The Mechanics of Studying Dance from an Anthropological Viewpoint

Studying dance from an anthropological viewpoint can be very difficult. Observation, interview, and consultations of secondary sources are some methods commonly used by ethnologists. However, dance can be hard to write about since verbal descriptions are limited. Therefore, dance ethnologists have formulated certain symbols and methods that apply to ethnic and artistic dance. These methods break down dance so that it is easier to analyze. The first method is ground plans. These are drawings that convey solo or group movements with solid or dotted lines. Symbols are used to identify males and females and the directions they face. Ground plans make it easier to compare different dance styles, but they are limited in the amount that they can show. The second method of breaking down dance is through the study of body motion. Body movements are graphed two dimensionally with descriptions of the phrase with counts and beats. However, the difficulty of conveying three-dimensional movement on paper has led to the Laban System of Notation and Stylistic Analysis. This is the most complete and commonly used system. The lengths of the symbol show duration, the level of movement is shown by the shading of the symbol, and the symbol itself shows the motion of every part of the body. Diacritical symbols demonstrate flexion, extension, accent, dynamics, and effort. This notation is most commonly used for studying dance, because the symbols can line up with musical notation, showing the relationship between the dance and the rhythm. It shows phrasing and can more clearly demonstrate local styles.

The Laban System of Notation and Stylistic Analysis

These written descriptions of dance can be organized in several manner, including by region, period, social class, origin, function, form, and ground plan. They can also be organized by distribution. In order to show the evolution of dance across vast areas, distribution maps are used to illustrate choreographic areas and diffusion paths.

Aside from written work, more recently ethnologists have turned to technology in film to capture dance notation. They have worked out techniques for viewing films at different speeds, splicing, and halting certain frames to study dance more clearly. These films can provide valuable information regarding posture, costume, and expression, and can enrich written descriptions.

Through organizing, describing, and analyzing dance, researchers have made great strides in understanding the meaning behind dance and the role it plays in cultural diffusion across history.


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