Ballet as Ethnic Dance

An Anthropologist Looks at Ballet as a Form of Ethnic Dance

by Joann Keali’inohomoku, Ph.D.

It is good anthropology to think of ballet as a form of ethnic dance. Currently, that idea is unacceptable to most Western dance scholars. This lack of agreement shows clearly that something is amiss in the communication of ideas between the scholars of dance and those of anthropology, and this paper is an attempt to bridge that communication gap.

The faults and errors of anthropologists in their approach to dance are many, but they are largely due to their hesitation to deal with something which seems esoteric and out of their field of competence. However, a handful of dance anthropologists are trying to rectify this by publishing in the social science journals and by participating in formal and informal meetings with other anthropologists.

By ethnic dance, anthropologists mean to convey the idea that all forms of dance reflect the cultural traditions within which they developed. Dancers and dance scholars, as this paper will show, use this term, and the related terms ethnologic, primitive and folkdance, differently and, in fact, in a way that reveals their limited knowledge of non-Western dance forms.

Vaslav Nijinsky (1888-1959) as a fawn.

In preparing to formulate this paper, I reread in an intense period pertinent writings by DeMille, Haskell, Holt, the Kinneys, Kirstein, La Meri, Martin, Sachs, Sorell and Terry. In addition I carefully reread the definitions pertaining to dance in Webster’s New International Dictionary, the 2nd edition definitions that were written by Humphrey, and the 3rd edition definitions that were written by Kurath. Although these and other sources are listed in the bibliography at the end of this paper, I name these scholars here to focus my frame of reference.

The experience of this intense rereading as an anthropologist rather than as a dancer, was both instructive and disturbing. The readings are rife with unsubstantiated deductive reasoning, poorly documented “proofs,” a plethora of half-truths, many out-and-out errors, and a pervasive ethnocentric bias. Where the writers championed nonwestern dance they were either apologists or patronistic. Most discouraging of all, these authors saw fit to change only the pictures and not the text when they reissued their books after as many as seventeen years later; they only updated the Euro-American dance scene.

This survey of the literature reveals an amazing divergence of opinions. We are able to read that the origin of dance was in play and that it was not in play, that it was for magical and religious purposes, and that it was not for those things; that it was for courtship and that it was not for courtship; that it was the first form of communication and that communication did not enter into dance until it became an “art.” In addition we can read that it was serious and purposeful and that at the same time it was an outgrowth of exuberance, was totally spontaneous, and originated in the spirit of fun. Moreover, we can read that it was only a group activity for tribal solidarity and that it was strictly for the pleasure and self-expression of the one dancing. We can learn also, that animals danced before man did, and yet that dance is human activity!

It has been a long time since anthropologists concerned themselves with unknowable origins, and I will not add another origin theory for dance, because I don’t know anyone who was there. Our dance writers, however, suggest evidence for origins from archeological finds, and from models exemplified by contemporary primitive groups. For the first, one must remember that man had been on this earth for a long time before he made cave paintings and statuary, so that archeological finds can hardly tell us about the beginnings of dance. For the second set of evidence, that of using models from contemporary primitives, one must not confuse the word “primitive” with “primeval,” even though one author actually does equate these two terms (Sorell 1967:14). About the dance of primeval man we really know nothing. About primitive dance, on the other hand, we know a great deal. The first thing that we know is that there is no such thing as a primitive dance. There are dances performed by primitives, and they are too varied to fit any stereotype.

It is a gross error to think of groups of peoples or their dances as being monolithic wholes. “The African dance” never existed; there are, however, Dahomean dances, Hausa dances, Masai dances, and so forth. “The American Indian” is a fiction and so is a prototype of “Indian dance.” There are, however, Iroquois, Kwakiutl, and Hopis, to name a few, and they have dances.

Despite all anthropological evidence to the contrary, however, Western dance scholars set themselves up as authorities on the characteristics of primitive dance. Sorell combines most of these so-called characteristics of the primitive stereotype. He tells us that primitive dancers have no technique, and no artistry, but that they are “unfailing masters of their bodies”! He states that their dances are disorganized and frenzied, but that they are able to translate all their feelings and emotions into movement! He claims the dances are spontaneous but also purposeful! Primitive dances, he tells us, are serious but social! He claims that they have “complete freedom “ but that men and women can’t dance together. He qualifies that last statement by saying that men and women dance together after the dance degenerates into an orgy! Sorell also asserts that primitives cannot distinguish between the concrete and the symbolic, that they dance for every occasion, and that they stamp around a lot! Further, Sorell asserts that dance in primitive societies is a special prerogative of males, especially chieftains, shamans and witch doctors (Sorell 1967:10-11). Kirstein also characterizes the dances of “natural, unfettered societies” (whatever that means). Although the whole body participates according to Kirstein, he claims that the emphasis of movement is with the lower half of the torso. He concludes that primitive dance is repetitious, limited, unconscious and with “retardative and closed expression”! Still, though it may be unconscious, Kirstein tells his readers that dance is useful to the tribe and that it is based on the seasons. Primitive dance, or as he phrases it, “earlier manifestations of human activity” is everywhere found to be “almost identically formulated.” He never really tells us what these formulations are except that they have little to offer in methodology or structure, and that they are examples of “instinctive exuberance” (Kirstein 1942:3-5).

