Epistemology: The theoretical framework behind the knowing of things (i.e., how I know what I know, you know?)

In order to frame my research proposal, a number of key assumptions and theoretical stances must be stated, the first of which is that defining performance is both possible and necessary. If one believes that aesthetic beauty associated with other artistic mediums exists, then one might suppose that this characteristic is transferrable to dance, despite its highly ephemeral nature (i.e. unless captured on video, dance performances exist only in memory).

Furthermore, aesthetic beauty and high-level performance do not always go together, especially where contemporary and avant-garde dance forms are concerned. It then follows that determination of a “good” or “bad” performance must be considered on a case-by-case basis, and is likely to vary from viewer to viewer. As such, this study proposed a purposive sampling model, free from any presumed generalizability.

In week 9, we are asked to think about our research interests, research questions and the research proposal we plan to submit, developing a sampling plan that will allow me to generate the population I want to investigate.  

After experiencing a degree of anguish over sampling, I realized a really convenient theoretical perspective of my research proposal:

Generalizability, when it comes to dance performance, is probably not possible.

Nor is it particularly necessary.

Khecari's Oubliette, a grotesque dance quartet performed in a small box. photo credit: Ryan Bourque

Khecari’s Oubliette, a grotesque dance quartet performed in a small box. photo credit: Ryan Bourque

When it comes to an individual’s perceptions of art, characteristics such as aesthetic beauty, technical difficulty, and expressivity are in the eyes of the beholder. Good dance doesn’t have to be pretty, nor does it have to be technically hard or particularly expressive. When I review dance shows, the question of good and bad often comes down to a feeling in my gut, and sometimes my gut surprises me.

So then, if qualitative aspects of dance aren’t generalizable and don’t, ultimately, contribute to overall notions of performance, why am I bothering to try and identify a scale of performance? Well, because I said so….

But really, it I think about the quality of a dancer’s performance with respect to other dancers in a particular company, or two different dance companies performing the same work, or choosing which dance show to see on any given weekend, perceptions of what’s “good” DO matter, to the dancer, her employers, and the audience members who go to see her shows. Perceptions of what makes a performance good or bad is what keeps the business and industry of dance afloat. So, money, really.

As such, I’m proposing a purposive sampling strategy that consists of two local dance companies: one ballet company and one modern/contemporary company. They should be similar in budget, number of dancers, number of annual productions, etc., but they are divided due to the fact that these two factions of concert dance, though the dancers may train similarly,* share little in terms of a desired aesthetic and/or end product. They will be in the same location, with equal access to potential patrons, advertising, and funding opportunities.

Though gender won’t necessarily matter in terms of a particular sample’s perceptions of dance performance, it could, as could the role an individual plays within the company. Men and women differ in the types of movements and roles they portray, and they respond differently to training stimuli. Therefore, groups will be stratified into samples that are controlled by gender, role, and genre of dance. So let me summarize:

All data will be collected in two big lumps, the ballet people, and the contemporary people. Further, we might subdivide the data for cross-tabulation into the following categories:

  • Ballet: men dancers
  • Ballet: women dancers
  • Ballet: men directors
  • Ballet: women directors (if we can find one)
  • Ballet: men choreographers
  • Ballet: women choreographers
  • Contemporary: men dancers
  • Contemporary: women dancers
  • Contemporary: men directors
  • Contemporary: women directors (if we can find one)
  • Contemporary: men choreographers
  • Contemporary: women choreographers

Ideally, each group consists of at least 4-5 individuals, but as each company is likely to have only one artistic director and a small handful of choreographers, it is likely there will be greater representation in the dancer groups.

You may have the curiosity: what distinguishes between directors and choreographers? Sometimes they are one in the same, particularly in small companies, however larger companies often bring in choreographers from outside the company, even from different regions of the country or the world. These individuals bring with them a different set of criteria for “good” and “bad” dance, and variable viewings of dance and past experiences.

I am fortunate in my connections within the Chicago dance community that I already have my eyes on two companies with which I can imagine conducting this study. Is there such a thing as a “purposive convenience sample?”



