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Since dance is the most repetitious, synchronic of all expressive behaviors, it has turned out to be a kind of touchstone for human adaptation.
—Alan Lomax, 1975
In 1965 Irmgard Bartenieff, Forrestine Paulay, and Alan Lomax launched Choreometrics, a study of dance as formalized,
culturally conditioned communicative behavior. They wanted to learn how human movement disposes energy through space
and time, and how this changes from one environment to another. They began by surveying a small sample of dance and
movement as recorded on film as a way to identify elements of style from a cross-cultural perspective, and to develop
measures for describing and scales for rating them. When additional documentary footage had been collected, a sample
representative of the world was coded and statistically analyzed in order to discover the geographic distribution and
interrelation of these variables, and their correlation to major systems of human adaptation. The study brought rigor,
sophistication, and a trans-cultural perspective to the task of observing, comparing, and interpreting distinctive
patterns of movement. It furnished a vocabulary for describing the typical dance styles of the world?s cultures and
a paradigm for situating them in the human story.
An early inspiration for Choreometrics was the work of Ray L. Birdwhistell (1918–1994) on non-verbal behavior,
which posited an unconscious set of meanings in body attitude, movement, and synchrony analogous to the grammar
and vocabulary of speech. Also important was W. S. Condon?s discovery of precise rhythmic synchrony at the micro
level among participants in conversations. Birdwhistell steered Lomax to the system of effort observation and
notation developed by the Bratislavan choreographer Rudolf Laban (1879–1958), which is still one of the most
widely used systems for human movement analysis. In 1964 Lomax had not yet found significant cross-cultural
correlations for rhythm in song. Considering movement to be a more primary form of expression than song,
Birdwhistell suggested that Lomax look at performance style in dance and recommended Laban?s system as the
most useful one for the observation of dynamics.
Lomax invited two of Laban?s foremost proponents in the United States to join him. Dancer, choreographer,
and physical and dance therapist Irmgard Bartenieff (1900–1981) had studied with Laban and had applied his
principles of human movement patterns and movement education to physical therapy, dance therapy, and
movement-oriented psychological research. Forrestine Paulay, Bartenieff?s student, was a dancer,
choreographer, teacher, and movement therapist. In her work with psychiatrist Judith Kestenberg?s
Developmental Study Group, Paulay had already broken ground by demonstrating the importance of pre-shaping in
movement (called "directional movement" in Laban Movement Analysis), as comparable to that of pre-effort.
For the next four years, Lomax, Bartenieff, and Paulay collected and viewed filmed examples of work and dance
from hundreds of cultures. Through a rigorous comparative process they adapted the Laban principles that had
been used to reveal intra-cultural or individual differences in movement style into variables that could
facilitate perception of intercultural variation. They were interested in shared dynamic patterns of body
movement, focusing first on whether actions were predominantly linear, curving or spiraling; whether
transitions tended to be curvilinear or pointed; if and how the torso was articulated; on the spatial
emphasis of body attitude; and on the way in which movement spread through the body.
In their effort to compile a sample representing the main regions of culture, the Choreometrics team spent
nearly eight years acquiring documentary footage from consulates, television companies, film archives, and
visual anthropologists. The dataset slowly grew as new material emerged and is now made up of 2,138 film
segments and coded dance sequences. "We regarded the vast, prejudice-laden sea of documentary footage as
the richest storehouse of information about humanity," Lomax explained. "We come to it with an observational
approach like that used by the ordinary person in everyday life, which enables him to differentiate
constantly between different classes of visual experience and to behave appropriately in relation to
these varieties of experience."
Through the early 1970?s, Lomax and Paulay further expanded the Choreometrics system, testing for their
usefulness in cross-cultural comparison observations — observations that came directly out of the filmed
material itself. They looked at such variables as gender differentials, audience role, composition and
organization of the dance group and orchestra, the use and presentation of body parts, step styles, and
patterns of leadership and group synchrony. The completed system included over 300 measures. Over the
course of a decade, these variables were refined and condensed to 139 measures in four fields comprising
the Choreometrics coding system: 1) body attitude and movement qualities; 2) choreography; 3) social
organization; 4) limb use, rhythm, and form. These were in turn collapsed to produce a more manageable
set of 65 variables amenable to statistical analysis.