Terry describes the functions of primitive dance, and he uses American Indians as his model. In his book The Dance in America he writes sympathetically towards American Indians and “his primitive brothers.” However, his paternalistic feelings on the one hand, and his sense of ethnocentricity on the other, prompt him to set aside any thought that people with whom he identifies could share contemporarily those same dance characteristics, because he states “the white man’s dance heritage, except for the most ancient of days, was wholly different” (1956:3-4, 195-198, 3).

With the rejection of the so-called primitive characteristics for the white man, it is common to ascribe these characteristics to groups existing among African tribes, Indians of North and South America, and Pacific peoples. These are the same peoples who are labeled by these authors as “ethnic.” No wonder that balletomanes reject the idea that ballet is a form of ethnic dance! But Africans, North and South Amerindians and Pacific peoples would be just as horrified to be called ethnic under the terms of the stereotype. Those so-called characteristics-as-a-group do not prevail anywhere!

Dame Margot Fonteyn (1919-1991) as the firebird.

Another significant obstacle to the identification of Western dancers with non-Western dance forms, be they primitive or “ethnologic” in the sense that Sorell uses the latter term as “the art expression of a race” which is “executed for the enjoyment and edification of the audience” (1967:76), is the double myth that the dance grew out of some spontaneous mob action and that once formed, became frozen. American anthropologists and many folklorists have been most distressed about the popularity of these widespread misconceptions. Apparently it satisfies our own ethnocentric needs to believe in the uniqueness of our dance forms, and it is much more convenient to believe that primitive dances, like Topsy, just “growed,” and that “ethnological’’ dances are part of an unchanging tradition. Even books and articles that purport to be about the dances of the world devote three quarters of the text and photos to Western dance. We explicate our historic eras, our royal patrons, dancing masters, choreographers, and performers. The rest of the world is condensed diachronically and synchronically to the remain­ing quarter of the book. This smaller portion, which must cover all the rest of the world, is usu­ally divided up so that the portions at the beginning imply that the ethnic forms fit on some kind of an evolutionary continuum, and the remaining portions at the end of the book for, say, American Negro dance, give the appearance of a post-script, as if they too “also ran.” In short we treat West­ern dance, ballet particularly, as if it was the one great divinely ordained apogee of the performing arts. This notion is exemplified, and reinforced, by the way dance photos are published. Unless the non-Western performer has made a “hit” on our stages, we seldom bother to give him a name in the captions, even though he might be considered a fine artist among his peers (Martin is the excep­tion). For example, see Claire Holt’s article “Two Dance Worlds” (1969). The captions under the photos of Javanese dancers list no names, but you may be sure that we are always told when Martha Graham appears in a photo. A scholar friend of mine was looking over the books by our dance historians, and he observed that they were not interested in the whole world of dance; they were really only interested in their world of dance. Can anyone deny this allegation?

Let it be noted, once and for all, that within the various “ethnologic” dance worlds there are also patrons, dancing masters, choreographers, and performers with names woven into a very real historical fabric. The bias that those dancers have toward their own dance and artists is just as strong as ours. The difference is that they usually don’t pretend to be scholars of other dance forms, nor even very much interested in them. It is in­structive, however, to remind ourselves that all dances are subject to change and development no matter how convenient we may find it to dismiss some form as practically unchanged for 2,000 years (see DeMille 1963:48). It is convenient to us, of course, because once having said that, we feel that our job is finished.

As for the presumed lack of creators of dance among primitive and folk groups, let us reconsider that assumption after reading Martin’s statement: “In simpler cultures than ours we find a mass of art actually created and practiced by the people as a whole. “(Martin 1939:15)

The first question that such a statement raises is what is a “mass of art”? Martin never really defines art, but if he means art as a refined aes­thetic expression, then it can be asked how such could ever be a collective product. Does he mean that it appeared spontaneously? Does he really think there can be art without artists? And if he believes that there must be artists, does he mean to imply that a “people as a whole” are artists? If so, what a wonderful group of people they must be. Let us learn from them!

Doubtless, Martin probably will say that I have taken his statement to an absurd extension of his meaning, but I believe that such thoughtless state­ments deserve to be pushed to their extreme.

