as part of the choreometrics project, including the documentary film 'Dance and Human History.'


Alan Lomax's Dance and Human History can be a most stimulating teaching tool for as many reasons as Joann Kealiinohomoku criticized it in the journal Ethnomusicology (Vol. 23, No. 1, pp. 169-76). That is, the film, used together with the written theory, goals, methods, analyses, and criticisms of choreometrics is an excellent way to introduce students to the major issues, problems, and methods in dance ethnography or (as Kealiinohomoku calls the field) ethnochoreology. In an introductory dance theory course, I've used the film in precisely this manner. The students read two other theoretical overviews that attempt a cross-cultural synthesis of dance, Maria-Gabriele Wosien's Sacred Dance: Encounter with the Gods (1974) and European Folk Dance: Its National and Musical Characteristics by Joan Lawson (1962). They then read the chapters on choreometrics in Folk Song Style and Culture (Lomax 1968). They also read "Cross Cultural Study of Dance: Description and Implications" by Irmgard Bartenieff and Forrestine Paulay (1970), the effort/shape experts who worked out the movement coding system for choreometrics. Then they read the critical reviews of Lomax's approach, project, and method by Kealiinohomoku, Drid Williams, and Suzanne Youngerman published by the Committee on Research in Dance in 1974. To this list I will now add Kealiinohomoku's review in Ethnomusicology. Students read from among several ethnographic studies that place dance and other arts in the context of their own culture. They then write an analysis of the issues and problems in this growing field by comparing the two methodological viewpoints, dance in its specific cultural context and dance from a cross-cultural perspective. So, used carefully, Lomax's attempt to study dance and human history can be made understandable to students.

When Lomax showed the film at the Society for Ethnomusicology Conference in October 1975, he introduced it as a teaching film. He indicated that the purpose of the film was to demonstrate how to see 5 of the 100 or more "motion qualities" specifically identified for study in choreometric coding procedure. In Four Adaptations of Effort Theory in Research and Teaching (1973), Bartenieff and Paulay summarize the range that these observations encompass:
"(a) body parts habitually involved, (b) the body attitude, (active stance), (c) the shape and dimension of movement, (d) the way direction changes in movement, (e) movement qualities such as relative smoothness and tempo, (f) torso-unit relationship, (g) the degree and kind of synchrony between movers, and (h) features of group formation."
Seeing the swift array of sections of entire dances race by as they do in the film tends to dislodge from the viewer's mind the idea that only 5 features of movement are being highlighted. Lomax made the film to train the viewer to see these dimensions of dance action. This goal is similar to the purpose of the cantometrics training tapes, designed to teach the listener to hear the components of music that Lomax identified for study. When presented with this training-to-see goal, the film and its narrative script imply less of an "A causes B" message. In Lomax's final generalization that dance movements "represent the interplay of economic productivity and climatically-influenced division of labor," he suggests that these factors are closely related, not necessarily causally related.

Preparatory reading surely enables students to understand the purpose of the film. The students benefit by analyzing Lomax's method. First, he brings to this mass of dance material an hypothesis as stated in Folk Song Style and Culture: "We are comparing dance to everyday movement in order to verify the hypothesis that danced movement is patterned reinforcement of the habitual movement patterns of each culture or culture area" (1968, p. xv). Thus students are aware that he is operating deductively, not inductively, and they know that he is studying gross cultural features on a large scale. In the film, Lomax shows part of the results.

My students question the juxtaposition of entertainment, ceremonial, recreational, folk dance, etc. Lomax says in Folk Song Style and Culture that his visual association is deliberate:
"there has been no means of description suitable to comparative study and no body of theory to explain how dance and culture are linked in all societies and in all stages of development. The aim of the present investigation, therefore, becomes one of recording and noting regularities and contrasts in movement pattern sufficiently frequent and gross to produce units universally applicable in cross-cultural studies."
(I am aware that Lomax's phrase "stages of development" reflects an outdated evolutionary premise of cultural history, and alert students to this issue. Lomax, in answer to my question, admits that he read no other comparative dance theory before or during his study, so was unaware that Curt Sachs had suggested this work-dance connection in his 1937 book World History of the Dance.)

