By Ella Clarke, MA in Ethnochoreology 2017/18
I often get asked what I’m studying, and when I say I am studying ethnochoreology, people get very curious. You’re studying what? I love to explain…ethnochoreology is the study of human movement and dance, specific to the society and culture it inhabits.
It is interdisciplinary using concepts from dance studies and the social sciences such as anthropology, sociology, cultural studies, folklore, philosophy, and so on. It can tell us about how a culture or community is shaped, and what it’s shaped by. It can reveal details of relations between people, the society and culture they live in, political influences, how people learn, how they teach, what gets recorded in history, and what doesn’t.
The ‘culture’ within which dance happens can be a congregation in a church, a sports team, a group of fire-walking venerates of St. Constantine in Northern Greece, a character dancer lost to history but for six notebooks in a Paris archive, a community dance in Sicily or a local flamenco dance class that meets every Wednesday night. The list is potentially endless.
Ethnochoreology is not quite like anything else. After all, everyone has a body, and movement happens everywhere, but movement and dance embodies different meanings, depending on context, society, and culture and as ethnochoreologists we try and find out how and why.
I was busy training, busy dancing, busy learning to move. I never thought to look, really look, not just at the movement, but at what this dance practice represents in terms of societal values and perceptions.
I have always worked as a dancer (although I did try landscape gardening for a couple of weeks) – I have been a professional dancer, choreographer and dance teacher for 25 years, but I never really asked questions relating to why I was doing what I was doing and what did it mean if I belonged to one particular community of dance practice. What did it say about my community of dance practice? I was busy training, busy dancing, busy learning to move. I never thought to look, really look, not just at the movement, but at what this dance practice represents in terms of societal values and perceptions. Also, where did this movement practice come from? How did it get here? What can it tell us about who we are?
Last semester, I studied the movements of a catholic priest during the act of Transubstantiation. I also went on a field trip to Finuge, North Kerry, where I learned some step dances of Jeremiah Molyneaux, the last of the itinerant dancing masters, descended from a long line of dancing masters who were influenced by professional dancing masters in the renaissance courts of Europe. I also learned that the céilí as a social dance event was actually invented in London in 1897.
This semester, we’ve been circling the globe in a World Dance Survey, learning about dance practices such as Bharatanatyam, Ethiopian dance, Flamenco and Ballet Espanola. Having actual workshops in these practices have really enriched our studies. We also examined current ethnochoreological issues such as globalisation, tourism and the construction of community, memory and imagination, to name a few and their impact on different dance practices. This has been wonderfully challenging but also exciting. Right now, I’m in the middle of applying Gramsci’s theory on cultural hegemony to my field of research, and it’s making me work out all kinds of connections and frames that I just never conceived were there. I am seeing things differently. Not just one new perspective, but really, a whole kaleidoscope, which I am trying to unravel.
I have been given fantastic support, both in learning and in balancing work, parenting and living.
The faculty, especially the course director of the MA Ethnochoreology programme, Dr. Catherine Foley, is superb; a really amazing pedagogue. I have been given fantastic support, both in learning and in balancing work, parenting and living. I have the option to take a 50% – 50% final presentation thesis (thesis / choreography / performance); I have opted however to do a 100% thesis.
Throughout the year our programme was fortunate to be supported by special event lectures and seminars with academics and professionals from all over Ireland and Europe taking in a breathtaking array of disciplines. There were also book launches, symposia and performances from wonderful artists.
The Irish World Academy of Music and Dance is a veritable hub of eclectic and focused creativity, set inside the grounds of a well-resourced and established university. And each day that I come here, I cross the living bridge over the Shannon as it sways and sings with the movement of those who walk it. I feel privileged.
To find out more about the MA in Ethnochoreology at the University of Limerick, please visit www.irishworldacademy.ie/programmes/postgraduate/ma-ethnochoreology/