Introduction

“A Place to Go Someplace Else” is a written ethnography in combination with the film “Humans Are Here, Too” that explores what professional dancers consider to be “in the moment”. In my role as visual anthropologist with a background in dance, I was initially inspired to pursue this topic while shooting a short ethnographic film with dancers in Berlin in 2011. I soon realized that almost all of the participants were quite unsatisfied with their performance, and I started investigating why this was the case and what they meant by their frequent remark: “I was not in the moment”. If you are not in the moment, are you out of it? Why do you want to be in it? And who is out or in it? Is it the body or the mind - what does an analysis of this expression tell us about the body, the importance and capacity of the body’s sense experience and emplacement in the world. Furthermore, in posing such an ephemeral question concerning the body, I ask how does this moment come into existence, and how can we analyze and describe such phenomenon?

In order to investigate these questions, I employ several theoretical frameworks such as a phenomenological approach to experience, anthropological concepts of place, space, and memory, and a philosophical view of the body as a lived body, all embedded within a sensual approach to anthropological inquiry. Chapter 1 investigates how this “being in the moment” can be defined, and the theoretical frameworks can further facilitate to describe and explain the experience of being in the moment. Phenomenology here becomes a mode of investigation as it concerns itself with pre-reflective experiences of the body, such as the dancer being immersed in the dance while becoming the dance. Furthermore, this inquiry is approached as an anthropological analysis that employs the senses as mode of investigation, while acknowledging the body’s constant emplacement within the world and a certain place. Theoretical approaches to place and space are therefore investigated, as are philosophical ideas about the body drawing on the development of the Cartesian dualism of body and mind into a more holistic view of the body.

In Chapter 2, I address the methodology applied to the investigative process of this research project. Via interviews, audio and visual records, and fieldnotes that are combined into a film montage in combination with a written thesis, the project attempts to discuss the phenomenon of feeling in the moment in the form of a sensory ethnography. Based on the testimonies of a dance teacher, pianist, several dancers, and a child dancer, as well as my own experience as a performing artist, I present the results of this research in an experiential and descriptive/analytical mode. The experiential results are embodied in video and audio materials picturing the physical expression of the body being in the moment, the capturing experience of the music, voices and sounds in the studio, as well as in detailed shots of the camera exploring the studio. The descriptive results, namely reflections of all participants on the process of being in the moment, are being either presented in the form of audio recordings in the film, or as personal testimonies within the written thesis.

Chapter 3 further investigates the role of the body and the field site in producing the momentous experience. To inquire about what it means to be in the moment, the dance studio here as a space of practice, teaching and learning takes on an important role. The studio space, in its existence as a physical place as well as in its function as a creative place of expression, influences the dancers gathering there. I take a closer look at the fifth floor studio at City Center, New York, where Zvi Gotheiner teaches a Ballet Master Class on a daily basis to both classical ballet dancers, as well as modern dancers, choreographers, and other performing artists. Objects present in this particular studio that can also be found in most dance studios, such as bars, mirrors, dance floor, and a piano amongst other stimulants, have an impact and guide the dancer in the process of achieving a state of being in the moment. The body as a living entity of body and mind, enters a process of sensual experience in close connection to seen and felt objects, perceived sounds, among other sensations. It is examined how the state of being in the moment is produced, and how the senses, place and sense memory are involved in producing this moment.

 

Chapter 1 - Theoretical Frameworks

An inquiry that involves the body necessitates a definition of what kind of body we are considering, how this body can have an experience, how we can access, describe and make sense of such experience. As I am particularly interested in dancers’ accounts of their experience of being in the moment, a philosophical concept of the body is necessary as a starting point. Furthermore, phenomenology as a philosophical field being concerned with the study of phenomena experienced from a first-person point of view, is a constructive framework for this study as it can be used when it comes to the description of experiences, and employed with states of consciousness explicitly in regards to dance. Through phenomenology a discussion becomes possible that poses questions around “hereness” in space and time, and whether dance exists as pre-reflexive or reflective phenomena experienced by the dancer, a question that is crucial in connection to methodology, and to how dancers, we, I approach the research questions as we are reflecting via sense memory on the experience. Another question relevant to the discussion is the issue of place. Where does the body exist and move during the experience, and how does place influence the experience?

