Semiotic Profile: Judith Lynne Hanna

Judith Hanna

Visual and kinesthetic stimuli led Dr. Judith Lynne Hanna (Columbia University, PhD 1976) to begin an almost five decade interdisciplinary study on the semiotics of nonverbal communication.  At social dances in Los Angeles, she noticed that African university students had a distinctive “aura” as they danced, an energy that was different from their American classmates in a way that transcended simple movement variation.  She wondered why.  Since 1962, Hanna has been on an odyssey to understand the meaning of different kinds of dance through time and across cultural space.  Adventures around the world raised questions that led to her scholarly research in disciplines such as anthropology, dance theory, political science, and sociolinguistics.   She has investigated the text and context of ritual and social dance in Nigeria and Uganda, the communication of race relations through dance in an American elementary school in Dallas, Texas, the expression of emotion and meaning of Western and nonwestern dance in conventional American theaters, the variety of American social dance styles, and debates about “exotic” dance in adult entertainment clubs.  Cognitive science explorations of the mind-body interface substantiated many of the theories she first developed in the 1970s and as reported in To Dance Is Human: A Theory of Nonverbal Communication (University of Texas Press, 1979, revised edition, University of Chicago Press, 1987), along with articles in Semiotica (1979, 1984) and Current Anthropology (1979).

Columbia University’s anthropology doctoral program required courses in four fields: cultural, linguistic, physical, and archeological.  Hanna wrote university papers about how each of these sub-fields of anthropology could help explain the meaning of dance, but she discovered that linguistics was surprisingly appropriate. She applied sociolinguistic approaches to nonverbal dance to understand how dance is language-like and accordingly powerful, consequently discovering that both dance and verbal language have vocabulary (locomotion and gestures in dance) and grammar (rules for putting the vocabulary together and, in dance, justifying how one movement can follow another).  Both dance and verbal language also have semantics (meaning). Verbal language strings together sequences of words, and dance strings together sequences of movement to make phrases and sentences. However, dance is an autonomous system of communication. Because gesture and locomotion in dance rest on different representational devices from speech/writing and are not dictated by their standard linear and non-spatial form, dance offers a different view of the performer. Dance is also able to communicate content not easily communicated in verbal language. With its multiple, symbolic, and sometimes elusive meanings, dance more often resembles poetry than prose. Just as there are many verbal languages, Hanna has discovered that dance is not a universal “language.”  Hanna’s course papers at Columbia University evolved into the book, To Dance Is Human.  While the manuscript was in progress, the distinguished semiotician Thomas Sebeok lectured at the University of Texas where Hanna was then teaching.  Sebeok broadened Hanna’s comprehension of semiotics when he invited her to be on committees to review conference abstracts and papers for Semiotica.  Hanna later contributed articles to the journal and to the Encyclopedic Dictionary of Semiotics (1986, edited by Sebeok).

In her semiotic approach, Hanna explores the meaning of dance in terms of the elements of dance itself (use of time, space, effort, locomotion, gesture, parts of body used, aesthetics, music, costume) and their relationship to other cultural, political, social, and historical considerations (see “African Dance Frame by Frame, 1989).  Although there were tools such as “Labanalysis” to describe the physical actions of dance (developed by Rudolf Laban and Irmgard Bartenieff, among others), there were none to probe for meaning in these physical actions.  So Hanna consulted with dancers from the diverse cultures living in New York City at the time and developed a semantic grid to help her analyze her first fieldwork data.  She discovered that dance uses a number of devices and spheres to encode meaning.  At least six symbolic devices are used for conveying meaning that dancers utilize in dance: concretization, icon, stylization, metonym, metaphor, and actualization. The devices for encapsulating meaning in dance operate within one or more of eight spheres: event, body in action, whole pattern of performance, sequence of unfolding movement, specific movement, intermesh of movement with another medium, vehicle for another medium, and presence. The devices and spheres represent various ways in which dancers embody the imagination of the choreographer and dancer.  Dancers create meaning in one or more “boxes” of the grid formed by the intersection of the vertical and horizontal lines separating devices and spheres.  Dancers may encode meaning singly, in various combinations, or in differing ratios.   The observer can impose the grid on the dance as a whole and then zoom in on smaller units of the dance to ask if meaning is related to one or more of units located in the grid boxes.  Hanna’s research demonstrated that among the Ubakala-Igbo in Nigeria, dance is a medium for fun, courtship, religion, politics, health, healing, and education.  Through song and movement, dance teaches young and old alike what it is to be a good wife, husband or political leader.  Metaphor is the predominant device operating in the spheres of event and specific movement to communicate gender roles. When the social and biological roles of men and women are supposed to differ–women as life-giving mothers, and men as life-taking warriors–the dances of each gender contrast. Women dance slowly and effortlessly in circles, whereas men dance rapidly and forcefully in angular lines.

