Reflection on the Work and Life of Gertrude Kurath

           Gertrude Kurath and I have been speaking, lately. I looked through her photographs and watched her life go by. Her profile on the page was full of elegant lines, a slight smile, and hair that changed through the decades. Her eyes were always looking off into the distance, as if she knew she had more to do than to pose for pictures. One of my favorite photos is Kurath in a garden. She is wearing a gauzy dress and is bending into and elegant back bend. She’s holding more gauzy material like a veil and whirling it from front to back reminiscent of Isadora Duncan, and the belly dancers I know so well [Photographs].

I also looked through Kurath’s scrapbook. I was like peering into her mind. It was all magazine clippings of dancers she admired Astaire, Duncan, Humphrey, Wigman, and more are all glued across the deteriorating brown pages [Scrapbook]. The most interesting clippings are those of dance movement descriptions. Kurath had cuttings of notes on Laban movement analysis, and a ballroom dancing diagram written by Fred Astaire [Scrapbook]. I believe these to be the very pages that inspired Kurath to create her own system of movement notation. The thought gave me goosebumps. I also keep a scrapbook of my favorite dancers and dance articles, many of which also contain instructions for pulling off complicated combinations or moving across the floor. Kurath and I connected. I could feel what it would have been like to peer through the same magazine, pulling out pieces of inspiration along the way, and then gluing them into the pages of a notebook. It was the old school version of Pinterest. It was a book of dreams, and who she wanted to be.

In Caldwell’s “The Place of Dance in Human Life”, she tells us Kurath’s fieldwork and research went hand in hand and unlike most anthropologists she placed a large emphasis on participation and personal involvement with her subjects [Caldwell 2008]. I struggle with this because I am an anthropologist and still wonder what our place is in studying the cultures and traditions of others. Is it our place to interfere, and push ourselves into something that does not belong to us? However, like Kurath, I am a dancer, and I understand, learn, and interact through movement. In my ethnographic studies, I find that movement is the best way to understand  people and their dance. You can feel their emotions when you dance and dance along side them, like a tangible energy in the air. It is not something easily observed from the sidelines. Caldwell says that in this way Kurath used movement as her analytical factor in research [Caldwell 2008]. It is this that makes her unique and important among dance ethnographers. She was readily adopted into the communities that she studied and befriended, one of which gave her a performing name of “Tula” [Photographs]. Surely people who resented or did not believe an outsider should participate or view their culture would not have adopted her and made her a family member in their community dance. Kurath has made a point in her unconventional approach to fieldwork, and because of this dance research was able to grow and take its place among academic research.

In her article Kurath defines ethnochoreology as “the scientific study of ethnic dancers in all their cultural significance, religious function or symbolism, or social place” [Kurath 1960]. As I read this sentence, I felt an overwhelming sense of all I know a culture of a people contains. Kurath would have witnessed movement changing from person to person, or generation to generation, even if it was the same movement and had the same function in their society. I could picture her embodying that movement, feeling that way it shifted in her body, and determining why people adopted it as an intimate expression of themselves. She viewed the settings of dances including cultural roles the dancers occupied, gender division, and economic activities, as well as regional variation [Kurath 1960]. I visualized all the components working together in my mind of a tribal or chiefdom society, based in agriculture or nomadic processes, gender division, the patterns in weather and change that they could not explain without ritual and religion. It caused these people to feel and to move, and I could feel it too. I recalled the feeling of movement in my body practicing the dances of Egypt, and learning about their cultures as I continue to do today. I could feel what drew Kurath into this world of research. I visualized myself walking among the people as she did, learning and laughing, not as an anthropologist, but as a dancer and friend.

I felt most deeply connected with Kurath when I read the letters between her and now famous dance anthropologist Joann Kealiinohomoku. Joann desires to become an ethnochoreologist and naturally cannot think of anyone better to train her than Kurath [Letters 1957]. They transition from student and teacher to friends and finally mother and daughter. They share the most intimate details of their lives and send flowers from their gardens, pieces of their lives, through the post. They discuss notation systems, and it makes my heart sing to know that together they were plotting the future of dance research [Letters 1957]. Their decisions were not easy. Kurath tells Joann to wait to have a family because her research is so vital she cannot get distracted now [Letters 1958]. I can feel the fear they had to go against the norms of their society. They were not 1950s housewives; they were scientists and dancers. After 35 years of correspondence I came to the last letter in the box. Kurath writes Joann and tell hers “I had a dream that we danced together last night, which is strange, because in all the years I have known you we have never had the opportunity [Letters 1992].” After reading this woman’s life and reliving these moments I couldn’t help but cry, as I imagine Joann does when she re-reads the letters of the woman who mentored her and continues to teach all of us. There is so much more to be done in the world of dance research, even where Kurath’s research left off. I am reminded of a quote from a letter she wrote in 1966, “I don’t usually think of the past if I can help it. Just of the future. What can be done [Letters].” Although we draw strength from Kurath in the past, we must continue to progress into the future, it is what she would have done.


Caldwell, Mary (Author).

2008. “The Place of Dance in Human Life: Perspectives on the Fieldwork and Dance Notation of Gertrude P. Kurath”. Ethnologies vol 30, no 1, 2008, p. 21-40

Kurath, Gertrude Prokosch (Author).

1960. “Panorama of Dance Ethnology” Current Anthropology, Vol. 1, No. 3 (May, 1960), pp. 233-254. Online: (2010 August 1).

Photographs (artifact).

1930-1990s. Photographs (artifact). Tempe, Arizona: Cross-Cultural Dance Resources Collection. (Gertrude Kurath in a graden, wearing a white gauzy dress, and swinging white gauzy material over her head. Profiles of Kurath from young age to middle age.)

Scrapbook (artifact).

1930-50s. Scrapbook (artifact). Tempe, Arizona: Cross-Cultural Dance Resources Collection. (Clipping of famous dancers Humphery, Duncan, Wigman, and Astaire, as well as clippings on Laban notation.)


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