Dr. Drid Williams changed my life in significant ways, and I am grateful for the opportunity to acknowledge them on this occasion. In 1980, when I began studies in her anthropology of human movement master’s degree program at New York University, I had recently decided to discontinue a performance career in dance and was searching for my next direction.
Prior to entering Dr. Williams’s program formally and to identify what was of most interest and worthwhile for me to pursue in depth, I took courses at NYU as a nonmatriculated student. Following my lifelong interest in languages, I took courses in linguistics, American Sign Language, and one of Dr. Williams’s courses in social and cultural anthropology. It did not take long for me to realize that her approach to the investigation of human action sign systems would encompass many facets of my sustained interest in both dance and languages. It provided a means to integrate what I thought were disparate concerns but which turned out to be closely related.
Having danced for a number of years in Martha Graham’s American modern dance company, I welcomed the chance to examine my understanding of that dance idiom in a larger context, through a lens that validated and honored its relation to the human capacity for language. This was intuitively how I regarded Martha Graham technique and performance, but I did not have a theoretical framework within which to examine it.
In my MA thesis, I examined both Graham’s technique and American Sign Language (ASL) by means of a structural comparison, finding that both systems contain specific, basic building blocks that define them as unique entities. ASL is, of course, comparable to any spoken language, having the same linguistic components but in a visual/spatial mode of expression rather than oral. I found that Graham’s technique also has defining structural components, the presence of which is necessary for the dancing to be called by that name.
On this journey, I was also led to reframe my views of other familiar dance idioms, among which I will mention ballet. In addition to recognizing its structural basis, I forever altered my view of the cultural “other” after reading Joann Keali’inohomoku’s 1969 article “An Anthropologist Looks at Ballet as a Form of Ethnic Dance” (JASHM 1: 83-97), among many readings. It became impossible to regard any one danced idiom as a standard against which others are to be measured. The word ‘ethnic’ now related to ‘me and my people’ as much as to any other group of people and their artistic works.
These studies reinforced my perception that neither danced idioms nor spoken and signed languages can be universally understood. After many years, it finally became clear to me why I had felt ill-at-ease each time I read the slogan spanning the outdoor stage at my high school, the Interlochen Arts Academy: “Dedicated to the Promotion of World Friendship Through the Universal Language of the Arts.” While I shall be forever grateful for my excellent preparation in dance performance there, at a young age I already knew that the arts, while perhaps a universal phenomenon, are about as universally understood as the roughly 6,500 spoken languages of our planet, which is to say that they are not!
I had personal experience of this during the Martha Graham State Department tour in 1974. Among the many great opportunities this tour provided was a trip to Bali on our day off, when those of us who took the trip participated in a cultural exchange with students at a Balinese dance academy. Unrehearsed, barefoot, in shorts, and on a concrete outdoor surface, we danced excerpts from a Graham performance repertoire standard “Diversion of Angels.” Later, in return, we were treated to a traditional Balinese dance performance. Witnessing their ornate costumes, emphasis on hand and finger movements, and the unexpected (to me) wringing of a baby chick’s neck at my feet, I had absolutely no understanding of what I saw. It occurred to me that the Balinese dancers must have experienced the same while watching us dance.
Structural differences in the dances were somewhat easier to identify, for example, the treatment of gravity. We consistently attempted to defy gravity with leaps and lifts, while the Balinese seemed to accept it and remain in contact with the ground. Importantly, however, the meaning of those differences remained a mystery. On a separate occasion, during the same tour, I was able to enjoy a very formal performance of Kabuki in Tokyo. Once again, with no background knowledge, I did not understand the meaning of what I saw, although I greatly appreciated the beauty of the performance. Program notes provided only marginal explanations of certain aspects.
After completing my graduate studies with Dr. Williams, I chose to work with children as a teacher, choreographer, and program specialist in the areas of dance, literacy, music composition, script writing, and costume design. The context was an afterschool program and summer camp run by the Center for Family Life, a social service agency in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. Working in a neighborhood populated primarily by Latino and Chinese residents, I was acutely aware that I had no knowledge of the traditional forms of dance known to many who lived there and that what I had to offer came from my own background in Western idioms of modern dance, ballet, and creative movement. In addition, my knowledge of current popular forms of dance in the United States of the 1980s and 1990s was sorely lacking. Over time, I came to know and incorporate a few forms of dance that were familiar to the population I served but never pretended that what I had to offer was anything other than what it was. I did speak Spanish, which aided greatly in communication with, and acceptance by, the community. Unfortunately, I did not learn to speak Mandarin or Cantonese.
Subsequently, after eighteen years, I moved back to my home state of Michigan and taught both dance and Spanish language classes in public schools for another eighteen years. I discovered that the Spanish I had spoken in New York, based on Puerto Rican and Dominican Spanish, was quite different from the Mexican Spanish spoken by heritage speakers who often ended up in my high school classes (for reasons that were difficult to understand, since they spoke Spanish already). This led to some interesting exchanges about differences in vocabulary and idiomatic expressions. Most of my students, who spoke little Spanish, were particularly interested in our explorations of idiomatic expressions in languages like Danish, French, Polish, English, Spanish, Swedish, Portuguese, Japanese, Russian, Finnish, German, Czech, Italian, Dutch and Thai!
In schools with younger students, I expanded my dance teaching to include “folk dances” from various countries in addition to the United States and Mexico, providing whatever explanations and information about them that I could learn. I thought that, by doing so, I could provide a small opportunity for youngsters at an early age to broaden their view and experience of the world.
My anthropological studies with Dr. Williams forever broadened my own worldview past the provincial setting of my youth and early education in the midwestern United States. I was intellectually equipped to live with a greater appreciation for, and acceptance of, the vast variety in our human family. If a course in social and cultural anthropology were a standard inclusion in the public education of our youth, it might provide an impetus toward remediating the preponderance of ignorance and intolerance in our world. I am very grateful and lucky to have known Dr. Williams, who blazed a trail for everyone who wishes to gain greater understanding of our human family.