 

What Body Do I Research and Research With?

The body in Cartesianism is a split body of res cogitans and res extensa, stemming from a dual concept of the body being a fleshly body, a Körper, in combination with a thinking element, as Drew Leder calls it, “a substance called mind” (Leder 1990, 5). It is this dualism that has for centuries influenced not only what paths science took in its investigations, but also how we as humans experienced our bodies. The body was objectified, seen as a body functioning according to rules of nature, observable, apart from the more valued mind, the seat of reason. Cartesianism has had its share in developing discriminatory theories, such as sexism, the female was (and is in instances still) seen as the body, the male as the mind. It just takes one more step to make a connection to why many still believe that dancers and athletes are unintelligent beings, don’t they only make use of their bodies and not their minds. Instigated by philosophers such as Husserl, Heidegger and foremost Merleau-Ponty, who via phenomenology started to critique this idea of Cartesian dualism, a more holistic picture of the body was drawn. Maurice Merleau-Ponty saw the world coming into being through the body, “It is via my sensorimotor powers that I encounter a world charged with meaning and organized into significant gestalts” (Merleau-Ponty 2002, 80), which subsequently lends the body itself the power to be object as well as perceiver. The body herewith is not reduced to Körper (the physical body) any longer, but becomes Leib (lived body). I here follow Leder in his use of the notion of lived body, a body that includes the mind as well as the physical form, that “provides a potential mode of escape from cognitive habits of dualism deeply entrenched in our culture” (Leder 1990, 5). The lived body, subsequently called simply the body, allows therefore to see the world not only in terms of observable phenomena, but also from a perspective outside the laboratory and under controlled circumstances – via the lived body, an integrated body that is both object and subject (Merleau-Ponty 2002, 346), and its sensory experiences.

 

Sense Memory and Longing

Sometimes, actually quite frequently, not to say very often, I do have a feeling of absence in me, absence from my body, a sort of not being quite there, in it, or disconnected, a feeling of drowsiness and being out of this world. I am not aligned with myself, somehow physically not being in sync with my thoughts. For example, I sit in the subway, slouching away in my seat and going someplace in particular, but almost zoning out whilst actually getting there – this feeling of half existence, of hearing things only as a sound collage in the back of my mind, almost unable to move the slightest, limbs numbed, with my sight out of focus, while my chest barely lifts itself enough to make room for air. The same might happen in a lecture room, at a crowded party. The same might happen many places. This makes me tired. I am uncomfortable. I don’t like it (Fieldnotes, April 2012).

Quite early in the process of doing fieldwork for this project, I questioned myself, the dancer, from the point of view of the researcher, what being in the moment meant for myself, why it was that even now, at an advanced dancer’s age, I still was longing to feel in the moment, why I still took class on a regular basis, and why dancing was still an important part of my daily life. I miss being present in my body, I miss having intense moments of being in it, I miss them because of memories that tell stories of these moments of feeling alive to me, over and over, again and again. I don’t forget because the memory is in me, that is in my body, ingrained in sense memories that came into existence via my sense organs, the transmitters and bridging elements between me and the world surrounding me that are engaged in the process of making these moments come alive. Nadia Seremetakis refers to this kind of memory with nostalgia. She doesn’t refer to the nostalgia commonly known and linked with romantic sentimentality, but to a meaning stemming from the Greek word nostalghó, a composite of nostó and alghó. She expounds on the word by clarifying the words meaning in Greek, “Nostó means I return, I travel (back to the homeland) […]. Alghó means I feel pain, I ache for, and the noun álghos characterizes one’ pain in soul and body, burning pain (kaimós). Thus nostalghia is the desire or longing with burning pain to journey” (Seremetakis 1994, 4). It is this pain and longing in my body that I feel when not having the opportunity to return via the art of dancing to my body, that is my home where I feel I have arrived. She further notes that nostalghia “mixes bodily and emotional pain and ties painful experiences of spiritual and somatic exile to the notion of maturation and ripening” (Seremetakis 1994, 4). Of course it is not the memory and longing for the past embodied in the peach[1] she knows from her childhood that has appeared from the markets in her home country that I look for, but the passion and satisfaction that I receive from engaging my entire body in dance, a condition that I know of from childhood, that I cannot access when away from dance, and that allows me a fully developed relationship with my own body that I access through my senses, memory, and being in place. It is a longing that is made possible through the acute awareness of my senses that are influential in cultural and social experience, senses that are active and present in my body, that are the medium between me and the world around me.