Journal Prompt: Writing Fieldnotes


Class jottings of the film “Rabbit Proof Fence”

As a class assignment we were charged with attempting participant observation. In other words, we were enacting the role of an ethnographer in the field and asked to submerge ourselves into a scenario, and record our observations. I happened to choose the Great Chicago Fire Festival, and in considering my experience after the fact, a number of observations come to light:

1. I am either ill equipped at participant observation or ill equipped at selecting an appropriate venue for participant observation.

Ultimately, the Fire Festival was too broad a venue to grab any level of detail, and as an observer I had to pick my observational battles. I had to either filter out the noise and focus in on pinpoints in the mass of visual data, or scan broadly for a general sense of what’s going on. Most of the time, I opted for the latter. The result was a descriptive field note that’s not particularly descriptive.

I deliberately chose to enter the scene without a notebook, in part because I am very comfortable with jottings and in part because I didn’t want to stand out. In a crowd of thousands upon thousands, it’s unlikely that “standing out” would have been an issues, and in hindsight I really regret not bringing a notebook into the crowd. Had I done so I might have managed to capture the evening in more detail, and work in the more “human moments” that I experienced as a participant.

2. People, in general, have little patience for the mundane.

When thousands of people turn up on a cold night for a grand spectacle, they expect to get one. We can’t know what really caused the festival to flop – whether it was Mother Nature, negligence, lack of planning, or something altogether completely out of their control, Redmoon made a promise it wasn’t able to keep.

One only really gets one chance to make a first impression and I fear that despite all the good intentions, all the preparation, and an otherwise pretty good experience, the festival’s inability to make a big, impressive fire ball on the river might have screwed its chances of ever attempting it again.

The next day, social media was aghast; with everyone bashing Redmoon, the city, the mayor, or whomever could possibly be to blame. The spectacle, apparently, was in the aftermath rather than the festival itself. So, one could call it the grandest of failures.

On the other hand, its a well-known platitude in the arts that bad press is good press, and the day after the fire flop Redmoon was the topic of nearly every conversation in Chicago (a slight exaggeration, no doubt). So in that regard, it might be said that, fire or no fire, the Great Chicago Fire Festival was the epitome of success for a small, relatively unknown theater company in Pilsen with a knack for pageantry.

Reflection: The above are examples of two types of fieldnotes. Number 1 represents a methodological fieldnote, in which the researcher describes his/her methods in documenting a scene, and take-away points from the perspective of the researcher as the instrument. Number 2 is an example of an analytic fieldnote, in which the researcher synthesizes what has been observed to draw theoretical conclusions. The third type of fieldnote, descriptive, is detailed in the previous post. I was quite satisfied with the result and did not feel the need to rehash it here.
Personally, I found it much more comfortable to write in the realm of methodological and analytical fieldnotes than descriptive. But this is true of everything I write. In truth, I’ve been criticized for not providing enough real-time description of what occurs onstage at a dance performance, but I so prefer to dive deep into what it all means in the greater context of Dance (capital D).
Ultimately, though, I see the value in descriptive fieldnotes, no matter how mundane they may be, and the need to “get it all down” on the page. As a real anecdote, recently I happened to lose recordings from three interviews, and found it so difficult to create an article with no direct quotes to rely on for substance. The ability to say exactly what happened, is, I suppose, invaluable, particularly when the researcher is an ambassador to entire cultures and regions of the world that are yet to be described to the “mainstream.”
It goes without saying, however, that description with no analysis or reflexivity is futile.

Journal Prompt: An attempt at participant observation

The Great Chicago Fire Festival

It was a chilly walk from dinner to the river front downtown for the first Great Chicago Fire Festival. Many other pedestrians were on the sidewalks, and we all seemed to be walking in the same general direction, though perhaps not entirely knowing where we were going. As I approached the river front the sidewalks became more and more congested. I turned onto Wacker Drive and in walking from State Street east to Wabash the walk way completely filled up. A few vendors were positioned on the sidewalk selling arts, craft, and food items. Each stall had a placard above it indicating representation from select neighborhoods around the city. 

