Earlier this summer, Rebecca invited me to join a Zoom meeting with Gesel and our team’s new archivist, Ellen Kamoe. She explained that they would be looking at the No Boundaries prototype, and specifically the catalog—trying to figure out if there were gaps that needed to be filled before publication. I hadn’t worked with the catalog yet, but Rebecca thought it could be a good point for me to join, and I was interested in seeing this part of the process, too.  

But, before I get to this meeting, let’s go back: I joined the team in 2019. During this time, part of my role—at least in my mind—has been not just to participate, but to witness. To witness (and share) both the key and mundane in this process—the questions, uncertainties, drafts, learnings, breakthroughs, adjustments, blocks, answers, and new questions—as we have collaborated to increase access to the arts, support artists in sharing their work, and foreground and preserve the work of marginalized artists/scholars.  

I am not a dancer, but I still find a place in the Dancing Digital/No Boundaries team. I am a qualitative methodologist, teacher, fiber artist, poet, jewelry-maker, and/and; I compose, choreograph, dance (Ulmer, 2023), across modes and genres, concepts and things. My work is often transdisciplinary and multimodal, drawing on embodied and creative knowings and practicings like fiber arts and poetry, while using feminist, critical and non-structural theories (Instagram: @course_of_inquiry).  

Growing up, I spent a lot of time in libraries, so when I heard ‘catalog’ I thought of that – a database of records describing, identifying, and locating, a resource. I pictured Rebecca, Gesel and Ellen entering data into a spreadsheet that would then be uploaded into the archive. But, this has not been a ‘typical’ archive in a lot of ways. The team has emphasized stories and relationships, not objects; we have sought ways to open thinking and prompt questions rather than answer them—to invite curiosity, wandering. I wondered how a catalog participate in this goal.  

I spend this time introducing myself because who I am matters for how I tell these stories, including this one on cataloging. I attended the meeting, curious to see what would happen. When they said ‘catalog’, did they mean a functional record of the entities located in the archive? If so, did it do what I thought—containing records describing, identifying and providing access points to, a resource? Did it do more?  


As a qualitative methodologist, I believe there is no such thing as neutral knowledges or knowings. Accordingly, no entity (e.g., catalog entry) is objective, created from an omniscient point-of-view; this is the case for all aspects of the catalog. This is the case, for example, not only for the details—e.g., what a specific entry contains—but also for deciding what sort of information to include. (What counts as knowledge here? And whose knowledge is it? Who is it for? What will they want to do with this thing?)  

It is tempting to look at a costume, describe what it is made of, record its measurements, label it with the performance name, and be finished. (Sometimes this is enough—sometimes it is all you have.) This is what I noticed that we did. Certainly, we asked ‘what is this?’, and answered technically, descriptively, observationally. (Checked for dates, names, locations.) But, we also asked…  

…what are we cataloging…generally?  

For Gesel, these aren’t just objects.  

She holds up costume after costume; we observe through the screen, listening as she tells us how this or that choreographer was very specific about what she was to wear and how she was to wear it. That, she reminds us, is part of what she wants to share in No Boundaries. Not so much the specifics—that Kyle [Kyle Abraham] had her top designed for Don’t Explain, and they rejected or dyed multiple pieces to get it right; that her outfit in Rain is a new iteration modeled on Bebe’s [Bebe Miller], and that Bebe had very specific instructions for the parts; that the decision to take off part of her costume in the middle of Bent comes from a practice run in 2018 where she got overheated and took off a layer during a spin, and Jawole [Jawole Willa Jo Zollar] loved it—but what those specifics hold. The stories.   

…who, and when, and where, are we cataloging?  

Gesel holds up to the camera a sheer, black dress she wore for No Less Black. She conveys familiarity and annoyance: shows us the mended straps that she had to fix again and again, complains about the wrinkles the material always seemed to carry. She retrieves almost the costume’s twin, explains it was worn by another dancer, M K Abadoo in 2018 when she performed it in Brooklyn, NY. (She notes that it doesn’t wrinkle. She speculates about the material—rayon, perhaps.)  She describes an earlier costume iteration, from 1999, a sheer, light blue dress. She directs us to an image of it. I think how interesting it is for a costume to be sheer. I wonder what it means to share, to wear, that type of transparency, that type of honesty, throughout time.  

…how and why are we cataloging?  

Material, runs through our conversation in unexpected ways—in ways that maybe don’t usually end up in a catalog entry, but seem important here. Gesel talks about how the materials looked on the stage, the shapes they made when she jumped, the ways the various components were fastened to stay on (or come off) during movement. We talk about associations and connotations, meanings and metaphors—intended and not. She describes aesthetics, practicalities and ethics, from the viewpoint of dancer, choreographer, curator.  

The chain in David Roussève’s Jumping the Broom is of special interest in our conversation. In the solo, Gesel is chained at the ankles, tied at the wrist, and positioned in such a way, with her hands above her head, as to appear to be hanging from her wrists. She talks about how there is a very specific way she has to put it on so she doesn’t hurt herself, and how sometimes, if it’s too humid, the mechanism to undo it gets jammed. I notice how it seems to involve ‘others’ in a way different costume pieces don’t–practically and ethically. She has to be carried onto and off the stage while chained. She tells a story of her mom helping her attach the ropes on her wrist while she’s dressed in wedding dress that hides the chain, initially, from the audience. She expresses concern about how to catalog and share this costume, the dance, the history—she does not want to propagate images of Black women in chains—and, she knows that feeling the weight of the chains is essential, that these dances, her body, these costume pieces, are archives. She brings them to lectures sometimes, and we wonder (anew) about the central challenge of digital dance archiving: the conveying of embodied meaning and mattering across time and space and screens.  