 

Bodies in Place

As the body exists and is always in a certain place while being experienced or experiencing itself and the world around it, theoretical concepts about place and space become another means to further define and describe how sense experience is made possible. Edward Casey states in his phenomenological analysis of place and space:

There is no knowing or sensing a place except by being in that place, and to be in a place is to be in a position to perceive it. Knowledge of place is not, then subsequent to perception […] but is ingredient in perception itself. Such knowledge, genuinely local knowledge, is itself experiential in the manner of Erlebnis, “lived experience,” rather than of Erfahrung, the already elapsed experience that is the object of analytical or abstract knowledge. […] Local knowledge is at one with lived experience if it is indeed true that this knowledge is of the localities in which the knowing subject lives. To live is to live locally, and to know is first of all to know the places one is in (Feld & Basso 1996, 18).

In his approach to place and space, in which he mainly dismantles the modern western idea of space being the general principle before place, Casey links the experience of place with sense experience, and as sense experience is connected to place since the body is always in place when it is sensing, place becomes necessarily a factor in being in the moment as much as being in the moment is dependent of being in place.

But how does one come to be in place? Casey postulates that one is always in place, so how can I feel out of place? During my field research, I took class in a different city, in a different country, by a different teacher, accompanied by a different pianist, in an unfamiliar studio, with dancers I don’t know.

As soon as entering the space, I felt strange. My feet, sinking into a loose ground all of a sudden lost control. The studio floor was covered in black Marley, but somehow it felt unsteady as if a sort of cushioning, fleece-like substance had been laid over. My feet were caught in surprise being used to the sturdy and resistance giving white floor of my home studio. I walked further into the unfamiliar place. The faces surrounding me were unfamiliar. The teacher was already in the room preparing his exercises by marking them in front of the mirror, instilling a feeling of frantic in me. He made me nervous as his body was full of tension. I felt my neck tense up, my shoulders slightly move upwards, I didn’t know where to focus and get back to my usual concentrated state. There stood a piano in the corner, but as soon as the class started, only discomforting sounds entered my ears. I didn’t know the exercises, I didn’t know the teacher, I didn’t know the people next to me, and I didn’t know who I was standing at that bar. I was simply out of place (Fieldnotes, April 2012).

As I am emplaced and sensing, I engage simultaneously my memory, and what I feel at the moment is just what my senses feel in response to my sense memory. Only after the sense experience is had, can I reflect on it, and with the help of memory I can further judge the degree of in-or-out-of-placeness. Having worked frequently in the same place such as a studio, the body will have built a certain familiarity with it, which affects the sense experience as it did in my case. Being used to one place and studio, I felt out of place in another. I can orientate myself without thinking better in a place I know, I have experienced more often and therefore have Erfahrung in that space, that is abstract knowledge, because my sense memory tells me so. While experiencing a place the body is yet not just receiving sensible information, but also actively gathers it while moving, even more intense in the case of dancing as the place is physically explored and used, it becomes tool while also being location.

 

Experiential Knowledge

The moment experienced in dance is not an experience that one reflects upon, but is only that what it is in itself, a moment of instant, a moment of being there, a hereness in time and space that is pre-reflective and only existent before the talking and verbalizing begins. Phenomenology here can be helpful in discussing the moment as it uses the first person account of experiencing the world as a point of departure. It concerns itself, as Maxine Sheets-Johnstone describes it, “with descriptions of man and the world as man lives in-the-midst-of-the-world, as he experiences himself and the world, keenly and acutely, before any kind of reflection whatsoever takes place” (Sheets 1966, 10). It cannot therefore be verbalized as it already has passed, it can only be described as that – a moment gone, felt, experienced. Here it is that phenomenology enters, as a means to “describe the foundation or structures of consciousness and the foundation or structuring of the world on the basis of that consciousness” (Sheets 1966, 11). It can be judged as good, valuable, worthwhile or a failure after the experience, but the experience “must be had in order to be described” (Sheets 1966, 11). I can only talk about it, of it, encircle it with words, but not let another experience it by talking about it. It is just it.