I arrived a few minutes before 8pm, and people were crammed against the ledge on all three tiers of the river walk. There were wooden houses floating in the river lit in pink and purple. They were meant to represent the style of house that filled Chicago in 1871. I couldn’t see the houses well; every once in awhile a head would shift to the side and I’d catch a glimpse, but I was about 8 people deep from the edge of the middle tier, and it seemed like as good a spot as any. People were standing on the ledge, kids perched on their parents’ shoulders, iphones extended into the air to see an obstructed view of something we all thought to come downtown and see live.

What I DID have a view of was a shiny city skyline and people watching from the windows of Trump Tower on the other side of the river. The friends I had come with made jokes about the label across the mid-section of Trump Tower:

“What if the Trump sign sets on fire?” said Gretchen

“or there’s an electrical failure and the sign just turns off” said Philip (perhaps shadowing things to come).

“I’d prefer if just the ‘T’ turned off,” I said, eluding to the humor of Trump tower becoming “rump” tower.

The jokes would continue into the night. Philip often held up his iphone so we could get a view, but nothing seemed to be happening and he’d put his arms down, indicating they were tired. People around us started to leave at about 8:30pm, and we theorized that this was a test of endurance. As three groups left, the mass would shove forward to get six inches closer to a still-obstructed view.

An announcement came over the crowd, stating all of the sponsors and giving an overview of the history of the Great Chicago Fire.

(Paraphrasing) “It was 1871, the driest summer ever in Chicago. The whole city was dusty and dry.” and then some more sponsors. From the screen of Philip’s iphone, I observed some little boats with cauldrons of fire and men in old fashioned firemen uniforms circling the wooden house structure in the middle of the river. A torch lit the house, and it went up in flames….

and then pretty quickly fizzled out.

Nothing happened for about thirty minutes, when the same voice came over the loud speaker: “Ladies and gentlemen, we are having some technical problems and we are switching to manual ignition. Thank you for your patience, and hang tight…. it’s gonna be huge!” His voice grew in intensity, although the crowd had already begun to disperse a bit, and those who remained were growing increasingly sarcastic in their comments. This loud speaker announcement didn’t pan out either, as a second attempt to light the house on fire was less successful than the first. Being cold and feeling snarky, I opted to leave at this point and skip the conclusion of what was promised to be a “grand spectacle.”

(It’s incredibly unfortunate that the Great Chicago Fire Festival was a pretty great failure. I have interviewed a few people at Redmoon in the past, they are brilliant, and certainly capable of putting on a spectacle. But, why would anyone think we could recreate an event that only resulted from perfect conditions? The houses and cauldrons sat out in the river, uncovered, for at least a week prior to the event. It’s been cold and rainy, and anyone who’s attempted to start a fire with cold wet wood knows how that goes. This was a chance for Redmoon to propel it’s name into the limelight, and some are now saying the whole event is a laughing stock. I was pleasantly astounded by the huge turnout… reporters said that the crowd exceeded the expected 30,000 people. The intention was for this to be an annual event – called the next Mardi Gras. I doubt that to be the case after this showing…)

Journal Prompt: What is already known?

I thought that a method of scaling aesthetic performance in dance didn’t exist.


An assignment to search the literature regarding my research questions couldn’t come at a better time, for in less than two weeks’ time I’ll be overseas presenting my survey research (slow, big gulp).

Anyway. On to the business of defining performance.

Krasnow & Chatfield (2009) state that there is a “lack of dance studies examining the effects of technical and training variables on performance quality,” and “until researchers design effective ways of evaluating changes in performance, such studies are not possible.” I couldn’t agree more.

