What do Glaser & Strauss’s grounded theory study The Social Loss of Dying Patients, dance notation and Josephine Baker have in common? Well, I’m making a few conceptual leaps here, but I think it’s worth considering as a theory. I’ll walk you through it.
I was struck by a sentence in this article by Susan McClary & Robert Walser about Theorizing the body in the African American music. Their point, amongst others, is that it’s popular music and dance forms that have had the biggest and widest effect on dance generally, not avant-garde choreography which just borrows ‘vernacular’ movements to present in ‘legit’ works:
The fanaticism and hysteria that have greeted each new African-American dance in the last hundred years attest to the centrality of this music in contestations over the body. And the dances invariably triumphed over whatever opposition they faced, even in they were toned down somewhat in the transition. It is this music, these dances – not the hot-house experiments of the avant-garde – that have shaped us, body and soul, throughout this century.
When I read that, I thought of a dance teacher friend of mine who was saying how fabulous Josephine Baker was, and how she was sure she did more for dance in the 20th century than….and then named one of the greats, can’t remember – Isadora Duncan? Martha Graham? I tend to agree.
Now skip across a few years to yesterday, when I was reading Glaser & Strauss’s ‘social loss’ study. They looked at what happened when people were dying, and noticed that nurses had a notion of ‘social loss’ that might affect the way they dealt with the patients. Normally, young patients are perceived as high value because you shouldn’t die young, but an old person might gain a few points by being a wonderful character. You get the idea.
Now think about dance notation – why do some works get notated, whereas all kinds of popular dance forms don’t? Could it be that there’s a similar concept of ‘social loss’ here, too? The idea is kind of obvious, but only because we think it’s obvious that some works have ‘aesthetic value’ that’s worth preserving and some don’t. But what if it’s no more than a knee-jerk reaction to the perceived social value of the person doing the dance, disguised as an aesthetic judgement? The interesting thing for me would be to see if the category of ‘social loss’ provides a good explanation for what happens in dance. That’s got to be a gift of a dissertation or an article for someone, to do a comparative study using Glaser & Strauss’s original study to see how well the categories fit across the two scenarios. Any takers?