tl;dr Critical discourse analysis can be applied to dance as much as it is applied to text. The relationship between reader, text and writer is similar to Preston-Dunlap’s triadic perspective. Framing of a piece may come in the form of text. And music, even the obvious-seeming choices, present a specific worldview.
So, I started writing a while back on Critical Discourse Analysis and I wanted to start broadening it to look at how we can analyze dance and movement in similar ways. This is going to be a series because I don’t know how to be chill about things like this.
This starts with a disclaimer: I will be pulling a lot from choreology, the analytical study of movement, deriving originally from Rudolf Laban’s work (but expanded upon and developed by fantastic people, such as Valerie Preston-Dunlop). I am not a choreologist and, in fact, have a lot to learn in the field of choreology that I hope I will someday get to. I’ll be recommending further reading throughout the series and compile it all at the end of the series. Really, this is an experiment to see how my knowledge of CDA can be applied to movement and the models that choreology provides makes this possible (similar to how CDA relies on a lot of linguistics, and I am in no way a linguist), this is not a proper education in choreology.
I’m an Irish dancer, so it wasn’t too difficult to decide what to use as an example. Michael Flatley is an ever present thorn in my side. We’re going to look at this particular version of “Breakout” from Lord of the Dance. Keep in mind that there a lot of different versions of this particular choreography, even dating back to Riverdance era and there is SO MUCH to analyze here. We’re just going to look at this one. Although, once I’ve created an entire series about this one video, I may add some links to some other versions of the piece to provide some new perspectives.
Models and Methodology
Unlike my CDA post, we’re going to start big picture and then get small, because I find that easier with dance, since movement vocabulary can be more difficult to describe than lexical vocabulary (ie. words). We’re going to keep on using CDA tools, particularly in terms of narrative, structure, and vocabulary. Since we’re using Irish dance, this will link deeply into existing knowledge around tradition and nationalism. Because we’re using movement, we will use two choreological models as a framework: strands of the dance medium and the structural model. You can read more about them here.
When discussing CDA, I created this cute diagram:
Writer <–> text <–> Reader
In which information is constantly being passed via text between people that are both readers and writers (see my post on CDA for more details on this).
Let’s translate this into dance terms. A writer becomes a choreographer, text becomes a single performance of a work, and a reader becomes the audience. In dance, we have a tradition of believing these to be three separate disconnected roles, but performers, choreographers, and audience members overlap incredibly (Howard Becker makes an interesting point in his book Art Worlds that the main audience for dance is actually other dancers and former dancers, it feels pretty accurate when I look around at who attends the dance performances I go to.)
In the world of dance scholarship (as opposed to CDA), this is called the triadic perspective. Choreographers are audience members and dancers, for their own work and other work. Dancers choreograph in collaboration with choreographers, are choreographers in their own right, and are audience members. Audience members can be choreographers and dancers influenced by performance they see (Athreya, 2002). It’s the same as if it were a text, except, in this case, “text” refers to a performance.
The first thing that strikes me in this video isn’t actually the movement, so let’s leave movement analysis to the side for the moment and do some text-based CDA, like I’ve already discussed.
We know from the video description that this is a corporate event in Hawaii. Interesting, considering the title of the video and common nickname of the choreography (“Strip Jig”). More interesting is Flatley’s introduction:
He says he brought dancers from “all over the world”, including “some of the most beautiful girls in the world” and “big, strong handsome guys” and he promises his audience that they will “understand more about what our culture is all about here in Ireland” (my emphasis).
He sets up a juxtaposition between the global (“all over the world”, “most beautiful girls in the world”) and the Irish (“our culture”, “here in Ireland”). I would particularly like to highlight the use of the word “here”. Maybe it was a slip of the tongue, but through it, he brings Ireland into the space. They might be in Hawaii, but that space has become a part of Ireland while he is there.
