My memory of Professor Andrée Grau (1954-2017)

From left: Egil Bakka, Andrée Grau and author in 2014

It was a sunny day on the campus of University of Blaise-Pascal in Clermont-Ferrand, France in 2014. I was sunbathing on a bench, enjoying coffee with my classmate, Bry Levina Viray when Professor Andrée Grau and Egil Bakka came strolling towards us. Andrée exclaimed, “What a colourful picture you are!”. Later, Bry took this photo, which was one of the many photos I took with her throughout my Choreomundus years of study in Europe.

Colourful is the word to describe Andrée. She was fascinated by cultures, evident through her sartorial choices and paraphernalia of accessories. I vaguely remember a passing comment she made about wearing lipstick even when writing at home. A woman should always be prepared. She was impressive in her command of languages, even though I’m not sure how many she spoke, to be exact. Maybe it was simply her way of talking that convinced me so. In England, I was often embarrassed by my accent as a non-native English speaker, but Andrée never once made me feel uncomfortable about the way I speak or the way I am, as a matter of fact. One could easily tell she was an anthropologist because she knew how to position herself as equal to whomever she was speaking to. From my experience, she never imposed her authority or knowledge upon me and always maintained an open mind. I was a rebellious student with many bones to pick but one piece of wisdom she left me with was that I live an interesting life and that I should keep a journal. Up until today, there would always be a journal on my bedside table, in my bag, in my drawer; how often I write in them is a topic for another day.

Nonetheless, I am writing this entry seven years after the photo has been taken, in my current capacity as a PhD student and editor of a dance publication in Canada. As I recall my time with Andrée from my apartment where I have been confined alone for almost a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, interesting is probably not how I would describe my life in lockdown. Still, Andrée has a point as she always does. I am a woman of colour who build my identity around hybrid spaces of settler colonies. There I was, studying from Andrée how to become a dance anthropologist and learning why cross-cultural research methodologies are important in understanding “dance as a complex holistic, polysemic, multi-sensory and socially/culturally rooted practice” (Grau, 2011). There I was, doing fieldwork with Tibetan refugee monks in the Himalayas, doing tens of thousands of prostrations with them on holy grounds, watching their endless spiraling in ritual dances, joining them in overnight liturgies, trying to learn their language; all while questioning my own identity and my place in the community as a researcher, a devotee, a dancer, a woman and sometimes, even as a human being in the Buddhist discourse. Little did I realize then how pertinent cross-cultural studies would become for someone like me, not just professionally, but also in my personal life as it gradually shapes how I navigate myself in the larger world.

As one of the founding conveners of Choreomundus International Masters in Dance Knowledge, Practice and Heritage, Andrée made it possible and opened doors for countless students across the world, including myself, to study dance anthropology at esteemed universities in Europe on full scholarships. Outside of Choreomundus, there were also many students from different countries she has mentored throughout her illustrious teaching career. She exemplified what cross-cultural research is:

I would argue that as human beings belonging to a single species, it is likely that in some instances our corporeality, spatiality and sensibility overlap, but the ways we perceive these, and conceptualize and talk about them are certainly not identical. Assuming a universality in our sensorial worlds closes doors, and as an anthropologist I want to open these doors, as we have much to learn.

Dancing bodies, spaces/ places and the senses: A cross-cultural investigation. (Grau, 2011)

Of late, Andrée has been coming up in my conversations with friends and colleagues. (I hope this is a sign that I’m back on track). She passed away during a difficult time in my life and news of her death came as a tipping point for me. I quit social media and shunned the academic community for fear of more bad news. I finally mustered up enough courage to attend the ICTM study group/ Choreomundus alumni conference in Hungary the year following her death. It was there I reconnected with the dance community and if it wasn’t for Professor Egil’s encouragement, I would probably have given up my academic pursuits by now.

During the conference, a night celebration was held in memory of Andrée. I remember Professor Egil Bakka and Georgiana Gore gave a speech before opening up the floor. They invited anyone who wished to dance in celebration of Andrée’s life to do so. It was a conference for dance scholars after all, so there was no shortage of dancers in the room. People got up one by one and danced in good spirits. I did an improvisation of Tai Chi and dedicated the performance to Andrée.

Egil Bakka and Georgiana Gore did the opening dance

The journey of a dance scholar is long and arduous. Dance studies is hardly talked about in the academia, let alone in the “real” world. I have a hard time explaining to families and friends what I do. What does a dance scholar do? Why write or research about dance? People want to enjoy dance, who wants to read about dance? This is why we have historical records of literature, music, film and visual arts but a dearth of dance artifacts. Dance is ephemeral, we are always told, this is why we ought to find ways to perpetuate its legacy. Film and technology is preserving and distributing dance in ways that could never have been imagined, but still much work awaits to be done in terms of critical study and vigorous analysis of dance in its various contexts, not to mention conservation of dances and the archiving of them.

To my fellow aspiring dance scholars, it’s common that we get distracted, discouraged and lose hope on the way. On many occasions, it was a word from a peer or a teacher who rescued me from the trenches and kept me going on a path that sometimes seems demanding yet unrewarding. I offer my story as it continues to evolve as my gratitude towards the generosity and kindness teachers like Andrée have showered upon me. I am certain many share my sentiments as one of the many lives she has touched throughout her lifelong dedication to the study of dance anthropology.

I would like to leave my readers with a closing paragraph from Andrée on what role dance scholars are to assume in addressing the gap within the study of dance, cautioning us against parochialism and ethnocentrism in her lingering voice:

[S]cholars focusing on dance often do not sufficiently engage with issues of corporeality and spatiality, assuming that their own understanding pertains to all, and they rarely investigate how dancers experience and talk about them. They often fail to document fully and carry out detailed analyses of bodies in space so that empirical evidence can support their research and be used for cross-cultural comparisons to broaden our understanding of dance. It is indeed only through a combination of efforts, engaging in multidisciplinary frameworks, that the study of dance will reach its full potential.

Dancing bodies, spaces/places and the senses: A cross-cultural investigation. (Grau, 2011)

List of Professor Grau’s publications can be found here:

https://roehampton.academia.edu/AndreeGrau

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