Krasnow & Chatfield developed such an evaluative tool called the Performance Competence Evaluation Measure (PCEM). Subjects were videotaped performing the same dance combination eight weeks apart, judged by members of the professional dance community to establish reliability for their theoretical framework, based from three previously published studies (as of 2009) attempting to define performance. Chatfield & Byrnes (1990) created the Aesthetic Competence Evaluation (ACE) using concepts from somatics such as space/time/energy, phrasing, and presence.  Parrott (1993) built a scale based on the Federation for International Gymnastics Code of Points, focusing on alignment, clarity of movement intention, precision of movement, expressivity of the body, and musicality, but her scale demonstrated a low inter-rater reliability coefficient. Koutedakis and colleagues (2007) created a more contemporary model: a schmorgasbord system devised from various sports including gymnastics and figure skating. The scale incorporates posture and alignment, use and articulation of upper body and arms, use and articulation of lower body and feet, total body coordination, and presentation of movement.

Perhaps before we broach the subject of assessing performance, we must first define it. Easier said than done, but in this particular study Krasnow & Chatfield conduct a review of the literature, citing slightly different interpretations of dance performance from Chmelar & Fitt (1991/1992) and Chatfield & Byrnes. These two studies differentiated between dance technique and qualitative elements of dance, which together are assumed to make up “performance.” As to be expected, dance technique was defined as the “physical range of motion, explosive physical capability, endurance capability, dance-specific movement skill,” and a sort of neurological panache by which certain rhythmic or highly coordinated skills are mastered. The qualitative element of dance was connected to “movement flow, kinesthetic communication, rhythmic precision, spatial integrity, range of expression, and individuality” by Krasnow & Chatfield, and “range of vocabulary and skills, use of space/time/energy, phrasing, presence, concentration, and performance sense” by Chatfield & Byrnes. The authors also cite Pokora (1988), who added “dramatic range and the ability to adapt to various styles” to the mix as performance qualities. This addition lends itself to a SYTYCD interpretation of defining excellence in dance… that the dancer can no longer excel at one specific style of dance, but instead must be able to do it all!

The PCEM drew concepts from Bartinieff Fundamentals and the work of Rudolf Laban on defining movement quality based on effort and shape, and expanded on the ACE model created by Chatfield & Byrnes (how convenient that Chatfield is an author on both papers…). The scale divided qualitative performance into four categories:

  1. Full body involvement in movement
  2. Body integration and connectedness in movement
  3. Articulation of joints and body segments
  4. Movement skills in dance

Each dancer (assumed to have some degree of training) is scored between level I and III for each category, and, this particular scale boasts a strikingly high intra- and inter-reliability coefficient (0.95 and 0.94 respectively on the composite score).

Here’s the thing I don’t understand. Dancers can (probably) all agree on certain qualities that align with “good” or “bad” performance, but what about audience members – people with an untrained eye who tend to think most things are amazing? What would happen if we used them as judges, and what would those results imply?

And, how do choreography and production value factor into this? Krasnow & Chatfield used rehearsal video of students in a studio, but there’s a difference between good dancers doing bad choreography, bad dancers performing in a show with good production value (fancy lights, costumes, etc), and so on, and so forth. How do we scale these things in our interpretation of performance?

It seems that the objective in these studies is objectivity when it comes to defining performance, but I’m finding these qualitative scales mundane and laborious in their effort to capture something so fleeting and, in many ways, utterly subjective. Perhaps because of this I’m finding myself drawn to a qualitative analysis of qualitative performance elements. I imagine a situation where the dancer is treated as an indigenous culture to be understood, and captured through something other than charts and graphs, but rather participant observation and ethnography. In the same way that quantitative analysis may never fully capture identity, I wonder at its ability to truly define performance.


  1. Chatfield, S. J. & Byrnes, W. C. (1990) Correlational analysis of aesthetic competency, skill acquisition and physiologic capabilities of modern dancers. 5th Hong Kong International Dance Conference Papers, 79-100.
  2. Chmelar, R. & Fitt, S. (1991/1992). Conditioning for dance: the art of the science. Kinesiol Med Dance, 14(1):78- 94.
  3. Krasnow, D. & Chatfield, S. J. (2009). Development of the “performance competence evaluation measure” Assessing qualitative aspects of dance performance. Journal of Dance Medicine & Science, 13(4), 101-107.
  4. Parrott, A. A. (1993). The effects of Pilâtes technique and aerobic conditioning on dancers’ technique and aesthetic. Kinesiol Med Dance, 15(2) :45- 20. 64.
  5. Pokora, S. L. (1988). An investigation of imaging as a facilitator for the development of the dancer. Masters Abstracts International, 27(3), 318.

