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Andrée Grau and the Power of Dance

Georgiana Gore

Figure 1
Andrée Grau in Astana, Kazakhstan, July 2015. She attended the 2015 International Conference on Traditional Music (ICTM) World Conference. Photo by Georgiana Gore.

For Andrée Grau (1953–2017), the field in which she worked was 'the anthropology of dance,' and not 'dance anthropology,' despite some early articles in which she used the latter expression (Grau 1993). She thus defended the idea that this was a subfield of anthropology, rather than a subfield of dance studies. Andrée Grau must be remembered, therefore, as an anthropologist of dance,1 all the more so because this was the title that she chose for her professorship at the University of Roehampton, in keeping with the British tradition of the appointee selecting her own academic identity.

     Throughout her life, Andrée held steadfastly to a belief in the power of dance but also in that of the human spirit more broadly. These convictions were rendered most evident in the last published writing before her untimely death, "Why People Dance—Evolution, Sociality and Dance" (Grau 2016). Her starting point in this carefully argued paper were the thoughts and writings of her mentor and Ph.D. supervisor John Blacking, who, at the time that she began her studies with him in 1977, vigorously promoted the idea that dancing was central to human sociality and, in evolutionary terms, no doubt prior to both walking and talking.2 Indeed, in the collection of articles translated from English for the Centre National de la Danse publication Anthropologie de la Danse: Genèse et Construction d'une Discipline that Andrée and I edited (Grau and Wierre-Gore 2005), it was not one of Blacking's ethnographic writings on the Venda that she chose to include but his lesser-known article "Dance, Conceptual Thought and Production in the Archaeological Record" (1976), which was closer to her own deeply held convictions about relations between human cognitive and aesthetic capabilities. At the time we were working on the project, I was puzzled by her selection, as it was to this South African population that Blacking had sent Andrée in 1979 to undertake field work for her M.A. in social anthropology and ethnomusicology at the Queen's University Belfast (see Grau 1980). Her brief, as a recently graduated Benesh notator, was to record the dance movements of the Venda, whose music Blacking had studied in the 1950s (Blacking 1969a, b). In the end, it has not been to Blacking's study of the Venda that Andrée has made a significant contribution but to his insightful idea that dance is a "primary modelling system, by which any human action may be constituted" (Blacking 1984: 4), encompassing "an innate, species-specific set of cognitive and sensory capacities which human beings are predisposed to use for communication and making sense of the environment" (Blacking 1984: 6). In this last of her published articles, Andrée pursues Blacking's line of argument about the evolutionary significance of the dance to demonstrate through three examples from different cultures how dance as a "special type of relationality . . . can at time[s] bring a heightened sense of consciousness" (Grau 2016: 249).

     In keeping with her strong political views and her belief in equity, grounded perhaps in her upbringing in the linguistic and cultural diversity of Switzerland, Andrée was a vigorous defender of minority rights and the subaltern. This led to a fascination with the politically motivated choreographic and other work of the Sarabhai family, an article about whom appears in this issue. Andrée first encountered this Indian family, spanning three generations of dancers and choreographers, during her research in the 1980s on the Pan project, the Leverhulme-funded "Inter-Cultural Performing Arts Research Project."3 As Brenda Farnell mentions in the editorial introduction to this issue, a posthumous book on the family by Andrée is in the process of completion for future publication.

     While the projects Andrée led with colleagues—on "South Asian Dance in Britain: Negotiating Cultural Identity through Dance" (SADiB), and for the Arts and Humanities Research Council Research Centre for Cross-Cultural Music and Dance Performance—enabled her to meet numerous actors of the South Asian dance scene at home and abroad, the artistic and, above all, political commitment of the Sarahbais captured her imagination. The Sarabhais, thus, became a means for Andrée to examine a number of key contemporary issues, which in some way or other have touched upon the political, especially as this family has been involved in dance arts throughout India's recent history, from colonial rule through independence to the current postcolonial context. Wanting to disrupt the conventional, academically sterile representations of the power relations between colonizer and colonized, between the dancer as object of study and the anthropological gaze, in this unfinished manuscript Andrée grapples with questions of representation, racism, power relationships, multiculturalism, and globalization. This research, moreover, breaks new ground in that, while the Sarabhais have always campaigned militantly for democracy and for improved conditions for minorities, be they gender, ethnic, or other, they nonetheless belong to the Indian cosmopolitan elite, a group rarely studied by anthropologists. If only in this, the book should be an important contribution to an anthropology of elites.4

     It is, however, somewhat ironic perhaps, but also a loss to the field, that a book on the Sarabhais will, it would seem, be Andrée's legacy rather than one based on her long-standing research interest in Tiwi dance. While Andrée was by no means the first to work in Aboriginal Australia, in the late 1970s she was the first to focus on dance, then still an exotic topic for anthropology. To understand Tiwi dance, she was obliged to gain an in-depth knowledge of kinship relations and their dynamics, one of the two original foci of the discipline, the other being religion. Kinship—not the most exciting anthropological topic, at least for the younger scholar today perhaps—comes alive in Andrée's work when one learns that a movement of the shoulder represents 'mother-in-law'; that of the leg, 'a sibling'; and the big toe, 'the husband.' Fortunately Andrée has left us with a significant body of work on Tiwi dance (1992b, 1993, 1998a, 1998b, 2000, 2001a, 2001b, 2003, 2005), which no doubt merits compilation into a single volume.

