“Working with movement isn’t like working with words or color, or stone or paint, sound or clay. Somebody once said that ‘color’, sound, stone and movement are natural elements, but I say no to that. Nobody’s movement is ‘natural’ except for a few weeks maybe, after they’re born. The movements of the winds are natural and we don’t create them, but the moves we make all the time aren’t like wind, except metaphorically, because human beings have conceptions of moving. Like words (but not the same as words), gestures and acts/actions are the creations of people and of groups of people – and they are above all language-tied.”
Drid Williams, Beyond Survival (1998: 117)
This issue of JASHM is the second of two memorial issues that celebrate the life and work of our founding editor Dr. Drid Williams, who died on October 26, 2018, at the age of ninety.Her extraordinary dedication, intellectual tenacity, generosity as a teacher and mentor and her undaunted courage to become the master her own life are reflected in her 1999 autobiography Beyond Survival, from which I have quoted above.
The first memorial issue (JASHM 26) described Dr. Williams’s theoretical contributions to anthropology and the philosophy of the social sciences; specifically, her vision of an embodied ‘anthropology of human movement’ and the subsequent creation of semasiology – a semiotically grounded theory that could support such a broad scope of inquiry. In this issue, we consider Dr. Williams’s distinctive contributions as an extraordinary teacher and mentor. We are delighted to present remembrances and tributes from several of her former students, each in his or her own way attesting to her remarkable and insightful pedagogical skills and subsequent influence on her students’ varied lives and careers.
A dedicated and effective mentor, Drid Williams made the Oxford tutorial method her own, working individually and intensively to develop each student’s critical thinking skills, as well as advance his or her academic reading and writing abilities. Her regular use of précis exercises and weekly five-page papers, combined with multiple opportunities for constructive feedback in regular one-on-one tutorial settings, provided the ideal means for students to grow intellectually and to progress in academics steadily, systematically, and confidently. The latter was not unimportant for those of us who arrived with extensive dance and movement training but little academic preparation for graduate studies!
Dr. Williams later made some aspects of this effective pedagogical strategy available to a wider audience by publishing two edited volumes in a series called Reading Studies in the Anthropology of Human Movement. Volume 1, The Study of Dances (1997) presented extracts from a range of exemplary anthropological contributions to understanding dances, dancers, and dancing in their cultural contexts. This was followed by Volume 2, Searching for Origins (2000), which tackled a number of thorny issues relating to conceptions of time and history, as well as objectivity and the basic structure of sound academic argument.
In 2008-9, Dr. Williams worked with the University of Illinois Department of Anthropology to develop a distance-learning course in the anthropology of the dance and human movement for graduate students without prior anthropology training. A videotaped introduction to the subject survives and can be viewed here. Dr. Williams, age eighty, utilizes the concept of ‘greetings’ to defamiliarize the familiar. She engages the viewer’s intellect right away, using gestures to illustrate the core concept of cultural differences in ‘dynamically embodied knowledge.’
A necessary starting point for Dr. Williams’s teaching was David Pocock’s idea of a ‘personal anthropology,’ a concept she had encountered when studying social anthropology at Oxford University (See Williams 1976). This entrée provided a crucial pathway for learning how to transcend ethnocentric assumptions and beliefs. In accord with new notions of objectivity in the philosophy of science in the 1960s and ‘70s, Dr. Williams found this to be the most efficient way to teach students how to begin to think anthropologically by becoming aware of their own cultural as well as personal biases. As all her former students who have contributed to this issue attest, this strategy was truly transformative, opening up entirely new worlds and ways of thinking about one’s own cultural positioning, because it required not only reflective thought but also critically reflexive thinking on an ongoing basis, as a fundamental way of being-in-the-world (see Varela 1994).
Dr. Williams also made sure that her students were sufficiently familiar with metatheoretical modes of critical thinking in the social sciences and philosophy to situate semasiology accurately and defend it against long-held, outdated theories of the human being and the moving person, such as Cartesianism, behaviorism, and evolutionism, which distort or deny fundamental features such as agency, embodied personhood, causality, and action. She herself exemplified, and was in effect calling for, the systematic education of anthropologists in the philosophy of science within their own departments. To this day, however, that appears to be nowhere in sight.
Each contributor to this issue has been influenced by Dr. Williams in profound but different ways. Each student was a unique individual with different interests, goals, and aspirations; there was no one-size-fits-all, and it is a fine testament to Dr. Williams’s approach to mentoring that we all chose different career paths following our master’s degrees at New York University (1979-84) or the University of Sydney (1987-93). For example, JoAnne Page went on to complete a PhD in linguistics with a focus on Australian Sign Language and movement transcription; Jennifer Farrell completed her PhD in religious studies with a new understanding of ritual practice in the Australian church, including a full Labanotation score; Rajika Puri expanded her career as a professional Bharatanatyam dancer exploring similarities and differences with Flamenco and developing choreographic innovations with these idioms; Holly Fairbank’s MA thesis was translated into Mandarin and published in China, while she continued her career as a modern-dance choreographer, as well as moving into arts administration at the Lincoln Center Archives in New York City. Diana Hart chose to utilize her newly acquired anthropological worldview in a variety of public-school settings and afterschool multicultural arts programs, while Lynn Martin completed a BS in psychology and continued to advance research in the practice of Ideokinesis, combining this with additional techniques for breathing coordination.
