When One Good Shot Is Not Enough: Writing Lahu Na Shehleh Dances with Labanotation
Jacquetta Hill, Nannaphat Saenghong, Kate Grim-Feinberg, and Monica FA W Santos
In this second article, which complements the previous one in this issue, we present a behind-the-scenes account of the circumstances in which our research project was conducted, its challenges as well as its accomplishments. This is a story of two senior anthropologists, Jacquetta Hill, a long-term ethnographer, and David Plath, a long-term videographer of five Lahu Na Shehleh villages in Northern Thailand, who were propelled into a study of Lahu dances and its music for which they had no specialized preparation. They resolved their lack of training by becoming specialists in sound and visual data capture and building a team of additional researchers with the necessary training; that is, they collected field audio and video recordings in forms that might be usable by anthropologists of music and dance back on their campus at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in the United States (hereafter UIUC). Working primarily with videotaped data from the distant villages in Northern Thailand, they developed ways to draw in advanced graduate students in sociocultural anthropology, the anthropology of human movement, and ethnomusicology, along with expert performers of the dances and music, to produce a historically accurate account of the dance and music of several Lahu villages.
The theme of culture conservation fueled much of the project activity described here. It is not merely a narrative of research for academic purposes but a sampling of efforts to assist the Lahu (Thai) villagers in their intentions and efforts to establish means for cultural conservation.
In this paper, we present in some detail the results of this teamwork across specialist boundaries. We discuss fundamental discoveries that were made about how Lahu dances and their associated music are structured, as well the cultural importance of such practices.
For twenty years of study prior to this project, Hill and Plath’s ethnographic and visual studies of everyday life among the Lahu were filled not only with the talk and descriptions of daily goings on but also with visual and sonic records of the on-going music and dance activities of the five Lahu villages. In articles such as “The Household as the Center of Life among the Lahu of Northern Thailand,” (Hill 1985) and “Women and Men in Local Leadership in the Lahu Na Shehleh Villages of Northern Thailand,” (Hill 2004), they did not ignore Lahu dance and music. Plath and Hill’s documentary film Candles for New Years (1993), for example, highlights the dancing within the ritual and social context of New Year celebrations and includes footage taken on the only four days of the year when Lahu dancing takes place during the daytime. Yet, in truth, the ethnography never included the study of the dance and its music in any depth.
Recognizing the likelihood that these important cultural practices would soon change beyond recognition, it seemed imperative not only to record but to study and analyze them in ways that would promote understanding of their significance and conserve their present historical form, not only for academic purposes but as an historic resource for future generations of the Lahu Na Shehleh themselves. This is the primary goal of the two papers presented here and the video illustrations that accompany them.
The Project and Its Purpose
This discussion, in part, is about how anthropologist-videographers, who were neither dancers nor musicians, followed their long-term anthropological study of the culture of five Lahu villages in Northern Thailand with a deep, rigorous study of Lahu Na Shehleh dance and its music. Hill and Plath realized that, to understand the cultural significance of the dance and its music, they needed the technical assistance of an ethnomusicologist and an anthropologist of movement and dance (sometimes called an ethnochoreologist; see Ronstrom 1999; Van Zile 1999). Such specialists are scarce, however, as are scholars who specialize in the dance and music of highland minorities in Northern Thailand (for music, see Miller and Williams 2008). None was available to join projects such as this. So Plath and Hill had to learn how to document the dance and music in live performance and bring the recordings back home to an American university setting where specialists could perhaps be persuaded to join in, part time, for a more rigorous analysis.
First to join the research team was Valerie Barske, a graduate student at the time, specializing in Japanese history with a focus on Okinawan dancing and politics (Barske 2009). She had graduate training in the anthropology of human movement with Brenda Farnell, as a component of which she studied the script for writing movement called Labanotation (see Hutchinson 1991; Farnell 1994, 1996; Farnell and Williams 1990). In the first field research for the dance study, Nannaphat Saenghong joined us as an English-Lahu-Thai translator, interviewer, and cultural consultant. She is a member of one of the five Lahu Na Shehleh villages in the study and also an expert Lahu dancer. She was then studying in Maejo University, Chiang Mai.
