Dance Transcription and Gertrude P. Kurath

The Notation of Native American Dance: Systems of Dance Transcription and the Work of Gertrude P. Kurath

By Mary Channen Caldwell

Although current thought regarding Native American dance may not necessarily include a particular focus on transcription and notation, there is a precedent, largely formed through the work of Gertrude P. Kurath (1903-1992), which supports the inclusion of dance notation in scholarship. The following paper demonstrates the ways in which notation functions within dance studies, specifically in relation to Kurath’s research on the dance of the Six Nations Reserve and surrounding area, and provides an introduction to the interpretation of Kurath’s system of dance notation.

1. Dance Notations This consideration presents three of Kurath’s monographs in the form of case studies: “Iroquois Music and Dance: Ceremonial Arts of Two Seneca Longhouses” (1964), “Dance and Song Rituals of Six Nations Reserve, Ontario” (1968), and “Tutelo Rituals on Six Nations Reserve, Ontario” (1981).

In the “Dance” entry of “Native America in the Twentieth Century: An Encyclopedia” (1994), dance scholar Joann Kealiinohomoku states that “no description of Native Americans is complete without full attention on dance and its context.” However, the form that this “attention” takes is a subject which has been the focus of a great deal of discussion by dance ethnologists, anthropologists and ethnomusicologists. In one method the analysis of dance takes place through transcription and notation, although like many notational systems, including music notation, dance notation has the ability to simultaneously clarify and confuse dance studies. Conventionally, the association of dance notation is with Western classical dance, namely ballet, for which systems such as the Benesh system (1956) can record choreography both for entire ballets and, on a smaller scale, for individual steps and sequences. Equally important for the history of dance notation in the twentieth century, however, are the systems developed by Rudolf Laban (1928), Margaret Morris (1928), and Noa Eshkol and Abraham Wachmann (1958), which attempt to reach beyond the conventions of classical dance notation in a variety of ways. In particular, Labanotation or Kinetography Laban has had a strong impact on the visual recording of movement, whether the movements belong to a specific dance tradition or are abstract movements such as those analyzed in the fields of physiotherapy and athletics.

The appearance of dance notation differs according to the principles behind the system and the intended function of the notation. For example, the Feuillet system, a late Renaissance notation system, recorded  the court dancing of France in the 17th and 18th centuries. This notation consists of track drawings which focus on the movements of the lower body, specifically the feet, and uses abstract symbols, conforming to the choreographic needs of the dance form. In contrast, Labanotation, although also utilizing abstract symbols, records the movements of the entire body and lacks the floor plan which was pivotal to the notation of the courtly Renaissance dances. Figure 1 with Labanotation shows an example of a short sequence of steps:

Figure 1  Labanotation: Step Sequence  image

Originally conceived as a result of Laban’s interest in the movement variants, or movement comparisons, among cultures, Labanotation did not have its inspiration from a specific dance form. Consequently, the flexibility of the Laban system in notating many different types of movement has led to its popularity in the fields of dance ethnology and anthropology. In particular, dance scholar and ardent fieldworker Gertrude P. Kurath utilized Labanotation in the course of her collecting and recording of hundreds of dances from various cultures, most notably dances of Native North America and South America.

2. The Study of Native American Dance

The study of Native American dance has often taken the form of descriptive surveys of either specific dances or dance styles. Such is the case with Franz Boas (1858-1942), one of the first anthropologists to explore the form and function of dance within Native American culture. He focused his discussion on observation-driven descriptions of dance and dance rituals. The legacy of observation and description goes back even earlier to the 1800s and the writings of ethnologists such as James Mooney, who provided detailed descriptive accounts of Native American dances such as the Ghost Dance and the Sun Dance. The 20th and 21st centuries have provided much of the same with regard to Native American dance research, with the notable exception of the work of Kurath. Interestingly, Kurath is the only anthropologist cited as an innovator of an original system of dance notation by eminent dance and notation scholar Ann Hutchinson Guest.

