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Irene Candelieri

From Native Indians' music to dance in the New York of the 1930s: notes on the anthropology of sound in Franz and Franziska Boas

Doctoral Programme in History of societies, institutions and thought. From medieval to contemporary history (Università degli Studi di Trieste in collaboration with Università degli Studi di Udine)

«No other art moves me as deeply as music», wrote in a letter to his wife Marie Krakowitzer the young Franz Boas (1858-1942), destined to become the father of the American Cultural Anthropology and considered one of the pioneers of ethnomusicological studies.

Born in Minden, Westfalia, into a family of the liberal Jewish bourgeoisie and grown in the scholarly tradition of the German Bildung, his early academic interests lay in Natural Sciences, Maths, Physics and Geography but, after a journey in the Canadian ice of Baffin Island (1883-1884), he would further broaden the horizons of his already lively scientific inquisitiveness. After spending one year with the Inuit people of the region, the young Boas understood that the local population – «far from being uncivilized» – was bearer of complex knowledge, historically stratified and traceable in the rich repertoire of its oral, vocal and literary tradition. Only the prolonged observation, the listening and the methodical transcription of collected data with the help of local brokers would allow a scientific approach to a cultural heritage not yet adequately treated by European researchers and academics. Listening to a group of Bella-Coola Indian singers in 1886 from the Northwest Coast and working with the collections of the Museum für Völkerkunde in Berlin definitively adressed the Boas's scientific interests towards the study of the history of non-European cultures, taking the young researcher overseas for the rest of his life. The article published in Gestalt Theory traces a path starting from the Boasian field research in British Columbia about music, dance and movement among the Indians Kwakiutl until the New York of the 1930s, where the Boas's daughter Franziska (1902-1988) as a dancer ushered dance and sound in her therapeutic practice. Why did Boas recognize in music one of the preminent objects in intangible cultural heritage? How could music, dance, poetry, myth, language be considered deeply related as creative and artistic forms, according to Boasian anthropological perspective? Which role did rhythm play in these intangible cultural forms? Furthermore, how did Franz Boas's research impact Franziska's dance teaching and clinical practice? The article explores these questions by tuning on the assonance between Boasian approach to sound, dance, gesture and the theoretical reflections of the Austrian ethnomusicologist Erich Moritz von Hornbostel (1877-1935) about perception, arts and unity of the senses. Indeed, Boas had regularly corresponded with the director of the Berlin Phonogramm-Archiv, sharing the results of his field observations among the Indians of British Columbia. Boas detected cultural specific patterning in dances, as well as in the complex hand gestures and body movements (fig. 1)

Figure 1: Winter ceremony, 1894

along with song and oral performances, by stressing the rhythm as a common element for these cultural phenomena: facing the universalist theories of gesture language maintained by evolutionists, the German anthropologist underscored the acquired, culture-specific nature of sound and body movement.

Franziska Boas furthered the research of her father, by investigating the social function of dance and realizing its potentially therapeutic implications: at the Bellevue Hospital in New York, she took part from 1939 until 1943 to an art therapy project aimed to verify if modifications in motor habits could affect the perception of body schema. Based on the concept of “inner dance”, she postulated that providing unusal and instinctive movement experiences expedited the awareness of cognitive and affective dimensions otherwise not available (fig. 2).

Figure 2: Poster for Franziska Boas' Studio, 1945

If «the source of all dance is in a primitive muscular response to emotion», her perspective seems to be deep-rooted in the field research conducted with her father in the 1930s in the Northwest Coast, where they both could investigate the cultural and spiritual meaning of performative dancing rituals by the Indians of British Columbia.

Authors and affiliations

Irene Candelieri1
1Dipartimento di Studi Umanistici-DISU, Università degli Studi di Trieste, Androna Campo Marzio 10, 34123 Trieste, Italy


Irene Candelieri, email: irene.candelieri@phd.units


Irene Candelieri
Sound, Dance and Motion from Franz Boas's Field Research in British Columbia to Franziska Boas's Dance Therapy
Gestalt Theory 423 (2020), pp. 233-242
DOI: 0.2478/gth-2020-0020 Published online: 14 Dec 2020

Informazioni aggiornate al: 18.3.2021 alle ore 11:11