In the village, throughout all the phases of the study, Ca LaGu (Thai name, Sombat), a Lahu man from one of the villages, whom Hill had known since he was in primary school, served the project as our Lahu-English translator, native culture consultant, and grip to David Plath, anthropologist and filmmaker. Also, during the first phase of the project, five Lahu college students living in Chiang Mai became our dance teachers: Ca Kaw, Ca Lu, Na Law, Na Sui, and Ca Lon.
In 2005, Sarah Mosher, then a graduate student in ethnomusicology, joined the project to transcribe and analyze the dance music. Saenghong, who arrived at the University of Illinois for doctoral study in educational policy studies in the College of Education, continued to work on the project by assisting Mosher in her study of music, teaching her certain key Lahu dances that accompanied the music Mosher had been analyzing. Saenghong took course work in ethnographic research and began developing expertise in photography and videography, both self-taught and by apprenticing with Plath. She supplemented the videography and photos of the two senior anthropologists, Hill and Plath.
After Mosher graduated and departed, Patrick McCall, then an undergraduate in physics, a UIUC band musician, and fluent in German, joined the project to continue translating a German ethnomusicologist’s study of Lahu free-reed mouth organ instruments, the Naws (Schworer 1982). His musical knowledge not only illuminated the musical text of Schworer’s treatise, but he served as our music specialist after Mosher’s departure.
In the fall of 2008, Kate Grim-Feinberg, who was a graduate student in the Anthropology Department, specializing in human movement and children’s learning in the Peruvian Andes, joined the project as our dance and human movement specialist (Grim-Feinberg 2013). Before studying sociocultural anthropology, Kate had trained at professional ballet schools throughout the United States, and she used her dance experience, newly acquired Labanotation skills, and interaction with Saenghong to learn and notate Lahu Na Shehleh dances.
The newest project member, Monica FA W Santos, also a graduate student in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Illinois, studied Labanotation intensively with Brenda Farnell and at the Dance Notation Bureau in New York City as part of her training in the anthropology of human movement and for her dissertation research on ballet dancing in the Philippines. Santos joined the project to continue the movement documentation and analysis when Grim-Feinberg departed to embark on her dissertation fieldwork in Peru in 2010.
Briefly stated, the goals of our project were the following:
Multimedia Project Startup and Phases
The circumstances of the project—especially the fact that we could only film the Lahu dances in daylight four days out of the year—led to a rather complicated timeline for various phases of the work and influenced our selection of methods (see appendix A). Here we describe some highlights of the process, including how we learned from our failures and successes how best to go about this kind of project.
Our first field trip to study the dances and dancing was in the summer of 2004, by necessity a time of the year when the Lahu dance only at night because it is the rainy season in Thailand. Although the single light above the entrance to the dance circle satisfied the dancers’ needs, inadequate lighting posed a gargantuan hurdle to video filming in the night during rainy season, as shown in Figure 1.
Since the dancing and its music were hard, if not impossible, to document under these circumstances, we invited Lahu high school, college, and university students in the nearby city of Chiang Mai to come to our aid during the daytime. On our patio in Chiang Mai, they spent time demonstrating the circular dance formation, body movements, steps, and music (see Figure 2).
In the villages during the daylight, we also conducted interviews and recorded demonstrations with musicians and dancers, as shown in Figure 3.
We did night shoots (filming) of two dances that celebrate the appearance of new rice grains at the CaSuiCa feast, ritual, and dance—an all-night event. In 2004, our first dance specialist, Valerie Barske, was with us in Thailand and able to learn from skilled local practitioners how to perform two Lahu dances. Her initial analysis of this embodied experience gave us a lot of valuable information.
After this 2004 fieldwork, as we began our analysis of the hours of video at the University of Illinois, we learned to our dismay that our filming of the dancers and their feet was neither sufficiently consistent nor long enough to do a valid movement analysis of the dances of men and women in their circle dance!