It is true that some cultures do not place the same value on preserving the names of their innovators as we do. That is a matter of tradition also. But we must not be deceived into believing that a few hundred people all got together and with one unanimous surge created a dance tradition which, haying once been created, never changed from that day forward.

Among the Hopi Indians of Northern Arizona, for example, there is no tradition of naming a chore­ographer. Nevertheless they definitely know who, within a Kiva group or a society, made certain innovations and why. A dramatic example of the variety permitted in what is otherwise considered to be a static dance tradition is to see, as I have, the “same” dance ceremonies performed in sev­eral different villages at several different times. To illustrate, I observed the important Hopi “bean dances,” which are held every February, in five different villages during the winters of 1965 and 1968. There were the distinguishing differences between villages that are predictable differ­ences, once one becomes familiar with a village “style.” But, in addition, there were creative and not necessarily predictable differences that occurred from one time to the next. The Hopis know clearly what the predictable differences are, and they also know who and what circumstances led to the timely innovations. Not only do they know these things, but they are quite free in their evaluation of the merits and demerits of those dif­ferences, with their “own” usually (but not always) coming out as being aesthetically more satisfying.

In Martin’s Introduction to the Dance (1939) the first plate contains two reproductions of drawings of Hopi kachinas. Judging from its position among the plates, this must be Martin’s single example of dances from a primitive group. DeMille also shows Hopis as examples of primitive dancers (1963:33,35. The latter is a “posed” photo). Let us see how well the Hopis compare to the general­ities attributed to primitive dancers.


Hopi dances are immaculately organized, are never frenzied (not even, in fact especially, in their famous snake dance), nor is there a desire to translate feelings and emotions into movement. The dances are indeed serious, if this is synonymous with purposeful, but many dances are not serious if that word negates the fact that many dances are humorous, use clowns as personnel, and contain both derision and satire. Hopi dance is also social if one is speaking as a sociologist, but they have only one prescribed genre of dance that the Hopis themselves consider “social” in the sense that they can be performed by uninitiated members of the society. Hopis would find the idea of “complete freedom” in their dance to be an alien idea, because much of the form and behavior is rigidly prescribed. Certainly they would never lapse into an orgy! Nor do they “hurl themselves on the ground and roll in the mud” after the rains begin (DeMille 1963:35).

Hopis would be offended if you told them that they could not distinguish between the concrete and the symbolic. They are not children, after all. They certainly understand natural causes. But does it make them primitive, by definition, if they ask their gods to help their crops grow by bringing rain? Don’t farmers within the mainstream of America and Europe frequently pray to a Judeo­-Christian God for the same thing? Are the Hopis more illogical than we are when they dance their prayers instead of attending religious services with responsive readings, and a variety of motor activities such as rising, sitting, folding hands and the like?

Once again assessing the Hopis in the light of the characteristics presumably found for primitive dancers, we find that Hopis don’t dance for the three specific life events that supposedly are “always” recognized in dance. That is, Hopis don’t dance at births, marriages, or deaths.

Obviously, it cannot be said that they dance on “every” occasion. Furthermore, the Hopi stamp­ing would surely be a disappointment to Sorell if he expected the Hopis to “make the earth tremble under his feet” (1967:15). DeMille might also be surprised that there is no “state of exaltation” or “ecstasy” in Hopi dance (cf. DeMille 1963:34,67).

It is true that more Hopi dances are performed by males than by females, but females also dance un­der certain circumstances and for certain rituals that are the sole prerogative of females. What is more important is that women participate a great deal if one thinks of them as non-dancer participants, and one must, because it is the en­tire dance event which is important to the Hopis rather than just the actual rhythmic movement.

For the Hopis, it is meaningless to say that the primary dancers are the chieftains, witch doctors and shamans. Traditionally they have no real “government” as such, and every clan has its own rituals and societies that are further divided according to the village in which they live. Thus everyone will participate to some degree or another in a variety of roles. There is no shaman as such, so of course there cannot be shamanistic dances. As for witch doctors, they do not dance in that role although they dance to fulfill some of their other roles in their clan and residence groups.

I do not know what is meant by a “natural, unfet­tered society,” but whatever it is I am sure that description does not fit the Hopis. In their dance movements the whole body does not participate, and there is no pelvic movement as such. The dances are indeed repetitious, but that does not interfere in the least with the real dramatic im­pact of the performance. Within the “limitations” of the dance culture, Hopi dance still has an enor­mous range of variations, and this is especially true because the dance “event” is so richly or­chestrated.

