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Performing Arts Regional & Ethnic

Fields in Motion

Ethnography in the Worlds of Dance

edited by Dena Davida

Wilfrid Laurier University Press
Initial publish date
Oct 2011
Regional & Ethnic, Cultural, History & Criticism
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Fields in Motion: Ethnography in the Worlds of Dance examines the deeper meanings and resonances of artistic dance in contemporary culture.

The book comprises four sections: methods and methodologies, autoethnography, pedagogies and creative processes, and choreographies as cultural and spiritual representations. The contributors bring an insiders insight to their accounts of the nature and function of these artistic practices, giving voice to dancers, dance teachers, creators, programmers, spectators, students, and scholars.

International and intergenerational, this collection of groundbreaking scholarly research points to a new direction for both dance studies and dance anthropology. Traditionally the exclusive domain of aesthetic philosophers, the art of dance is here reframed as cultural practice, and its significance is revealed through a chorus of voices from practitioners and insider ethnographers.

About the author

Dena Davida has taught university courses and lectured on contemporary dance and culture and has published various essays in academic journals and professional periodicals. Her doctoral work was an ethnographic study of meaning in a contemporary dance event in Montreal, the outcome of her earlier practice as a postmodern dancer and current work as performing arts presenter and dance educator.

Dena Davida's profile page

Excerpt: Fields in Motion: Ethnography in the Worlds of Dance (edited by Dena Davida)

Excerpt from Fields in Motion: Ethnography in the Worlds of Dance, edited by Dena Davida

From Chapter 3: Interview Strategies for Concert Dance World Settings by Jennifer Fisher


If I imagined myself to be an intrepid ethnographer striking out for unknown territory, like a slightly more stylish version of Margaret Mead, it was despite the fact that I was entering a rural Virginia high school auditorium where the local inhabitants put on The Nutcracker every year. It was hardly the stuff of perilous journeys. After all, I had just stopped at a mall for directions and noticed that it was "high cappuccino machine per capita" country, with plenty of amenities and free parking. But part of my image of myself as a postmodern dance ethnographer seemed to involve ironic nostalgia for iconic explorers. "The natives were friendly and their rituals fascinating," I told friends and colleagues later, knowing that it sounded like a joke about the relative comfort of trekking in the wilds of suburban ballet studios, but also that it was an accurate description of my fieldwork experiences. After all, I was encountering people who were native to a particular tradition, even though it wasn't always called a ritual by the tribes that put the ballet on. I knew that The Nutcracker wasn't just an aesthetic event, but like any tradition, reflected both communal and individual beliefs, as well as culturally revealing attitudes. And, of course, "fieldwork at home" was not exactly new, although ballet ethnography is still relatively rare.


These are some of the thoughts I had in 1996, as I began my study of The Nutcracker, the Russian ballet that had evolved into a Christmas tradition in North America. My methods included those of traditional participant observation, but because I was on "home turf," investigating a familiar phenomenon in an unfamiliar way, I developed a particular approach to interviewing, the topic I will focus on here. I was both an "insider" and an "outsider" to the world of the annual Nutcracker, in that I had once danced in the ballet, and I shared the ethnic, economic, and cultural background of most Nutcracker participants, but I was also a "foreigner" in that I had drifted away from the dance world as an adult, and then returned as an academic, armed with the tools of observing and recording what I saw. Indian-born anthropologist Jayati Lal, who wrote about her return from the United States to India to do her fieldwork, recognized this duality when she said that she felt like "a 'native' returning to a foreign country," because she did fieldwork in places she hadn't been before (Lal 1996: 191-92).


I also have something in common with the "halfie" or "hyphenated" ethnographers discussed by anthropologists Kamala Visweswaran and Lila Abu-Lughod, although I am not positioned between two ethnic groups as they are (Visweswaran 1994: 131). What I have in common with hyphenated ethnographers, as well as researchers working in their "own" cultural groups (such as Lal, Kondo, and Limón), is the embodied experience of existing in two different worlds. For me, the two worlds were a ballet dancer's realm and that of the academic observer and analyst. I considered it an advantage to have this double or multiple positioning (ex-dancer, dance scholar advocate, "impartial" critic and ethnographer), because acknowledging different vantage points led me to understand that fieldwork is not "collection of data by a dehumanized machine" (Okley 1992: 3). These different vantage points surely interacted with each other, and if the way I reacted to ballet and The Nutcracker arose from a complex of experiences and attitudes that alternately felt entrenched or shifting, I reasoned that the same thing could be true for my respondents.