Later we also learned that we had started our investigation with several wrong-headed questions. For example, we asked how many dances and dance melodies the Lahu Na Shehleh had, only to learn that, although the Lahu have names for some of the steps and may use those terms to refer to a whole dance (cf. Schworer 1982), they do not name their dances. Nor do they count their melodies. Even more challenging was the fact that there is no metadiscourse on the subject; that is, Lahu do not talk, discuss, or comment specifically about the dances, dancing, or music outside the dance event itself, even though the New Year celebrations with its food, visitors, women’s costumes, and the sociality and fun of getting together were often a topic of enthusiastic conversation.
Dances are considered first and foremost participatory events—occasions of great enthusiasm and joyful anticipation, with the passionate embodiment of dancing, eating, greeting, and chatting. Any hopes of doing a discourse analysis of talk about the dance and music turned out to be a nonstarter for this study of movement and sound (see Dougherty and Keller 1982). We had to attend to the activities of music-making and dancing, first and last.
In 2005, we returned to Thailand around the time of the New Year celebrations to create better video footage of the dancers’ movements, while also utilizing the four days of dancing that took place during daylight. In the fall of 2005, however, when an ethnomusicology graduate student, Sarah Mosher, joined the project, she identified a related problem with our recording of the musical sound on those occasions. Mosher could not isolate sustained samples of the musical segments and repeats of the beat sequences for analysis because the lone musician had danced around the circle away from the stationary audio pickup of the video camera!
Undaunted, we returned to the field once again early in 2006 to rerecord the audio data in the context of actual dancing. This time, a local Lahu research assistant, Ca Kaw, followed closely behind or next to the dancing musician holding the video camera and recording the sound as they both moved in the dancing circles.
Through individual interviews and additional recording sessions, we also documented the full dance-music repertoire of two master musicians (a procedure similar to that used in Schworer’s 1970s study of Lahu Naw music (Schworer 1982). This is crucial information because, based on his repertoire, usually a single dancing musician sets the program of the dance-music event or AwHui until succeeded by the next lone dancing musician.
In the summer of 2006, Nannaphat Saenghong, our Lahu dance consultant, came to the United States to enter graduate school at the University of Illinois. In the fall, she began to teach Lahu dances to Mosher, our ethnomusicologist.
Fall 2008 brought us a much needed second dance specialist. We were joined by Kate Grim-Feinberg, an anthropology doctoral student with extensive previous training in Western dance forms such as classical ballet, as well as jazz, modern, character, Spanish, Afro-Caribbean, and other forms of dance often taught at preprofessional ballet schools in the United States. She also had newly acquired expertise in transcribing body movement with Labanotation (see Hutchinson 1991; Farnell 1996; Farnell and Williams 1990).
We decided to set up a visual anthropology experiment after Grim-Feinberg returned from her own summer fieldwork in the Andean mountains of Peru in 2008. We seized this opportunity to address the question of whether one can create an ethnographically valid analysis of danced movement working from video data alone, and then subsequently with a native informant, but without the analyst herself having observed or participated in the live dance events at the field site.
During the fall of 2008, Grim-Feinberg surveyed all the video material that we had on hand, from the earliest to the most recent field trips. She also read several ethnographic articles on the Lahu Na Shehleh to learn something about the cultural context. She found that the video recordings from 2005, when compared with other video footage, were most useful for rigorous movement analysis and for writing or scoring the dances in Labanotation. Not surprisingly, perhaps, these 2005 video records included those shot by Saenghong as she moved and danced among and with the dancers. An indigenous perspective was guiding the camera!
In January 2009, Grim-Feinberg began to work directly with our expert Lahu dancer, Saenghong, learning to enact the dances and working out their choreographic form with her. It was only when she began to work with Saenghong that Grim-Feinburg learned to hum the music as she worked on the step sequences, thereby bridging the academic gap between musical sound and the dance movement that was integrated ethnographically. By mid-semester, Grim-Feinberg added to this the study of the musical materials left by our ethnomusicologist, Mosher, with interpretive assistance from our undergraduate musician assistant, Patrick McCall. This collaboration produced important additional insights into the impressive complexity of Lahu Na Shehleh dance-music.
