Intro to Mapping Dance Studios

(Or, why the introduction is always written last)

About three-quarters into the academic year, I’m throwing up my self-introduction and brief description of my project.

I describe my academic orientation as “dance historian,” and officially I’m a PhD student in the Theatre Program. My general background is in the history of western theatrical dance, with most of my focus on 20th century dance, and my primary area post-Judson dance (that is, 1960s foward).

So what I’ve spent this year doing is building a map of dance studios in New York City. (Or, that was the goal of the project when I applied; posts coming soon will talk about how I might describe that differently now) The goals of such a project revolve around a few ideas. One, simply documenting the existence of studios will, I think, prove useful for dance historians in a number of ways — that is, one goal is to create a resource for other scholars. Two, displaying the spatial relationships among these studios — plotting their locations on a map — allows certain kinds of information to stand out that narrative and other text-only presentation modes don’t make as obvious. For example, the studios I am collecting in this archive exist (or existed) in specific neighborhoods of NYC. I already knew this going into the project, but it’s another thing to see this laid out visually. Suddenly, it’s not only certain neighborhoods, but certain blocks that support these studios.

And three — which is in some ways the result of combining goals one and two, but also something that I didn’t know when I set out, and have thus learned over the course of pursuing this project — a map allows certain kinds of questions to be asked about the archive that I’m working with that simply can’t be asked otherwise. I’m starting to wonder if there are potentially particular pathways between studios that led them to appear in certain places; or if there are relationships between the demographic and economic factors of the neighborhood and the studios that inform their presence. That is, a map isn’t just a tool for presentation, which is what I thought I was building when I started out, but the map itself is also a tool for research, just as much as the archive of the data will be.

Part of my hesitation with writing this introductory post has come from the continued awareness that I am a complete novice when it comes to these approaches and ideas. That big realization I had, about a map being a tool that can ask questions and not just present a finished product, is entirely obvious and basic to anyone who works with maps or other forms of data visualization. It is the starting point, rather than new direction. I’m not concerned with appearing ignorant (that’s obvious and impossible to avoid), but I would like what I can contribute via sharing reports on my project to be useful to others. With that in mind, the posts that I add in the next several weeks will reflect on my process and progress over the past year, with the slight benefit of hindsight. I hope to be able to offer some thoughts on how I went about my project, and where I am at now, still documenting the slips and keeping track of small victories, but with a bit more clarity on what someone who might be interested in something similar can take away from it. As I often find myself doing with the various writing endeavors I engage in, the introduction is typically written last — I have to know what I am introducing.

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