Dancer and choreographer Murray Louis[2] in his personal essays about his experience in dance also expresses the momentous and ephemeral quality of dance in his writing, but speaking about the multi-vocality and multi-personality of his own body, he also underlines the fleetingness of his “enigmatic Artist-Me” that he has never encountered in real live, but only sensed during the act of dancing:

I can hear him walk the deep corridors within. He lives in that shadowed part, lit only by the single purpose. When I reach too deeply, I can feel him. I can feel his presence. I can feel him reaching out and I close my eyes and let him enter me. I dare not look. I am afire, I flame, he passes through. I hear him round the bend. I can breathe again. I am flesh again. I open my eyes to see where he has been, to see what he has touched. What if some day I should innocently open the wrong door and stand face to face with him? Would I be consumed? Would I be terrified of whom I might see? Is this why I close my eyes and open my senses when he appears? When he possesses me, whose eyes do I use? I know it is his handiwork when I cannot explain what I have done. Does this vague visage know me any better than I know him? Who would recognize their own soul if they should meet it?

“Tell me,” asks the interviewer, “Tell me about you. The Artist-You.”

“The Artist-Me? I don’t know him. I’ve never met him. I know him only when I dance, only when I create, only when I’m alive” (Louis 1980, 81).

The moment herewith shows itself not only as a moment of experience in time, but also a moment in which the body is experienced. This dualism is a dualism of simultaneity, a synchronous affair of first and third person experience but all materializing within one and the same body. Louis’ verbalization of this event as an almost trance experience is understandable, how can one body, one person understand and grasp itself as both object and subject at the same time if not within a time and space framework that is understood as absence of the self while being replaced by another. And yet, it is the same person dancing and talking about it. Just not at the same time. And not in the same space? This discussion of dance as a lived experience emerges from hereon as Sheets calls it, a “descriptive analysis and not a body of definitive knowledge” (Sheets 1966, 5). Having described the experience as it is illustrated, judged and interpreted by dancers voices, I wonder how this experience comes into existence for “dance is first and foremost a created phenomenon” (Sheets 1966, 5), a phenomenon that needs actions to come into being. So how is this phenomenon created? How come the dancers are not reflectively aware of themselves but “The dance comes alive precisely as the dancers are implicitly aware of themselves and the form, such that the form moves through them: they are not agents of the form, but its moving center” (Sheets 1966, 6)? The dancers are in the moment, as such not conscious of their own doing, but nevertheless conscious of their own being?

Having looked at the theoretical framework of this research project that places the body into the environment via the help of a phenomenologically described sense experience aided by sense memory, I will now proceed to comment on the methodological framework and the methods I employed for this investigation to further find out what factors are playing a role in transporting the dancer’s body in time and space, and what this body uses actively to get there.

[1] Seremetakis refers to the peach, her peach, in her book “The Senses Still” as a way to describe social and cultural memory contained in sense experience made possible through the experience of objects. These objects take part in identity making by telling or preserving the history and cultural change within society that is under the influence of globalizing forces and modernity that not only neglects the importance of sense experience, but also threatens it.

[2] Murray Louis is a well-known dancer and choreographer, and the long-term partner of Alwin Nikolais. After dancing in Nikolai’s company for many years, the two partnered up and together contributed to the development of American Modern Dance and the Avantgarde. Louis was a Guggenheim Fellow, was featured on the PBS series American Masters, and choreographed for companies such as the Jose Limon Company, the Royal Danish Ballet and Rudolph Nureyev among others (http://www.nikolaislouis.org). 

 

Chapter 2 - Methodology

The Field Site

My project is a sensory ethnographic research project that explores how dancers prepare and train themselves, their bodies, for the work as dancers by focusing on dance practice. The term practice here is defined as the physical training done in a professional technique class. In order to find out how the dancer can transport herself or himself into the moment, what factors are playing a role in the process of getting there, and what exactly this moment is, I went straight to the place where dancers practice their art – the studio. The dance studio I chose for this project is located on the fifth floor of City Center in midtown New York. Zvi Gotheiner teaches here a daily professional ballet class[1] – the focal point of this research - that is accompanied amongst other musicians, by pianist and composer Scott Killian. The studio is 43’x62’ in dimension, has an 18’ ceiling height, a sprung wood floor and is lit by overhead incandescent. It features a grand piano, portable ballet bars, wall mirrors, and air conditioning. The building itself was built in 1923 as a meeting hall for the members of the Ancient Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine, and converted in 1943 to the New York City Center for Music and Drama. The building now contains, besides the Mainstage theatre with a seating capacity of 2257 seats, a dance school and administrative offices, as well as several dance studios open for rental and used by teachers, choreographers as well as by Broadway productions and major dance companies for training and rehearsal purposes.