Musical Transcription and Analysis
In approaching a musical tradition without its own notation system (that is to say, the music is unwritten) Mosher, the ethnomusicologist on the team, was deeply concerned, based on her ethnomusicologist’s training, that transcribing Lahu music in standard Western notation would result in ethnocentric transcriptions that failed to capture the nuances and character of Lahu music (see Farnell 1994). But after trying several alternative procedures, she settled on a very spartan, hand-transcribed version of standard Western musical notation, using a five-line staff that focused on pitch, timing, and phrasing.
Analysis of musical selections from the fifty-eight digital videotapes (varying from twenty minutes to one hour and recorded in 2004, 2005, and 2006) that were played on several different musical instruments revealed that Lahu music is built on repetition of a few short phrases with and without variations, within larger cyclical forms, usually based on a sixteen- or thirty-two-beat cycle (but not always).
Mosher was reluctant to introduce bars to mark measures in the musical notation because of the outsider assumptions they introduce, although much of the music can be counted in simple 4/4 meter. Still, some pieces, she remarked, are better understood in compound duple meter, for example 12/8. Other forms of Lahu music have a rhythmic ‘swing’ that is difficult to capture in standard musical notation, but the dance music is usually extremely steady, continuing at precisely the same tempo throughout a piece of accompanying music.
Melodies usually consisted of four or five tones that fall close to the C-D-E-G or A-B-flat-C-E-F on the Western system of musical scales. However Lahu music also uses some tones that fall between the tones of Western scales, such as half sharps and flats, as well as slides and pitch bends to ornament notes. Moreover, pitch is not standardized in Lahu music. One factor that introduces musical variation is the variety of instruments that are played for an AwHui, each with a different range of pitches and timbres. Even among individual instruments of the same kind, but made by hand from local materials, there are notable differences in their sound production. (See Figure 5 in “AwHui [Dance-Music] and Ethnic Identity . . .” this issue.)
Working only with the music and before learning some of the dances from Saenghong, Mosher faced several problems that led to uncertainties, such as determining the beginning of the cycles and their lengths in beats. For example, in different performances of the same tune, the dancing musician might begin and end at different places within the musical phrase. “Beginnings” were ambiguous in the sound recordings. Musicians repeat their material multiple times, improvising new variations as they play, but each variation is built on the same basic musical idea. Repetition need not be exact for a piece of music to be cyclical, but each cycle must be the same number of beats in length. However, the music for the piece that Mosher identified as “AwHui #1,” sounded very different when played for dances on four different instruments: it was not a single melody adapted to fit different instruments, Mosher decided.
In the recordings (See Figure 1 in previous article, this issue), we see the dancers change their steps without missing a beat, but we cannot yet identify what exactly in the music they hear or what in the dancing of the musician they see, in order to anticipate that the music and dance are about to change. We can only guess that it is probably not one but several kinds of simultaneous cues. Our musical analysis has not yet gone far enough to specify which particular dance phrases and which particular musical sequences make up an AwHui from a Lahu Na Shehleh perspective. In other words, we remain uncertain which music or aspects of the music must go with which dance.
