Trish Winter: A Somatic Ethnography of Grand Gestures Elders Dance Group

‘Close your eyes and watch your breath’

says Paula, and there’s a little giggle in the room.  We obediently close our eyes, and I watch my breath enter in a cold rush, prickling the edges of my nostrils.  It triggers a kind of release in my throat, before being sucked into lungs which I imagine as monstrous tree branches, waving and pulsing in the dark cavity of my chest.  This watching takes in a universe of sensation – the temperature and movement of air into my body, the muscular stirrings, tensions and releases involved in both breathing and sitting still, the temperature of the room registering both on my skin and from inside my body as the occasional shiver.  Here I am in a chilly church hall in North East England doing fieldwork for my somatic ethnography of Grand Gestures elders dance group.

This project asks about the place of bodily sensation in cultural value through a case study of older people dancing. In particular the study focuses on the somatic senses, the cluster of senses that relate to touch.  This includes the external sense of touch on the skin, as well internally felt senses such as kinaesthesia (the sense of movement), proprioception (the sense of position in space), balance, and something that we might call physical empathy – that sense of physical connectedness that can be felt as we dance together.  A key part of the experience of dancing, these senses are not much written about in the body of academic and arts professional publications that examine the impact of dance on health and well being among older people.  But, for example, how does the development of a heightened sensory awareness feed into an understanding of one’s self and identity? Or what is the place of touch and physical empathy in the building of a community through dance?

I’ve approached the ethnography as a collaboration with the dancers of Grand Gestures and their lead artist, Paula Turner.  This group of men and women, aged from 54 to 90, meet once a week as part of a project, Creativity Matters, run by the charity Equal Arts. Through interviews, participant observation and a range of creative exercises, we are exploring together the value that these older dancers attribute to their dance activity, and the place of somatic sensation in that.  We’re also addressing some thorny questions about how sensory experience, subjective, sometimes fleeting and tricky to describe, might be articulated in words and in other ways.  The dancers are energetic and engaged participants in the research, and we’re generating a vast amount of research material such as reflective writing, drawing and painting, pottery, film, and sensory diaries, as well as interviews and fieldwork notes.

As we enter the final two months of the project, ideas and themes are starting to emerge from this potentially overwhelming volume of ethnographic material, and it is both exciting and daunting to be starting to tease out some responses to my initial research questions.  I’ll be taking these back to the group for their feedback and I look forward to seeing my project’s results take shape as a contribution to the Cultural Value Project.

Trish Winter, University of Sunderland, is the Principal Investigator of the project, A Somatic Ethnography of Grand Gestures Elders Dance Group.  It runs from 31st December 2013 to 31st May 2014.  Equal Arts is the project partner. You can read more about Grand Gestures, Creativity Matters, and Equal Arts on the group’s blog:


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