Printer-friendly format  Article citation        


Drid Williams: The Australian Papers



Brenda Farnell

To many students and scholars of human movement and the dance, Drid Williams is most widely known for her foundational theoretical contributions to the field as the architect of the theoretical approach to an anthropology of human movement known as semasiology (Williams 1975, 1982a, 2004). Less visible to date, perhaps, are her ethnographic contributions, in particular, the papers she wrote in Australia between 1986 and 1990, which provide the content of this special issue of JASHM.

     Although Williams conducted her doctoral dissertation field research in a parallel culture, England in the 1970s—among Carmelite nuns (1975), Dominican Friars (1978, 1994), and the Royal Ballet (1975)—and later 'at home' among the Guardian Angels of New York City (1982b), this was a somewhat bold departure from accepted practice at the time and not considered 'real' fieldwork by many anthropologists trained in a era when going to far-flung corners of the world to study non-Western 'primitive' peoples was the norm (but see Jackson 1987). This attitude was, unfortunately, still true of some of her new colleagues at the University of Sydney, who positioned her as being new to "real" field work when she embarked upon research among Aboriginal peoples on the Cape York Peninsula, Queensland.

     From August 1986 to August 1989, the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies (AIAS, now AIATSIS)1 funded a lectureship that was held by Drid Williams. The University of Sydney administration named the post the "Lectureship in Dance (Aboriginal)." This was the first lectureship in an Australian University that offered graduate study in a dance related subject: that is, the anthropology of human movement studies.

     In this special issue of JASHM, we are especially pleased to gather in one location papers grounded in the ethnographic fieldwork that Williams conducted among Aboriginal peoples in the Cape York Peninsula during this period. More than this, however, the papers also document some of the problems and issues inherent in many of the teaching and research situations in which Williams found herself at the University of Sydney. As such, they provide significant material for a historian or an anthropologist of the dance and human movement interested in the educational and historical importance of such activities in Australia at this time.

     The first paper, "On the Idea of Aboriginality" was written in response to a draft syllabus for a proposed curriculum for eleventh- and twelfth-grade students in New South Wales that was under discussion by the Curriculum Committee in Aboriginal Studies at the University of Sydney. The paper accompanied a memo to the co-coordinator of the Aboriginal Studies course (October 29, 1989) expressing serious reservations about the proposed course given the lack of appropriate teaching materials and the fact that very few people in the school system had any formal training in Aboriginal Studies.

     "Reflections on Doing Anthropology 'at Home'" was written in January 1989 after a research trip to Cape York peninsula (July–August 1988) for which Williams was the grantee and following which she wrote a "Special Project Report," which is deposited among other research materials at the AIATSIS. This paper represents her professional response to (and resolution of) some extremely serious difficulties that arose over the project: difficulties that led to a decision to sever connections with the field of Aboriginal Studies.

     "Wanam Revisited," written in May 1988, was composed out of discussions with John von Sturmer and draws upon his extensive ethnographic knowledge acquired during dissertation research in the Cape York area in 1969 and 1974 and since. The paper was first presented at an Aboriginal History conference at Australian National University in late May 1988 and shortly thereafter to a seminar at the Institute of Aboriginal Studies. It presents important theoretical issues, many of which Williams grapples with in later papers such as "Ceci N'est Pas un Wallaby" and "Minha Punka: The Wallaby Dance."

     In "Homo Nullius: The Status of Aboriginal Dancing in Northern Queensland," Williams attempts clearly to indicate the kinds of categorical and classificatory problems that are inherent in the subject of traditional dances in general and the problems that Aboriginal dances in particular are faced with in the forms of tourism and general development policies. Williams also draws attention to problems that necessarily arise for women researchers, as well as Aboriginal women, due the gendered nature of danced knowledge in Aboriginal societies. In the original introduction to these papers (deposited in the Department of Music, University of Sydney), Williams describes her friendship with Jean George, an older Aboriginal woman with whom she stayed in Weipa South in 1987 while conducting the field research trip. Ms. George later visited Williams in Sydney, and they gave joint presentations to the Aboriginal Performing Arts students. Williams writes, "Jean stands as a kind of emblem of the plight of traditional Aboriginal people (especially the women) in Cape York if not the entire country: she and all the older women in Weipa South are in an embattled position. . . . She didn't want the Chivaree dance 'killed' but it was she who told me that there was nothing anyone could do about it" (Williams 1990: iii).

