Dance History Research

Contact info

If you need help, please contact Sylvia Roberts, Liaison Librarian for Communication & Contemporary Arts at 778.782.3681 or or Ask a librarian.

Dance history resources include both primary materials that provide a direct experience with artistic production (performance, autobiographies, dance notation, reviews, choreography notes) and secondary materials that provide an interpretation or synthesis of these materials, such as writings of researchers and scholars, including opinions and points of view, in-depth discussions, histories and critical overviews.

PPT slides from Sylvia's Oct.21, 2021 visit to CA 127 (Dr. Henry Daniel)


Start with these sources if you have a broad topic and want to discover the range of sub-topics you might address.  Use these encyclopedias or dictionaries to find definitions of terms, biographical information,  overviews of dance history, and information on all forms of dance and people involved with dance.

Many include a list of recommended readings or a bibliography of related sources that the author has consulted.  Scan these for other relevant research.  Use the Library Search to see if SFU has a copy of the book or journal article cited.

International encyclopedia of dance
Nearly 2,000 articles on all aspects of dance, including theatrical, ritual, dance-drama, folk, traditional, ethnic, and social dance. Cultural and national overviews are accompanied by entries on dance forms, music and costumes, performances, and biographies of dancers and choreographers.

The first image below shows the beginning of the entry on Merce Cunningham. The following image shows the end of this entry, including related entries, a bibliography with links to SFU holdings, and a list of films.

Search results for Merce Cunningham in Oxford Reference International Encyclopedia of Dance

End of Merce Cunninham entry in International Encyclopedia of Dance

Oxford Dictionary of Dance
Covers all aspects of the diverse dance world from classical ballet to modern, from flamenco to hip-hop, from tap to South Asian dance forms and includes detailed entries on technical terms, steps, styles, works, and countries, in addition to many biographies of dancers, choreographers, and companies.

Grove Music Online
The most complete music encyclopedia. Includes information on ballets and a few important choreographers. Entries include information about the artist (dancer, choreographer, composer, musician), relations with other artists, as well as images of specific works.

The Library collection includes overviews [print and electronic] of dance history, both general and for specific subjects. Here are some sources for finding background information on your topic:

  • History of dance: an interactive arts approach [print]
  • Moving history, dancing cultures: a dance history reader [online or print]
  • No fixed points: dance in the twentieth century [print]
  • Oxford handbook of dance and theatre [print]

Also consider sources listed in the SFU Library guide to World Dance

Performances / Interviews / Documentaries

The Library has a large collection of videos, both streaming and DVD. Find specific dance works by title or by performers/ choreographers by searching the Library catalogue. Most DVDs are housed at the W.A.C. Bennett Library (Burnaby). You can request materials to have them delivered to other SFU campus libraries.

Use the SFU Library Catalogue to find books, articles, films, and other media in the Library's collection. To search for materials in the Library's digitized collections and institutional repository, Summit, use the Library search.

These searches work best when you have a specific search term. Try searching for a person's or institution's name, such as the "National Ballet of Canada," or a topic word or phrase that has a unique context, such as "flamenco," or "kathak." You can use more than one search term or phrase to search.

You can use similar search strategies and keywords to find audiovisual materials in subject databases:

Dance in Video
Our largest collection of dance videos. Features "more than 250 performances and documentaries by the most influential performers and companies of the 20th century."

In-depth discussions in books 

Finding books and articles by or about a person

Strategies for finding books and articles written by or about a person are similar to those used for finding DVDs. To find written materials, such as books or articles, change RESOURCE TYPE to books or articles.

Browse search is useful for finding books and media by author or by subject. 

Browse Search

To find books that are written by a person, search the Catalogue, browse their name as AUTHOR. Browsing by AUTHOR will find not only writers, but also choreographers, performers, directors and others who have made a major contribution to a work. Institutions such as dance companies are often shown as authors of materials such as performances. 

To find books written about a person, browse by their name as SUBJECT. Browsing by SUBJECT will find works that focus on the named person, including interviews, histories, criticism and interpretation. 

NOTE: Browse search works for materials in the Library collections including books, media, and journal titles, but does not search articles, chapters, entries in encyclopedias, etc.

To find articles or chapters within books and entries in encyclopedias, do not Browse Search. Instead, start a New Search and search the author's name by keyword. The following example shows one result from a keyword search for Margie Gillis. The item is an anthology, which includes articles written by Margie Gillis. Notice that the search keywords are underlined in yellow.

Margie Gillis catalogue record details

Finding books on your topic

In addition to searching a person's name as a subject, you can search for a topic using library subject terms.

If you are not sure of the subject terms, search by keyword and look at relevant records to discover the subject terms used to describe the book. Using these subject terms will find all the books that have a major focus on that topic.

You can also browse search by subject. Subject terms follow a pattern with the main focus coming first and more specific aspects of this topic described after that, like time period, place or type of publication.  Here are a few example subjects with Dance as the main focus. Notice that subjects can have sub-headings that group the books by place (Europe), by time period (20th century), or approach (History). 

The following links will take you to a list of books that focus on the history of dance.

The links below will take you to the beginning of a list of subject headings that relate to this specific dance practice. To the right, you'll see how many books are assigned this subject heading. If you click on these subject links, you'll find a list of book titles at SFU on the topic.

Search by keyword to find your search terms anywhere in the record (title, author, subject, abstract). Keyword searching is useful when you need to combine topic concepts, if you are not sure of the correct subject terms, or if you want to find a chapter of a book or an anthology (collection of essays) about your topic. 

Advanced search: Use Boolean operators, truncation, and phrases to broaden and narrow your search results. Boolean operators, AND, OR, or NOT, must be capitalized.

Use the Catalogue Search Guide for more search tips.

Finding articles

You can use journal indexes to search for articles about people or topics. Relevant databases to start your search for articles:

  • Art Full Text: Primarily visual arts, including coverage of collaborations with visual artists, the avant-garde, and dance as performance

  • Arts & Humanities Citation Index: Multidisciplinary index to the journal literature of the arts and humanities, including Dance, Music, and Theatre

  • Google Scholar: Search for full text of journal articles and books. Access full text articles by clicking the title or use the Where can I get this? link to search the library catalogue. You won't be able to access the full text of books included in Google Scholar, but you can use Library Search to see if SFU has them in the collection as print or ebooks.

  • Music index: Articles about dance scores and sound design

For a full list of dance subject-specific databases, see Dance databases.

Many of the scholarly articles on dance will be available online for you to read, download or print.  However, some of the major dance journals are only available in print.  You can request copies of journal articles be scanned and sent to you at another campus, by submitting an interlibrary loan request.

Selected web resources

Bibliothèque de la danse Vincent-Warren: Digital collection of Québec’s dance heritage from 1900 - present, including videos, photographs, pamphlets, figurines and objects, posters, and prints. To view in English, select the English option on the upper left corner of the website. 
Dance Collection Danse: DCD manages Canada's largest collection of dance artifacts and documents - over 600 portfolios. The Exhibit Series offers in-depth view of some of Canada's most important dance artists. Each digital exhibit contains a large assortment of images, biographical text, videos, recordings, and memorabilia. 
Dance Heritage Coalition: DHC is an alliance of institutions holding significant collections of materials documenting the history of dance. Includes access to multiple digital collections and projects. One of their pilot projects, Secure Media Release, is a searchable database of moving images held by dance libraries. Most of these have never been publicly released. 
Oral History Dance Collection: Digital recordings of interviews with dancers, choreographers, teachers and administrators. Part of the Canadian Dance History Project at the University of Victoria.