Dancing in Dublin: Exploring Philosophical Assumptions in Qualitative Approaches to Describing Dance

Author’s Note: The purpose of this photo essay is to discuss the philosophical assumptions surrounding potential qualitative research methodologies that might be utilized to describe aesthetic competence and dance performance. It is a culmination of earlier work developed during my time in Dublin, Ireland while participating in a five-week study abroad program in collaboration with the University of Illinois at Chicago and University College Dublin during the summer of 2015.

I had the pleasure of working with two undergraduate students on a qualitative research project related to sports psychology and dance. What we found were more similarities than differences, and a welcoming, inquisitive, innovative dance community in Dublin. What follows below is a culminating piece from this work, originally published on a University blog sponsored by the UIC Study Abroad Program and is presented on this site with some revisions and modifications.

"Touch and movement go together...follow your interests." MeetShareDance workshop leader in guided improvisation using five senses
“Follow your curiosity all the way through…follow your interests. Stay curious for yourself” A workshop leader leads a guided improvisation using five senses | Photo by the author of the 2015 MeetShareDance Festival in Dublin, Ireland (used with permission)

I arrived in Dublin at the beginning of June, 2015, with a group of UIC students to study sport and performance psychology. I came with a particular set of interests: aesthetic competence in concert dance performance, and how perceptions of performance potentially affect the way dancers train.

Athletic achievement is quantified by winning the game, getting the gold medal, beating a personal best, etc. Aesthetic competence (AC) is a term used in performance to describe that which is not defined by fitness level or technique; rather, AC is related to overall quality of movement. Aesthetic sports like figure skating, synchronized swimming, and gymnastics share this term with dance, particularly competitive dance forms such as ballroom and ice dancing. The work of D. V. Knudson (2013) is foundational in describing and assessing qualitative aspects of movement, utilized in scoring systems across many aesthetic sports. Early AC studies on concert dancers (ballet and contemporary) borrowed models from aesthetic sports such as figure skating and gymnastics (Krasnow & Chatfield, 2009).  While concert dancers and aesthetic athletes share similarities, however, the nature of concert dance as an inherently subjective art form makes it difficult to elucidate benchmarks by which one might measure a dancer’s performance.

I am interested in investigating whether a set of attributes can universally define AC in concert dancers. While in Ireland, I met some of Dublin’s wonderful dance community members and “tried on” a number of potential qualitative methodologies that might be brought home as part of a larger body of work.

Philosophical Assumptions

John W. Creswell (2013) describes the importance of identifying underlying philosophical assumptions when conducting qualitative research.  The work I conducted in Dublin was primarily ethnographic (the writing of culture), using methodological strategies that included observation, participant observation, interview, Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS), and grounded theory.

Creswell delineates four assumptive domains within qualitative investigation:

1) epistemological: distinguishing belief from opinion

2) axiological: acceptance that bias is present

3) ontological: accepting multiple realities by collecting many viewpoints

4) methodological: inductive vs. deductive logic (Creswell, 2013, p. 21)

This photo essay addresses my personal assumptions specific to the qualitative study of dance performance, based on prior knowledge and experience, current literature on the topic, and this investigation in Dublin. Work in Dublin consisted of collaborations with Dance IrelandMeetShareDance, the Dublin Youth Dance Company, and Irish Modern Dance Theatre, in addition to interviews with a number of independent dance artists.

Epistemological Assumptions: How we know what we know

What are the qualities that define a "good" dance performance? How does one describe the "essence" of dance? | Photo by the author of Dublin Youth Dance Company performing at the Irish Youth Dance Festival (used with permission)

Positivist Evidence-Base for Aesthetic Competence. Much of the literature regarding AC is positivist in nature, that is, it works from a philosophical assumption that “truth” is derived from empirical evidence by employing the scientific method. In an effort to uncover potential physiological variables associated with AC, Angioi, Metsios, Twitchett, Koutedakis, & Wyon (2009) tested the reliability of a rating scale developed by the authors through a systematic review of the literature (r = 0.96). Such a scale could be utilized to assess the quality of a dance performance, or whether a dancer is “good” or aesthetically pleasing to the viewer.

According to Angioi et al.’s scale, the most reliable physical fitness correlate for AC in contemporary dancers was push-up test performance. The results of their study suggest a correlation between upper body muscular endurance, lower body power (measured through a push-up test and vertical jump test, respectively) and AC.