Far from being an “unconscious” dance form, Hopi dancing is a very conscious activity. And I cannot believe that it is any more “retardative” or closed within its own framework than any other dance form, bar none. Finally, I find nothing in Hopi dance that can be called “instinctively ex­huberant,” but perhaps that is because I don’t know what “instinctive exuberance” is. If it is what I think it is, such a description is inappropriate for Hopi dances.

Lest someone say that perhaps the Hopis are the exception to prove the rule, or, perhaps, that they are not really “primitive,” let me make two points. First, if they are not “primitive” they do not fit in­to any other category offered by the dance scholars discussed in this article. Their dances are not “folk dance” as described, nor do they have “eth­nologic dances,” nor “art dances” nor “theatre dance” as these terms are used in the writings under consideration. Clearly, in the light of these writers’ descriptions, they are a “primitive,” “ethnic” group with dances in kind. Secondly, I know of no group anywhere that fits the descrip­tions for primitive dance such as given by DeMille, Sorell, Terry and Martin. Certainly I know of no justification for Haskell’s statement that “many dances of primitive tribes still living are said to be identical with those of birds and apes “ (1960:9). Unfortunately, Haskell does not document any of his statements and we cannot trace the source of such a blatant piece of misinformation.

It is necessary to hammer home the idea that there is no such thing as a “primitive dance” form. Those who teach courses called “primitive dance” are perpetuating a dangerous myth. As a corol­lary to this let it be noted that no living primitive group will reveal to us the way our European an­cestors behaved. Every group has had its own unique history and has been subject to both inter­nal and external modifications. Contemporary primitives are not children in fact, nor can they be pigeon-holed into some convenient slot on an evolutionary scale.

I suggest that one cause for so much inaccurate and shocking misunderstanding on the subject of primitive groups is due to an over dependence on the words of Sir James Frazer and Curt Sachs whose works have been outdated as source mater­ial for better than three decades. In their stead I would suggest that they read some of the works of Gertrude P. Kurath, whose bibliography appeared in the January, 1970 issue of Ethnomusicology. This and other suggested readings are given at the end of this article.


It is disconcerting to discover that writers tend to use key words without attempting real definitions that are neither too exclusive nor too inclusive. Even the word dance, itself, is never adequately defined to apply cross-culturally through time and space. Instead of definitions we are given descriptions, which are a different matter al­together. I have been closely questioned as to the need for definitions “as long as we all mean the same thing anyway,” and I have even been asked what difference it makes what we call some­thing as long as we all understand how some term is being used. The answers are twofold: without the discipline of attempting to define specific terms we are not sure we do all mean the same thing or that we understand how a term is being used. On the other hand, the tacit agreement about frames of reference can distort the focus of emphasis rather than giving the broadly based objectivity that comes from using a term de­notatively.

For seven years I pondered over a definition of dance, and in l965 I tentatively set out the follow­ing definition that has since undergone some slight modifications. In its current form it reads:

Dance is a transient mode of expression, per­formed in a given form and style by the human body moving in space. Dance occurs through purposefully selected and controlled rhythmic movements; the resulting phenomenon is re­cognized as dance both by the performer and the observing members of a given group. (1965:6, rev. 1970)

The two crucial points that distinguish this de­finition from others are the limiting of dance to that of human behavior since there is no reason to believe that birds or apes perform with the intent to dance. Intent to dance and acknowledgment of the activity as dance by a given group is the sec­ond distinguishing feature of my definition. This is the crucial point for applying the definition cross-culturally as well as setting dance apart from other activities which might appear to be dance to the outsider but which are considered, say, sports or ritual to the participants. Webster’s International Dictionary shows much contrast in the definitions of dance between the 2nd and 3rd editions. The reason for the contrasts is clear when it is understood that a performer-choreo­grapher of Western dance wrote the dance entries for the 2nd edition (Doris Humphrey), while an ethnochoreologist (Gertrude P. Kurath) wrote the entries for the 3rd edition.

We cannot accept Kirstein’s contention that “it is apparent… that the idea of tension, from the very beginning, has been foremost in people’s minds when they have thought about dancing seri­ously enough to invent or adapt word-sounds for it” (1935: 1). Alber (Charles J. Alber 1970: personal communication) assures me that both Japanese and Mandarin Chinese have time-honored words for dance and related activities and that the idea of tension does not occur at all in these words. Clearly Kirstein’s statement indicates that he has not looked beyond the models set out in Indo-­European languages. Can we really believe that only white Europeans are “advanced” enough to speak about dance?

