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It's not what you see, it's the way that you see it
Animated, Summer 1998. Issues in documenting community dance by Jane Bacon
In light of the fact that the Foundation for Community Dance is about to embark on research that aims to explore the "scale, diversity and patterns of community and participatory dance in England to provide a national overview ... of existing provision,"(1) I began to question how this all might take shape. How can a group be documented and what methodology might be employed?(2) In a profession where "so much diversity flourishes" it may be vital to understand issues concerning representation.(3)

For example, you're choosing what to read, you flick through the pages of animated. You stop here to decide - shall I read this? Is this article going to be interesting? Scanning the page, what do you see? Words and photographs - images of people dancing. Details of gesture, posture, group size and spatial and temporal arrangement attempting to convey the kinetic. But you cannot see or smell the atmosphere, the cavernous beer-soaked room in need of cleaning before the class can begin, the warm welcome given to a group member not seen for some time. These aspects of the world of the Northampton Community Dance Group (NCDG) and class are unavailable to you through the visual image. These photographs cannot portray all aspects of the lived moment or experience. The process of documenting requires someone to choose which images you see and which you don't.

Identities and places are fluid, moving and as such the location of subjects only in a geographical place or interest group, is simplistic as is a one-dimensional understanding of the subject (I believe it is important for you to know the perspective of the author rather than having to take it on trust). Anthropologist Kirsten Hastrup says it may not be possible to represent all aspects of a culture due there being an "infinite number of equal worlds."(4) The place in which any community may be defined is "not a seamless coherent identity, a single sense of place which everyone shares."(5)

People have multiple identities, they are not fixed or understood in only one way and the places they inhabit can also be considered in the same way - fluid, multiple, relational, intersubjective. But how can a photograph, film or even writing be multiple or fluid? They can never be the dancing. They can only represent some elements of the moment. However, the writing or documenting of fieldwork research does fix people and places. Films and books appear to present a particular truth. Both modes of representation work through images fixed in space and time.

This fixing may raise ethical issues concerning the group members. Choices about how the research is documented are not value free. It is the author or researcher who will ultimately have to make choices about which images, moments, relationships are selected and which will be left behind. Even if the participants have a voice in the selection of images the author will be the one who must 'make sense' of the montage of images. A helpful guideline might be that the researcher makes clear how she or he comes to know about the material so the reader, or viewer, might make up her or his own mind rather than taking it on trust.(6)

In my research I hope to have come to understand the philosophies and belief systems of the NCDG and Contemporary Class. In the film Going for it: Performing and Community Dance in Northampton I have attempted to represent the aesthetics of the group through the visual image.(7) The voice-over, delivered by members of the group, discusses the importance of improving or getting better at dancing. This was not my choice. The group made choices about their visual representation (the photographs you see here) but I have left behind (in the writing and editing) many issues vital to the group and so I must take responsibility. Choices about voice, perspective, style and grammar of writing, structure and editing have been made; indeed must be made by others working in this field.

Gemma says: "It is really interesting watching different people." Sue says: "I like to watch people getting better, people who have never danced before improving." Heloise says: 'It is something inside that makes you want to watch them, not about how high they can get their leg, but the feeling they have, that 'watch me' quality." Roz, the teacher, says: "Go for it." Getting better and working hard at dancing is vital to the group. These comments reflect criteria the group have for their own dancing. A series of questionnaires and interviews helped me to understand their aesthetic criteria (known as ethno-aesthetics). The result of this research was the emphasis on individuality of style, or 'personality' as one group member defined it, rather than virtuosity. I asked each of them to describe an image that best portrays their group. The resounding result was "a moment of performance" and so I tried to create in the film an image of themselves that they had chosen. For them dancing is fun. It is about a sense of community but within this what they really want for themselves and for each other is to get better at dancing. When a moment of improvement is achieved the sense of community is heightened. But it is not necessarily a democratic or romantic notion of community. This community still has clear hierarchies and power structures within it. Peter Brinson said that the community purpose is to develop everyone's creativity and ability in dance and other areas. These people would then strengthen the community.(8) I am unsure if the involvement in dancing makes the participants better citizens as Brinson would have it. This seems to me to link a particular world view or ideology to other people's dancing lives. Perhaps it would be more appropriate to allow the participants themselves to articulate their own ideologies. But what I do believe is that dancing helps them to find their way through urban spaces. It helps them define themselves and be defined by others. They connect with other individuals in different spaces because of their dancing. Their dancing activity traces a 'pathway' through the imaginary map that is Northampton.(9) What of the issues with-in the group that are not evident in the writing or the photographs (there are many)? Issues such as membership to the performance group, who teaches or lectures in dance (there are several), who has little knowledge of dance, the difference between the choice of movement style in relation to the issue of gender, the imbalance of genders in the group, or the tension between styles of training such as contemporary versus ballet. None of these have been addressed and yet they are a vital part of the group. They are not represented in my photographs, film, or writing. These people you see dancing are only 'going for it'.

I hope my representation embraces what NCDG believe in, not what I believe in and not what the community dance profession says is community dance. So next time you lead a workshop for a community dance group or participate in one you may want to spend a moment reflecting on how you might film or write about a particular image or whole event. Perhaps a list of questions would be a useful beginning. For example:

  • Who and what did or can you document?
  • What was an appropriate subject or focus for your documentation?
  • Why did you leave behind certain issues and concerns?
  • What do the images contain?
  • Who made the decisions?
  • Is it your voice we hear and understand or did the subjects have some say in their representation?
  • How did you work with your subjects?
  • What other models of documentation could you develop?

Then I will see how you come to know what you know so I might make up my own mind.

Jane Bacon, Lecturer in Dance, Nene University College, Northampton. Contact +44 (0) 1604 735500.

1 The Foundation for Community Dance, Research Project, 1998.
2 Methodology can be distinguished from research techniques in that research techniques refer to the pragmatics of primary data collection and methodology is about "the 'logic-in-use' involved in selecting particular observational techniques, assessing their yield of data and relating these data to theoretical propositions." Pelto, J. and Pelto, H., Intra-Cultural Diversity: Some Theoretical Issues in American Ethnologist, 1975.
3 The Foundation for Community Dance, Thinking Aloud, In search of a Framework for Community Dance, 1996.
4 Hastrup, K. Writing Ethnography: State of the Art in Okely, J. and Callaway, H. (editors), Anthropology and Autobiography, Routledge, London, 1992.
5 Massey, D., Power Geometry and a Progressive Sense of Place in Mapping the Future Bird, Curtis, Putnam, Robertson and Tickner, (editors), Routledge, London, 1993.
6 Stanley, L., A referral was made in Feminist Praxis, Research, Theory and Epistemology in Feminist Sociology, Stanley, L., (editor), Routledge, London, 1993. Stanley, a feminist sociologist, believes as researchers it is imperative we expose our own personal and theoretical position in order to fully understand the perspective taken within the article.
7 Mulchrone, J. Going For It: Performing and Community Dance in Northampton, Nene University College, Northampton, 1998.
8 Brinson, P., Dance as Education, Towards a National Dance Culture, Falmer Press, 1991.
9 Finnegan, R., The Hidden Musicians, Music Making in a English Town, Open University Press, Milton Keynes, 1989.

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Animated: Issues 1996 - 2001