insideWoM Interview: Choremusicology


the world of music (new series) vol. 9 (2020) is a double issue on choremusicology (see here). insideWoM editor Cornelia Gruber spoke with guest editors Kendra Stepputat and Elina Seye: about choreomusicology, how they got interested in it in the first place, personal music-dance encounters, and this double issue. 


Video interview with Elina Seye (University of Helsinki; visiting researcher at the Université Cheikh Anta Diop de Dakar) and Kendra Stepputat (University of Music and Performaning Arts Graz) by Cornelia Gruber (University of Vienna), December 8, 2020.


The video interview features two video clips provided by Kendra Stepputat and Elina Seye:

Video clip 1:  Workshop Group, Graz, April 28, 2018, filmed by Talieh Attarzadeh: Siri Mæland, Colin Quigley, Marit Stranden, Made Mantle Hood, Elina Djebbari, Kendra Stepputat, Christopher Dick, Elina Seye.

Video clip 2: Elina Seye, 2017. “A sabar dance event (tannëbéer) in Liberté VI, Dakar, Senegal on April 29th 2006,“ Drumming led by Yirime Gueye.
analyzes this clip in one of her contributions to the issue: “The corporeal dynamics of choreomusical interactions in sabar dance events,” in the world of music (new series) 9(1): 67–82. Also see her Performing a Tradition in Music and Dance – Embodiment and Interaction in Sabar Dance Events, Helsinki: Global Music Centre, pp. 76–84.

Written Excerpt

Choreomusicology: An interview with Elina Seye and Kendra Stepputat on the challenges of institutional boundaries and education, on developing a collaborative publishing process, on the prefix “ethno-,” and on the limitations of European languages.


CG: What are the challenges for music scholarship and dance scholarship respectively, when thinking choreomusically?

ES:  The challenges are mainly the institutional boundaries. Compared to music studies, dance studies have a very weak position (as discussed in the video). With the limited budgets in the humanities, scholars are defending their position within their own narrow field. This has led to dance researchers and music scholars not being eager to actually listen to each other and understand each others’ methods. In my experience in Finland, as someone doing both dance and music research, I may get labelled as a dance scholar by music scholars and vice versa. To me, it is a question of university politics and funding.

KS: I agree, and I want to add the issue of education. My professors supported me in looking into movement and dance, yet they considered themselves to be insufficiently educated to work with dance, because they could not read Laban notation. You do not need to be able to read Laban notation in order to work with dance. Rather, you have to train your eyes in working with dance, as you train your ears when working with music. You need to be able to analyse visually. That takes years of training. All of us who worked together on this themed double issue encountered this fear of going out of your own field. What you have to do is educate yourself and reconsider your own thinking as you go. I particularly found guidance from my colleagues in the ICTM study group on ethnochoreology.

ES: Quite a lot of music scholars nowadays actually do work visually: they analyse videos. So, in reality[music and dance studies are] not that different. Students are particularly open to it, they do not yet have the fear of venturing out of any field. Even ethnomusicology students  who are not necessarily interested in dance –  they find it relevant and useful to learn tools to analyse movement. So it is really a question of giving people new ideas.

KS: And then they start looking at music differently.

ES: This politics of separation is also a bit different for ethnomusicology and dance anthropology. When you look at their history, they were connected, particularly through scholarly relationships. Some of the pioneers of ethnomusicology and dance anthropology were students of Franz Boas who was interested in the arts from an anthropological point of view. At some point, music and dance became separate fields. Initially, the representative figures of dance anthropology and ethnomusicology worked together. There is a book edited by John Blacking and Joann Keali’inohomoku, for instance, The Performing Arts, Music, and Dance, published in 1979. Andrée Grau also extensively worked together with John Blacking in South Africa. In How Musical is Man? Blacking points to the necessity of learning how to move in order to perform music. He was very much aware that you have to look at movement, even though he himself had a background in classical music. Grau and others helped him with dance analysis. He also edited the book The Anthropology of the Body in 1970. So actually, only in the 1980s and 1990s these fields started to grow apart. Many of the dance scholars were female, whereas the big names in ethnomusicology tend to be men. So, the separation is probably also about gender, and about the legacy of the Cartesian separation of the mind from the body, as we point out in our Introduction to the themed double issue.