The notion of tension through the etymology of European words for dance does reveal something about the Western aesthetic of dance that is ap­parent from the Western dance ideals of pull-up, body lift and bodily extensions. Elsewhere these things are not highly valued. Indeed my “good” Western trained body alignment and resultant ten­sion is a handicap in performing dances from other cultures. Martin seems to have the greatest in­sight in the relativity of dance aesthetics when he describes dance as a universal urge but without a universal form (1946:12). Further he states:

It is impossible to say that any of these ap­proaches is exclusively right or wrong, bet­ter or worse than any other… They are all absolutely right, therefore, for the specific circumstances under which they have been created (1946:17).

Indeed Martin comes the closest to the kind of rela­tivity which most American anthropologists feel is necessary for observing and analyzing any aspect of culture and human behavior (see Martin 1939: 92-93, 108). It is true that Sorell and others speak of differences caused by environment and other pertinent circumstances, but Sorell also a­scribes much of the difference to “race,” to “racial memory,” and to “innate” differences that are “in the blood” (1967:75-76, 275, 282, 283). These ideas are so outdated in current anthropology that I might believe his book was written at the end of the 19th century rather than in 1967.

It is true that many cross-cultural differences in dance style and dance aesthetics are due to both genetically determined physical differences and learned cultural patterns. In some cases the dif­ferences are clear. For example, a heavy Mohave Indian woman could not, nor would not perform the jumps of the Masai people of East Africa. Other differences are not clear because they are part of a chicken/egg argument until further research is done and until more of the right questions are asked. We do not know, for example, whether people who squat easily with both feet flat on the ground do so because their leg tendons are genetically different from non-squatters, or if anyone could have the same tendon configuration if they habitually as­sumed such postures (see discussion in Martin 1939:97). As for “innate” qualities, we have al­most no real evidence. There is nothing to support claims such as “barefoot savages have an ear for rhythms most Europeans lack” (DeMille 1963:48). There is much we do not know about bodies and genetics and cultural dynamics, and in addition, we are especially ignorant about systems of aes­thetics. It would be wiser for Western dance scholars to leave qualifying remarks and open mindedness in their discussions of these things, or else these scholars may have a lot of recanting to do.

Two terms that now require discussion are “primitive dance” and “folk dance.” These com­ments are to be understood against the framework of my definition of dance that I have already given.

British, and especially American, folklorists are concerned with defining the “folk” in order to know what “folk dances” are. Our dance scholars, on the other hand, usually use “folk dance” as a kind of catch-all term. For example, DeMille lists Azuma Kabuki under her chapter on folk dance companies (1963:74). To call this highly refined theatrical form “folk dance” doesn’t agree with Sorell’s argument that folk dance is dance that has not gone through a process of refinements; that has not been “tamed” (1967:73). Perhaps such discrepancies help to show why definitions are so important and what a state of confusion can exist when we presume we all mean the same things

Rather than following Sach’s contention that the “folk” or the “peasant” is an evolutionary stage between primitive and civilized man (1937:216), I shall follow the more anthropologically sophis­ticated distinctions that are discussed by the anthropologist Redfield in his book Peasant Society and Culture (1969: see especially pp. 23, 40-41). In brief, a primitive society is an autonomous and self-contained system with its own set of customs and institutions. It may be isolated or it may have more or less contact with other systems. It is usually economically independent and the people are often, if not always, nonliterate. (Notice that the term nonliterate refers to a group, which has never had a written language of their own devising. This is quite different from the term illiterate which means that there is a written language, but an illiterate is not sufficiently educated to know the written form. Thus DeMille’s statement that the primitives are illiterate is a contradiction of terms [DeMille 1963:23].) In contrast, peasant or folk societies are not autonomous. Economically and culturally such a community is in a symbiotic relationship with a larger society with which it constantly interacts. It is the “little tradition of the largely unreflective many” which is incomplete without the “great tradition of the reflective few.” Often the people in peasant societies are more or less illiterate. If one adds the word dance to the above descriptions of primitive and folk (or peas­ant) there might be a more objective agreement on what is meant by “primitive dance” and by “folk dance.”

Another troublesome term is that of “ethnic dance,” as I have already indicated. In the generally ac­cepted anthropological view, ethnic means a group that holds in common genetic, linguistic and cultural ties, with special emphasis on cultural tradition. By definition, therefore, every dance form must be an ethnic form. Although claims have been made for universal dance forms (such as Wisnoe Wardhana has been attempting to de­velop in Java: personal communication 1960), or international forms (such has been claimed for ballet: see Terry 1956:187), in actuality neither a universal form nor a truly international form of dance is in existence and it is doubtful whether any such dance form can ever exist except in theory. DeMille says this, in effect, when she writes that “theatre always reflects the culture that produces it” (1963:74). However others insist on some special properties for ballet. LaMeri insists that “the ballet is not an ethnic dance because it is the product of the social customs and artistic reflec­tions of several widely-differing national cultures” (1967:339). Nevertheless, ballet is a product of the Western world, and it is a dance form de­veloped by Caucasians who speak Indo-European languages and who share a common European tra­dition. Granted that ballet is international in that it “belongs” to European countries plus groups of European descendants in the Americas. But, when ballet appears in such countries as Japan or Korea it becomes a borrowed and alien form. Granted also that ballet has had a complex history of influences, this does not undermine its effec­tiveness as an ethnic form. Martin tells us this, although he probably could not guess that his statement would be used for such a proof:

The great spectacular dance form of the Western world is, of course, the ballet… Properly, the term ballet refers to a particular form of theater dance, which came into being in the Renaissance and which has a tradition, technic and an aesthetic basis all its own (1939:173).