Asking the question “How many melodies are there for the dances?” led to further misunderstandings and contradictions. A more nuanced way of thinking about aural/oral music is that the musical repertoire is based on musical “formulae” (Becker 1972: 47) or “a simple modal system” (Miller 2008: 175). Miller explains that music for the khaen free-reed mouth organ of Northeastern Thailand (as well as Laos), when played by a single musician for women singers, “is improvised, based on lai, a simple modal system [of which there are six] . . . and several basic programmatic pieces also known to all players” (ibid.). As Becker explains, “The basic building block of an oral tradition [in music] is the melodic formula . . . [not a fixed formula, but one] . . . which can be expanded, condensed, or rearranged according to the rules of the situation” (1972: 47; also 1980: 20). In formulaic performance, according to Turino, “a piece is considered a platform for individual playing rather than an object to be faithfully reproduced. [Musical] pieces and dance styles are treated . . . as loose models with associated collections of formulas rather than . . . as closely reproducible items” (2009: 104). According to this conception of oral music, there may be four or five basic pieces, on which formulaic improvisation can multiply into numerous musical pieces. Treated as items to be reproduced closely, the formulaic variations seen through a Western musical lens would be counted as different musical pieces, but Lahu Na Shehleh dancers hear them all as the same melody or, more specifically, as the same dance-music—the same AwHui.
It was only when Mosher began to work with Saenghong on the dances that are associated with the music that she began to clear up many of the puzzling musical ambiguities. For example, the danced movements for Mosher’s AwHui #1 (See Figure 8 in previous article, this issue) were the same despite the “different” music played on three different instruments. Importantly, in the sequences of steps that made up the dance Mosher was learning from Saenghong, she noticed a pause “during which dancers remain stationary while they bend and then straighten their knees.” This pause had been noticed earlier as a “toe raising” by Barske. Later, in the close systematic analysis of more extensive dance recordings by Grim-Feinberg as she worked with Saenghong, the pause proved to be a fundamental organizing feature of the structure of Lahu Na Shehleh dance, as we shall see.
In 2009, Grim-Feinberg and Saenghong analyzed over three hours of Lahu dance videos from the 2004, 2005, and 2006 New Year dances. Figure 5 shows the researchers at work viewing the films in our office and making notes in Labanotation of which patterns were repeated and which had not yet been notated.
However, to enable scholarly discussion and contribute to future teaching of dance-music outside of contexts of participation, we needed to figure out how it all fit together as a system. Due in part to the aforementioned disciplinary divide between music and dancing in Western academia, our greatest challenge has been to describe the relationship between the music and dance in Lahu Na Shehleh AwHui. To transcribe the body movement in the dances, we used the Laban script or Labanotation, a movement writing system invented by Rudolf Laban in 1928 (Hutchinson 1991). This can be applied to the transcription of any system of human movement and is particularly suited to ethnographic transcription and analysis (see Farnell 1994, 1996; Farnell and Williams 1990).
Figure 6. Labanotation Key
A Complete AwHui
Figure 7 shows how we have represented a complete AwHui including both movement and musical notations.
While Labanotation is usually read vertically and musical notation is read horizontally from left to right, this representation shows the movement notation sideways to illustrate the relationship between the dance and music more readily. Here, one sees the close relationship between the cadence of the music and the dance steps. The accent marks shown in orange on the men’s staff (at the bottom in Figure 7) correspond to musical notes and counts. The light accent marks on the women’s staff (in the middle in Figure 7) fall between notes and between counts. The incompatibility between the conventions for horizontal music notation and vertical movement notation means that we must read one or the other sideways, prioritizing either movement or music in a way that does not accurately represent Lahu Na Shehleh concepts of an AwHui as a dance-music unit. We present a compromise that we feel works best for our purposes. The top staff in Figure 7 represents the music, followed by a middle staff that represents women’s dance movements and a bottom staff that represents men’s dance movements. Above the musical staff, we have written counts; above the women’s movement staff, we have written our abbreviation of each women’s step; and below the men’s movement staff are our abbreviations of each men’s step. As discussed in our previous article (this issue), this is an analytical representation of an AwHui and does not correspond to labels that dancers and musicians themselves use. This is an alternative and more complete representation of the phrases shown in Figure 8 in the previous article, which shows AwHui A separated into phrases that are read vertically.
In this horizontal representation, readers can note the timing of the dance steps and music. Numbers for counts and bar lines separating phrases are lined up on all three staffs to show what happens simultaneously in the women’s dance, men’s dance, and music. We have divided phrases based on dance steps and on Saenghong’s indigenous sense of when “the music tells you” to pause. The small circle at the end of each dance phrase (before each bar line on the dance staffs) indicates a brief pause or hesitation, before stepping into the next phrase.