 

The Body

In finding a suitable studio and class for research, I was helped by my professional experience as a dancer and having taken this particular class for many years. My familiarity with Zvi’s class aided the process of getting access to the space and class participants, as well as gaining a scientific understanding of the class structure and dance technique that was important and influential in the way I later conducted my interviews in reference to formulating questions and their content. Some of the dancers that became participants of my research I knew already for a long time while to others I had never spoken to before taking up this project. In the end I interviewed and filmed seven professional dancers besides Zvi and Scott, as well as my own five-year-old child, who is a dance student herself. My final selection of dancers was based on the attempt to cover a wide age range, and I ended up working closely with Becky, Nicole, and Kevin - active dancers in their twenties, professional dancer Samantha in her thirties, as well as performers and teachers Nancy and Elisa in their fifties and sixties, with Patrick in his fifties being the only retired dancer. I myself in my fourties and in my role as researcher and practitioner lie pretty much in the middle.

 

Sensuous Scholarship

Investigating the question what it means to be in the moment while dancing is a question that can only be answered via the body as it is an experience that is had via the body and its senses. Consequently, for this particular study, as an anthropologist with a background and experience in dance, I decided to take an embodied research approach to science and to anthropological enquiry. I employed an approach that includes the senses as part of sense-making, incorporating the “intelligible and the sensible”, as Paul Stoller calls it, and so I followed Stoller in wanting to use my body as part of my research method to go where life is most present for me in dance:

Stiffened from long sleep in the background off scholarly life, the scholar’s body yearns to exercise its muscles. Sleepy from long inactivity, it aches to restore its sensibilities. Adrift in a sea of half-lives, it wants to breathe in the pungent odors of social life, to run its palms over the jagged surface of social reality, to hear the wondrous symphonies of social experience, to see the sensuous shapes and colors that fill windows of consciousness. It wants to awaken the imagination and bring scholarship back to “the things themselves” (Stoller 1997, xii).

In my own attempt to work sensually, I also agree with Stoller that the bodily experience cannot be verbalized as such, that one cannot treat the body as a script that can be studied and evaluated (Stoller 1997, xiv), like data can be evaluated, without negating its sensuousness. I therefore include in my analysis of the body experiential representations in the form of film, as well as reflective and descriptive written personal materials, emotional and alive, direct and sensible, materials dealing with my own sensuous experiences and those of others. I am interested in what Stoller calls “sensuous scholarship”. I am interested in analysis that employs the body and its senses such as sight, sound, smell, taste and touch as well as the sixth sense, proprioception[2], and last but not least, memory in my investigations. I am also aware that this choice to employ the senses in my work is also of absolute necessity as the work of a dancer, especially in successful immersing the body into the dance, requires the power of the senses, so in that regard one must call another approach strictly senseless.

In my approach to conduct this study, I also agree with Tim Ingold that suggests:

all science depends on observation, and all observation depends on participation – that is, on a close coupling in perception and action between the observer and those aspects of the world that are the focus of attention. If science is to be a coherent knowledge practice, it must be rebuilt on the foundation of openness rather than closure, engagement rather than detachment. […] Knowing must be reconnected with being, epistemology with ontology, thought with life (Ingold 2011, 75).

To pursue such scientific method as Ingold encourages, my research methods included long-term participant observation of the dance class. This interchange of action and perception I clearly felt early on in my research. I have always experienced the studio from the point of the dance practitioner, but I now entered it in my role as researcher, which changed my perspective immensely, the outcome clearly apparent in my early fieldnotes:

I decided to go to the studio early today. I arrived at around 10:20 am with the idea to look at the studio empty. […] I discovered that it is very easy to get access to the studio since there is no class taught before Zvi’s and the studio is open. I explored the place including the floor, ceiling, walls, piano and clock with my camera before the first dancers and Zvi arrived. Being there that early I experienced how the studio slowly came alive with bags being placed in the corner and along the walls, how two dancers started setting up the bars one by one, how the place slowly filled with people and their voices, and how it became filled with energy (Fieldnotes, February 2012).

