From the Journal for the Anthropological Study of Human Movement Vol. 26, Issue 2.
Under the Influence of Dr. Drid Williams: A Tribute

As an undergraduate dance major at Sarah Lawrence College, I became aware of an area of study called dance anthropology. While spending much of my time studying dance and choreography, I also enjoyed several anthropology courses and wrote a paper for an Asian studies professor on the use of dance in Communist China’s propaganda machine. This professor alerted me to the possibility of combining my interest in contemporary dance in America with my interest in the dance cultures of China. This drew me to the New York University graduate program in dance education, which included a unique offering in dance anthropology taught by a Professor Drid Williams.

My first encounter with Drid in 1980 was in her small, smoke-filled office near Washington Square, surrounded by books and papers. In her husky voice and through her heavy glasses, she quickly made it evident that she meant business, that she had her own unique perspective on dance and anthropology, and that I would be the wiser for joining her program and learning about her original way of viewing these areas of study. Her remarkably insightful and scholarly approach to the complexity of human movement intrigued me most. The fact that Drid had been a dancer and choreographer herself, and then went on to pursue anthropology at Oxford University, opened a door to something for which I was not even quite sure I had been longing. She offered a way to investigate and explain dances and dancing – the language of human movement – in an intellectually rigorous way.

The anthropology for human movement program that Drid designed included its own organization, the Society for the Anthropological Study of Human Movement (SASHM), with frequent Friday-night lectures, hosting visiting scholars, intradepartmental symposiums, and its own publication, the Journal for the Anthropological Study of Human Movement (JASHM). Our small and dedicated community of Drid acolytes included Brenda Farnell, Rajika Puri, Dixie Durr, Diana Hart-Johnson, Lynn Martin, Ed Myers, and Prof. Charles Varela, as well as professors from Oxford and other distinguished institutions.

I don’t recall the exact names of the courses we took with Drid, but many instances in class remain fresh in my mind. Drid had a very compelling and focused energy about her. She was fiercely loyal to her students as long as they exhibited intellectual loyalty and hard work. One of the earliest papers I remember writing was on my “personal anthropology,” based on the insights of British anthropologist David Pocock (1973, 1977) as well as the concept of “personal knowledge” espoused by the Hungarian-British scholar Michael Polanyi in his book of the same name (1962). Although I was a professional dancer and emerging choreographer at the time, I was suddenly struck by my own lack of self-awareness within the context of my own cultural narrative. That assignment was a personal touchstone for me, and it helped me to have a better grasp of the readings Drid assigned. As with all good ethnographic training, it became obvious that we must begin with a heightened degree of self-knowledge. She invited us, indeed insisted, that we must have an informed grasp of our own curiosities, perceptions, and understandings. We needed to cultivate a deeper awareness of our own experiences and biases to be sensitively observant of others.

Drid taught social anthropology through the works of Durkheim, Evans-Pritchard, Geertz, Douglas, and others. We explored structuralism through the lens of Levi-Strauss, and phenomenology via the perspective of Merleau-Ponty. Because of her understanding of dance as a unique form analogous to spoken language, Drid also introduced us to structural linguistics and the works of De Saussure and Chomsky. These theoretical texts were challenging, enlightening, and sometimes frustrating because they required close and deep reading. Since so little of academic value had been written on the dance and human movement from an anthropological perspective, we were on the front lines with Drid, and we did, in some sense, feel like her collaborators. She invited us into a heady world of innovative scholarship. Drid coined the phrase “semasiology of human movement,” the conveying of information by means of human sign systems based on systems of belief. This perspective on all forms of human movement in different cultural contexts shed light on a profound way to perceive, describe, and analyze the scope of human gesture and physical expression.

Drid was also a firm believer in the importance of Labanotation to document human movement with accuracy across history and cultures. Although I only had a novice’s ability to read and interpret Labanotation, its value as a sign system to capture movement became obvious to me.