In addition to Angioi et al., a number of researchers have developed tools for measuring dance performance, profiled in Krasnow & Chatfield (2009). In 2014 I conducted an unpublished review of the literature using the search terms “aesthetic competence” and “dance” to establish an evidence-base from which to develop a qualitative research study. I coded each article as if it were field note data to identify themes, and from this coding process deduced a series of categories related to qualitative aspects of dance performance. The following themes were present in the literature:

  • Alignment/Posture: Sense of center, carriage of the body, maintenance of correct position in motion (Koutedakis & colleagues, 2007; Parrott, 1993).
  • Clarity of movement intention: Amplitude of range of motion, whole body involvement. Also referred to as “spatial skills” or “spatial integrity,” this theme relates to the concepts of space, time, and energy described by Bartinieff Fundamentals and Laban Movement Analysis (Angioi et al., 2009; Chmelar & Fitt, 1991/1992; Chatfield & Byrnes, 1990; Krasnow & Chatfield, 2009; Parrott, 1993).
  • Precision of movement/Articulation/Coordination: Balance and control, articulation of body segments, coordination, transitions between movements (Angioi et al., 2009; Koutedakis & colleagues, 2007; Parrott, 1993).
  • Expressivity of the body: Appropriate use of bodyweight, energy, and facial expressions. Can also refer to dramatic range and the impression left on the audience (Angioi et al., 2009; Chmelar & Fitt, 1991/1992; Parrott, 1993; Pokora, 1988).
  • Musicality: The ability of a dancer to demonstrate rhythm or musical precision and/or interpret a musical accompaniment (Angioi et al., 2009; Chmelar & Fitt, 1991/1992; Parrott, 1993).
  • Technique: Angioi et al. (2009) define contemporary dance technique in terms of elevation, turning and falling, height of extensions, balance, placement, and posture. As such, it appears that technique is infused into nearly all of the above categories. Chmelar and Fitt (1991/1992), however, differentiate between performance and technique, defining technique parameters as including range of motion, explosive movements, endurance, and neurological components such as timing and coordination.

Trusting Experience over Evidence. The benefit of positivist research is that it generates “rules”. In other words, were an experiment repeated under the same conditions, the results are likely to be the same and generalizable to a larger segment of society. The literature profiled above attempting to define AC and dance performance obeys this positivist paradigm.

For competition dance and ballroom — forms that are judged and awarded a winner — it is probably beneficial to create a generalizable model for evaluating performance. In concert dance, however, value and quality are based on perception, and not necessarily determined by quantifiable attributes. Even assuming that concert dance can or should be generalized, no two dancers are the same, no two dances are the same, and no two audience members see dance in the same way. So, it becomes problematic to imagine that there is only one way to define “good” dance.

Using qualitative methods admits and accepts that measuring dance is messy, and quite possibly too subjective to submit to a set of generalized standards of excellence. In light of this, I have utilized ethnography as a research approach — attempting to write the culture of dance from dancers’ point of view.

"Qualitative inquiry represents a legitimate mode of social and human science exploration, without apology or comparisons to quantitative research." John W. Creswell, 2013 (p. 6) | Photo by the author of Dublin Youth Dance Company performing at the Irish Youth Dance Festival (used with permission)

Axiological Assumptions: “Research is value-laden” (Creswell, 2013, p. 21)

Using the Literature to Ground Ethnographic Research. The strength of ethnography in researching the health sciences has been described by Reeves, Kuper, & Hodges (2008), and Krane & Baird (2005). I arrived in Ireland set on conducting ethnographic research, but familiar with the themes presented by the literature and outlined above.

Meeting over coffee provides a way to connect with dancers that is not possible in a dance class or a dark theater.

In ethnography, everything is data. I recorded field notes on every dance-related experience I had in Dublin – from Kristina’s class with Toni Bravo, to the Dublin Youth Dance Company performance in Ballymun, to every coffee shop chat and social event, MeetShareDance, and a week-long intensive with Christine Kono-Pohlmann and Irish Modern Dance Theatre. I kept reflexive memos beside my field notes to acknowledge my personal reactions and biases and avoid mixing them into the data.

With the mindset that I could strengthen the value of positivist literature by uncovering its patterns and themes of AC within my observations from the field, I began coding my notes according to the themes presented in the literature. As time progressed, I found that many of my notes were left blank – uncoded.

In other words, I was looking for something that wasn’t there.

Using Grounded Theory to Challenge the Literature. The “beauty” of fieldwork is that it rarely goes according to plan. Grounded Theory (GT) acknowledges this: one gets to investigate things as they are, not as one wants or expects them to be. My time in Dublin reminded me to remain open – open to new lines of investigation, open to new perceptions of what dance is or can be, and open to possible themes that might arise out of the wide range of experiences I had there. GT is both a method of research and a theoretical viewpoint stating that theory emerges from the data.

