Anthropology of the Performing Arts

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The anthropology of art has focused on material objects. Less attention has been given to physical performance (music, dance, theatre) despite pioneering work by anthropologists such as Victor Turner in recent decades. Anthropological approaches to performance are different from performance studies and the field of performance. Anthropologists explore the relationship between society and the dramatic and artistic representations which it produces. Anthropological approaches to performance reflect a range of anthropological concerns: social structure, function, meaning, identity and experience. The study of performing arts also has much in common with the ethnography of ritual, a richly documented field, but not always one in which the elements of performance are given their due recognition. As such, anthropological studies of performance are useful for teaching students about socio-cultural diversity as well as the role of different theoretical perspectives in the discipline. The anthropology of performance is a relatively new field of enquiry, and therefore no simple introductions or general readers are as yet available. However, many researchers have produced papers and chapters in edited volumes.

Text written by: Professor Felicia Hughes-Freeland (reproduced with author’s permission)

Postgraduate programmes in the UK

Roehampton University

Recommended Resources


In the following film, Andrée Grau, Professor of Anthropology of Dance at University of Roehampton, talks about her interest in anthropology of the performing arts. 

The following following trailer is for YMAKO, a film currently distributed by the Royal Anthropological Institute.


Director Laurent van Lancker, Robin Shuffield
Country/Production Belgium
Release 1998
Length 52 mins
Location Ivory Coast, West Africa
Basil Wright Film Prize 1998

Ymako Teatri, a theatre company based in Ivory Coast, uses street theatre to question some contemporary West-African problems. Their originality consists in using the ‘invisible theatre’ method in order to surprise the public and thus make it react itself to its own problems. This documentary shows how a local theatre company efficiently uses fiction to problematise today’s African reality. This film presents two performances, one criticises the current proliferation of religious sects, the other deals with the awakening of villagers towards AIDS. Ymako, in Bambara, means ‘our concerns’.

 The Royal Anthropological Institute (RAI) has one of the largest ethnographic film libraries in Europe. Films are available for hire, sale or loan, for educational and academic purposes. Click here for a list of films the RAI distributes on Anthropology of Performing Arts.

General – an article and video excerpts on Anthropologist Katherine Dunham and Dance Anthropology.
– A list of influential dancers with website links and biographies from the Smithsonian. – an overview of the Anthropology of Performance by Susan Lambeth.



Anthropology of the Performing Arts
Royce Peterson, Anya (Alta Mira Press, 2004)

The Anthropology of Dance
Royce Peterson, Anya (Indiana University Press,2002)

A Dictionary of Theatre Anthropology: The Secret Art of the Performer
Eugenio,B. and Savarese, N. (Routledge, 2006)

Articles/Papers & Online Journals – an interesting article about dance, identity and national borders. – selected articles and papers on the Anthropology of Dance by Dr. Najwa Atra. – a research paper on interculturalism and aesthetics.

Professional Organisations, Groups & Associations

Arts Council England – is the national development agency for the Arts in England.

International Dance Council – the official umbrella organisation of UNESCO dedicated to all forms of dance in all countries of the world.
Theatrical Management Association– a UK wide organisation dedicated to providing professional support for the performing arts.