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Dance Heritage Coalition Intern Helps Expand Access to Lomax Choreometrics Materials

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man and woman dancing with onlookers
Unidentified dancers and drummers.From the Alan Lomax Collection at the American Folklife Center, Library of Congress. Used courtesy of the Association for Cultural Equity.

This is a guest post from Lotus Norton-Wisla, an intern at the American Folklife Center working to improve access to materials in the Alan Lomax Collection related to choreometrics, which was Lomax’s methodology for studying dance performance style. These materials consist of more than 70 boxes of paper materials and more than 3,500 film elements. Norton-Wisla’s internship is sponsored by the Dance Heritage Coalition, a national alliance of institutions committed to preservation and documentation of dance legacy materials.

Folklorist Alan Lomax’s long career included the collection and study of twentieth century folksong, as well as other forms of expression such as dance and language. Choreometrics is a system of comparing performance style cross-culturally. Working with dancers Irmgard Bartenieff, Forrestine Paulay, and others, Lomax developed a coding system (based on Laban Movement Analysis) by which aspects of dance movement were observed and rated. Lomax brought together a large sample of film clips of dance representing cultural groups from around the world and used the choreometrics coding system to rate and compare them. Lomax created educational films using these same clips to illustrate his theories about dance, culture, movement, and work across cultures. Lomax’s legacy is continued through the Association for Cultural Equity, an organization founded by Lomax in 1983 to stimulate cultural equity and the protection of cultural diversity through preservation, research, access, and repatriation of world music. Working with many partners and collaborators, ACE makes collections available to the general public, as well as working directly with smaller regional and ethnic communities.

close-up of film canisters
Film footage gathered by Alan Lomax to inform his choreometrics theory.

The Dance Heritage Coalition is interested in improving access to dance materials at the American Folklife Center, and saw the choreometrics materials as an excellent opportunity to invest time and support for dance and cultural heritage research.  My projects as a summer fellow include improving metadata for film collections, rehousing portions of the paper collections, establishing priorities for future digitization, and communicating with our project partners. In addition to the DHC and AFC, these partners include the Association for Cultural Equity and the University of Maryland’s Reimaging and Reimagining Choreometrics Project. Together, these groups are raising funds for digitization of the choreometrics materials, and coming up with a way to present the materials online. I enjoy the communication among so many groups interested in preserving and providing access to choreometrics, and in expanding the conversation about how these materials can be useful to dance scholars, folklorists, and other researchers interested in cultural heritage expressed through performance style.

The choreometrics materials have so many levels of fascinating information – from the raw footage, to the work of coding, to Lomax’s analysis. The first week, I was able to view Lomax’s four documentary films compiled in Rhythms of the Earth. Whether you watch for Lomax’s theory and analysis, or simply the range of dance and movement film clips from many cultures, the films are simply captivating. I was particularly inspired by segments from Alaskan King Island tribes in Lomax’s film The Longest Trail, drumming and dancing with hand-held fans. I watched Yup’ik clips from the same time period in the Our Universes exhibit at the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI), with an elder dancer explaining the significance of each dance movement. Seeing this exhibit made me think about dance as an important part of understanding culture, especially when given the care and context of NMAI’s respectful community-curated exhibits. Lomax’s work has the potential to reach so many interests – from dance history to anthropology and ethnography, and even computer history, especially if materials are digitally preserved and shared with respectful context and proper permissions. I am excited to continue working on the choreometrics project, and plan for the future of this important cross-cultural dance footage and study.

These sites provide additional information about choreometrics:


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