Fortunately, the days of believing that only outsiders were clear-headed enough to write ethnographies were over before I entered the field. As James Clifford emphasizes, ethnographers who are closely related to the cultures they investigate are uniquely positioned to do their work, since "it probably requires cultural insiders to recognize adequately the subtle ruses of individuality, where outsiders see only typical behavior" (Clifford 1978: 53). In the case of The Nutcracker, it was even more complicated than that. Many dance insiders often saw the ballet as "typical" or, more to the point, as "stereotypical," even though they might realize that many individual approaches are involved. In the professional dance world, The Nutcracker has often been considered a lightweight phenomenon, suspect because it is widely embraced by non-specialists, families, and children. In the tradition of Western art after the age of modernism, regular repetition of an aesthetic product is often characterized as a static iteration that becomes stale. But an insider to dance studies could easily see that the annual Nutcracker phenomenon is a complex, always changing, powerful ritual of some sort.

Editorial Reviews

"The reflective space between practice, fieldwork, encounters with theory and ethnographic writing is an immensely fertile ground. Connections made between modes of research and professional roles and the distinctive knowledge developed form this position is, to my knowledge, for the first time illuminated by [this] diverse group of scholars.... To me, this volume importantly succeeds in responding to what Davida declares as a fundamental concern, which is to demonstrate the way contemporary dance ethnographers may begin to suspend the weight of the 'dubious colonialist past' (8) of anthropology, thereby, maintaining it relevant to "a globalizing, de-colonizing world in which concepts such as "far-away," "exotic," and "primitive" are now perceived as vestigial remnants of an obsolete and racist western nostalgia, if not the clichéd fare of the travel industries' (8).... The volume also usefully addresses temporal aspects (3) of contemporary "insider" ethnographic research and the way this challenges traditional ethnographic fundamentals.... Although questions around the ability of insightful practitioner-researchers to critically observe the totality of the cultural predicament of the field studied ... remain pertinent, this volume offers significant evidence for the interpretative value of this approach.... Its accessible language and well-integrated reflexive style make this book a potentially very useful introductory volume for dance and, perhaps, other performing arts students even at an undergraduate level."

Journal of Dance and Somatic Practices, Volume 6, number 1, 2014

"The authors in Fields in Motion emerge from this unique anthology as engaging dance scholars from various parts of the world. Their words are framed by research on art dance 'at home.' They share with us, their readers, as they reflect on the views and behaviors of their dancer subjects, whom they researched through an ethnographic lens. Our own horizons expand as we meet these authors, and as we begin to perceive the spreading global dedication to ethnographic research for art dance 'at home.'"

Joann W. Kealiinohomoku

"With voices from 28 contributors spanning five continents, this unique anthology bridges the distance between the viewpoints of the insider (practitioner) and the outsider (researcher) in dance art. Spanning three generations of dance researchers, the essayists are part of the cultural dance communities they are studying and meld insights from their own knowledge and experience with sound anthropological techniques to expand and deepen understanding of dance as it is lived.... This collection expands the discourse and approaches to dance ethnography and is a welcome, valuable addition to dance scholarship... Highly recommended."

CHOICE, June 2012

"A fine research collection addressing the complex issues of ethnicity in postmodern concert dance.... Fields in Motion provides evocative, sometimes provocative, views into the lives and work of transnational dance artists with hyphenated identities, enduring or thriving under the simultaneous pressures of maintaining traditions (and the cultural values they reinforce) and innovating artistically to rewrite the world, to redance the world in new ways, ultimately constructing bodies (that dance) and meanings (that matter)."

Cross-Cultural Dance Resources Newsletter, 36, Winter 2012

"Fields in Motion brings together twenty-four scholars interested in approaching dance from an ethnographic perspective. It is therefore a useful "follow up" to Theresa Buckland's edited collection Dance in the Field: Theory, Methods, and Issues in Dance Ethnography (1999). What makes the book special is that the contributors all focus largely on theatre dance, rather than on other genres more embedded within circumscribed communities, generally the domain of anthropologists specializing in dance. Although Joann Kealiinohomoku showed us the way in the late 1960s and 1970s by demonstrating that all dances are culturally rooted, art dance still remains, for many, beyond ethnographic enquiry since it is often perceived as "outside culture." The collection provides rich and diverse approaches to ethnography (polyphonic, multi-sited, auto-, experiential, intimate and so on), to field/dance sites (from small towns in Canada and the USA, to Paris, Helsinki and Toronto; from Taiwan, to Brazil, to New Zealand), and to the subjects of research (from amateurs to professionals; from largely female to male only). The authors take us on exciting journeys and the reader enters the worlds of dancers, spectators and researchers in a variety of social and cultural contexts, sometimes with great intimacy, at other times with more detachment, but always with heightened sensitivity. Reading Fields in Motion allows for discovery of the many ways in which dancing bodies may be socially and culturally mediated so that our understanding of theatre dance gains greater nuances."

Andrée Grau