Cultural Studies and Dance

A Graduate Course Proposal by Clyde Smith (circa 1999)

This graduate course is intended to introduce students to the interdisciplinary study of dance through the framework of cultural studies. As currently practiced, cultural studies is a wide ranging interdisciplinary field of endeavor with multiple influences. Much like the study of dance, cultural studies emerged from specific disciplinary traditions and now registers the impact of such theoretical perspectives as feminism, postmodernism and multiculturalism. The following description of course themes and readings is intended to indicate the possibilities rather than serving as a finalized course proposal.

Student projects will focus on use of the ethnographic method from modern to postmodern practices. Though such projects will necessarily be limited, students will be able to experience both the thrilling moments and mundane requirements of original research.

From the Study of Culture to Cultural Studies

A brief overview of the course along with a discussion of terminology, in particular the history of the word “culture” as mobilized across disciplines. The concepts of “modern” and “postmodern” will also be introduced. Student projects will be discussed and students will begin to identify a focus for their research.


In many ways the discipline most associated with the culture concept, though not so much with cultural studies, anthropology has provided us with a wide range of detailed studies of particular dance traditions. Subjects will include Franz Boas, Katherine Dunham and a variety of dance ethnologists/ethnographers. Videos of Franz Boas as dance researcher and a discussion of terms “ethnography” and “ethnology” will be included.

“Panorama of Dance Ethnology” by Gertrude Kurath from Current
Anthropology, 1, (1960)
Selections from Island Possessed (1969) by Katherine Dunham
“Contact Improvisation and Anthropological Analysis” Chapter from
Sharing the Dance: Contact Improvisation and American Culture
(1990) by Cynthia Novack


Sociologists have also studied dance and the initial development of cultural studies was particularly influenced by sociology. The relationship of the term “society” to the study of culture will be discussed.

Selections from The Taxi-Dance Hall: A Sociological Study in
Commercialized Recreation and City Life (1932) Paul G. Cressey
“Formulating a Sociology of Dance” Chapter from Dance, Modernity &
Culture: Explorations in the Sociology of Dance (1995) by Helen
“Dance Narrative and Fantasies of Achievement” by Angela McRobbie from
Meaning in Motion: New Cultural Studies of Dance (1997) edited by
Jane Desmond

The Ethnographic Method

Anthropology and sociology are linked, in part, by their use of the ethnographic method. Furthermore, ethnography has become one of the preferred methods of cultural studies and of qualitative research more generally. Student projects will be clarified and fieldwork activities will begin.

“Dance Ethnography: Tracing the Weave of Dance in the Fabric of
Culture” by Joan Frosch from Researching Dance: Modes of Inquiry
(1999) edited by Sondra Horton Fraleigh and Penelope Hanstein
“Fieldwork Strategies and Observation Methods” from Qualitative
Evaluation and Research Methods (1990, 2nd ed) by Michael Patton
“Feminist Ethnography” from Feminist Methods in Social Research (1992)
by Shulamit Reinharz

Cultural Studies from Birmingham to Urbana/Champaign

The term “cultural studies” as used today has its roots in the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at the University of Birmingham, England. In particular, this emergent field emphasized a shift from high to low culture, from elite to popular culture. We will consider the migration of the term and related perspectives to the United States where cultural studies took on a much broader meaning, for some to the point of meaninglessness. We will also discuss alternate versions of this history as well as anthropologists’ concerns regarding the perceived appropriation of the culture concept.

Introduction to Cultural Studies (1992) edited by Lawrence Grossberg,
Cary Nelson and Paula Treichler
Introduction to Culture & Truth: The Remaking of Social Analysis (1993,
new intro) by Renato Rosaldo
“Embodying Difference: Issues in Dance and Cultural Studies” by Jane
Desmond from Meaning in Motion: New Cultural Studies of Dance
(op cit)

Post Positions

The shift from the study of culture to cultural studies is related to the shift from modern to postmodern. The discussion of these concepts, especially the particular history of this terminology in the field of dance, will seek to clarify some of the many manifestations of postmodernism along with the terms “poststructuralism” and “postpositivism.” A brief consideration of “body studies” will be included.

Introduction to Terpsichore in Sneakers (1987, new intro) by Sally Banes
“Postpositivist Research in Dance” by Susan Stinson and Jill Green from
Researching Dance: Modes of Inquiry (op cit)
“Dance Education in/and the Postmodern” by Isabel Marques from Dance,
Power and Difference: Critical and Feminist Perspectives on Dance
Education (1998) edited by Sherry Shapiro
“Docile Bodies” Chapter from Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the
Prison (1978) by Michel Foucault

Experiments in Ethnography

A further discussion of the ethnographic method under the stress of postmodern, poststructural and postpositivist critiques and practices. Additional work with student projects focusing in particular on the process of writing.

“Dance Ethnography and the Limits of Representation” by Randy Martin
from Meaning in Motion: New Cultural Studies of Dance (op cit)
“What Comes (Just) After ‘Post’? The Case of Ethnography” by George
Marcus and “Writing: A Method of Inquiry” by Laurel Richardson both
from Handbook of Qualitative Research (1994) edited by Norman
Denzin and Yvonna Lincoln


Feminism has become an important part of cultural studies as currently practiced, though it had a difficult time in the early days at Birmingham. Feminism has also strongly registered the shifts from modern to postmodern perspectives. A discussion of the possibility of applying feminist theory to the study of men in dance will be included.

“Engendering Dance: Feminist Inquiry and Dance Research” by Jane
Desmond from Researching Dance: Modes of Inquiry (op cit)
“Seeking a Feminist Pedagogy for Children’s Dance” by Susan Stinson from
Dance, Power and Difference: Critical and Feminist Perspectives on
Dance Education (op cit)
“Men’s Rowdy Dances Making Gender Trouble” by Clyde Smith from
Contact Quarterly (Summer/Fall 1996)


A particularly American manifestation, “multiculturalism” is an often misunderstood term which emerged from the conflicts and intersections which formed the culture of the United States. Though it was initially a term taken up most strongly in the arts, it also relates to issues of race and ethnicity raised in cultural and ethnic studies. Some discussion of “postcolonial” theory and “diaspora” studies will be included.

Introduction to The Graywolf Annual Five: Multicultural Literacy (1988)
edited by Rick Simonson and Scott Walker
“An Anthropologist Looks at Ballet as
a Form of Ethnic Dance” by Joann
Kealiinohomoku from What Is Dance?: Readings in Theory and
Criticism (1983) edited by Roger Copeland and Marshall Cohen
“A Global View: Dance Appreciation for the 21st Century” by Joan
Frosch-Shroder from Journal of Physical Education, Recreation and
Dance (March, 1991)
“Cultural Diversity and Dance History Research” by John Perpener III from
Researching Dance: Modes of Inquiry (op cit)

Final Presentations and Discussion

Students will present and discuss their projects. The emphasis will be on where they find themselves in their understanding of dance, cultural studies and research rather than on a polished presentation.