Anthropology Dance Ethnography
Helena Wulff
  • LAST REVIEWED: 14 May 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 April 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0079


An understanding of dance ethnography is twofold. First, it refers to the systematic face-to-face research of dance events and dance worlds, such as dance in its social and cultural context. Such research has traditionally been conducted during long-term qualitative fieldwork in one single place, but it now increasingly occurs in multisited, even transnational and global places, as this is how much of social life tends to be enacted. Second, dance ethnography refers to the textual presentation of data derived from face-to-face research. Structured by analytical questions, ethnographic descriptions report on indigenous perspectives while ideally taking theoretical debate further in an ensuing theoretical discussion. As ethnography as method and textual style originates in anthropology, cases of dance ethnography appear in the first anthropological studies from the late 19th century, included in elaborate descriptions of rituals. Importantly, dance is an indicator of social and cultural circumstances, often identifying points of conflict and driving transitions. Dance ethnography has revealed political and religious control of dance, in colonial and postcolonial settings as well as in many other contemporary situations of social inequality that can be said to lead to resistance or social critique, as in the revitalization of ethnic dance or the making of alternative expression through dance. Dance ethnographers include all dance forms in their scope, Western and non-Western, ranging from ritual and folk dance through street and social dance to dancesport and staged dance performance. With the expansion of the multidisciplinary critical dance studies in the 1980s, dance scholars who were trained not only in anthropology but also in sociology, history, ethnology, folklore, cultural studies, or performance studies began applying an ethnographic approach. A key aspect of dance ethnography is the ethnographer taking part in the dancing, which generates special knowledge (which, like any bodily practice, is accessible only through participation). Dance ethnographers are often former modern or classical dancers, and some keep dancing, even choreographing. Theoretically, dance ethnographers relate to topics such as ethnicity and nationalism; postcolonialism; race politics; gender and sexuality; body, mind, and movement; globalization; and combinations thereof. Dance is also created, preserved, and distributed through media technologies. This mediation includes, for instance, digital dance, as well as dance on stage and textual notation. As dance steps are formed to a great deal by space and surface, dance ethnographers are taking an increasing interest in social science work on everyday movement (such as walking) in urban landscapes.

Development of Dance Ethnography

Evans-Pritchard 1928 argues for dance in a social context as a topic for anthropological study, emphasizing its ability to contribute to theoretical debate. While the anthropology of dance was being established in the 1960s and 1970s, the cross-cultural perspective accentuated the problem of finding a shared definition of dance. Kaeppler 1985, based on the author’s ethnographic study of “structured movement systems” in Tonga (p. 93), points out that “dance” is a Western concept. In line with an anthropological approach, dance ethnographers have tended to look for the meaning of movement and dance events, not just the patterns of steps. Royce 2002 was a milestone for dance ethnography. Wulff 2008 analyzes ballet as a global physical culture. Buckland 2010 juxtaposes the development of dance ethnography and dance studies from the 1980s to the present. The edited volume Davida 2011 argues for dance as a cultural practice through the practitioner’s point of view. Neveu Kringelbach and Skinner 2012a offers an extensive review of dancing cultures in the introduction, with chapters in the volume discussing dance in relation to tourism, migration, and the market (Neveu Kringelbach and Skinner 2012b).

  • Buckland, Theresa Jill. 2010. Shifting perspectives on dance ethnography. In The Routledge dance studies reader. 2d ed. Edited by Alexandra Carter and Janet O’Shea, 335–343. London: Routledge.

    Insightful review of the development of dance ethnography and dance studies, mostly in monographs and in relation to debates on ethnography, culture, and postmodernity.

  • Davida, Dena, ed. 2011. Fields in motion: Ethnography in the worlds of dance. Waterloo, ON: Wilfrid Laurier Univ. Press.

    Focusing on side ethnographers from dancers and dance teachers to spectators in artistic dance worlds in various cultures across the globe, this volume argues for dance as cultural practice.

  • Evans-Pritchard, E. E. 1928. The dance. Africa 1:446–462.

    DOI: 10.2307/1155912

    An early identification of the wider theoretical value of dance ethnography.

  • Kaeppler, Adrienne L. 1985. Structured movement systems in Tonga. In Society and the dance. Edited by Paul Spencer, 92–118. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    Crucial for the wider consolidation of dance ethnography, as it points to problems of defining dance cross-culturally.

  • Neveu Kringelbach, Hélène, and Jonathan Skinner. 2012a. Introduction: The movement of dancing cultures. In Dancing cultures: Globalization, tourism and identity in the anthropology of dance. Edited by Hélène Neveu Kringelbach and Jonathan Skinner, 1–25. Oxford: Berghahn.

    Substantial introduction by the editors on the history and present study of dance, ethnography, and culture.

  • Neveu Kringelbach, Hélène, and Jonathan Skinner, eds. 2012b. Dancing cultures: Globalization, tourism and identity in the anthropology of dance. Oxford: Berghahn.

    Evidence of the vigor of dance ethnography, with cases ranging from ritual healing dances and folk dances for tourists to transnational ballet marketing. Very useful for teaching and research.

  • Royce, Anya Peterson. 2002. The Anthropology of dance. 2d ed. Alton, UK: Dance.

    Canonical textbook first published in 1977, with a new introduction.

  • Wulff, Helena. 2008. Ethereal expression: Paradoxes of ballet as a global physical culture. Ethnography 9.4: 519–536.

    With extensive ethnography from three ballet companies in Stockholm, London, and New York, and one contemporary ballet company in Frankfurt-am-Main, this article explores time, cultural capital, and gender in ballet as a global physical culture, both onstage and off.

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