By the second year of this remarkable graduate program, we were required to identify the topic of our MA thesis. Drid encouraged me to pursue my interests in dance in China and, with the help of friends and family who were immersed in Chinese studies, I chose to focus my thesis work on minority dance traditions in China. Throughout the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), the People’s Republic of China utilized mass-dance ensembles to promote Maoist propaganda, and ballets were choreographed to celebrate heroes of the Chinese revolution. In the 1950s and ‘60s, a new a new national campaign was inaugurated to collect data and exchange ideas with the fifty-five minority cultures situated within the borders of China. This enormous government project was meant to educate the Han majority to the unique attributes of China’s minority cultures but was abruptly halted during the Cultural Revolution. In 1976, this national project was reinstated but with more emphasis on preserving minority culture after it had been pressured to disappear during the Culture Revolution. This new focus, while placating and pacifying the minority communities themselves, was a form of propaganda unto itself by way of transforming the dances into a form more appealing to the majority Han culture and the political interests of the communist Party. The breadth and scope of this endeavor seemed like an incredible opportunity to use the ethnographic resources of social anthropology and semasiology that Drid had introduced to me.

Studying with Drid was eye-opening from the start, and with every new semester I was caught up in the richness of the subject matter and density and challenge of the readings. The hardest part for me was the level of writing required. Drid considered each of her dance graduate students to be budding scholars and required that we write like scholars. With her Oxford PhD, she took pride in high standards of scholarly writing. I recall learning what a précis was for the first time when she insisted that we all write with more accuracy and economy. After a two-month trip to China in the fall of 1983, during which I visited several dance academies and interviewed over fifty people involved with this government campaign, I finally began to write my final thesis. Titled “The Collection, Preservation, and Dissemination of Minority Dance in the People’s Republic of China,” it took me over two years of hard work with Drid at my side to complete the 147 pages.

Figure 1. Holly Fairbank and Drid Williams at the Hong Kong Conference in celebration of Drid Williams’s eightieth birthday in 2008. See JASHM special issue, 16 (1 and 2).

In 2008, Brenda Farnell chaired a conference in Hong Kong, “Body Movement and Dance in Global Perspective: An International Conference,” to celebrate Drid’s eightieth birthday, where I was honored to present my research. It gave me a chance to see Drid again after twenty-five years and rejoin the fascinating conversation that she had generated at NYU. As a result of that conference, Frank He (He Guoqiang), a professor of anthropology at Sun Yat-Sen University, heard about my work and offered to translate my MA thesis into Mandarin and have it published by Yunnan University Press. A year later I was honored to have Drid write an introduction to that book, in which she states:

Scholars and devotees of the dance are used to the fact that their activities and interests are, on the whole, “invisible” to the large majority of people, few are aware of the fact that government policies, vividly documented in this book, altered entire aspects of the cultures of those whose dances were chosen. Government initiatives have enormous consequences.

      That a Westerner was fortunate enough to be able to identify the enormity of the Chinese program speaks to the divisions recently felt between East and West, for the Chinese themselves would never have been allowed to reflect on their own danced practices at the time, and many of them were suspicious of Fairbank doing so. Nevertheless, the job was finally done.

      The book is, of course, extremely valuable solely as a scholarly document, for it enumerates the knowledge, complex skills and sophistication necessary to undertake the preservation of the dances of any culture. Not that much is known about the academic side of the dance professions and this thesis is a monument to scholarly efforts of a kind unknown in other types of research. (Williams 2010: 3)

Figure 2. The cover of The Collection, Preservation,and Dissemination of Minority Dance in the People’s Republic of China by Holly Fairbank.

Years later, as a longtime professional arts educator, I can attest that Drid still sits on my shoulder and reminds me to have confidence, to reach deeper, and to articulate my thoughts concisely. Her unwavering support, her brilliant approach to understanding human movement, her fierce and rigorous scholarship, and her loyal friendship have inspired me from that first day. She encouraged me to go much further in research, writing, and the pursuit of knowledge than I ever thought possible. I remain forever indebted and willingly under the influence of Dr. Drid Williams.

References Cited:

Pocock, David

1973. The Idea of a Personal Anthropology. Paper presented at the Decentenial Conference of the Association of Social Anthropologists (ASA).

1977. Social Anthropology. 2nd ed. London: Sheed & Ward. Originally published in 1961.

Polanyi, Michael

1962. Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Williams, Drid

2010. Introduction. In The Collection, Preservation, and Dissemination of Minority Dance in the People’s Republic of China by Holly Fairbank (trans. He Guoqiang). Yunnan: Yunnan University Press.