One of the ideas the Choreometrics team set out to explore was that dance epitomizes the style of movement
widespread in a tradition, particularly that which once powered the main productive activities in
pre-industrial societies and eras. They therefore also collected and examined film of people working.
It was found that, by and large, dance mirrors the movements necessary to carry out the main recurrent
tasks of subsistence which are or once were fundamental in those particular societies and times. Moreover,
the shape and dimensionality of dance movement (linear/one-dimensional; curvilinear/two-dimensional;
spiraling/three-dimensional) appear in association with early forms of material culture and technology.
This approach resulted in an ethnographic classification of dance and an interpretive framework of great
potential interest and utility. A geography of movement style, produced by statistical analysis of the
coded data, distinguished 18 major world dance traditions appearing as regional clusters of performances
linked by most similar traits: Sub-Saharan Africa; Circum-Mediterranean; East Eurasia; Insular Pacific;
South and Central America; and North America. Clear stylistic profiles of such large traditions (and of
their constituent cultures for which data was available) could then be drawn. Cross-cultural comparison
of these profiles with ethnographic descriptors suggested relationships between movement style and climate,
technology, gender differentials in productive activities, and the basic trajectories of body movement
employed in the most common work activities.
When submitted to several kinds of statistical analyses the Choreometrics variables grouped themselves
into factors of dimensionality, limbs, rhythm, linking/leader, intimacy, regimentation, spacing, integration,
group layout, tactics, stance, torso, self-presentation, dynamics, size, refinement, and gender. These, in turn,
formed clusters associated with some of the underlying motive forces of social life and communication — integration,
differentiation, energy, rhythm, gender participation, and control of sexuality.
Like Cantometrics, Choreometrics was designed to distinguish large tendencies and distributions rather than
individual variation and intra-cultural meaning — although with refined scales it would be possible to
micro-analyze a particular dance tradition. Dance ethnography can illuminate the ascribed meaning and
symbolism, narrative content, spiritual significance, political and ritual functions, and personal
artistry of dance from any number of perspectives. By contrast, Choreometrics works best at the level
of whole dance traditions, interpreting dance as para-communication and, as such, as a highly structured
but largely unconscious medium for cultural identification and reinforcement at the level of the community.
Explaining Choreometrics to David Mayer in 1987, Alan Lomax noted:
We took a systems approach — that is, instead of looking at an object in one respect, we took a great
many important features, and we saw how the profile of those features changed as you moved across cultures.
It's been a long process. At the end we've come up with some very interesting things about the dance, the
differences in dancing, the movement of the feet, about many other things human. We feel very clearly that
dance is a kind of a center of the main aspects of movement style that links people together in a culture.
It makes people members of that culture, and makes it possible for them and their ancestors to have adapted
to certain zones of environment. Dance is not something that is on the outskirts of human life; it is right
at the center.
Three teaching films — Dance and Human History (1976), Step Style (1980) and Palm Play (1980) — illustrate
several of the measures and hypotheses of Choreometrics. The Longest Trail (1986), published with a
handbook entitled "A Dance Geography of the American Indian People," traces the striking commonalities
in movement style among Siberian peoples and Native Americans. The project also produced several articles
and an unpublished book, "World Dance" (c. 1993) by Alan Lomax and Forrestine Paulay. The Rhythms of
Earth DVD (2007) offers the four teaching films on DVD along with a number of special features, including
illuminating interviews with Forrestine Paulay, programmer and statistician Michael del Rio, anthropologist
and statistical scientist Michael Flory, and Alan Lomax (being interviewed by the ethnographic filmmaker Robert Gardner).
It is in ACE's plan to recompile Choreometrics dataset of over 2,128 coded analyses and metadata linked to the
digitized film selections from which they derived, and to publish the coding system. We also plan to produce a
DVD demonstrating and explaining each coding line.