     In conclusion, mention must be made of Andrée's curiosity, wit, and sense of humor, which have made collaborating with her over the years great fun as well as academically productive. These qualities may be gleaned from the title of her article "Figure Skating and the Anthropology of Dance: The Case of Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin" (Grau 2010). In this paper, she addresses serious issues such as exoticization and internalized racism through a case study of the Russian skaters Domnina and Shabalin's choreography of an 'Australian Aboriginal Dance'—their original routine for the 2010 European skating championships and Olympics. The routine "offended Aboriginal elders who made a complaint to the Russian ambassador" (Grau 2010: 39). This unlikely scenario becomes Grau's pretext for exploring other less-obvious issues than those of contested ownership with a creativity that is the hallmark of her authorship and that will be missed by all those who have known and read her work.


1 Appointed as senior research fellow at Roehampton in 1993 to a half-time position, she took up a full-time senior lectureship in 1997 and became professor of the anthropology of dance in 2009.

2 Blacking expressed these ideas enthusiastically in talks he gave during the mid-1970s, one of which I attended at the University of Keele when I was undertaking my doctoral studies there. He most convincingly demonstrated that the balancing act of walking, which takes children several years to master, must have developed after the rhythmic forward thrust of "proto-dancing," which, he surmised, our ancestors performed.

3 The project's aim was to research "interculturalism" in the performing arts by studying the Pan project, a multicultural performance group, made up of professional actors, dancers, and musicians. While, on the one hand, the Pan project explored traditional performance genres, it also aimed to develop a style of integrated theater, which would be both interdisciplinary and intercultural, thus contributing to the cultural heritage of contemporary Britain. Andrée's role was to document these processes of artistic cross-fertilization and the dynamics of artistic interaction, but her work came to focus equally on the social interaction that conditioned the former. See Grau 1990 and 1992a.

4 This section is based on my readings of early versions of chapters for the book and discussions with Andrée about its content. It was part of my response to Andrée's inaugural professorial lecture given on February 22, 2010.

References Cited:

Blacking, John
1969a. Songs, Dances, Mimes and Symbolism of Venda Girls' Initiation Schools, Part I Vhusha. African Studies 28(1): 3–36.
1969b. Songs, Dances, Mimes and Symbolism of Venda Girls' Initiation Schools, Part 2 Milayo. African Studies 28(2): 69–118
1976. Dance, Conceptual Thought and Production in the Archaeological Record. In Problems in Economic and Social Archaeology (ed. G. de G. Sieveking, I. H. Longworth, and K. E. Wilson). London: Duckworth: 3–13.
1984. Dance as Cultural System and Human Capability: An Anthropological Perspective. In Dance: A Multicultural Perspective (ed. Janet Adshead). Guildford, UK: National Resource Centre for Dance: 2–21.

Grau, Andrée
1980. Some Problems in the Analysis of Dance Style with Special Reference to the Venda of South Africa. Unpublished Master's Thesis. The Queen's University Belfast.
1990. Interculturalisme Dans Les Arts du Spectacle. In La Danse, Art du XXe siècle? (ed. Jean-Yves Pidoux). Lausanne, CH: Payot: 343–55.
1992a. Intercultural Research in the Performing Arts. Dance Research 10(2): 3–29.
1992b. Les Danses Rituelles Tiwi. Cahiers de Musiques Traditionelles 5: 205–16.
1993. Gender Interchangeability among the Tiwi. In Dance, Gender, and Culture (ed. Helen Thomas). London: Macmillan: 94–111.
1998a. Danse et 'Pensée' Symbolique: Danser la Parenté Chez les Tiwi de l'Australie du Nord. In Sociopoétique de la Danse [Sociopoetic of the Dance] (ed. Alain Montandon). Paris: Anthropos: 15–26.
1998b. On the Acquisition of Knowledge: Teaching Kinship through the Body among the Tiwi of Northern Australia. In Knowing Oceania: Constituting Knowledge and Identities (ed. Verena Keck). Oxford: Berg Publishers: 71–94.
2000. Land, Body, and Poetry: An Integrated Aesthetic among the Tiwi. In Oxford Companion to Aboriginal Art and Culture. Oxford: Oxford University Press: 356–61.
2001a. Ritual Dance and 'Modernisation': The Tiwi Example. Yearbook for Traditional Music 33: 72–81.
2001b. Tiwi Catholicism: Dance and Religious Syncretism among a Northern Aboriginal People. In Faith in the Millennium (ed. S. Porter, M. A. Hayes, and D. Tombs). Sheffield, UK: Sheffield Academic Press: 468–80.
2003. Tiwi Dance Aesthetics. Yearbook for Traditional Music 35: 175–80.
2005. When the Landscape Becomes Flesh: An Investigation into Body Boundaries with Special Reference to Tiwi Dance and Western Classical Ballet. Body and Society 11(4): 141–63.
2010 . Figure Skating and the Anthropology of Dance: The Case of Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin. Anthropological Notebooks 16(3): 39–59.
2016. Why People Dance: Evolution, Sociality and Dance. Dance, Movement and Spiritualities 2(3): 233–54.

Grau, Andrée and Georgiana Wierre-Gore
2005. Anthropologie de la Danse: Genèse et Construction d'une Discipline. Paris: Centre National de la Danse (collection recherches).




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