Printer-friendly format  Article citation        


Editorial Introduction

Brenda Farnell

One of the distinct advantages of an online publication is the editorial potential to include richly illustrated articles at no additional cost. Aesthetic considerations aside, each contribution to this issue can enrich the reader's understanding in specific ways through a wide variety of visual and audio-visual materials. These allow one to view cultural actors in their respective local performance spaces and soundscapes, share vital moments in the analytic process, and gain access to archival photographs, video clips, and graphic illustrations that provide additional supporting evidence.

     This attention to the visual is not unimportant for our subject matter—the anthropological study of human movement—since the study of human activities in their cultural contexts involves primarily visual-kinesthetic modes of action, expression, and communication, focused as we are on the signifying acts and signifying bodies who are the agents of its production (Williams 2003). That said, each author in this issue also recognizes a sine qua non in semasiological research—that what cannot be seen is an equally important component of the interpretation of meaning. To put this in Saussurian terms, the "signifier," as the visible component of any action sign, is inseparable from the "signified"—the nonobservable symbolic and/or indexical meanings that afford cultural significance.

     We see this at work with especial clarity in Valerie Barske's detailed attention to the action signs of an Okinawan dance, which provide an entrée into insightful understandings of contemporary Okinawan political activism, colonialism, memory, emotional trauma, and gendered binaries. These topics are well supported with historical evidence and the author's detailed knowledge and experience of the language and culture.

     Barske's research also illustrates how such complex layers of meaning can only be ascertained through detailed ethnographic investigation. As Kate Grim-Feinberg and Monica Santos put it, "[T]he researcher must identify the movements as ‘signifying acts' … interpreting the semantic content from the moving person's point of view." One crucial resource for achieving this ethnographic accuracy and analytic rigor is the use of a movement writing system. Following Farnell (1994, 1996), Grim-Feinberg and Santos state the matter succinctly:

We argue that human movement notation is a valuable tool for documenting and interpreting culturally specific meanings of human movement and human movement systems. Although film, sound recording, and still photography are useful research aids for these kinds of studies, the ethnographic analysis of human movement requires data and knowledge that can only be obtained from direct observation of the movements (and, when plausible, learning the actions themselves) as these are performed within their culturally prescribed spatial context, complemented by direct inquiries to the movers about the intent and meaning of their actions …. A major anthropological factor here is that the graphic signs [of Labanotation] are written from the point of view of the mover (that is, the person who is moving) and can take into account the "intent" of the movement.

From its outset, JASHM has served as a regular venue for theoretical discussions of movement literacy and Labanotation (see Durr 1981; Farnell 2002; Williams 1982, 1996; and a special issue of JASHM 19(2), [2012]), as well as ethnographic applications of Labanotation in numerous articles that include examples of movement data.

     Grim-Feinberg and Santos add their field research experiences to this literature, demonstrating that an investigator does not need to produce a lengthy movement score of an entire dance or performance event to find Labanotation useful when conducting research. Knowledge of the graphic signs provides conceptual resources to think with and make notes as the authors observe and/or participate in various activities. Their examples also illustrate how processes of data analysis become more rigorous as a result of their movement literacy. And presentation of their research finds new outlets, as the authors' creative use of color coding and simplified descriptions facilitated sharing with nonliterate consultants. While some choices involve departures from standard usage of Labanotation as defined by those who administer the system,1 we make no apology for this. The strategy is directly analogous to ways in which linguists of spoken languages who study variations in accent, dialect, and non-Western languages depart from standard orthographies and grammars in order to transcribe more accurately what speakers actually say. Likewise, in the writing of non-Western movement forms, wherein concepts of the body itself, space-time, and significance vary enormously, ethnographic accuracy can require creative departures from ethnocentric concepts of a "standard."

     Finally, I am very pleased to recognize that, for the first time in JASHM, all three contributors obtained their PhD training in the anthropology of human movement in the Department of Anthropology, University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, thereby establishing a second generation of specialists since Drid Williams initiated an MA degree in the subject at New York University in 1979.


1. I refer to the International Council of Kinetography Laban/Labanotation (ICKL) ( and the Dance Notation Bureau (DNB) (

References Cited:

Durr, Dixie
1981. Labanotation: Language or Script? JASHM 1(3): 132–38.

Farnell, Brenda
1994. Ethno-graphics and the Moving Body. MAN, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 29(4): 929–74.
1996. Movement Writing Systems. In The World's Writing Systems (Ed. P. Daniels and W. Bright). Oxford: Oxford University Press: 855–79.
2002. Notating Indigenous Conceptions of Action and Space. JASHM 12(2): 1–13.

Williams, Drid
1982. On the Dance: A Reply to Margolis' Ideas about the Autographic Nature of the Dance. JASHM 2(2): 54–70.
1996. The Credibility of Movement Writing. JASHM 9(2): 65–80.
2003. Signifying Bodies, Signifying Acts: New Ways of Thinking About Human Movement. Manuscript from author.
2004. Anthropology and the Dance: Ten Lectures. 2d ed. Champaign: University of Illinois Press.


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.
© 2015 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
Terms and Conditions of Use.