Journal Prompt: Week five (and an attempt at a research protocol)

One of our prompts this week reads:

  • Do you see yourself as a qualitative researcher?  Why or why not?

Totally! I’ve been thinking a lot about this, actually, and there are moments cushioned between total freak-outs when I think that qualitative research might be the answer to all my problems.

I’ve been struggling to define myself as a researcher, thinking of it as something I have to do. Qualitative research seems a better fit with my budding theoretical perspectives, writing style, and general approach to investigating a query. As a matter of fact, I submitted a proposal a few days ago purporting myself as a qualitative researcher, and it felt pretty damn good. In repeating it here, perhaps it will reveal the things I’ve learned (having absolutely no previous experience with qualitative research), and things I still desire to learn.

Professional dancers are inundated with physical, psychological and financial stress. Stress contributes to a high incidence of injury and burnout, negatively impacting overall performance (1). Increasingly, the trend is to view dancers as athletes, requiring intentional training and continual care to thrive. Previous studies recognized the high frequency of dancer injury, and importance of continuing research on injury prevention and treatment (2).


A study of hip-hop dancers indicated that health care practitioners should be wary of the seriousness of dance injuries (3). A preliminary analysis of ongoing exploratory survey research gathering self-reported profiles on dancers indicates an overwhelming majority of participants (94%, n = 387) have experienced dance-related injuries, with 21% having more than 5 serious injuries throughout their careers (4). Despite research indicating that dancers are not fit enough to meet the demands of their occupation (5), and evidence that strength training can improve dancers’ performance (6,7), access to personal training or strength and conditioning programs through their dance companies (4).


Utilizing preventive teaching and training methods that replicate evidence-based practices in sport, implementation of complementary resistance training programs may be an effective pre-habilitation method for professional dancers, thus reducing injury rates and improving performance. The question of how to define “performance,” however, remains an ambiguous one. Models borrowed from sport have failed to recognize aesthetic aspects of dance, and the dance community has yet to embrace strength training modalities, perhaps due to stereotypes that it will cause a decline in dancers’ elegance and grace.


The goal of this proposed study is to develop a qualitative assessment for measuring degrees of aesthetic performance in professional concert dancers. In an effort to establish a method of scaling performance that incorporates both the technical and aesthetic aspects of dance, qualitative approaches including targeted interviews and participant observation of dancers and company directors will be utilized in rehearsal and performance settings. By partnering with a small professional dance company and documenting field notes on everything from auditions to the final curtain call, this study will approach the work as an anthropologist might, working toward a universal theory on qualitative aspects of professional dance performance. Concurrent physiological data collected on the dancers such as fitness outcomes such as blood pressure, muscular fitness, body composition, fatigue and injury status, as well as technical standards of toe point, range of motion, line, etc., will aim to establish patterns of physical criteria correlating with the yet to be defined, “je ne sais quoi” inherent in the performing arts. This qualitative assessment will be compared with existing models, and used in future research to measure the effects of strength and conditioning on dance performance and injury prevention.

This looks quite different from the data I thought I’d be collecting, and ultimately, I think that alone shows the learning curve I’m on. After submitting this proposal, I ran it by a colleague with expertise in dance from a quantitative perspective, and he made a bunch of suggestions, which immediately made me doubt myself. Needless to say, getting feedback is a good thing, and this version of the protocol is improved over the one I submitted, and I’m pretty sure I can do this without money anyway.


