Issues in Fieldwork

Seeking the Unknown

Critical Issues in Fieldwork for the Dancer/Researcher

by Barbara Racy

Conducting fieldwork in a culture other than one’s own may seem like a daunting task, but it can also result in one of life’s most rewarding adventures. In this presentation, I would like to address some of the many critical issues that face the fieldwork explorer, that courageous dancer/researcher whose passion for dance moves him/her to seek the unknown. There may be many differing reasons for conducting fieldwork, such as finishing the requirements for a degree, pursuing a career in academia, gaining information for publications, reconstructing dances for performance, seeking inspiration for new interpretive choreographies, and many others. Underlying the many reasons for conducting fieldwork are certain issues that reappear throughout the process. I would like to address at least six of them.

Dr. Ali Jihad Racy and Barbara Racy with a member of the Sa’d bin Awwad performance group. Khaleeji Times, 1998.

First, there is the broad area of preparation. The planning before entering the field can be crucial to the success of the ensuing stages of the research. In addition to orienting oneself to the culture to be studied through background readings, language acquisition, visual and musical education, and learning the culture’s dance genres, there are other vital concerns such as the questions: What do I hope to gain from this endeavor?; and How do I go about pursuing my preliminary goals? A soul searching, reflective look at one’s motivation for going into the field is necessary early in the quest.

Secondly, there is a need for some grounding in a theoretical research base. The field of dance ethnology gives us some historical perspective on various theoretical approaches used by those lovers of dance who have preceded us. Gertrude Kurath’s “Panorama of Dance Ethnology” (1960, 1986) is a seminal article. The work of Adrienne Kaeppler (1972), Drid Williams (1991), Joann Kealiinohomoku (1970, 1976), Anya Peterson Royce (1977), Judith Lynne Hanna (1979), Allegra Fuller Snyder (1974, 1992), Elsie Dunin (1991), and other dance ethnologists are vital to the development of the field and provide models in both methodology and case studies. Allied fields such as anthropology have a wealth of literature on fieldwork methodology and theory. A basic reference for establishing a historical background in cultural anthropology is L. L. Langness’ The Study of Culture (1987). Recent developments in post modern theory in cultural anthropology are explored in The Truth about the Truth (1995), a book edited by Walter Truett Anderson. Some anthropological references deal directly with fieldwork and are essentially manuals outlining research methodology. Some of these include Ethnography: Step by Step (1989) by David M. Fetterman, The Ethnographic Interview (1979) and Participant Observation (1980) by James Spradley, and Fieldwork (1987) by Bruce Jackson. The field of ethnomusicology is rich in studies tackling fieldwork issues. Two such studies are the Field Manual for Ethnomusicology (1983) by Marcia Herndon and Norma McLeod, and Ethnomusicology: An Introduction (1992), a compilation with many distinguished authors, edited by Helen Myers. Gleaning methodologies from disciplines such as folklore, sociology, and psychology is also to be considered. The important point of citing these references is that we are not in this endeavor alone. We are preceded by many seasoned guides who have traversed these treacherous research paths before and can lend a willing hand of support. Issues one and two converge when we realize that none of us come to our fieldwork without biases, prejudices, suppositions, and personal world views. There is no merely objective, scientific, detached observer dancer/researcher in the field. The study of human beings is too complicated for us to claim that we know the truth. By versing ourselves in many “truths” or interpretations that have gone before us, we may have a more insightful perception of our own worldview.

Barbara Racy with informants in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Al-Riyadahwa Al-Shabab, June, 1998

The third issue in preparation for the field is choosing the research techniques that fit our specific purposes. If we are documenting for later creation of choreographies, for example, we will need to have proficiency in video cameras, still cameras, and sound equipment. Dance analysis is dependent upon the visual media. Video tends to make the image appear one?dimensional, with relative distances and interrelations among musicians and dancers difficult to discern, especially if one does not know the genre. For this reason, during my fieldwork in the Arabian Gulf with my UCLA ethnomusicologist husband, Jihad Racy, I often found myself videotaping from the roof to get a different perspective from the cameras on the ground. It is through a multiplicity of viewpoints that the dancer/researcher can address the complex, multi-sided phenomena in which different art forms blend.

