I met someone who was doing a PhD in dance. What exactly do those people do? Do they do research in dance? Conduct experiments in dance? Prove theorems about dance? Do they become dance professors when they graduate?

Do they mostly focus on the history of dance, and compare different styles of dancing?

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    Seems to me that the person you met would be a good person to ask. – Gregory J. Puleo Feb 13 '15 at 20:13
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    @GregoryJ.Puleo I met her years ago, at a first-year orientation event, and we're no longer in touch. – Ben Bitdiddle Feb 13 '15 at 20:19
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    Ah, I got the impression that the "I met" was recent. – Gregory J. Puleo Feb 13 '15 at 20:39

In short: yes, and a whole lot more.

A PhD in the arts usually most closely resembles other PhDs in the humanities, like English or History, but often have a more experiential/practical component as well. Depending on the program and field of study, it might be somewhat of a mash-up of psychology, anthropology, physiology, literature, history, political science...whatever relates to one's area of research and study!

I'll give a concrete, real-world example: in the Psychology department of my present university there are faculty and students (undergraduates and those preparing for masters/PhD studies) conducting cross-departmental research with the Theatre & Dance department on the "Psychology of Dance". In one experimental study they looked at inter-rater reliability of those who are not particularly trained or experienced in interpretive dance, and then showed them specially created dance performance videos. They were looking to see if interpretive dance really is a genuine form of communication: can the artists/performers communicate specific emotions consistently to the audience such as anger, fear, affection, companionship, etc? Or is it all just people assigning arbitrary meanings, like people giving serious meaning to a randomly generated drawing? Their results so far indicate that especially for some emotions, there is a very strong inter-rater reliability: even those who have never studied/seen interpretive dance before can identify certain emotions, activities, representations, etc - and as usual they work on writing up and publishing such results, giving talks, etc.

As another example, at NYU they have a Performance Studies program and they have a lot of detail on their website about the kind of things student's are doing. These include things like studying different styles of dance, dance in other cultures, documenting and studying modern performance art, and so forth.

As with most PhDs, the purpose of them is research and instruction, but what one does with it varies. Some will be instructors, professors, researchers, owners of studios, contributors in community organizations, lecturers, writers, performance artists...some will go into 'industry' as choreographers, directors, producers, and so on. It's a far cry from Underwater Basket Weaving!

One thing I'll note from personal observation: many, many people working in the arts choose not to go by the title "Doctor" or even "Professor". This seemed odd to me, but it's a culture thing - they just don't do it. So, many people who have a PhD in the arts, especially in music and dance, don't advertise their education in any way - so you've probably known more people with a PhD in the arts than you realize!

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    +1. Although I am almost certain that I don't know more Ph.D.s in the arts than I realize. Which may just show how impoverished my social life is. – Stephan Kolassa Feb 13 '15 at 20:57

I am not familiar with PhDs in Dance, but in Music and Art the thesis consists of a traditional written document and usually an original piece of art. There are some history and theory only degrees, but these are often then degree is Art History. I wouldn't describe what they do as experiments, but you could argue that they prove, or provide evidence, in support of Art theory. For example, a PhD in poetry might consist of a book of poems and then a scholarly introduction of how the poems fit into the broader field of poetry. A PhD in music might involve composing an album and the thesis would place relate the album to past types of music. Alternatively, a PhD in poetry could also just examine a particular poet's work, or a group of poets and a PhD in music could look at a particular musician.

Getting a doctoral degree in the arts is relatively new. It used to be that an MFA was a terminal degree. I think most doctoral students in the arts are looking to be professors


There are several approaches to a PhD in dance. One of the first that pop up into my mind is understanding how we interpret and classify movements in different cultures, or in intra cultural communities. Other can be the analysis and interpretation of traditional dance, and their role in a society.

The output can be teaching dance theory, but there can be also some jobs in robotics (most of them use Labanotation Analysis for classifying movement, that it was actually invented for writing down dance movement)! It is only a matter of research questions, but let's not forget that dance is about movement, and movement it is a big research field right now :)

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