Further quotations could be made to show the eth­nicity of ballet, such as Kirstein’s opening remarks in his 1935 book (vii).

Ethnicity of Ballet

I have made listings of the themes and other char­acteristics of ballet and ballet performances, and these lists show over and over again just how “ethnic” ballet is. Consider for example, how Western is the tradition of the proscenium stage, the usual three part performance which lasts for about two hours, our star system, our use of cur­tain calls and applause, and our usage of French terminology. Think how culturally revealing it is to see the stylized Western customs enacted on the stage, such as the mannerisms from the age of chivalry, courting, weddings, Christenings, bur­ial and mourning customs. Think how our worldview is revealed in the oft-recurring themes of unrequited love, sorcery, self-sacrifice through long-suffering, mistaken identity, and misunder­standings that have tragic consequences. Think how our religious heritage is revealed through pre-Christian customs such as Walpurgisnacht, through the use of Biblical themes, Christian holi­days such as Christmas, and the beliefs in life after death. Our cultural heritage is revealed also in the roles which appear repeatedly in our ballets such as humans transformed into animals, fairies, witches, gnomes, performers of evil magic, villains and seductresses in black, evil step-parents, royalty and peasants, and especial­ly, beautiful pure young women and their consorts.

Our aesthetic values are shown in the long line of lifted, extended bodies, in the total revealing of legs, of small heads and tiny feet for women, in slender bodies for both sexes, and in the coveted airy quality which is best shown in the lifts and carryings of the female. To us this is tremen­dously pleasing aesthetically, but there are so­cieties whose members would be shocked at the public display of the male touching the female’s thighs! So distinctive is the “look” of ballet that it is probably safe to say that ballet dances graph­ically rendered by silhouettes would never be mistaken for anything else. An interesting proof of this is the ballet Koshare, which was based on a Hopi Indian story. In silhouettes of even still photos, the dance looked like ballet and not like a Hopi dance.

The ethnicity of ballet is revealed also in the kinds of flora and fauna that appear regularly. Horses and swans are esteemed fauna. In contrast we have no tradition of esteeming for theatrical pur­poses pigs, sharks, eagles, buffalo or crocodiles even though these are indeed highly esteemed animals used in dance themes elsewhere in the world. In ballet, grains, roses and lilies are suitable flora, but we would not likely find much call for tare, yams, coconuts, acorns or squash blossoms. Many economic pursuits are reflected in the roles played in ballet such as spinners, foresters, soldiers, even factory workers, sail­ors, and filling station attendants. However, we would not expect to find pottery makers, canoe builders, grain pounders, llama herders, giraffe stalkers, or slash and burn agriculturists!

The question is not whether ballet reflects its own heritage. The question is why we seem to need to believe that ballet has somehow become acultural. Why are we afraid to call it an ethnic form?

The answer, I believe, is that Western dance scholars have not used the word ethnic in its ob­jective sense; they have used it as a euphemism for such old fashioned terms as “heathen,” “pagan,” “savage,” or the more recent term “exotic.” When the term ethnic began to be used widely in the ‘30’s, there apparently arose a problem in trying to refer to dance forms that came from “high” cultures such as India and Japan, and the term “ethnologic” gained its current meaning for dance scholars such as Sorell (1967:72), Terry (1956: 187, 196), and La Meri (1949:177-178). (An in­teresting article by Bunzell on the “Sociology of Dance” in the 1949 edition of Dance Encyclopedia rejects the use of the word “art” for these dance forms, however. In the context of his criticism, his point is well taken [1949:437].) I do not know why LaMeri chose to discard this usage and sub­stituted the word “ethnic” for “ethnologic” in her 1967 version of the Dance Encyclopedia article. She did not otherwise change her article, and since it was originally written with the above-mentioned dichotomy implicit in her discussion, her 1967 version becomes illogical. (For a critical re­view of the Dance Encyclopedia and especially of La Meri’s entries see Renouf, Ethnomusicology May, 1969:383-384.)