“A key idea is that… theory development does not come ‘off the shelf,’ but rather is generated or ‘grounded’ in data from participants who have experienced the process.”

-Strauss & Corbin, 1998, cited in Creswell, 2013 (p. 84)

A GT Approach to Analyzing the Data. In their book Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes, Emerson, Fretz, & Shaw (2011) discuss the utilization of GT when first analyzing ethnographic data. The authors suggest an “open coding” method on the first read-though. In other words, the researcher goes line by line through her field notes and reflexive journal, allowing themes to emerge from the data, rather than looking for something specific. In this way, she remains open to what is in front of her, rather than relying on epistomological assumptions.

When I came to Ireland, I was focused on working with professional concert dancers. What was presented to me was a much broader and richer definition of “dancer” than the one with which I arrived. Dancers here rarely, if ever, have long-term contracts; nearly every dancer is a freelancer. The MeetShareDance workshops I observed included people who stand on two legs and people who use wheelchairs. There was a person who does not see, a person who uses crutches, and a person whose body contracts involuntarily. The beauty of witnessing these dancers moving together, and the “quality” of their performances, for me personally, was undeniable, and should not be assessed by musicality, precision of movement, alignment, or push-up performance as it is described by the conventional paradigm. Such experiences have afforded me the opportunity to rethink how I might handle my data, allowing it to speak for itself rather than forcing it into an evidence-based framework.

A Well-Rounded Approach.

“As analyst, the ethnographer remains open to the varied and sometimes unexpected possibilities…The process is…one of reflexive or dialectical interplay between theory and data, whereby theory enters in at every point, shaping not only analysis but also how social events come to be perceived and written up as data in the first place… Thus, it is more accurate to say that the ethnographer creates, rather than discovers, theory.”

-Emerson, Fretz, & Shaw, 2011 (pp. 198-199)

Though it is tempting to abandon the literature and work from a purely GT approach, there is value in patterns, statistical significance, and generalizability. AC as defined by positivist literature might be true in some regard and under specific circumstances, as too is AC as defined by inductive inquiry. There is little benefit in simply tossing good research aside.

Emerson, Fretz, & Shaw acknowledge that GT is not entirely possible in coding ethnographic data because axiological assumptions of the researcher are present in the way she puts down her field notes. Open coding is only true in the sense that it is an unfiltered pass at notes that have been gathered and recorded through the researcher’s filter.

Emerson et al. suggest an additional pass of “focused coding” once themes begin to emerge. What might arise from the data if I were to use both methods: a pass of coding according to themes established by the literature, and another pass free from any obligation toward it? What could come from that process remains to be seen.

Toward a Methodology of Describing Dance

Observer (Melissa, left) and Participant Observer (Tina) leaving from class at Dance Ireland | Photo by the author

H. Russell Bernard (2006) describes varying ways of conducting ethnographic research, ranging from that of complete observer to complete participant. A blend of the two, participant observation, is a commonly used method for capturing data in ethnography. Being a former dancer, I had the capacity to participate, but I chose to observe.

The Choice to Observe

My choice to enter the field as an observer was deliberate, triangulated by using a variety of methods and two co-investigators. The experience of the observer is different from that of the dancer, yet equally critical. After all, who are we creating dances for? Ourselves, certainly, but as an aesthetic and often presentational practice, dance relies on its audience for interpretation, intellectual discourse, and for some, validation.

Drawing from Authentic Movement. Developed in the 1950’s by Mary Starks Whitehouse, Walden (1998) describes Authentic Movement (AM) as an improvisational movement practice, the goal of which is to move subconsciously, free from any association and intention, in the presence of a witness. In her dissertation exploring the use of AM as a qualitative research tool, Walden (1998) writes that AM is based on “the theory that all movement is inherent in and reflective of a person’s authentic self” (p. 2).

AM’s origins are in the dance therapy field (Musicant, 1994), best supported by the literature as a therapeutic practice. As a choreographic tool, AM has been utilized to elicit spontaneous creation of new movement vocabulary. The idea is to allow the choreographer to produce pure, raw, impulsive movement in the presence of another person, and in doing so, create dances that will more genuinely speak to the human experience, rather than forcing meaning onto a contrived set of “steps.”