Kurath, dancer, choreographer, artist, ethnomusicologist, dance ethnographer, and writer, has played an influential role in the development of dance studies in the last century. Although her methods and writings have been both praised and criticized by scholars, her work remains a focal point in Native dance research. Her work incorporates extensive fieldwork, choreographic analysis, and cultural discussions, in addition to research on the music, rituals and outfits which are integrally connected to dance. Kurath’s numerous articles, books (both monographs and co-authored), field recordings, photographs, film footage, and dance and music transcriptions encompass a range of  subjects from Western art music, Native American music and dance, to rock music and jazz. However, a primary focus throughout her life was the dance and music of Native American cultures, both northern and southern, although for the purposes of this paper, only the research that took place on or near the Six Nations Reserve will be considered.

3. Kurath as Researcher

In studies by Kurath herself and others the research methods she used have been outlined in an effort to clarify her approach to dance and dance transcription. A talented dancer, Kurath was often a participant in her fieldwork, learning and performing certain dances such as the Mexican Hat Dance in New Mexico, a dance which she performed under the name Tula. In her words, “the best method of research is participation.” Kurath began her fieldwork in 1926 as a Bachelor of Arts student at Bryn Mawr College and continued throughout her life on an almost yearly basis, although she was less mobile later in her life due to an injury. Among the many locations in which Kurath did research, some of the more often visited locales were the Six Nations Reserve in Ontario, New Mexico, and a variety of locations in Michigan, in particular Ann Arbor, where she lived with her husband and children for a large part of her life.

The products of Kurath’s fieldwork include thousands of films, hundreds of slides, tapes, and photos, in addition to notes and transcriptions. A large amount of her work is held in collections in Arizona at Cross-Cultural Dance Resources and in Ontario at the Woodland Cultural Centre.

In addition to participating in and observing music-making and dance, Kurath also recorded her research through audio, visual and textual means. It is the latter that led Kurath to transcribe dances into movement notation, primarily for the purposes of comparison and analysis, although there is also a sense of preservation in her dance and song collections. As early as 1950, Kurath outlined her method of dance notation, which discusses three central features: the ground plan, the steps, and the music. All of these elements are relayed and contextualized through an Iroquois dance, the gadaŝot, a Stomp Dance or Warrior’s Standing Quiver Dance:

Figure 2  Gadaŝot, Iroquois Stomp Dance image

The features of this particular example correspond with Kurath’s three contributing elements. The ground plan is seen from a bird’s-eye view, with direction indicated with text (“end”) and placement depicted with personal symbols that most often signify gender. The steps are expressed through symbols based on visual abstractions of ankles and feet. Finally, the music is integrally connected to both the ground plan and the steps by its placement in a rotating fashion around the ground plan and by its rhythmic correspondence to the steps.

This style of notation was not the only one utilized by Kurath. In fact, as mentioned earlier, Kurath also drew on the concepts and forms of Labanotation throughout her career. As a result, it is possible to see similarities between her dance notations and Labanotation (see Figure 1). In a sense, even the notation of the steps in Figure 1 are comparable to Labanotation in the use of a central line depicting the centre of the body and abstract symbols representing movement on either side. The obvious differences in Kurath’s notation include fewer stave lines and less overall detail with regard to the movement of specific body parts.

4.  Kurath’s Descriptive Notation

The notation that Kurath devised during her career is especially interesting because it was a descriptive as opposed to prescriptive form specifically tailored towards recording Native American dance forms. One of the first indications of her interest in dance form and style as an important ethnographic detail was her 1953 article, “Native Choreographic Areas of North America.” Style and certain choreographic features such as ground plans and style of steps determine geo-choreographic areas. The criteria of geometric patterns, movement style and cultural implications determine the areas, which can be broadly generalized as north, south, east, and west. The shaping of choreographic areas by Kurath necessitates a discussion of the specificities of developing this kind of categorization, details which arise out of the comparative nature of her system of choreographic notation and analysis which Kurath had begun more than three years previously.

Dance notation functions integrally in three major monographs concerning the song and dance of a specific area and people in New York State and Ontario, particularly the Six Nations of the Grand River Territory in Ontario. The first of these monographs appeared in 1964 as Bulletin Number 187 by the Smithsonian Institution Bureau of American Ethnology. Although Kurath had produced ethnographic work on dance prior to this publication, “Iroquois Music and Dance: Ceremonial Arts of Two Seneca Longhouses” is both a seminal and substantial work in the ethnomusicological and ethnochoreographic study of Native American dance. It is in Iroquois Music and Dance that Kurath is able to fully discuss both musical and choreographic repertories in an analytical fashion completely unlike much earlier research, as well as unlike much research subsequent to Kurath’s efforts.

