Emeritus Professor Helen Thomas

Emeritus Professor

University of the Arts London

Research interests

Body, dance, sociology of culture, aesthetics, cultural theory, qualitative research approaches for researching cultural practices.

Research statement

Thomas' past research activity involved data analysis, presentations of the AHRC funded project Pain and Injury in a Cultural Context: Dancers Embodied Understandings and Visual Mapping with Jen Tarr (LSE). This project produced more data than perhaps we expected and so we expect to found ourselves exploring the data from various perspectives, such as dancers' health and well being, methodology, dance training regimes, ethical responsibility and individual desires (to dance in pain or injury).

Thomas also completed a short monograph for Routledge on 'The Body and Everyday Life', which uses performance and artistic practices case studies to exemplify different ways of looking and/or being a body in the world. In the process of working on the penultimate chapter on 'ethnographic bodies', she became increasingly fascinated by the sport of boxing, which, in boxing circles is known somewhat strangely as 'The Sweet Science'. Initially, she wanted to compare the bodily regime of boxing with that of dancing, as there are indeed some similarities between dancing and boxing, particularly around training regimes and bodily asceticism.

However, the notion of the boxing performative somehow took hold of her thoughts initially through reading Loïc Wacquant's highly visceral (auto)ethnographic account of becoming an apprentice boxer in a Chicago gym in his monograph 'Body and Soul' (2004) and as often is the case with research, sent her on a rather different journey. The final chapter of this book addresses issues around ageing and culture.

Since 2004, Thomas has become increasingly interested in exploring the complex relations between the body, movement and dress in dance performance and her next dance research project will take her back to her earlier work on Martha Graham and her innovative use of costume in her early modern dance period from 1926-1938, of which little has been written.

As a sociologist with a strong interest in culture and a former training in dance (Laban), Thomas' funded research projects such as:

  • Un-equal Opportunities for Performers in the Electronic Media (British Actors Equity Association 1990, Leverhulme 1994-5), which showed the imbalance between male and female performers in relation to pay, job and career opportunities and age;
  • 'Dancing into the Third Age', which mapped and recorded older people dancing in London and Essex (2000-02 AHRB);
  • 'Evaluations of South East Dance's 'Dance Apprenticeship Scheme' which targeted 'hard to reach' young people in the South East (2002-04),
  • and the most recent research into dancers' 'Pain and Injury.'(2005-07 AHRC),

have been concerned to make a difference in the area in question, to bring to light the 'hidden' aspects of cultural processes and practices, often with marginalised groups, through research and dissemination to a range of audiences and stakeholders.


Current students and thesis titles

Michele Danjoux, Design in motion: Wearables in Performance.

Sara Chong KwanMaking sense of Everyday Dress: Integrating multi-sensory experience within our understanding of contemporary dress in the West.

Caroline Collinge, Costuming Space: The Relationship between Body, Costume and Performance through the Medium of Baroque.

Katie BarfordThe Signification of Costumed Bodies in the Tanztheater Wuppertal.

Anna Camilla Gregersdotter Rodin, New Ways of Seeing Fashion; Moving-Stills.

Completed students and thesis titles

Chitra Buckley, An investigation into the range, sources and implications of in-season fashion trend information on decision making for own-brand retailers operating in the UK.

Jeffrey Horsley, Embedding the Personal: the construction of a 'fashion autobiography' as a museum exhibition, informed by innovative practice and ModeMuseum, Antwerp.

Johan Stjernholm, A synthesis of aesthetic embodied practices, dress, and cybernetics through western theatrical dance.

Shaun Cole, Sexuality, Identity and the Clothed Male Body.

Serkan Delice, The Janissaries and their Bedfellows: Masculinity and Male Homosexuality in Early Modern Ottoman Istanbul, 1500-1826.

Joyce Fenton Douglas, From 19th Century Sweated Industries to 21st Century Collaborative Practice: a critical examination and creative exploration of the ancillary trades of the London élite fashion industry.


Selected research outputs