As the lean, dark bodies move on the stage to the beat of drums, members of the audience are transported to an African village where a wedding ceremony is taking place.  For Alvin Ailey’s dance troupe, dance is not just an art.  It is a way of communicating the unique experiences of African-Americans.   In 2008, a U.S. Congressional resolution designated the Company as “a vital cultural ambassador to the world  The creative inspirations for the dances came from the blues, spirituals and gospels. 


     Alvin Ailey’s work is a good illustration of how dance and science are connected.  To understand the social customs and norms of a particular culture, scientists often turn to music and dance.  The field known as dance ethnology was developed by North American researchers interested in understanding the cultural diversity of dancing (The Encyclopedia of Dance: Methodologies in the Study of Dance).  This approach is used by scholarly institutions, including university departments, professional associations and journals.  A challenge for dance ethnologists is to be able to conceptualize dance in a manner that can be applied across cultures and to develop theory and method that can generate insights into a widely differing dance cultures. 


     Dance ethnology has its roots in anthropology, social sciences, humanities and the arts.  Gertrude Kurath is said to be the pioneer of dance ethnology.  In 1960 she wrote “Panorma”, the paper responsible for the establishment of the study of dance as a formal part of anthropology (Keppler 31).  Evidence shows that Karuth’s idea was not at first well received.  An international conference on the subject shows that only ten people were on the list of invitees.  The lack of response could be attributed to Anthropologists’ established approach to studying a community.  For the most part, things such as dance or other aspects of human behavior considered arts were not given serious attention (or any attention).  They were often categorized as “play” and were not considered important parts of culture.  Although it was a slow shift, anthropologists began to realize that a study and understanding of dance can be an obvious part of culture and can help in the understanding of the deep structure of a society.  The result: new insights into understanding other parts of culture.


     The study of dance as a means of understanding culture has become a great tool for research.  Not only is it used to look at differences in ethnicity, but also to shed light on the behavior of specific groups.  In her work on dance and sexuality, Judith Hanna (2010) indicates that movement discourse analysis is similar to analyzing language (Hanna 214).  Dance is described as a system units of movements that combine to make words (vocabulary), that combine to make utterances or phrases, which finally come together to make a discourse (dance) shaped by social context.  A researcher can look at artistic conventions that express sexuality in dance.  Themes of gender, sexual orientation, asexuality, and ambiguity can be examined in the context of dance. 


     Another way in which scientists are using dance as science is to bring awareness to the relationship between human behavior and the environment (Stewart 2010).  Environmental dance is an umbrella term for various dances and somatic practices concerned with the human body’s relationship to land scape and environment, including the other-than human world of animals and plants (Stewart 32).  Environmental dance seeks to help develop an approach in which the values of nature or being part of nature support and demand that nature be protected.


     Dance has also been used as a tool in education (Lorezo-Laza, S.K., Ideishi, R.I., Ideishi, S.K.  2007). It has been found that physical movement coupled with pretend imagery can help attention, speed, retention, and enjoyment of learning.  Movement and music experiences included in a preschool curriculum can also reinforce math and logic concepts through rhythm and patterns of beat and tempo. 


    Having reviewed the employment of dance for scientific purposes, there is one application that must be underscored: dancing as a form of enjoyment. Alone, with a partner or as part of a group, dancing simply feels good and is cathartic. 

Works Cited:




Hanna, J. L. (2010).  Dance and Sexuality: Many moves.  Journal of Sex Research, 47(2-3), 212-241.




Kaeppler, A. L. (1978). Dance in Anthropological Perspective.  Annual Rev. Anth., 7, 31-49.


Lorezo-Laza, S.K., Ideishi, R.I., Ideishi, S.K. (2007).  Facilitating preschool learning and movement through dance.  Early Childhood Education Journal 35(1), 25- 31. 


Stewart, N.  (2010). Dancing the Face of Place:  Environmental dance and eco-phenomenology.    Performance Research, 15(4), 32-39.


The Encyclopedia of Dance: Methodologies in the Study of Dance