Closing Thoughts 

First — Yes, a catalog is basically what I had anticipated. It definitely involves the recording of ‘accepted’ information – e.g., publication dates, call numbers. And, cataloging is also curating, storytelling, connecting. Like the choreography itself, the catalog depends upon all kinds of decisions—e.g., what to include, what to cut, how to present, what to link to. And, importantly, it is always done from the perspective of someone—artist, choreographer, archivist, or otherwise. 

Second — This perspective is especially important for working with dance archives. After all, a catalog’s particulars and functionalities will (and should!) vary based on a number of factors.  These include, for instance, the format and structure of the archive, the availability of information, financial and temporal resources, the purposes of the archive, and the nature of the entities being cataloged. As we have worked to create the No Boundaries archive, we have found that the last two—our purposes, and the nature of the entities in the archive—are especially important. Gesel, for instance, wants the collection to pull viewers in, to make them curious, by foregrounding the stories, the people, and the connections, that the many entities represent. In addition, cataloging dance already has unique challenges and possibilities because of, well, dance—its embodied nature, its histories and knowledges, the current status of the field (especially the availability of accessible resources), the (often) many parties involved in producing a dance, and/and. And that doesn’t even take into account that this collection highlights the work of Black artists—artists who, like so many others, have made and shared their art while dealing with legacies of misuse, appropriation, and erasure.  

Third — Talking about and building a catalog almost necessarily involves talking about and building-with a lot of other pieces and parts in the archive. This is because an archive isn’t just made of pieces and parts, but pieces and parts that interconnect. Our conversation moved across a number of topics—permissions, back-end archiving maintenance, what kind of information should be included, who can access the catalog and for what purposes, goals for user interactions, and more. It’s all connected, and it all matters.  


Ulmer, J. (2023). In the studio: Dance pedagogies as writing pedagogies. In D. L. Carlson, A. M. Vasquez, & A. Romero (Eds.), Writing and the articulation of postqualitative research (pp. 47-54). Routledge.  

Structure of the archive

Before I started to work with Gesel on creating the No Boundaries Archive, I’d made websites using WordPress and Squarespace and Wix, but I’d never had the experience of building a digital archive. It’s taken some time to orient myself with respect to the digital archive’s more complex structure. This blog post, in which I’ll provide a diagram of the components of the No Boundaries Archive, is meant as a helpful jump start for others who might feel similarly disoriented. If that’s you, I want to first make it clear that digital archives are structured many different ways and built using many different kinds of software. This post is not meant to be prescriptive. This is just how we’ve gone about building ours.  

We started by researching what kinds of software other performing arts organizations used for their digital archives and decided to build the No Boundaries Archive using the collection management software CollectiveAccess. We made the choice for several reasons. An important one was that we were looking to create interconnectivity between our digital archive and others. Because several other prominent dance and performance archives were already built using CollectiveAccess, we felt using the same software would make connections easier. That the software is open-source was another important criterion for two reasons: we wanted to build a digital archive structure that could, ultimately, be shared and adopted by others, and using open-source software was a priority of our main funder, the Digital Humanities Advancement program at the NEH.  

Early in the process, we were fortunate to connect with Stephanie Neel, the lead archivist at Mark Morris Dance Group (MMDG). The MMDG archive was also using CollectiveAccess, and Stephanie generously offered to show us what their database looked like from the perspective of the person entering archival data. This was so helpful! If you want a similar experience (minus Stephanie’s expertise), there’s a CollectiveAccess user demo that you can explore for yourself (login is demo and password is demo). I recommend taking a look. 

Now, back to my larger question of architecture…For the sake of clarity, and at the risk of sounding even more like an ad, here is a description of CollectiveAccess software from Whirl-I-Gig, its developer:  

“The two main components of CollectiveAccess are Providence, the core cataloguing and data management application, and Pawtucket, an optional “front-end” publication and discovery platform. Providence provides a relational approach to cataloging that allows users to create and describe relationships between different record-types, and construct hierarchical relationships for complex collections, and to do so using commonly accepted library and archive standards…For publicly accessible collections, Pawtucket offers the web presentation tools that can bring an archive to light.”i  

Gesel had started working with a web designer on a WordPress site for No Boundaries before we received funding to build the rest of the archive, and we wanted to use that WordPress site. This meant we wouldn’t need Pawtucket to build the outward facing website for the archive (although Pawtucket is made to do just that). We would need Pawtucket, however, to make a smooth visual transition between Gesel’s WordPress website and the database, which we were building using Providence. Below is a diagram of this structure. 

One part of this process that’s been challenging for me is a kind of horse-and-cart problem related to the interconnection between all the pieces in this digital organism. For example, the WordPress website needed to take shape in order finish the database – because the website designs showed how data needed to be presented to users. At the same time, the database needed to be built in order to complete the website, because without a working database it’s difficult to know exactly what features and connections it’s possible to manifest on the website. 

This interconnection, while challenging, has kept my approach to the process of archive building both holistic and iterative – helping me climb the learning curve, and helping Gesel and me move closer to creating a meaningful digital framework for No Boundaries