KS: One name we have to include here is Maud Karpeles who was the cofounder of the International Council for Traditional Music (ICTM) and was a dance scholar. Karpeles and Cecil Sharp worked together, yet Sharp is the big name that remains widely known. And, to emphasise how important the ICTM has been for dance anthropology, when you look back at the first important dance anthropological publications, you will find most of them in the ICTM’s The Yearbook for Traditional Music, and some in the Society for Ethnomusicology (SEM)’s journal Ethnomusicology. There is no other platform for dance anthropologists to  present their work in the academic world. The articles of the “A” journal in dance research, Dance Research, are mostly on Western elite dance.

CG: In this double issue, you are not only reflecting on an entire field, your joint publication also distinguishes itself through an innovative approach to research and to ways of publishing. The four topics: corporeality, social relations, translocality, and local ontologies are each examined in co-authored overviews of previous literature, and discussions of specific research models. Each of these is then followed by an article by those two authors respectively, focusing on specific questions and approaches in relation to case studies from their own field of research.


How did you develop this collaborative format and what do you consider to be particularly fruitful in its outcome? What was particularly challenging in your process of working, thinking and also writing together?

ES: It developed during a two-day meeting we had in 2018 in Graz. We compiled a literature list and selected readings to be discussed throughout both days. We wanted to see what is there, which terms were used, what has already been said, how we can develop it, what the gaps are, and which themes have not yet been discussed. Going through a lot of literature was very useful, and each of us had different interests in various specific topics.

KS: We did not want to send out a call for papers and end up with another collection of unrelated topics. So we initiated this meeting which was sponsored by my university, the University of Music and Performing Arts Graz (KUG), and the Austrian Research Council(ÖFD).


Photos above and below: Workshop Group: Siri Mæland, Colin Quigley, Marit Stranden, Made Mantle Hood, Elina Djebbari, Kendra Stepputat, Christopher Dick, Elina Seye. Graz, 28 April 2018

– Foto by Talieh Attarzadeh

KS: To me, it was one of the nicest working meetings I have ever had. With all these experts present, we could really go deep into academic conversations. You rarely have that. My brain was tickling all the time. We then wanted this process to be reflected in the themed issue and decided to group ourselves around topics that we had developed out of these discussions, and we continued working on them. Some of us were more interested in the bodily aspects and others, like Elina Djebbari and I, realized that salsa and tango have so much in common, so we came up with the topic of translocality.

CG: What have been your experiences with writing a text together? Joint authorshipis not yet consistently acknowledged or promoted in the humanities.

ES: Nowadays it is more and more appreciated that people work together. It was such an interesting experience, and, somehow, we had an intuition about who would work together well. I had met Ako Mashino only once or twice before, and then we teamed up and it worked perfectly. That being said, it took at least a year longer to publish. But it was worth it, in the end.

KS: Yes, I agree. Publications in which two people work together proliferate. I think that is the way to go. The classic idea of scholarship – inciting you to go into the field, do research, come back and publish – is outdated. You want to include the people you work with, maybe also as authors.

Writing with another person, however, takes so much more time and effort, especially if your styles of writing differ, or if you disagree on certain concepts. In our articles on translocality, for instance, we debated a term to qualify music-dance genres that exist in many places and are not bound to a particular place. I prefer “placeless” whereas Elina Djebbari calls the same idea “multi-placed.” We discussed all their pros and cons, and in the end we decided to use both.

Especially the joint texts went through so many revisions in order to forge all the literature references together, and to reconstruct all of our thinking into a coherent, readable text. Consequently, we had too much material, so the editors of the world of music (new series) decided for a doubleissue.

I am also very happy that Elina and I worked together as guest editors. I would not have liked to do this by myself. Co-editing helps enormously because you can motivate the other and yourself.

CG: In ethnomusicology there has been a long-standing, continuous and controversial debate about the prefix “ethno-” within the context of post-colonial and decolonial critique of academic structures. In your introduction to this themed double issue and in the article by Quigley and Mæland, the authors argue for the use of ethno- in terms of a methodological continuity of anthropological and ethnographic approaches. This concerns in particular the inclusion of people’s perspectives who are themselves part of the practices under investigation. Yet, some articles also display historical approaches (the article by Kendra Stepputat), and even call for thinking beyond ethno- (the article by Made Mantle Hood and Sydney Hutchinson).

Could this themed double issue be an opportunity to co-define a young academic field (choreomusicology) that has not yet institutionalized a hegemonic academic center (which is traditionally Western), and thus defy the historically specific alterity of ethno-? Could a choreomusicology, without the ethno-, that still centres practices, ontologies and epistemologies from all over the world influence and redefine other research fields?