  1. Grove, J. R., Main, L. C. & Sharp, L. (2013). Stressors, recovery processes, and manifestations of training distress in dance. Journal of Dance Medicine & Science, 17(2), 70-78.
  2. Russell, J. A. (2013). Preventing dance injuries: current perspectives. Open access journal of sports medicine, 4, 199-210.
  3. Ojofeitimi, S., Bronner, S., & Woo, H. (2010). Injury incidence in hip hop dance. Scandinavian journal of medicine & science in sports, 22(3), 347-355
  4. Warnecke, L., Doyle, M., Coumbe-Lilley, J. E. (2013). Dancer injury, rehabilitation, and the return to work. Unpublished data.
  5. Rafferty, S. (2010). Considerations for integrating fitness into dance training. Journal of Dance Medicine & Science, 14(2), 45-49.
  6. Stalder, M. A., Noble, B. J., & Wilkinson, J. G. (1990). The Effects of Supplemental Weight Training for Ballet Dancers. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 3.
  7. Koutedakis, Y., Hukam, H., Metsios, G., Nevill, A., Giakas, G., Jamurtas, A., & Myszkewycz, L. (2007). The effects of three months of aerobic and strength training on selected performance- and fitness-related parameters in modern dance students. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 21(3), 808-812.

Journal Prompt: Researching identity

I’ve never really thought about how to research identity, but I can imagine that identity researchers have to explain themselves a lot. Identity seems like something that could be considered subjective (not unlike trying to define dance performance!?!). If one consider’s aspects of identity currently up for debate, like sexuality… is sexuality a choice or, like the Lady Gaga song, baby are we born that way?

Many dancers consider dance to be a part of their identities. I’ve interviewed a lot of dancers, and they commonly state things like:

“I was born to dance.”

“Dance makes me who I am.”

“I have to do it.”

“I can’t imagine my life without it.”

It seems reasonable to think this way with the amount of specialized training, dedication, and sacrifice it takes to become a dancer. It makes sense to internalize a form of expression that uses the body as an instrument as part of one’s identity. But these comments above are not the sort that one hears surrounding many occupations, and, could be problematic in a field in which injuries are rampant. I’ve never encountered an investment banker who “can’t imagine his life without” JP Morgan Chase. On the other hand, lots of people (lots) took dance when they were young, and moved on without ever looking back.

I would imagine that some of those people are now investment bankers.

So, what makes dance a part of some individuals’ identities, but not others?

I Google imaged "PVEST" and this was the first item that came up.

I Google imaged “PVEST” and this was the first item that came up.

Margaret Beale Spencer proposes a theoretical model of identity that incorporates the use of phenomenology. By that I mean that individuals form their identities based on nature, nurture, and unique perceptions drawn from things they’ve experienced. Beale Spencer envisions a circular theory of identity formation called PVEST that is a product of net vulnerability (nature), net stress engagement (nurture), and reacting coping processes (phenomenology).

Qualitative research seems an ideal forum for investigating identity, especially when one considers the theoretical perspective of Beale Spencer. Ticking off an “identity box” on a survey, or capturing a randomized sample of one particular personality – to be honest – seems a bit obtuse given the variability of people’s behaviors. Beale Spencer gives an example of two siblings, sharing common genes, raised in the same household with equal access to love, care, education, etc. One ends up as a highly educated public defender, the other in prison. How we explain this phenomenon, purports Beale Spencer, is phenomenology.

Beyond the three points of PVEST listed above (net vulnerability, net stress engagement, and reacting coping processes), Beale Spencer’s theory says that these three items merge to form an individual’s identity, and behaviors are viewed as coping strategies, or the expression of certain identity traits. Ergo, two brothers in court for very different reasons. Somewhere along the line, the brothers’ perceptions of their similar, if not identical, experiences were different, and those perceptions led to different identity traits that drove one brother to deviant behavior.

Of course, one of the problems challenges with qualitative research is that it isn’t generalizable to a whole population. Ok, so there’s that, but, from my imperialistically American, Generation X/Y, self-righteous, self-absorbed perspective – and particularly where identity is concerned – who are we to generalize ANYTHING when it comes to people?