In the Middle East, our research has demonstrated that music and dance are inseparable. Facing the challenge of addressing their interconnectedness, the dance researcher may have to use a multimedia approach in order to begin to understand the event. For example, in the Arabian Gulf, the nuban ritual is used for healing, as well as for entertainment and public festivals. The performance involves approximately thirty or more participants with a tanbura, or large lyre (Racy, A. 1988:250) playing in the back, accompanied by a set of four drums. A man moves rhythmically while wearing a manjur, or rattle?belt made from goat hooves. There are two rows of dancers going back and forth against each other in front of the instruments and the leader of the ritual. The event is in some ways like a symbolic war dance with the leader transmitting commands or cues through the lyre player, who is often the lead singer, to the lead dancer and down the line to the other dancers. This complex hierarchy leads to full coordination between the musical cycles and the dance cycle. Still pictures alone cannot show the transitions. Similarly, sound recordings lack a visual component, and the video does not always highlight the subtleties of the musical cues. One role of the dance researcher is to observe the link among all the expressive components of the media as well as to focus specifically on the individual dance movements. Here is where the trained dance researcher can ascertain, with guidance from a local informant, what movements are important so that the researcher, for example, will not be videotaping just the participants heads when the footwork is the most critical element of attention in a particular image. (I am sure you have all seen this happen.)

A fourth issue concerns teamwork in research versus the individual approach. Collaboration in teamwork can be essential and quite rewarding for the dancer. The dance researcher cannot expect to be an expert on music, text, equipment, language, etc. Sometimes, for the dance researcher to be freed of concern with any equipment provides an atmosphere of intimacy with the informants, and a better chance to observe and sometimes to participate more actively. At times, the dance scholar must feel the movement through his or her own body to understand the physiology and dynamics of the movement event. By comparison, the model of the individual dancer/researcher requires competency in many areas. Sometimes logistics dictate that a dance researcher work alone. I have done solo fieldwork in East Africa, India, Nepal, Indonesia, and Brazil with a backpack filled with a video camera, cassette recorder and microphone, and two still cameras. At times the intimacy of the event or ritual precludes team members’ participation. Other problems occur unexpectedly when for example, potential informant/team members are uncomfortable with a subject matter, such as an animal sacrifice or spirit possession ritual. On two occasions, one at a zar ceremony, or therapeutic trance dance ritual in Egypt (Racy, B. 1988:253) and another at a spirit possession ritual in Dubai, I was abandoned when the material was either too unpleasant or too frightening for the continued participation of others in the team. I believe this is where people’s biases and belief systems need to be respected.

Razif performance, including stylized sword duel in Khor Fakkan, United Arab Emirates.

The fifth issue involves the human element, trust, and ethics. Key informants, or “key actors” as Fetterman terms them, are also collaborators and co-researchers. The fine line between the researcher and informant can fade when you realize that suddenly you are being interviewed as the “expert.” An interesting example of this redefining of roles happened in Qatar during a tanbura ritual. A male leader of another group visited this healing ritual and complained bitterly to the elderly female leader of this group that the ritual she was conducting must be held outside in the sand covered courtyard, rather than indoors, as she was doing. She protested his interference, told him he was wrong, and instructed him to ask my husband, who was sitting discreetly in the back of the room, what the correct procedure was if he still doubted her word. She asserted that “Dr. Jihad,” the professor, would know what is right and wrong, an assumption of knowledge based on perceived prestige and certainly not prior experience.

At times roles are reversed and there is a reciprocity of friendship and confidence that builds into a trusting relationship. The dancer/researcher must use caution in protecting the informants. In one research context of a ritual involving trance, photos that were shot raised concerns that they might be misinterpreted or taken out of context, thus reflecting badly on the individuals in the community. Therefore the photos were not to be deposited in public archives or published. Sometimes it may be important to talk to performers in advance about what is allowed, and then after the event, to view the material with these performers and delete that which is of particular concern to them. Issues such as copyright, written permission for use, renumeration in money or deed for time spent, and safeguards against the exploitation of the people the researcher studies, are extremely important to the conscientious researcher.