I would be remiss here not to include brief mention of our dear colleague and friend Dixie Durr, a core member of the New York group who passed away on September 2, 2007, after a long battle with cancer. After completing a Master’s at New York University with Dr. Williams, Dixie transformed her teaching of the history of dance at Michigan State University (MSU). She later completed a doctoral degree in education, prior to becoming chair of the Department of Theater at MSU. Dixie was in many ways the cornerstone of that program and its development over thirty years, and there is now a rich archive of Dixie Durr Papers at MSU.
This author went on to complete a PhD in cultural and linguistic anthropology at Indiana University, where I embarked upon long-term ethnographic engagements with Indigenous Peoples of the Northern Plains of North America. My doctoral research built upon the Plains Sign Language study that began with my NYU Master’s thesis and has since developed into several collaborative projects with Monique Mojica and other Indigenous performance artists of the Chocolate Woman Collective based in Toronto. My own contribution to honoring Dr. Williams’s life and legacy will follow in a forthcoming book about semasiology and Drid Williams’s seminal contributions to understanding human movement through an anthropological lens.
This issue of JASHM begins with Holly Fairbank’s essay, which describes what it was like to study with Dr. Williams and the effects of encountering the concept of a “personal anthropology,” a theme that runs through all the papers. This is followed by JoAnne Page’s contribution, which introduces Dr. Williams’s teaching in Australia and documents the significant role her expertise in Lulu Sweigard’s Ideokinesis has played in the subsequent explorations of both JoAnne and her partner Zoran. Ideokinesis is also the major theme of Lynn Martin’s paper. Professional dance artists Diana Hart and Rajika Puri both describe how Dr. Williams’s teaching impacted their dancing, choreography, and teaching; and the issue concludes with Jennifer Farrell’s account of how Dr. Williams’s earlier research in the anthropology of religion and liturgical practices provided an exemplar for her own doctoral dissertation. The issue concludes with a complete bibliography of Drid Williams’s publications.
During our intellectual struggles to master new concepts and make sense of challenging reading materials, Dr. Williams frequently reminded us that “we are standing on the shoulders of giants” whose earlier contributions were of lasting value and upon whose legacies we should aspire to build. She now joins the realm of those ancestors with our eternal gratitude for providing such a legacy.
Brenda Farnell, editor
1 Widely recognized as one of the twenty-century’s most important American photographic artists, Minor White (1908-76) took a series of photos of Drid Williams in the Utah landscape in 1962. At the opening of a MOMA (Museum of Modern Art) exhibit of White’s photography in New York City, May 25, 1989, Dr. Williams contributed an address, “Sequences, Spaces and Other Dimensions.” The press release for this lecture states “Ms. Williams, who was a friend of the artist and a subject of a number of his portraits, relates the experience of being photographed by White. She discusses the photographers work from a dancer’s point of view” (see https://www.moma.org/calendar/exhibitions/2130). See also the portrait in Bunnell 1989: 264, and Williams 1984: 72-75. This print was a gift from White to William Smith in 1963 and was returned to Drid Williams upon Smith’s death in 1998. It is now in the editor’s possession, along with Williams’s other notes and papers in the forthcoming Drid Williams Archive at the University of Illinois. Reprinted with copyright permission
Bunnell, Peter C., with Maria B. Pellerano and Joseph B. Rauch
1989. Minor White: The Eye that Shapes. Princeton, NJ: Art Museum, Princeton University in Association with Bulfinch Press.https://www.moma.org/calendar/exhibitions/2130.
1994. Pocock, Williams and Gouldner: Initial Reactions of Three Social Scientists to the Problem of Objectivity. JASHM 8(1): 43-64.
1976. An Exercise in Applied Personal Anthropology. Dance Research Journal (CORD) 9(1): 16-30.
1984. Creating the Space. In ‘Minor White: A Living Remembrance.’ Aperture 95: 72-75.
1997. The Study of Dances. Reading Studies in the Anthropology of Human Movement: Volume 1. Langham, MD, and London: Scarecrow Press.
1998. Beyond Survival. Beaverton, OR: High Ground Publishing.
2000. Searching for Origins. Reading Studies in the Anthropology of Human Movement: Volume 2. Langham, MD, and London: Scarecrow Press.