Bartenieff, Irmgard, Martha Davis, and Forrestine Paulay.
1974 Four Adaptations of Effort Theory in Research and Teaching. New York: Dance Notation Bureau.
Bartenieff, Irmgard and Dori Lewis
1980 Body Movement: Coping with the Environment. New York: Gordon & Breach Science Publishers.
Birdwhistell, Ray L.
1952 Introduction to Kinesics. Louisville, Ky.: University of Louisville Press.
1957 Kinesics in the Context of Motor Habits. Paper read at December 1957 meeting of the American Anthropological Association (available from Eastern Pennsylvania Psychiatric Institute, Philadelphia, PA.).
1967 Communication Without Words. In L?Aventure humaine. Paul Alexander, Ed. Paris: Societ? d??tudes Littéraires et Artistiques.
1970 Kinesics and Context. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
2002 Alan Lomax and Choreometrics. In Envisioning Dance on Film and Video. Judy Mitoma, ed. Routledge Press. Also at http://www.media-generation.com/Articles/Lomax/lomax2.pdf.
Condon, W.S. and W. D. Ogston
1966 Sound film analysis of normal and pathological behavior patterns. Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 143: 338-347.
Eibl-Eibesfeldt, Iren?us and Hans Hass
1967 Film studies in human ethology. Current Anthropology, 8 (5), Part 1 (Dec., 1967): 477-479.
2001 An Intersection of Disciplines: The Development of Choreometrics in the 1960?s. Paper given at the Origins of Visual Anthropology conference: Putting the Past Together, G?ttingen, June 20–25, 2001 http://www.iwf.de/va-origins/ Published in Visual Anthropology Review, 17 (2), Fall 2001-2002.
1956 Principles of Dance and Movement Notation. London: MacDonald and Evans.
1966 Choreutics. Lisa Ulman, ed. London: MacDonald and Evans.
Laban, Rudolf and F. C. Lawrence
1947 Effort. London: MacDonald and Evans.
1971 Choreometrics and Ethnographic Filmmaking: Toward an Ethnographic Film Archive. Filmmaker?s Newsletter, vol. 4, no 4. Also at http://www.media-generation.com/Articles/Lomax/choreo.pdf.
1975 Alan Lomax. The Screening Room with Robert Gardner. Interview by Robert Gardner. 75 min. DVD 2005 Screening Room DVD series. Studio 7 Arts, www.der.org.
Lomax, Alan et al.
1968 Choreometrics profiles. In Folksong Style and Culture. Washington, D. C.: American Association for the Advancement of Science, Publ. No. 88.
Lomax, Alan with Irmgard Bartenieff and Forrestine Paulay
1968 The Choreometrics Coding Book. In Folksong Style and Culture.
Lomax, Alan and Forrestine Paulay
1976 Dance and Human History. 16 mm. film. 40 minutes, color. Berkeley: Extension Media Center, University of California, Berkeley.
Reviews of Dance and Human History:
1979 Alter, Judith. Ethnomusicology 23: 500–503.
1979 Kealiinohomoku, Joann W. Ethnomusicology 23: 169–76
1980 Step Style. 16 mm. film. 30 minutes, color. Berkeley: Extension Media Center, University of California, Berkeley.
1980 Palm Play. 16 mm. film. 30 minutes, color. Berkeley: Extension Media Center, University of California, Berkeley.
1986 The Longest Trail. 16mm. film. 40 minutes, color. Berkeley: Extension Media Center, University of California, Berkeley.
1986 Handbook for The Longest Trail: A Dance Geography of the American Indian People. Choreometrics Project of Columbia University. Berkeley, California: University of California Extension Media Media Generation.
Lomax, Alan, Forrestine Paulay, and John Bishop
2008 Rhythms of the Earth. DVD. Dance and Human History, Step Style, Palm Play, and The Longest Trail. Many special features explaining Choreometrics research. Media Generation.
Please do not cite or distribute without permission of author. This is work in progress.