     Williams also notes that, although this paper was read and approved of by many Aboriginal people, some of her anthropological colleagues had problems with it, not because of the ethnography of the Laura Festival which is involved but because she talked about "Aboriginal Anthropologists" as well as traditional Aboriginal dances and the Aboriginal people who still perform them. She notes that, in contrast to older styles of social anthropology, her work reflects a social anthropological tradition informed not only by a different notion of objectivity but also one dedicated to critical dialogue and to strong interests in the anthropology of knowledge. Well-intentioned invitations to "change her style" were, of course, refused—but not, she notes, without considerable cost.

     In the next paper, "Minha Punka: The Wallaby Dance," we find a fine descriptive ethnography of an event within a ceremonial complex belonging to the Wanam people of Cape York. Williams tells us that she wrote the paper in order to provide background for a student thesis on the subject but also used it while teaching the Aboriginal Studies section of a course for which she was responsible. The lectures were accompanied by videotaped documentation of the dance made in Edward River in July 1988.

            The paper titled "Ceci n'est pas un Wallaby" was inspired by Michel Foucault's now classic treatment of René Magritte's famous painting Ceci n'est pas un Pipe. Williams skillfully uses it to address an important theoretical matrix of points and issues involving sign/object relationships and the notion of literacy. Written for the Society of Visual Anthropology conference prior to the Annual Meetings of the American Anthropological Association in New Orleans, 1990, the paper was first presented at a Music Department seminar at Sydney University on October 22, 1990.

     "Aboriginal Dancing" was written jointly with Stephen Wild in 1995 as an encyclopedia entry but not subsequently published.

     The final paper in this collection is a "Survey of Australian Literature on Aboriginal Dancing," which first appeared as Appendix 11 in Ten Lectures (1991) but was not included in the second edition (Williams 2004). Providing a balanced presentation of criticism and commendation, the goal of the survey is to identify the unique contribution the study of Australian Aboriginal dancing has to make if allowed to take its place alongside music, theater, and the visual arts. As Williams puts it, "[real] problems now consist of educating and training young Australians of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal descent to the task of coping with the literature, the theoretical and methodological problems that they inherit in an Australian context, and of encouraging them to contribute to the field at local, national and international fields" (Williams 1991: 361). This educational task has always and everywhere been at the heart of Williams's life-long dedication to the dance and anthropology.


1 Established in 1964 by an Act of Parliament as AIAS, in 1989 the institute changed its name to "Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies." AIATSIS is "a Commonwealth statutory authority within the Department of Industry, Innovation, Science, Research and Tertiary Education portfolio."

References Cited:

Jackson, Anthony (ed.)
1987. Anthropology at Home. ASA Monographs 25. London: Tavistock.

Williams, Drid
1975. Brides of Christ. In Perceiving Women (ed. S. Ardener) London: Malaby Press: 105–26.
1975. The Role of Movement in Selected Symbolic Systems. Unpublished, D. Phil. thesis, University of Oxford, U.K.
1978. Sacred Spaces: A Preliminary Enquiry into the Latin High Mass. Paper for the Canadian Sociology and Anthropology Association, London, Ontario, May.
1982a. Semasiology: A Semantic Anthropologist's View of Human Movements and Actions. In Semantic Anthropology (ed. D. Parkin). ASA 22. London: Academic Press: 161–82.
1982b. Ethnographic Report on the Guardian Angels. JASHM 2(1): 1–53.
1990. The Drid Williams Papers. Unpublished materials from the Dance Lectureship. Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies [AIATSIS], University of Syndey.
1991. Ten Lectures on Theories of the Dance. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press.
1994. The Latin High Mass: The Dominican Tridentine Rite. JASHM Monograph 1, 8(2).
2004. Anthropology and the Dance: Ten Lectures. 2d ed. Champaign: University of Illinois Press. Updated and revised as Ten Lectures, 1991.



Content in Journal for the Anthropological Study of Human Movement (ISSN 1940-7610) is intended for personal, noncommercial use only. You may not reproduce, publish, distribute, transmit, participate in the transfer or sale of, modify, create derivative works from, display, or in any way exploit the Journal for the Anthropological Study of Human Movement database in whole or in part without the written permission of the copyright holder.
© 2012 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
Terms and Conditions of Use.