Kurath begins by providing a glossary of ground plans, steps, jumps, and kicks, as well as a glossary of the musical symbols used in the song transcriptions which comprise more than half of the book. The format of the notation is virtually identical to that seen in Figure 2, although nowhere does Kurath combine all three components (ground plan, steps and music). Instead, the choreography is presented alongside the transcriptions and is visually secondary to the music (see Figure 3):

Figure 3  Robin Dance image One rationale for Kurath’s decision to change the format of her earlier notation guidelines may have been a result of an attempt to codify her system of dance notation in a specific and detailed context. However, despite the lack of ground plans, the notation presents the actual steps as presented in her previous example and the music corresponds with the movements. In fact, with this type of presentation, Kurath emphasizes the connectivity between the music and the movement, an interaction which she discussed and promoted continually throughout her life. Two of Kurath’s writings in particular stress the importance of considering dance and music together: “Dance-Music Interdependence” and “Music and Dance Unite in Earthward Plunge and Skyward Flight.” Interestingly, the former article references the Calumet Dance of the Ojibwe (Anishinaabe), and the latter, Pueblo and Iroquois dances, indicating the continual dependence by Kurath on Native American dance as a reference point for the broader study of dance.

5. Kurath’s Dance and Song Rituals of Six Nations Reserve, Ontario

By the time of her second major publication that incorporated music and dance, “Dance and Song Rituals of Six Nations Reserve, Ontario” (1968), Kurath’s focus returned to ground plans and the integration of all three elements of her notation. Figure 4 presents a Fishing Dance, a social stomp dance like the Robin Dance in Figure 3, but with marked notational variants:

Figure 4  Fishing Dance image

Accompanying this figure in the book is a short explanation which clarifies some of the signs and letters used to notate the dance. This dance has already been identified as a “Stomp-type” dance, one of two classifications of social dances according to Kurath, the other type being “Fish-type” dances. The classification relates to the basic step on which the dance is based. In the case of the Fishing Dance, the step that characterizes the dance as a whole is the stomp step, defined by Kurath in “A New Method of Choreographic Notation” as “an elastic and emphatic shuffling trot.” The feet keep the beat of the song with the drum, while in the fish step the beat other than the one emphasized by the drum receives the heaviest emphasis with the feet.

In the dance notation section in “Dance and Song Rituals”, Kurath provides a key for reading all subsequent notations in the book. Using the lists of symbols for positions for legs and feet and movement symbols for feet, one is able to decipher, for example, the series of figures that present all the steps that Kurath, based on her analyses, identified in the entire collection of dances. In order to read the notation of the Fishing Dance, one must return to the list of dance steps and find a corresponding example. In this instance, it is the “Plain Stomp, Forwards” step which is described as a two-part action: “1. Right foot shuffle forward, slightly flexing knees forwards. 2. Left foot drag up to right foot, flexing knees.” Danced by the men who are indicated with the symbol “┬” in Kurath’s notation, this movement, according to the arrows in Figure 4, is performed in a counterclockwise circle.

The women, indicated with the symbol “○-”, perform a slight variation on the stomp step by beginning with a stamp in place, followed by a normal step forward on the heel with toes up, and finally, still on the same foot, a stamp in place. For both males and females, the steps are repeated continuously, following the rhythm of the music, another detail which Kurath indicates with notes of specific durations placed under the appropriate steps, eighth notes in this example. The social nature of the dance translates into men and women dancing together, leading to the final, and most distinctive, detail of the Fishing Dance: the ground plan. Men and women begin separately, but, where Kurath has added a “B”, the male dancers “fish” for a woman dancer and pull her into the outer circle of men. Arrows attached to the female symbols indicate this movement outwards. The subsequent alternation of men and women occurs where Kurath has added a “C”: “All stomp in alternate array of men and women. Then the women return to their stations, and the procedure starts again.” With a little work and reading, the choreography and plan of the dance in Figure 4 can be deciphered and understood from the symbols provided by Kurath.

