"The Place of Dance in Human Life": Perspectives on the Fieldwork and Dance Notation of Gertrude P. Kurath

By Caldwell, Mary Channen | Ethnologies, Spring 2008 | Go to article overview

"The Place of Dance in Human Life": Perspectives on the Fieldwork and Dance Notation of Gertrude P. Kurath


Caldwell, Mary Channen, Ethnologies


Cet article offre une breve esquisse biographique de Gertrude Kurath en la presentant comme une figure centrale du vingtieme siecle parmi les specialistes de la danse. Nous insisterons sur son role dans l'emergence des travaux universitaires portant sur la danse et sa mise en valeur de la relation entre les etudes sur la danse, l'anthropologie et l'ethnomusicologie. Cet article examine en detail deux traits specifiques de son apport : ses recherches de terrain visionnaires ainsi que le caractere novateur de la notation du mouvement. Ses recherches de terrain ainsi que le recours a la notation sont mises en contexte au travers des recherches considerables qu'elle a menees sur la danse amerindienne.

This article provides a brief biographical sketch of Gertrude P. Kurath and introduces her as a central figure in twentieth century dance scholarship. Her role in the emergence of the field of dance studies in the academia is examined and her promotion of the connection between dance studies and anthropology and ethnomusicology is stressed. This article examines in detail two specific features of her scholarship: her forward-looking fieldwork and her innovation and use of movement notation. Both her fieldwork and her use of notation are contextualized within her extensive research on Native American dance.

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Deciding exactly where to begin when writing about Gertrude Prokosch Kurath (1903-1992) is a difficult task to say the least. Her interests and range of activities extended beyond the academic fields of dance ethnology, anthropology and ethnomusicology to which she contributed throughout her life, to dance performance, choreography, art history, administrative roles, and motherhood. However, exemplified in the corpus of her research and writings is an emphasis on dance research, for which two features are emblematic and significant: her progressive approach to fieldwork and her use of dance notation as a means of recording and analysis. Following a brief biographical sketch and a contextualization of Kurath within the field of dance ethnology, this article will discuss Kurath's approach to fieldwork with a particular focus on her work on Native American dance, and her development and use of a specific style of dance notation, also within the context of Native American dance. (1)

Born in Chicago to musically and academically-inclined parents, Kurath was exposed early on to music and dance through Dalcroze Eurythmics taught by Rudolf Bode and through her family's relationship with Curt Sachs, author of Weltgeschichte des tanzes (World History of the Dance, 1937). Kurath studied dance and anthropology at the University of Chicago before earning a BA in 1922 followed by an MA in art history in 1928, both from Bryn Mawr College. During this same period, Kurath also studied music and dance in Berlin, Philadelphia, New York, and Rhode Island, and, from 1929-1930, she attended and taught classes at the Yale School of Drama. She was proficient in a number of dance forms, having studied with Riva Hoffman, a proponent of the Duncan dance style, and Doris Humphrey, among others (Kealiinohomoku 1992: 70). Despite her level of education and depth of experience, she was never affiliated with a university. Nevertheless, Kurath continually pursued research opportunities and produced a large corpus of books, articles and reports. It is her high level of productivity as well as her involvement in academic circles and professional associations which helps to centralize her in the history of dance studies in the twentieth century.

Kurath and Dance Studies

Dance studies have undergone many identity crises, numerous name changes, and have borne criticism from other academic fields. The insinuation was often that dance is not a serious or scientific subject due to its embodied nature and thus lesser status. Dance scholar Judith Lynne Hanna suggests that the reasons for the neglect of dance in academic circles are due also to factors of prejudice and the lack of "scientific" evidence such as notation in early dance studies, as well as from a disdain for the body. …

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