The Dance Researcher

LOOKING AT DANCE: observation guidelines for the novice dance researcher  compiled by Dr. Renée Rothman  2000

In order to provide any dance with a specific socio-cultural and historical context, you must consider the dancers, the dance events, and the structures, shapes, and meanings of the dance itself.  Begin by asking this set of questions:

THE DANCERS  Who are the participants?  Note the age, gender, ethnic or class background.  How many dancers are needed?  Are they formally or informally trained?  What do they wear in the performance of the dance?  Is it specialized or ordinary dress?  What is the origin of the costume?  Is there an obvious leader or choreographer?


THE EVENT  Where did the event take place?  Is this its traditional location?  Describe the setting: an outdoor plaza, a proscenium stage, a club, a private home.  If it is significant, note the location of the dancers, audience, and musicians.

When did it take place (day, night, weekend, etc)?  How long is the event or the single dance you are examining?  What was the purpose of the event?  Is this a regular event, a seasonal event, or a unique occurrence?  Is it related to a yearly cycle: a calendrical, religious event, an agricultural cycle, etc.?  If possible, collect data on the history of the dance in its place of origin and/or locally.  What was the original context of the dance: was it originally a part of religious or sacred ritual, courtly entertainment, community socialization.  What is its current context?

Who is the audience?  Are they homogenous (generally of the same age, gender, ethnicity, class) or are they heterogeneous (general of mixed age, gender,…)?  What are they wearing?  Is it specialized or ordinary dress?  To what degree do they participate?

THE DANCE  Does the dance have a name?  If you are dealing with more than one dance (for instance, several examples of different Mexican folklorico styles), tell us what they are and provide a general overview of variations or similarities in the movements.  Pick one or two to describe in detail especially if they offer a good comparison or contrast.  Be sure to include data on musical accompaniment: recorded or live; types of instruments; etc.


Describe the movement using the Movement Analysis Guidelines below.  Keep in mind that the characteristics you identify may represent ideals that may or may not be attained in all performances.  In addition, there may be differences of opinion on what constitutes the proper style or who qualifies as a good dancer.


Look for solos, couple dances, and ensemble formations.  To what degree is it improvisational, structured, or choreographed?  Are the movements abstract or mimetic?  Is there a general emotional quality, a narrative, or a theme?

Effort  Describe the characteristic energy of the dance including tempo, dynamics, textures, and rhythmic punctuation and changes (fast, slow, syncopated, driving, repetitive, etc.).  Is the movement flowing, percussive, sustained, sudden, quick, slow?  Do the dancers move forcefully, fluidly, softly, rigidly?

Spatial patterns  How do the dancers use space?  Do they arrange themselves in lines, circles, squares?  Do they move in serpentine lines or create complex floor patterns?  Do they move through the whole space or are they relatively stationary?

Shape  What is the overall shape, stance, or body posture of the dancers?  Is it different for women and men (or in some cases, for female or male characters)?  Consider torso, arms, hands, legs, feet, neck, head, face, and overall demeanor.  Are some body parts emphasized over others?  Do the movements reach out beyond the dancer or are they contained?  Are the movements angular or curved?

When it comes time to create a written narrative of the movements, don’t be afraid of using your thesaurus to help you find descriptive language.  Metaphors and similes (“like” or “as” comparisons) are very useful in giving these descriptions some life.  But, avoid clichés and take care that the images your language evokes are appropriate to the dance. Superlatives (excellent, awesome, unbelievable) are personal opinions and generally have no place in a research paper.

compile from works by Laban, Cecily Dell, Walter Terry, Deidre Sklar and myself

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