It is not clear to me who first created the dichoto­my between “ethnic dance” and “ethnologic dance.” Certainly this dichotomy is meaningless to anthro­pologists. As a matter of fact, European cultural anthropologists often prefer to call themselves eth­nologists, and for them the term “ethnologic” re­fers to the objects of their study (see Haselberger’s discussion 1961:341). The term “ethnological” does not have much currency among American cultural anthropologists although they understand the term to mean “of or relating to ethnology,” and “ethnology” deals with the comparative and ana­lytical study of cultures (see entries in Webster’s New International Dictionary, 3rd edition). Be­cause “culture,” in a simplified anthropological sense, includes all of the learned behavior and customs of any given group of people, there is no such thing as a cultureless people. Therefore, “ethnologic dances” should refer to a variety of dance cultures subject to comparison and analysis. Ethnic dance should mean a dance form of a given group of people who share common genetic, lin­guistic and cultural ties, as mentioned before. In the most precise usage it is a redundancy to speak of “an ethnic dance,” since any dance could fit that description. The term is most valid when used in a collective and contrastive way.*

Apparently one pan-human trait is to divide the world into “we” and “they.” The Greeks did this when “they” were called barbarians. Similarly, the Romans called the “they” pagans, Hawaiians call “they” kanaka’e, and Hopis call the “they” bahana. All of these terms imply not only foreign, but creatures who are uncouth, unnatural, ignor­ant and, in short, less than human. The yardstick for measuring humanity, of course, is the “we.” “We” are always good, civilized, superior; in short, “we” are the only creatures worthy of be­ing considered fully human. This phenomenon reveals the worldview of the speakers in every language, so far as I know. Often the phenomen­on is very dramatic. According to a scholar of Mandarin and Japanese languages, in Mandarin the “they” are truly “foreign devils” and in Japanese the “they” are “outsiders” (Charles Alber, personal communication: 1970).

I suggest that, due to the social climate which re­jects the connotations with which our former words for “they” were invested, and because of a certain sophistication assumed by the apologists for the “they,” English-speaking scholars were hard-­pressed to find designators for the kinds of non-Western dance that they wished to discuss. Hence the euphemistic terms ethnic and ethnologic seemed to serve that purpose.

It is perfectly legitimate to use “ethnic” and “ethnologic” as long as we don’t let those terms become connotative of the very things that caused us to abandon the other terms. We should indeed speak of ethnic dance forms, and we should not believe that this term is derisive when it in­cludes ballet since ballet reflects the cultural traditions from which it developed.

I must make it clear that I am critical of our foremost Western dance scholars only where they have stepped outside their fields of authority. Within their fields they command my great re­spect, and I would not want to argue their relative merits. Scholars that they are, they will agree with me, I feel confident, that whatever are the rewards of scholarship, comfortable complacency cannot be one of them.


*Harper distinguishes between ethnic and theatrical dance on the basis of “integral function of a society” versus dance which is “deliberately organized” to be performed for a general, impersonal audience (1967:10). This dichotomy, which is based on genre rather than the society, provides a good working classification. However, the distinction fails when the terms are tested. Thus one can have ethnic dances of an ethnic society, but not theatrical dances of a theatrical society. It seems clear that “ethnic” is a more embracive category under which “traditional” and “theatri­cal” might be convenient sub-divisions. In any case, Harper’s discussion is thought-provoking.

Sources cited:

Bunzel, Joseph H., “Sociology of the Dance,” The Dance Encyclopedia, Anatole Chujoy, comp. and ed. New York: A. S. Barnes and Co., 1949, pp. 435-440.

DeMille, Agnes, The Book of the Dance. New York: Golden Press, 1963.

Frazer, Sir James G., The Golden Bough. New York: Macmillan Co., 1947.

Harper, Peggy, “Dance in a Changing Society.” African Arts/Arts d’Afrique 1:1, Autumn, 1967, pp. 10-13, 76-77, 78 -80.

Haselberger, Herta, “Method of Studying Ethnological Art.” Current Anthropology, 2:4, October, 1961, pp. 341-384.

Haskell, Arnold, The Wonderful World of Dance. New York: Garden City Books, 1960.

Holt, Claire, “Two Dance Worlds.” Anthology of Impulse, Marian Van Tuyl, ed. New York: Dance Horizons, Inc., 1969, pp. 116-131.

Humphrey, Doris, “Dance” and related entries, Webster’s New International Dictionary, 2nd edition, unabridged. Springfield, Massachusetts: G. and C. Merriam Co., Publishers, 1950.

Keali’inohomoku, Joann Wheeler, A Comparative Study of Dance as a Constellation of Motor Behaviors Among African and United States Negroes, unpublished M.A. thesis. Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University, 1965.

