So You Think You Can Find Dance: A Guide to Research

By Arlene Yu
June 1, 2012
The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts
Anna Pavlova, costumed as The dying swan [graphic] / photographs by Mishkin et al., Digital ID pavlova_0205v, New York Public Library

The legendary Anna Pavlova in her signature piece, The Dying Swan, choreography by Michel Fokine and music by Camille Saint-Saens

Dance is a subject on many people’s minds these days, with television series such as Dancing with the Stars, So You Think You Can Dance, and America’s Best Dance Crew becoming fixtures on network and cable channels. Now there’s also Breaking Pointe, Bunheads, and All the Right Moves, the latter two premiering soon.

But while music has Beethoven and theater has Shakespeare, how many people know much about the history of dance and the makers of dance? Or where or how to look to learn about these subjects?

General Resources

One good place to start is with the International Encyclopedia of Dance, which is available online at any of the Library’s research libraries. Using the Encyclopedia will allow you to look up specific people, dance styles, historical periods, topics, or even dance names (such as the Nutcracker) and get a short description, as well as recommendations for other resources to consult. The Oxford Dictionary of Dance provides even more concise descriptions. You may also want to check out other general dance research materials, which are compiled on our Bibliocommons list, Dance Beginning Research Resources. These resources include stories of the great ballets, ballet and modern dance vocabularies, and even histories of tap and social dance.

The Catalog

If you already know some names or terms you would like to search for, you should start with the Library’s online Legacy Catalog, through which you can find everything in the Dance Division. In fact, many articles from dance magazines and even chapters in books were indexed in the catalog, up until 2004. Go ahead and do a simple keyword, author, title, or subject search, or use the Advanced Search function on the left hand side of the screen to search simultaneously by title, author, subject, and more.

Using Advanced Search, you can also limit the results to show just moving image (film and video) and audio materials by holding down the "Ctl" key (COMMAND on Mac) and under “Material Type” selecting Film/Slides/More, VHS,  DVD and/or Spoken Word. To look for photos and other graphic materials, limit the results to the Material Type “Picture.” And to limit your search to items in the Library for the Performing Arts, choose “Performing Arts Library” in the Advanced Search dropdown box for “Collection.”

In the case of manuscript collections – the papers of individual artists or the records of dance companies – the Archival Materials search page allows you to do keyword searches within the Library's digitized finding aids. All of the Dance Division’s finding aids are available online through this tool, and they provide detailed information on the subject of individual collections, the types of materials in the collections, and a list of what’s in which box and folder. The Archival Materials search will also link to the catalog record, which you will need in order to find out whether a box is stored on site or offsite. There may be a couple of clicks involved to get to both the finding aid and the catalog record, but you need them both, so persevere!

A few of things to note about our catalog records:

  • Circulating vs. Research Materials. All call numbers in the Dance Division research collection start with the *MGxxx. Items with call numbers B [Name] or 793.xx are circulating materials, available on the first and second floors of the Library for the Performing Arts.
  • Call Numbers. The Dance Division’s call numbers are format-based, so that Dance clippings, for example, all start with the call number *MGZR ([title of work, name of artist/company]). Simiarly, Dance photographs all start with the call number *MGZE ([title of work, name of artist/company]).
  • Tracing Back Subjects and Other Terms. All the subjects, titles, and names in our catalog records are "traced," which means you can click on links to see like items. For example, a search for films of Swan Lake brings up Maria Tallchief coaching excerpts from Apollo and Swan Lake, which has an “added title” of “Swan lake (Choreographic work : Balanchine after Ivanov)”. Clicking on the "added title" brings you to a list of similar choreographic works, and clicking again on the added title in that list will show you 27 films and videos of the work which you can view. Clicking on the "subject" “Swan lake (Choreographic work : Balanchine after Ivanov)” yields even more materials which are about, and not just of, the work. You can use these and other subject headings to explore dance topics, and not just names of people, dances, and companies.
  • Indexed Magazine Articles, Book Chapters, and Individual Documents. Should you see the notation "In" in a catalog record, this indicates that the record is for an article in a magazine, a chapter in a book, or an individual document in a larger manuscript collection. The title supplied after “In” is the actual title of the work you would request. See for example this record, which you would request with the call number, *MGZA, and information about the containing work: "Dance Magazine. New York. July, 1983."
  • Indexed Loose Photographs. You may notice titles with numbers on catalog records, such as this one. These are for single loose photographs in a larger photograph file, and if you want to see them you should ask for the entire file: “*MGZE (Swan Lake),” or even more specifically, “*MGZE (Swan lake (Choreographic work : Balanchine after Ivanov)).”

For magazine articles published after 2004, search various databases available through the Library’s website. Some of the more useful databases for dance research are:

Click on "Connect to database" from the linked descriptions above.

Materials Stored Off-Site

As you search through the online catalog, note that certain items must be requested in advance, as they are stored off-site. This will be noted in the catalog record, under "Location" where it will say "OFFSITE – Request in advance for use at Performing Arts" or "OFFSITE Rose – Request in advance for use at Performing Arts." Please see our web page for information on requesting these materials.

Materials Requiring Permission to View

An appointment is not required to view or listen to most dance items, including video and audio. Note, however, that if the catalog record says "Permission Required" or "Permit Needed," that indicates that you will need to get prior permission in order to view the material. The Reference Librarian at the 2nd Floor Theatre/Dance reference desk at the Library for the Performing Arts can give you contact information related to the specific restricted title. Even better, if you find something which is Permission Required/Permit Needed before you visit the Library, email the Dance Division at and we will provide the contact information for you to request (and hopefully receive) permission to view it before you get here.

Onsite Help at the Library

We suggest that everyone visiting the Library begin on the 2nd Floor, where you will find a Reference Librarian who can help you fill out the forms you will need to request Dance Division materials. You’ll then be directed to the 3rd floor, where you can turn in your requests and view the materials.

We hope to see you soon, and to open up the world of Dance for you!