ES: From the perspective of Finnish academia, where there has been a lot of discussion about this term “ethnomusicology,” I think it is not so much about the “ethno-” doing the Othering, but the others Othering the ethno-. Music scholars who work with Western classical music or Western popular music, apply methods from ethnomusicology, but they do not want to call themselves ethnomusicologists. Some prefer the term cultural musicology. I do not think that early ethnomusicologists thought the ethno- refers to the Other, the non-Western. I am thinking about the Nettl’s Heartland Excursions, or Joann Keali’inohomoku, whose article from 1970, “An Anthropologist Looks at Ballet as a Form of Ethnic Dance,” deals with ballet as an ethnic dance form. I think it is the refusal to accept that Western classical music is also an ethnic form of music. Maybe in an ideal world what we now call ethnomusicology would be called musicology and what is now called musicology would be called the study of the music of the European elite or something similar. I am not saying we should not continue with decolonization, there is much more to do, but I do not see the ethno- as the problem.

KS: With this themed doubleissue, we had a chance of defining choreomusicology as something to which ethno- is inherent and for which we do not need the prefix as long as we manage to have the anthropological perspective included from the start, as in all musics and all dancing. In Colin Quigley and Siri Mæland’s essay, their focus lies on a level of social relations and on having the methodology or the background of ethno- included in order to clarify that they approach music and dance anthropologically, which is particularly important in the area of movement-sound relations.

CG: In recent years, there have been numerous discussions about the inclusion of dance in ethnomusicological associations. What have you observed in these discussions and their effects?

ES: In the study group on ethnochoreology of the ICTM there has been a constant discussion about the name; it has been ongoing for at least twenty years, probably longer. In the current ICTM membership questionnaire on whether to include “D” for Dance in the title of the association, and whether to keep “T” for traditional, among other issues, I voted for adding dance. But at the same time, if only “music” remains, it is fine with me. We are limited by our use of language: we use English and other European languages in which music and dance are considered separate things. This is not the case in many other languages.

KS: Yet, adding “dance” emphasizes the difference between music and dance. That is actually contrary to what we believe in and what our research indicates. Additionally, if you have two categories there, what do you do with all of the categories that are not included? What do you do with the practices that do not fit into that category? Adding the “D” neither captures what choreomusicology is, nor what many people do.

In the ICTM, most of the younger study groups explicitly use the terms “sound” and “movement,” “performing arts,” or “music and dance,” such as the study groups on sound, movement and the sciences, or on music and dance in Latin America and the Caribbean. But then, what do you do with “ritual?” Ritual may not be considered a performance. A category is just a way of trying to understand. Nothing is really fixed. But as academics we are trained to use those categories and think beyond them. We need them to break themselves?.

CG: How do you envisage the development of choreomusicology in terms of studying the relationship of movement and sound?

ES: I do hope the themed double issue influences the thinking of others who work with music dance, and theatre – that they can gain something from finding different fields and looking from a multiple perspectives.

KS: I hope that the double issue facilitates the implied ethno- to find its way towards those who work with choreomusical factors from an ethno-European-centric perspective, and that choreomusical approaches and particularly local ontologies make researchers reconsider their own thinking. The double issue may have some impact on young scholars who teach students to connect studying movement and sound and to go beyond boundaries, also in related fields. We never intended to build a field or to define a discipline. We see choreomusicology as a method, an approach. We want to give readers an idea that this is something to look into, to research.

ES: Nevertheless, it helps to have a code word. Names are always also political, especially in terms of funding. You need to come up with a word that defines what you are doing.





Blacking, John.

1973. How Musical is Man? Seattle: University of Washington Press.


Blacking, John, ed.

1977. The Anthropology of the Body. London: Academic Press.


Blacking, John and Joann Keali’inohomoku, eds.

1979. The Performing Arts, Music, and Dance. The Hague: Mouton


Nettl, Bruno.

1995. Heartland Excursions: Ethnomusicological Reflections on Schools of Music. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.


Keali’inohomoku, Joann.

[1970] 2001. “An Anthropologist Looks at Ballet as a Form of Ethnic Dance.” In Moving History/Dancing Cultures: A Dance History Reader, edited by Ann Dils and Ann Cooper Albright. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 33–43.