As a dancer, I have never paid much detailed attention to the objects in the room or the processes involved in making the class happen since I was always focused on myself getting warmed up and ready for class. I experienced now, from my new perspective as a researcher, the surfaces of items, the sounds and textures, the structures and rituals, that made this place a place for dance. I realized the importance of filming the studio. While slowly trying to find my way further into the project, making connections to the dancers, the teacher and the musician, and gathering ideas on how to proceed the research, I explored every scratch and surface in the room and noticed the potential this process has. For the first time I used my eyes, ears, skin and nose to actively explore the space I knew so well, I didn’t only passively experience it with a sort of I-take-it-for-granted-attitude, but I actively explored it with my camera, seeing, hearing, feeling and smelling it all anew.

I gradually became aware of the chance film offered to experience the place, objects, and the people in it via the senses touched by the medium of film as my images became increasingly detailed. Getting to know the place via the medium of film, I also realized the possibility to capture the feel of it by filming the place in detail for those not being able to take part in class in person. Over the course of several months, the imagery I captured on camera changed from wide-angle shots showing the architecture and objects in the space, to close-ups and detailed shots of the wall finish, skin texture, or mirror surface. Additionally, I took longer takes that reproduced longer processes happening before and after class, such as the studio corner filling with bags, or the studio slowly emptying out after class had finished, processes that once I was a part of but now stood there in the corner to record[3]. I never filmed during class since Zvi did not give me permission to do so, which also shaped the methodological approach I took as well as the final results. Technically I explored the options my camera offered that ranged from using a medium zoom lens, using the full range of the zoom, further starting to use slow motion in the editing process to slow down images to get a closer while slower look at things, and also utilizing a macro extension lens that allowed me finally to get literally and metaphorically to the skin of things. I explored this methodological path during my research more and more, which eventually led me to the production of a film as my main research output.

 

Practicing Researcher / Researching Practitioner

I have been an active performer, choreographer and artist, for many years but it is only now from the perspective of an anthropologist that I can and have an interest to, and maybe even should confront the question: “What is this feeling of presence dance has to offer me and others that makes it worthwhile to pursue dance for a lifetime?” Dance as a profession does not offer much of a monetary compensation for the majority of dancers for the work, time and effort invested, and furthermore, many dancers, on the grounds of aging, have to give it up in their thirties.[4]

My experience gives me the advantage of having encountered first hand what can happen within moments of dance, and of understanding the intricacies of dance technique, proprioception, concentration, musicality, breath, and other elements involved in dancing that can only be acquired over years of dance practice, and are essential knowledge when it comes to the analysis of such experiences. This practical knowledge is also important as the research project delves into sense experience that can be verbalized reflectively, but only experienced via the body. Although participants in this research project attempt to put their feelings of being in the moment into words, they are nevertheless often themselves aware of the insufficiency of their attempts while they either get amused by naming and describing the experience in such seemingly banal words as “happiness”, “freedom”, or “peace”, or just plainly negate to answer because they cannot render a description. As Jaida Samudra describes her participants in a study about White Crane Silat, they “danced around descriptions of their own kinesthetic practices” (Samudra 2008, 665). The given renditions are only attempts in the search for translating these moments. The reason why these attempts only stay attempts are that “The cultural knowledge of people with specialized body techniques, including […] musicians, dancers […] is deeply embodied and often not transmuted into semiotic code” (Samudra 2008, 666), and it is therefore up to the researcher, when she or he is at the same time a practitioner, to “translate our somatic experience into words” (Samudra 2008, 665) by finding a methodology and theoretical framework to make sense of the experience. I further follow in my investigation a path that Samudra calls “thick participation”. “Participation is, therefore, a method of data acquisition that goes beyond achieving rapport of gaining access to opportunities for close observation. […] Thick participation is, thus, cultural knowledge recorded first in the anthropologist’s body and only later externalized as visual or textual data for purposes of analysis” (Samudra 2008, 667). In this research project I was able to externalize the knowledge recorded via video and audio recordings in the form of a film, utilizing my own practical knowledge of dancing as well as my analytical knowledge as a researcher as tools to give form to the data. Understanding the ritual of class and the elements at work in achieving full concentration and awareness in the body from having danced myself, and from further learning about it from my peers during the interview process, I put a film together that in its buildup reminds of the class and its structure, and also delves into different topics relevant in dance practice in a more detailed way.