Kinney, Troy and Margaret West Kinney, The Dance. New York: Frederick A. Stokes Co., 1924.

Kirstein, Lincoln, Dance. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1935.

______, The Book of the Dance. Garden City, New York: Garden City Publishing Co., 1942.

Kurath, Gertrude Prokosch, “Dance” and related entries, Webster’s New International Dictionary, 3rd edition, una­bridged. Springfield, Massachusetts: G. and C. Merriam Co., Publishers, 1966.

La Meri, “Ethnic Dance,” The Dance Encyclopedia, Anatole Chujoy and P. W. Manchester comps. and eds. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1967, pp.338-339.

_______, “Ethnologic Dance,” The Dance Encyclopedia, Anatole Chujoy, comp. and ed. New York: A. S. Barnes, 1949, pp. 177-178.

Martin, John, Introduction to the Dance. New York: W. W. Norton and Co., Inc., 1939.

­­­_______, The Dance. New York: Tudor Publishing Co., 1946.

_______, (John Martin’s Book of) The Dance. New York: Tudor Publishing Co., 1963.

Redfield, Robert, The Little Community and Peasant Society and Culture. Chicago and London: Phoenix Books, The University of Chicago Press, 1969. (First published separately, 1956.)

Renouf, Renee, Book Review of The Dance Encyclopedia, Anatole Chujoy and P. W. Manchester, comps. and eds., Ethnomusicology 13:2, May, 1969, pp. 383-384.

Sachs, Curt, World History of the Dance, Bessie Schönberg, trans. New York: Bonanza Books, 1937.

Sorell, Walter, The Dance Through the Ages. New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1967.

Terry, Walter, “Dance, History of,” The Dance Encyclopedia, Anatole Chujoy and P. W. Manchester, comps. and eds. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1967, pp. 255-259.

­­_______, “History of Dance,” The Dance Encyclopedia, Anatole Chujoy, comp. and ed. New York: A. S. Barnes and Co., 1949, pp. 238-243.

_______, The Dance in America. New York: Harper and Brothers Publishers, 1956.

Recommended Reading:

Claerhout, Adriann G. H., “The Concept of Primitive Applied to Art,” Current Anthropology 6:4, October, 1965, pp. 432-438.

Harper, Peggy, op. cit.

Haselberger, Herta, op. cit.

Kaeppler, Adrienne L., “Folklore as Expressed in the Dance in Tonga,” Journal of American Folklore, 80:316, April-June, 1967, pp. 160-168.

________, The Structure of Tongan Dance, unpublished doctoral dissertation. Honolulu, Hawaii: University of Hawaii, 1967. By University Microfilms, Inc., Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Kealiinohomoku, Joann W., and Frank J. Gillis, “Special Bibliography: Gertrude Prokosch Kurath,” Ethnomusicology 14:1, January, 1970, pp. 114-128.

Kurath, Gertrude Prokosch, “Panorama of Dance Ethnology,” Current Anthropology, 1:3, May, 1960, pp. 233-254.

Renouf, Renee, op. cit.

Rood, Armistead P., “Bete Masked Dance: A View From Within,” African Arts/Arts d’Afrique 2:3, Spring, 1969, pp. 36-43, 76.

Article reprinted with permission of the author from Impulse 1969-1970, pp. 24-33, Marian Van Tuyl, ed., San Francisco, California: Impulse Publications.

Joann W. Keali’inohomoku is an internationally recognized scholar, speaker and writer on ethnic dance forms. She holds a Bachelor Degree in Theatre, Northwestern; a Masters in Anthropology, Northwestern; and a Ph.D. in Anthropology with a concentration on the performance arts, and a folklore minor from Indiana University (Bloomington). Dr. Keali’inohomoku trained in modern dance and several non-western forms, and taught dancing and choreographed for theatre groups in Milwaukee and Honolulu. She was on the faculty of the Anthropology Department, Northern Arizona University for fourteen years (now emeritus). As a dance scholar of theory and praxis, she especially studied the dance cultures of Pacific peoples, Native Americans, African Americans of the U.S. Midwest, and the U.S.A. dance mosaic. Dr. Keali’inohomoku acted as a major consultant for the PBS eight-hour TV series, Dancing, and for the accompanying book. She has published extensively about dance: writing chapters in twelve books, thirty-nine articles, thirty-three book, film or video reviews, and six major entries in encyclopedias, and editing or co-editing two books. The Conference on Research in Dance (CORD) inaugurated their award for “Outstanding Contribution to Dance Research” by presenting it to Dr. Keali’inohomoku in 1996. In 1981 she co-founded Cross-Cultural Dance Resources, located in Flagstaff, Arizona, where she is the President of the Board and currently pursues work as an independent scholar.

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