During an ethnographic study in Dallas, Texas, Hanna found that the metaphor device seen in the spheres of event and movement was also common in African American spontaneous dance in a desegregated magnet elementary school (whites volunteered to send their children to the school which had been all black).  This time, the metaphoric distinction was racialized instead of gendered.   In classrooms, hallways, and playgrounds, the children “discussed” stressful race relations, patterns of authority, and personal identity through physical expressions of dance.  In theme, participation criteria, and performance space in a white-controlled school system, African-American youngsters metaphorically identified themselves as distinct from the “shuffling black” stereotypes of earlier historical periods and from the whites of today. They attained a wished-for privileged status through dance in the way they performed in spaces where dance does not usually occur, excluded whites from dance activities, and made fun of ballet by performing steps in inappropriate places in defiance of white teachers (see “Interethnic Communication in Children’s Own Dance, Play, and Protest” 1986 and 1988).

The next stage of Hanna’s semiotic journey was at the University of Maryland.  A dance department chairperson asked her to speak to the faculty about the reciprocity of emotion and movement. Then she added, “But we don’t want you to talk about culture.” Implicit in her remark was the commonly accepted theoretical assumption of a universal way that humans, including dancers, express emotions through movement and, conversely how their emotions motivate (make happen) movement.  Having learned about different ways children nonverbally express emotion in her elementary school study, Hanna decided to test the notion of dancers’ universal expression of emotion.  To do so, she began by interviewing dancers and audience members.  At a series of eight concerts (American tap, modern dance, postmodern dance; Indian Kuchipudi and Kathakali, Japanese Kabuki, and Philippine dance), she asked dancers what emotions they wanted to get across and how they thought they expressed them.  Hanna surveyed audiences about what emotions they perceived, clues to how the emotions were conveyed, and how they felt in response. In addition, she explored whether the perception of emotion in movement and the use of different clues co-varied with an audience member’s age, gender, ethnicity, education, income, occupation, and knowledge about the genre. The study, reported in The Performer-Audience Connection:  Emotion to Metaphor in Dance and Society (1983; see also “Dance” 1999), found diversity in emotional expression.

Hanna has been interested in applying her research to real world problems.  In addition to addressing problems in intercultural communication in schools, she wrote a book called Partnering Dance and Education (Human Kinetics, 1999).  Hanna’s arguments include (1) why dance education should be part of all youngsters’ schooling in K-12; (2) the intertwining of the cognitive, physical, and affective; and (3) the gap between the goals of the worlds of K-12 academic education and dance (dancers, dance teachers, university dance programs). The key point is that through the mind-body dynamic, dance has the power to benefit students in their academic, personal, and adult lives.  In, about, and through dance, students learn a language-like mode of expression that uses the same parts of the brain for creating dance and for language.

An unprecedented terror attack in the United States on 9/11/01 created new kinds of social stresses. Asked to discuss the role of dance in healing, Hanna’s semiotic research led to Dancing for Health: Conquering and Presenting Stress (2006). She describes the extraordinary role of dance as a healing art for all kinds of stress. Indeed, to dance in order to resist, reduce, and escape stress is human. Using examples from many different cultures and throughout history, she explains how dance is both exercise and aesthetic communication. While science has shown the mind/body integration and benefits of exercise, most cultures incorporate dance to come to terms with life crises, conflict resolution, revitalization of the past, and as a way to face future uncertainties. Hanna reveals how individuals expel spider venom, shake off death, and evade evil by using the power of dance.  Her case studies, including her own personal experiences as a dancer, reveal the potential of dance as a key strategy in the arsenal against stress.

In 1995, Hanna was asked to be an expert court witness in an adult entertainment exotic dance (striptease) case.   Debates in the courtroom involved the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that protects speech and expression.  This case began a 15-year exploration into the semiotics of yet another genre of dance. Her research revealed that exotic dance was a form of dance, art and theatre that communicated various messages.  It was, and continues to be, a provocative lens to view a culture war in the United States in which a segment of the politically active Christian Right seeks to impose it Bible-based views on society.  See Naked Truth: Strip Clubs, Democracy and a Christian Right (University of Texas Press, 2012).

Currently an Affiliate Senior Research Scientist, Department of Anthropology, at the University of Maryland, College Park, Hanna has taught at Michigan State University, Fordham University, International College, University of Texas at Dallas, University of Maryland, and Université Libre de Bruxelles. She has lectured at more than 50 colleges and universities, addressed more than 30 association meetings and special conferences and seminars; published her work in Belgium, Brazil, Canada, France, Germany, Ghana, Jamaica, Netherlands, Poland, Santo Domingo, South Africa, Sweden, and United Kingdom; and appeared on radio and television in Canada, Nigeria, Sweden, and the United  States.  In addition she has worked as an educational consultant and has given special workshops for educators and students.  See for a curriculum vitae and descriptions of her books and articles organized by these categories:  Africa/diaspora, America, criticism, education, striptease, gender, health, identity, method, and religion.

Judith Hanna’s CV can be downloaded here.

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