elizabeth13-0058-EditLooking to make public two qualitative social science data-sets on women’s experiences, Elizabeth Sharp collaborated with choreographers to re-analyze and re-present the data through live dance performance. Preliminary findings indicate the performance stimulated thought and greater awareness about cultural expectations related to femininity, as well as emotional reactions. Sharp highlights the “messiness” accompanying such transdisciplinary projects, particularly in regards to differences between artistic and scientific relationships to data.

In November 2012, I had the pleasure of participating in the Times of Transition Workshop, sponsored by the Centre for Medical Humanities and the Institute of Advanced Study. I spoke about timing in single women’s lives, drawing on two of my social science studies examining ever-single women. Taking a life course perspective, I question whether women in my samples were “missing” (passive) and/or avoiding/averting (active) the transition of marriage. The women in the studies were between 25 and 40 years old – often considered “prime family building years.”  I brought into focus how the women negotiated their personal desires with societal expectations more generally, and expectations related to timing of marriage and children more specifically.

This work on single women along with another one of my studies (examining weddings and new wives) was the impetus for an evening-length dance performance. Three choreographers examined my qualitative data sets and created dances. We also used portions of the verbatim transcripts as part of the performance. The concert titled “Ordinary Wars” was performed by a professional dance company, Flatlands Dance Theatre, in Lubbock, Texas on March 23, 2013 and in Blacksburg, Virginia on March 27, 2013. Over 200 people attended the performances.

Still from Ordinary Wars

Purpose of the Dance/Social Science Project: “Ordinary Wars”*

The objective of the project was to make public traditionally privatized negotiations of women’s ideologies and experiences of singlehood and marriage. Towards that end, the project asked choreographers to re-analyze and re-present social science data through live dance performance The performance drew on two separate qualitative data sets – one study focused on newly married women transitioning to be wives and the other focused on women choosing to be single and/or childfree. The choreographer used an embodied analysis (see Sharp & Durham-DeCesaro, in press, for more details). The project emphasized bodily knowledge and lived experience as lenses through which to view, interpret, and re-present social science qualitative data.

Audience Response to Ordinary Wars

Preliminary findings from the audience members indicated that the performance itself stimulated thought and greater awareness about cultural expectations related to femininity, as well as emotional reactions. One student at Virginia Tech University reflected after viewing the Ordinary Wars concert:

The performance did make me really think about the stereotypes of being a woman and what society expects of us. I liked that a lot. I even went home and discussed some of the points that were made last night with my boyfriend, just to see what his views were. Also, with many of my friends getting married soon, it made me really think about what else they have coming besides pretty dresses and a big party.

Other Audience members commented:

“Very moving, especially to see the women’s bodies flowing, jumping, dancing, speaking, gesturing on stage. I loved the dancing, and it was made all the more powerful by the overlay of rich qualitative data. I’ve never seen anything like this before, and found it delightful and shocking–it really shook me up–in a positive and inspiring way.”

“Watching a performance about weddings made me realize that in a way, weddings       themselves are performances”

“I thought the concert was very moving. I experienced several emotions throughout. I thought the concert resonated with me.”

View the Performance
Still from Ordinary Wars 2

Backstage Viewing: The Bumpy Road to The Dance Concert

Although, in the end, the performance was well-received and we were both pleased with the outcome, the social scientist and the lead dance choreographer experienced an arduous process to get there. Since the inception of the project, we have committed to exposing the “messiness” accompanying transdisciplinary projects. In a recent paper, we share one of the greatest dilemmas we encountered – our separate relationships to data. We consider data as a “troubling anchor” in our project. Below is an excerpt from our paper:

Relationships with Data

For the social scientist, her relationship to the data can be characterized as close, privileged, and contextualized. In her analysis for her social science publications, she closely read the data, engaging in line-by-line coding. It is typical for her to read transcripts more than five times each. She highly values data and it has a privileged position for her. The extent to which she depends on and privileges data was made evident in her work with this project and has helped her become aware of how such dependence can be a hindrance in an interdisciplinary project.

Many times, but not always, choreographers use data and other stimuli (text, visual images, political situations) as jumping off points. For her role in this project, the choreographer presumed she could read the transcripts once, pull what she wanted to use from the transcripts, and begin to make dance. The choreographer did not anticipate that the social scientist would be so familiar with the data that she would question when the choreographer made artistic decisions that did not accurately represent the environment or the context of the original interview.

We discuss our solutions, compromises, and continuing questions in our paper: “Almost DrowningData as a Troubling Anchor in a Dance/Social Science Collaboration.” We are continuing to work together as we enjoy the “risk, danger, and exceptional reward possible in transdisciplinary research” (Durham-DeCesaro & Sharp, in press).

For more information, please contact Elizabeth Sharp who is currently working in Durham as a Honorary Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study, or the lead dance choreographer in the project Genevieve Durham-DeCesaro.

This was originally posted on Durham University’s Centre for Medical Humanities blog and reposted with permission.

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Impact of Social Science blog, nor of the London School of Economics.  

About the Author

Elizabeth Sharp is an Associate Professor of Human Development and Family Studies and an affiliate faculty member of Women’s Studies at Texas Tech University and is currently an Honorary Fellow at the Institute of Advanced Study, Durham University, England. She is the chair of the Feminism and Family Studies section of the National Council on Family Relations (USA) and has published broadly in the fields of Human Development and Family Studies, Sociology, Psychology, and Family Therapy. Recently, she has brought her work in the social sciences into dialogue with that of scholars in the arts and humanities and is currently developing several transdisciplinary projects with collaborators in a number of fields. Her work has been cited in several media outlets, including the New York Times, the Toronto Star, and Women Forbes. 

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