 

Descriptive and Experiential Representation

In order to gather information, I conducted interviews with all participants. These interviews, the video footage and audio recordings shot during the interviews and with participants before and after class in the studio, as well as personal fieldnotes, constitute the fundamental data of my research and my final research output – the film “Humans Are Here, Too”. The data differs mainly on three levels, one being the reflective voices of practitioners involved in making the ballet class happen, that is the teacher, the accompanying musician, and the dancers, including my own reflections on experiences in dance. The second level concerns itself with the actual experience as it is had, in the moment, the Erlebnis. The third level consists of footage taken of the child that functions as the experiential metaphor for being in the moment as the child in its cognitive development is still experiencing the world in a more direct manner while not yet reflecting to the degree of an adult on the world and its own body.

As part of the descriptive, I conducted interviews in the studio space before or after class where the instruction usually takes place. The reason for doing so lies in sensory ethnography taking into account that space and environment where these interviews are conducted are influential. They are not only a familiar setting making the interviewees feel at ease, but help to find answers by providing the actual place in which the said dance moments come into existence, therefore recalling memories of such events by providing tactile objects that can assist the interviewees in reflecting on their experiences. Sarah Pink refers to the interview as a “multisensory event, and, as such, a context of emplaced knowing” (Pink 2009, 81), and further states that “throughout interviews, whether sitting standing or moving, both ethnographers and research participants continue to be active participants in their environments, using their whole bodies, all their senses, available props and the ground under their feet, to narrate, perform, communicate and represent their experiences” (Pink 2009, 85). The studio helps access memories through incorporating senses such as the visual sense while seeing one’s image in the mirror, the sense of touch while holding on to the ballet bar or feeling the familiarity of the floor. These voices can be seen as narrating the experience after the fact in a sort of Erfahrungsbericht that eventually became a narrative for the film. The audio recordings paired with images of the studio, objects, dancers captured being involved in their daily routines, render the video images intelligible for a viewer unknowledgeable in the realm of dance practice, and strengthen their impact by adding authenticity and depth as they are emotional first-person accounts.

Initially, my expectations for the interviews were disappointed. I assumed that holding them in the studio would trigger the dancers to physically show more than tell verbally about their experience in dance, and that I could capture this experience in the form of physical expressions on video. I soon realized that since verbalizing the experience is impossible and a hard mental task to attempt, the dancers were struggling to find words to replace and explain the experience while hardly moving at all. But I also realized that while they were verbalizing, their bodies nevertheless were involved in a sort of in-the-moment gesturing that represented the level of automatic movement ability a professional dancer acquires over the course of her or his professional life, and that the video recordings of these gestures could stand in for their in-the-moment experience in dance even though only in the form of a comparison. These hand gestures therefore became part of the film as images of pre-reflective body language.[5]

Additionally to the interviews, my own reflective fieldnotes on the process of shooting and editing, and my own reflective dance memories are jotted down in a little blue book. They are, as Michael Taussig calls them, “collections” (Taussig 2011, 5), an accumulation of information that is not gathered with some sort of system in mind, but more of a random assemblage of thoughts, ideas and memories driven by coincidence or luck. They nevertheless have a function as described by Darren Newsbury, they “facilitate the research process through recording observations, thoughts and questions as they happen, for later use by the researcher” (Newsbury 2001). Similar to the interviews, the fieldnotes inform about the in-the-moment perceptions, memories, and feelings of being in the studio, and verbalize a certain truth uncovered in the moment of narration[6]. They recount, tell about, and describe what has happened before. But unlike the interviews, they also capture ideas regarding the research and film making process such as envisioning shots, editing choices, and further questions to be asked. They don’t only reflect what has happened in the past in the form of reminders, but also reflect choices for the future. The notebook was one of my closest companions in finding ways to convert the research results into the final form.

