Hypothesis of a Culture

April Rodriguez, one of 36 Library of Congress Junior Fellow Summer Interns, wrote the following post while working in the Library’s American Folklife Center. Rodriguez recently received a master’s degree in library information studies from the University of Wisconsin in Madison. She also has a background in sound engineering and film archiving, and she was able to expand those skillsets and knowledge while interning at the Library.

Alan Lomax discussing the choreometrics analysis process. Alan Lomax Collection, American Folklife Center.

Alan Lomax discussing the choreometrics analysis process. Alan Lomax Collection, American Folklife Center.

What is culture? What elements of expression make each culture unique?

These were the major questions for folklorist Alan Lomax. In the late 1960s while taking courses from anthropologist Ray Birdwhistell, Lomax became inspired to build upon Birdwhistell’s study of body movement as a form of communication. Moving from analysis of song style, previously carried out in his cantometrics project, Lomax used a process that involved examining the “dynamics of body communication.”

This means of study by Lomax is known as choreometrics. The name is intuitive, a combination of the words choreography and metrics/measurement. Lomax defined choreometrics in “Choreometrics and Ethnographic Filmmaking” as “the measure of dance or dance as a measure of man.”

The choreometrics project developed into a large undertaking supported by grants, contributions of cultural dance footage from around the world and collaborations with movement analysis experts Irmgard Bartenieff and Forrestine Paulay.

In 2004 the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress acquired Alan Lomax’s materials. Lomax had worked for the Library of Congress between 1933 and 1942. My project at the American Folklife Center has been to advance the digitization work of the films used in the analysis and teaching of choreometrics in order to provide access. For me, it has been a journey of discovery.

Quantifying a Culture

Irmgard Bartenieff and Forrestine Paulay reviewing footage. Alan Lomax Collection, American Folklife Center.

Irmgard Bartenieff and Forrestine Paulay reviewing footage. Alan Lomax Collection, American Folklife Center.

Lomax felt that scholars lacked a systematic way of analyzing cultural experiences for the purpose of comparing them to their social and historical settings. One of Lomax’s ultimate goals was to determine how patterns in the body movements employed within a culture correlated with other cultural variables.

The choreometrics team hoped to identify cross-cultural variables by distinguishing patterns of movement and changes to those patterns throughout geographic locations. Methods for analyzing and notating human movement developed by Rudolf Laban were adapted for the study. Eventually a systematic means of coding dance was formulated by the team, which led to statistical analysis of the distribution of movement within a culture.

Variables for the coding process were refined and condensed from 139 to 65 variables, measured in four fields: body attitude and movement qualities, choreography, social organization and limb use, rhythm and form.

“In every culture we found some one document of movement style. This model seems to serve two main functions for all individuals: (1) Identification: It identifies the individual as a member of his culture who understands and is in tune with its communication systems. (2) Synchrony: It forms and molds together the dynamic qualities which make it possible for the members of a culture to act together in dance, work, movement, love-making, speech–in fact, in all their interactions.” ~ Alan Lomax

Choreometrics film to be inspected. Photo by April Rodriguez.

Choreometrics film to be inspected. Photo by April Rodriguez.

Visual Media

“Since dance is the most repetitious, synchronic of all expressive behaviors, it has turned out to be a kind of touchstone for human adaptation.” ~ Alan Lomax

Visual media provides both a means of capturing life and when shared through playback, a window to the world. Film allows researchers to split up the action and to examine it by frame. For the choreometrics project, dance provided consistent movement from which to conduct analysis, while film provided a carrier for dance to be seen and experienced.

When Lomax was asked by Filmmakers Newsletter about improving field recording he had this to say: “I argue that, in a very real sense, the field trip belongs more to the people studied or filmed than to the anthropologist or filmmaker. It is their life, their culture he is documenting. Without their cooperation, his efforts would come to nothing. Thus no documentary film expedition can be just a personal adventure – a big ego trip – because it may also be the first and only chance for some group of human beings to be put on record and to have their say on the big media.”

The choreometrics portion of the Alan Lomax collection consists of 3,565 film elements of 8mm, 16mm and 35mm. Prior to my arrival, priorities were laid out in a report regarding which series of film would be digitized first. To orchestrate this transfer process I needed to evaluate and update the inventory of each film element. As of this writing the film inventory is ready for use. What I have found challenging about sorting through the thousands of film elements is figuring out the connections between the series of film; there are duplicated materials, but finding the best version has been elusive.

Choreometics film being inspected. Photo by Nicole Saylor.

Choreometics film being inspected. Photo by Nicole Saylor.

Digitization of the Lomax manuscripts pertaining to the choreometics project has begun. The documents include correspondence, indexes, contracts, written analysis and much more. Digitization of the choreometrics film will soon follow, so stay tuned as more of the collection becomes accessible to the public. Additionally the American Folklife Center is celebrating Alan Lomax’s 100th birthday throughout the year with events and activities. For more information visit www.loc.gov/folklife/lomax/lomaxcentennial.html.

Sources: Gardner, Robert. (Interviewer). (1974). Alan Lomax (Dance and Human History) [TV series]. “Screening Room”. Boston, Massachusetts: WCVB; Lomax, Alan . (1971, February). “Choreometrics and Ethnographic Filmmaking.” Filmmakers Newsletter, vol. 4, no. 4.

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