6. Kurath’s Tutelo Rituals on Six Nations Reserve, Ontario

Figure 5  Harvest Dance, Ground Plan image

The third publication which ties in elements of both earlier books is “Tutelo Rituals on Six Nations Reserve, Ontario” (1981). Although Kurath maintains in several ways many of the precepts of her previous works, there are some notable differences which lie primarily in the increase of analytical and anthropological text accompanying the dance and music. The notation differs from “Dance and Song Rituals” in that the ground plans again appear separately from the music and steps (see Figures 5 and 6).

The notation of the choreography, according to Kurath, follows the guidelines of “Dance and Song Rituals”, and shows the continued use by Kurath of her own system. One must, however, have access to “Dance and Song Rituals” in order to “read” the notation in “Tutelo Rituals”. Nevertheless, based on the information for the Fishing Dance, it is possible to decipher both the ground plan for the Harvest Dance as well as the notation that accompanies the fourteenth of forty songs, entitled “Grandmother is working in the garden.”

The ground plan of the Harvest Dance is similar to that of the Fishing Dance in the circular formation and counterclockwise direction. The symbols for men and women are identical, although slight variations are used in Figure 5 to indicate what role is being assumed. In many ways, this ground plan is a simpler construction than Figure 4 as there is no variation to the circle. The central difference is that the notation of the steps and music is separated from the ground plan,
although the reason for this is logical. Because the same ground plan is used for the entire Harvest Dance, there is no need for Kurath to notate it more than once, thus conserving both space and time. When a song has accompanying dance steps, since some songs do not have any movement associated with them, Kurath obviously found it easier to notate the steps above the music staves, thereby ensuring that the rhythm was accurate. Some indications of ground plans appear if a particular dance requires a change. This method of notation, in addition to the separation of the ground plan from the music, is successful because of the overall structure and unity of the Harvest Dance, and because it allows for a greater sense of flow from song to song.

Figure 6  Harvest Dance, Song 14 with Dance Notation

Some of the more interesting aspects of Kurath’s study of Tutelo rituals are introduced in the last two chapters, “Tutelo Styles and Intertribal Contacts” and “Processes of Change”, which discuss issues of culture, acculturation, and change within the Tutelo song and dance repertory. “Tutelo Styles…” focuses on the influence of Iroquois music and dance on Tutelo style, with the discussion of dance emphasizing the choreographic similarities and differences. Kurath utilizes the Harvest Dance as a case study of Tutelo style and demonstrates what she terms “derivations” apparent in the dance. Through a choreographic and musical study, Kurath argues for the role of Algonquian and Iroquoian influence on the Harvest Dance by identifying choreographic elements such as “Algonquian-type” steps. These adapted steps appear as the result of cultural influence or what Kurath calls “permissive acculturation,”  which is due to the historical movements and migrations of the Tutelo people that eventually led to the Six Nations.

The other chapter, “Processes of Change”, introduces anthropological observations concerning “stability and adaptability,” drawing on the information derived from Kurath’s analysis of acculturation and borrowing in Tutelo songs and dances. The Harvest Dance is the case example of a ritual affected by cultural interaction between the Tutelo and Iroquois. Interestingly, with regard to Tutelo dance, Kurath more often identifies change in the music as opposed to the dance: “The dance movements maintain their forms even in the rendering by Iroquois women.” Kurath would have had a particular insight into the Harvest Dance as she participated in the dance in 1949 at the minor Green Corn Festival at Onondaga Longhouse. This participatory feature of Kurath’s fieldwork is an indication of the emic approach that characterizes much of Kurath’s research and many of her writings and which may have enabled her to better understand the subtleties of dance movements.

7. Accessing and Assessing Kurath’s Notation

If dance plays a significant role in Native American culture, than dance notation must necessarily play an important role in the understanding and study of Native American dance. There are numerous ways in which dance can be discussed choreographically; Kurath’s dance notation is only one of many options for notating movement, although her system is one of the only ones specifically tailored towards the structure of Native American dance.

However, as with all notation systems, in order for Kurath’s notation to be useful, it must first be learned. Once the basic principles are understood, the songs and dances can be approached for both academic purposes and also purely out of an interest in the style and type. Kurath’s seminal work, which is only sampled in this discussion, provides a rich resource for the burgeoning area of dance studies in the 21st century and ideally the basis for further study in the field of Native American dance.


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This project was made possible with the support of the Department of Canadian Heritage through Canadian Culture Online
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