Film, visual and sound recordings, in contrast to the reflective possibilities of note taking and interviewing, has pre-reflective possibilities, it can present the Erlebnis, the experiential, which is the reason that I employed it. In my attempt for a sensuous ethnography that is inclusive of all senses, I drew on the potential of film in order to address other senses beside the obvious, seeing and hearing, to create an experience that goes beyond the descriptive, one that can also address proprioception, touch, smell and taste. Laura Marks does attribute to cinema the potential of expressing the “inexpressible” (Marks 2000, 129), and it is this inexpressible and experiential that I look to capture in film. In my own attempt to represent what David MacDougall calls the “dimensions of social life different from those already defined in verbal and quantitative terms” (MacDougall 2006, 269), I recognize the potential of film to capture sensory knowledge and sensory experience. Similarly to the dancer hearing and responding to the music played during class, even a non-dancer can via film experience the creative and emotional power of music as it affects our senses. The non-dancer can explore and familiarize her or his body with the place of dance practice, the studio, the surface of the bars, the walls and floor shown in the detailed shots of the film. Through the visual sense the audience is also given the chance to get a taste of the aesthetics of the room as well as movement that is not possible to transmit in a solely written form of the research results. The visual sense here is a pathway to the other senses in that “the visible is equally a pathway to the nonvisible, and to the larger domain of the feelings, the intellect, and the remaining senses” (MacDougall 2006, 269). As much as the visible, the aural also functions as pathway and can awaken sense memory that aids the viewer to engage all the senses. In addition to the multi-sensorial potential film can have on the viewer, I also utilize film to capture actual instants of being in the moment such as in the child’s exploration of the studio and dance.

Having discussed the methodological framework of this research study that employed techniques of interviewing, fieldnote taking, visual and audio recordings within a sensory approach to anthropology, I will now move on to a detailed description of the field site – the studio, its occupants, the objects and sense triggers available in class, to arrive at a comprehensive view of how all participants can make the desired experience of being in the moment happen.

[1] This ballet class is frequented by ballet, modern and contemporary dancers, performing artists of all sorts and choreographers alike. Participants use this class mainly as a technique class to stay in shape and are for the most part not particularly interested in the classical ballet vocabulary per se, or to use the training toward a carrier as a performing ballet artist. Artists are there to improve technique and their bodies’ range of movement for all sorts of purposes related to dance.

[2] Proprioception is the body’s inert ability for body awareness in space, for the physical ability to sense the body moving in space in combination with sensing muscle activity, effort, and balance. It is “both a conscious and non-conscious sense of where we are and how we are moving” (www.dancemedicine.org), an absolute necessity in dance.

[3] These extended takes showing longer processes were shortened in the editing process. I employed jump-cut editing in order to give a sense of what happens in the studio over longer periods of time while cutting these scenes and the film as a whole to a length that can be appreciated by a diverse audience.

[4] The Dance Workforce Census, a study of the condition of freelance dancers in NYC conducted by Dance/NYC in February 2012 (http://dancenyc.org), gives a good overview of the unstable work conditions dancers have to struggle with, including minimal or no pay, no standards for compensation, oftentimes no health insurance or retirement planning. Of the 1870 dance jobs used as basis for the study on work conditions, only 328 were fulltime jobs with hardly half of the employed receiving benefits, the other jobs being part-time or occasional, and this although almost 70% of dancers have a college degree and many even a Masters.

[5] I never actually attempted to capture dancers in the moment of dancing besides in the case of the child, as I was not allowed to film during class, and the circumstances of shooting outside of class were never real in the sense that the elements under investigation were never fully present.

[6] I once lost my notebook when I forgot it in the studio and felt that my investigation up to that point had been stolen as the notes and therefore the witnesses of my work, simply had disappeared. The truth I had captured in the notebook that was established as truth through the act of writing it down, was compromised. Taussig describes the power of the notebook that “stands in for thought, experience, history, and writing”. The power lies in its materiality, “Simply knowing it is there provides the armature of truth, of the “this happened””(Taussig, 2011). Lucky enough, somebody had handed the notebook in at the administrative desk, and my truth had not been all lost to bad memory.