Students aware of the problems intrinsic to filming any type of dance, question Lomax's use of the existing films available to him as data. Again the answer is found in Folk Song Style and Culture (1968, p.263):
"The cinema has thus far served the ethnologist largely as a way to supplement and preserve observations already recorded in his notebooks, or relationships already analyzed out of his field work... Choreometrics, however, is an attempt to employ film as a source and a tool in the comparative and historical study of culture and of human behavior. We regard the vast, endlessly provocative, prejudice-laden, existing sea of documentary footage as the richest and most unequivocal storehouse of information about humanity."
Adding introductory remarks to the film, clearly stating that the 200 films drawn on are not a random sample would undoubtedly clarify that the film demonstrates a method of study, and the conclusions are based on the limited sources used. Lomax clearly states his perspective, that of looking for universal positive relationships among dance patterns around the world. His general and broadly comparative viewpoint differs vastly from many dance ethnographers whose perspective is specific cultural description and analysis. Their major methodological challenge is to understand the interrelationships of a single culture's components with as little simplification and distortion as possible. Therefore Lomax's attempt at such a large cross-cultural synthesis appears undisciplined. Anya Royce, in The Anthropology of Dance (1977), discusses Lomax's cross-cultural method. She uses it to illustrate the problems of such a large scale study when the new field of dance ethnography is just evolving updated systematic techniques. She compares Lomax's study with the outdated work of Curt Sachs, as did Suzanne Youngerman in 1974 for the Committee on Research in Dance. Royce notes that Lomax uses "appropriate statistical tests for reliability and inter-coder agreement," whereas Sachs "produced essentially impressionistic statements about styles" (1977, p. 138). Royce does credit the choreometric coding method as useful, however (1977, p. 60):
"The coding sheet and the explanations of the abbreviations used in it could profitably be used by field researchers who are concerned with recording the gross structural features of a dance or dance complex. A less comprehensive set of features may also be used as a preliminary step, scoring the dance, for example, only in terms of three major features: body attitude, body parts most frequently articulated, and dimensionality of movement path. It must be emphasized, however that neither the Choreometrics coding sheet nor the preliminary version of it will provide a complete description of a particular dance. They are designed to pick out gross features and they do it well. For some kinds of research, this is perfectly adequate, and in some field situations it may be all that one can record."
The choreometric method of seeing features of dance in cross-cultural context is basically what Dance and Human History is about. Used for teaching part of the coding scheme and to illustrate problems of cross-cultural analysis using a variety of types of available film footage, Lomax's film can sink students directly into the center of the exciting, self-critical, and challenging field of dance ethnography. Used with a number of cautions, it can be stimulating, to say the least. Certainly the sample of dances of the world, put side by side, is enriching and may entice students to investigate any of the number of questions Lomax's commentary raises.

Since I personally value the style of thinking and resulting projects that work toward a synthesis of large quantities of ideas, material, or information, I enjoy (intellectually and emotionally) the type of work Lomax is doing. I also want to go on record to say how much I respect and value Kealiinohomoku's work and expertise in ethnochoreology. I am a teacher of dance and dance theory, not an expert in dance ethnography - though I am carefully enough informed to teach about it at an introductory level. This alternate review can only reflect my limited perspective. I use the film as a teaching tool and by-pass the distorted, exaggerated, and as yet unfounded theoretical ideas scattered through the film script. I think the script does not represent the choreometrics project adequately, because Lomax oversimplifies his long range goals of understanding dance in relation to culture and cultural history by drawing conclusions too soon.

I understand that there are students successfully using the choreometrics coding scheme to study dance in specific cultures: so in spite of Lomax's "outdated" theoretical framework, the method he helped to initiate is indeed a useful research tool.

[This is a slightly edited version of a review written by Judith Alter that originally appeared under the title 'Another View of Lomax's Film Dance and Human History' in the journal Ethnomusicology, Vol. 23, No. 3 (September 1979), pp. 500-503. A selection of Alan Lomax's films can be viewed online at Folkstreams, which also provides useful biographical information and links to other related works.]

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