In addition, through bringing up the idea of understanding culture, Flatley positions himself as a cultural ambassador. He is there to share Irish culture and, in effect, build the world’s perception of Ireland. (It’s a self-appointed position but, looking at the history of Flatley’s shows, he’s not wrong. I still get people asking me if I can “do the Riverdance” when I tell them I’m an Irish dancer). This tells us that the speaker (Flatley) believes the following performance to be representative of Irish culture and significant to Irish culture, which links into a long history of Irish nationalism and Irish dance. It’s also a form of marketing. By branding his work as “true” Irish culture, he can exploit others’ interest in easy cultural exchange.
Irish dance has been created and reworked many times to represent the values of Irish nationalists and people who hold power in Ireland. Flatley and Lord of the Dance is simply one step in this process, and that is central to this video.
Also, do I really need to comment on “the most beautiful girls in the world” and “big, strong, handsome guys”? I feel like I comment on this everyday (and have trouble keeping a pretend objective tone with this kind of nonsense). Look at the word choice, look at the adjectives, look at the difference between “girl” and “guy”. It’s demeaning, it’s reductive, and it’s gross.
Strands of the Dance Medium
From framing, let’s zoom in a little closer and look at the structure of the dance performance. The strands of the dance medium looks at a “nexus” of various elements that connect (or don’t) to form a performance. This is the book that looks a lot closer at the strands, I highly recommend it. In this particular model, movement is a single element, alongside the performer, the space, and the sound. Performer encompasses everything visible about the person dancing, including their costume. Space encompasses set and the environment of the performance, as well as props. Sound includes music, but also other forms of sound, including silence. The relationships between these four strands are considered “nexial connections” (nexus just means connection, so, just, a lot of interrelation and connection going on).
For this post, we’re just going to look at sound. The easiest description of the sound for this piece is “music” and we could go more detailed to say “Irish music”.
But wait. Irish music. Doesn’t that link into how Flatley was positioning himself as an ambassador of Irish culture? It might seem obvious to use Irish music to accompany Irish dance, but the fact is that it is a specific choice that gives us a sense of the performance. This dance is supposed to be representative of Irish culture, this music is thus the music that is supposedly representative of Irish culture. It’s saying “these two things belong together and this is how we do it.”
(I’m currently dancing to Against Me! sooooo, apparently I didn’t get the memo, sorry Flatley).
There are two parts of the music. The first part is slower and features a flute, light, airy, and sweet. This highlights the “innocence” of the section and is in direct contrast to the second part, which starts with an electric guitar while the tune is played on a fiddle. The use of electric instruments for a “traditional” form makes everything a big edgy. While this is technically representative of Irish culture, the choice pushes the boundaries of what is considered “traditional”. It suggests that Flatley views Irish culture to be something beyond tradition (this also includes anyone involved in music development for the show, but I’m assuming he has a vague amount of choice in the music and in attaching it to this specific dance).
It is also worth noting that traditionally, Irish dance is accompanied by live music (and Flatley’s work in general too). This is recorded. This alters the relationship between dance and music because the music is unresponsive to the dance’s needs and the dance needs to conform to a rigid, pre-established sound.
There is one final note to make on sound that we’ll return to in more detail later: shoes. That sound is heard throughout the piece, but not at all moments. It goes with the music (another choice that feels obvious, but isn’t), suggesting that the music holds power and form in the piece. There is no moment when the sound of the shoes challenges or stands against the music. This can be (and will be) used alongside other elements of the piece to show how the music illustrates the narrative of the dance.
Through looking at the framing and sound choice of this piece, we can start to piece together an understanding of Flatley’s self-positioning in terms of Irish and global culture and how that plays out in his shows. It also starts to offer us a window into the appeal of Irish dance and how both Riverdance and Lord of the Dance spread very specific versions of Irish dance.
Up next, we’ll look at the three other strands of the dance medium: Movement, Space, and the Performer!
Athreya, Preethi, “MAKING DANCE; A CHOREOLOGICAL APPROACH”, Narthaki, 2002 <http://www.narthaki.com/info/articles/article66.html> [Accessed 7 April 2018]
Preston-Dunlop, Valerie, Looking At Dances (Binsted, Hampshire, UK: Noverre Pr., 2014)