Peering into the mirror provides feedback to the mover. Authentic Movement uses a witness, rather than a mirror, to allow the mover to understand what has been seen, and what has taken place, through a constructive feedback session. | Photo by the author of co-investigator Kristina Kuta as a participant observer in Toni Bravo's contemporary dance class at Dance Ireland

In AM practice, the witness is essential (Musicant, 1994), not unlike the audience at a dance performance or viewers at a gallery opening. The witness provides feedback as to what is being seen, which may or may not be different from the intention of the mover. Following an AM session, the witness (or observer) has an exchange with the mover to describe what has just taken place. The goal is to remove all evaluative judgements and purely describe what is seen, felt, and experienced by the witness, beginning each phrase with words such as:

I saw…

I felt…

I appreciated…

and leaving out words like:

I liked…

I think…

You did…

Drawing from Visual Thinking Strategies. In addition to observation, I conducted unstructured interviews, and took photographs of my experiences. The discourse between witness and mover in AM are similar to the process of Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS), a technique used in aesthetics and education to evaluate visual art. As a group, we have utilized techniques from VTS to interpret our photos in class. When presented to the group, the photographer asks open-ended prompts:

What’s going on in this picture?

What do you see that makes you say that?

What more can we find?

As with AM, evaluative statements are discouraged to maximize the potential for interpretation and minimize, or at least manage, personal biases and pre-conceived notions about the artwork. There is evidence in the literature that VTS can lead to improved observation skills (Klugman, Peel, & Beckmann-Mendez, 2011); and empathy, awareness, and sensitivity to art in medical and human science educational settings (Reilly, Ring, & Duke, 2005). Future study might utilize strategies from AM and VTS to elicit reactions to movement and photographs of movement using semi-structured interview prompts to investigate what is seen by a variety of observers.

"There are movers and witnesses, but everyone is part of the snapshot. Everyone is in the picture." A workshop leader used a method similar to Authentic Movement by asking groups of four to take turns moving and observing | Photo by the author of MeetShareDance Festival (used with permission)

The Choice to Participate. While in Dublin, it became clear that participant observation was a more effective “way in” to the dance community in certain situations. This was particularly the case during a week-long intensive hosted by Irish Modern Dance Theatre (IMDT), featuring morning classes with master teacher Christine Kono-Pohlmann. “Just come take class,” insisted IMDT Artistic Director John Scott on multiple occasions. Kono-Polhmann also advocated for participation: “Don’t worry about ‘not being in condition,’” she wrote in a personal e-mail when I inquired about the level of the class. “I’m hoping that anyone with dance experience can use the information which I’d like to share.”

Though I was initially set on using direct observation as a research method (described above), additional conversations with Kono-Pohlmann encouraged me to consider the value of participation. We discussed an ongoing debate in the dance community regarding my role as a dance critic. I had been told by dance reporters in 2011 as I was entering the field that it was not possible to participate in the dance community and remain an objective reporter. Kono-Pohlmann disagreed. “You have to test your opinions in the studio,” she said.

Our conversations before and after class gave me pause to consider the importance of reflexivity, and the role that participation could play as part of my future research process. As anticipated, I collected less field note data on days I participated, concentrating less on the whole room and more on myself, but the level of access accomplished and the greater degree of reflexivity brought about through a visceral connection to dance was undeniable. Kono-Pohlmann talked about her own “exit” from dance in her mid-thirties, and how she came back to it several years later with a different perspective. When a dancer retires from performing, she explained, her goals and relationship with dance change. “Dance isn’t about you, it’s about generosity… you give it away,” she said. “Once it leaves your body, it’s not yours anymore.”

Looking ahead

"The Image of Research." By utilizing a variety of research methods and two co-investigators, I address the ontology associated with qualitative research and increase the validity of my data | Photos by the author of co-investigators Melissa Donegan (top), self, and Kristina Kuta (bottom)

As this work continues, future research sites in the U.S. include professional dance companies with contracted dancers, making participant observation nearly impossible. Dublin, however, has few companies that operate under this structure. Many, if not most dancers work project-to-project, which provided more opportunity for participant observation as a method of data collection.

The question remains whether observation or participant observation is the ideal way to collect ethnographic data in dance, but perhaps it doesn’t matter. The exchange that takes place between dancers and their audience is a “two-way street,” thus the role of the observer is, indeed, participatory too.

In addition to observation and participant observation, methods such as interview, photoelicitation and Visual Thinking Strategies, and movement interpretation using Authentic Movement practice complement the data (described in part by this essay).

By triangulating ethnographic data through multiple investigators serving in participant observer and observer roles and employing a variety of research methods, the potential impact of inductive, qualitative research in expanding the literature on AC is quite great.


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Author: Lauren Warnecke

Lauren Warnecke is a reporter for NPR affiliate station WGLT and freelance arts and culture critic, primarily reviewing dance for the Chicago Tribune. Lauren enjoys cooking, cycling and attempting to grow things in her backyard. She lives in central Illinois.