The sixth issue centers around the notion that the field provides us an opportunity to continually modify and revise our hypotheses and therefore our methodologies. This is what Spradley (1980) refers to as the ethnographic research cycle in which the selection of an ethnographic project leads to asking questions, collecting data, making a record, analyzing the data, and writing an ethnography, all leading to further ethnographic questions. This is not a linear model in the sense that fieldwork proceeds progressively from beginning to end, but rather a cyclical model in which continued field observation leads to revisions of one’s own research design.

To conclude, I propose that a cyclical model for fieldwork is not unlike life itself. We continuously expand our awareness, open ourselves to new ideas, revise our assumptions, and tempt the wonderment and joy of experiencing the unknown.

Performer at zar ritual in Cairo wears a manjur (goat-hooves rattle belt) and shakes an ashukhshaykhah (tin can rattle).


Anderson, Walter T., ed. 1995. The Truth about the Truth. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons.

Dunin, Elsie Ivancich, ed. 1991. Dance Research Published or Publicly Presented by Members of the Study Group on Ethnochoreology. Los Angeles: International Council for Traditional Music, Study Group on Ethnochoreology; Dance Department, University of California, Los Angeles.

Fetterman, David M. 1989. Ethnography: Step by Step. Applied Social Research Methods Series, Vol. 17. Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications.

Hanna, Judith Lynne. 1979. To Dance is Human: A Theory of Nonverbal Communication. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press.

Herndon, Marcia and Norma McLeod. 1983. Ethnomusicology. Norwood, PA: Norwood Editions.

Jackson, Bruce. 1987. Fieldwork. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Kaeppler, Adrienne L. 1972. “Method and theory in analyzing dance structure with an analysis of Tongan dance.” Ethnomusicology, 16(2): 173?217.

Kealiinohomoku, Joann. 1970. “An anthropologist looks at ballet as a form of ethnic dance.” Impulse, 24?33 San Francisco: Impulse Publications.

_____1976. “Theory and methods for the anthropological study of dance.” Ph. D. Diss., Indiana University.

Kurath, Gertrude Prokosch. 1960. “Panorama of Dance Ethnology.” Current Anthropology, 1(3): 233?254.

_____1986. Half a Century of Dance Research: Essays by Gertrude Prokosch Kurath. Flagstaff, AZ: Cross?Cultural Dance Resources.

Langness, L. L. 1987. The Study of Culture. Novato, CA: Chandler and Sharp Publishers.

Meyers, Helen, ed. 1992. Ethnomusicology: an Introduction. New York: W. W. Norton.

Racy, A. Jihad. 1988. “Music in Middle Eastern societies,” in The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the Middle East and North Africa. Trevor Mostyn, ed. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

Performance on the habban (bagpipe) with drums, Doha, Qatar, 1998.

Racy, Barbara T. 1988. “Dance,” in The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the Middle East and North Africa. Trevor Mostyn, ed. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

Royce, Anya Peterson. 1977. The Anthropology of Dance. Bloomington, IN; Indiana University Press.

This article was originally presented at the International Conference on Middle Eastern Dance, “Into the Next Millennium,” Orange Coast College, Costa Mesa, CA, May 17, 1997.

Barbara Racy has an M.A. in Dance Ethnology and Dance Movement Therapy from UCLA, and is currently working on a dissertation titled, “Performance Anxiety among Musicians” toward completing her Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology. In addition to being a professional photographer with numerous publications and videos to her credit, she has done research in psychological anthropology and on dance of the Middle East, and has conducted fieldwork in Egypt, the Arabian Peninsula, including Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, Lebanon, Sudan, Morocco, Indonesia, India, Nepal, and East Africa. As Middle Eastern dancer, she has performed in concerts throughout the United States and abroad, appearing at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC, the Music Center in Los Angeles, and other theaters. She has been a member of several Middle Eastern dance troupes in the U. S. and has studied dance in Egypt and Lebanon.

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