The movement notation clearly demonstrates our discovery that a brief pause or hesitation regularly marks the basic units of the dances as well as the regularity of the cadence of the dance and the musical beats. However, there is no pause in the music notation, since Mosher did not detect the presence of such a pause in the music.
By turning the movement notation back to its usual direction and reading vertically, starting from the bottom, we can begin to follow the body movements more readily. This works better for the movement analysis because the graphic signs and the vertical staff mirror left and right sides of the mover’s own body as progress through time flows upward.
In Figure 8, the vertical staff on the left side shows the women’s steps, and the staff on the right shows the men’s steps. Within each staff, the center line marks the center of the body. Graphic signs to the left side of this center line represent movements made by the left side of the body, and those on the right side represent movements of the right side of the body. The innermost column touching the center line is called the “support column” and represents all weight-bearing movements such as steps of the feet. We have drawn these weight-bearing graphic signs in blue to emphasize the spatial directions in which the dancers move. A close look at the blue signs that are parallel to each other on the women’s and men’s staffs reveals that women’s and men’s steps move generally in the same directions and are closely coordinated. Some of the men’s directional steps are notated in orange as explained below.
The next set of vertical columns, on the left and right sides of each staff but not touching the center line, shows leg gestures. All arm, body, and head movements are shown in columns outside this central staff. As Lahu Na Shehleh dances focus primarily on the lower body, most of the graphic signs in the transcription appear inside the basic staffs.
Stylistic elements of the movements are drawn in green. However, these are included only on the women’s staff because they come from direct work with Saenghong who performs women’s dance expertly but cannot confidently execute the subtle stylistic elements in men’s dancing. While we were able to learn much about men’s steps from watching and imitating movement seen on the videos, we could not discern how to notate men’s stylistic preferences without the interpretive assistance of a male dancer. The green symbols at the bottom of the middle staff in Figure 8 illustrate features of the women’s posture: head and body are straight up, with shoulders back, elbows out to the side, and lower arms slanting down. The green symbols in the women’s leg gesture columns draw attention to how women quickly bend and straighten their knees, an action that causes their costumes to swing back and forth in unison. The movement score, thus, documents this aesthetic element that is of prime importance to Lahu Na Shehleh dancers.
In orange, on the right edge of the women’s staff and the left edge of the men’s staff, we have written the audible accents made by the dancers’ steps that create the music’s cadence. The steps that create these sounds are also notated in orange. Men’s steps create loud, heavy accents, while women’s steps create light accents, as Saenghong and Grim-Feinberg demonstrate for phrase b in Figure 9. Phrase b is the second phrase comprising AwHui A and is also the initial phrase of AwHui C (see Figures 8 and 9 in the previous article, this issue). In Figure 9 below, Saenghong and Grim-Feinberg also illustrate how women’s and men’s steps fit together. Saenghong (wearing slacks) performs the women’s steps, while Grim-Feinberg (in a skirt) performs the men’s steps.
The description of this enterprise and its teamwork demonstrates unquestionably that video filming alone is not sufficient for accurate historical and ethnographic documentation of such cultural phenomena. Too much context and meaning is unavailable in a video record without further information (cf. Williams’s “Survey of Australian Literature on Aboriginal Dancing,” JASHM 18  and ). A close analysis of video is necessary, along with indigenous interpretations, such as those provided by an expert dance consultant. These are the conditions under which the movement can be transcribed from the mover’s perspective into an ethnographically valid score.
We suggest that this approach and these measures may be used by other scholars, as well as anthropological ethnographers, who are not trained to study cultural activities such as dance and music, to translate the culture complexes, threatened with irrevocable change, into scholarly terms that document its historical existence.
Dougherty, Janet and Charles Keller
Brenda and Drid Williams
Miller, Terry E. and Sean Williams
David and Jacquetta Hill
Van Zile, Judy
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