On Dance and Difference

On dance and difference: bodies, movement and experience in Khoesān trance-dancing – perceptions of ‘a raver’

In press On dance and difference: bodies, movement and experience in Khoesān trance-dancing, in Anthropology in a Changing World. McGraw-Hill, New York. (reprinted from Sullivan, S. 2001, ‘Danza e diversità: copri, movimento ed esperienza nella trance-dance dei Khoisan e nei rave occidentali’ Africa e Mediterraneo Cultura e Societa 37: 15-22., also in pp. 234-241 in Haviland, W.A., Gordon R., and Vivanco, L. (eds.) (2006) Talking About People: Readings in Cultural Anthropology, 4th Edition. Harcourt.)

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‘If there is one feature of indigenous life which has been the subject of the cinematographer, be they commercial, professional, academic or tourist, it has been dancing’ (Gordon 2000, p. 1)

As asserted in the quote above, the dances of ‘the primitive Other’ have fascinated observers from the time of European contact to today. In particular, the perceived abandonment of body and movement exhibited by ‘the dancing native’ – epitomised by apparent attainment of ecstatic states of trance through dancing – has been exoticised and reified as a ‘marker’ of difference. Further, these frequently have been linked to defined ethnic categories, usually those characterised by ‘primitive’ and small-scale socio-political organisation. Widlok (1999, p. 234) describes for Khoe-speaking Namibian Hai||om, for example, that ‘[a] close examination of the Hai||om medicine [trance] dance is promising with regard to questions of cultural variability and diversity because it is … an important ethnic marker …’.

The reification and increasing commodification of dance as marker of particular and authentically ‘traditional’ ethnic identities has been further enhanced by touristic and consumptive requirements for a sacralised and noble Other: offsetting both what Durkheim delineated as the anomie of modern life and reiterating the civilised and advanced state of the observer (Garland and Gordon 1999; Gordon 2000). As Rony (1996, p. 65 in Gordon 2000, p. 1) argues, indigenous peoples thereby are identified with ‘the body’ in a way that affirms the conventional dualisms of modernity: between mind, culture and civilisation on the one hand, and the body, nature and wildness on the other. It is not difficult to locate where the various ‘typical’ observers of ritualised dances fall in relation to this conceptual divide, and where, by default, the indigenous participants of dances are situated.

In this article I wish to argue that these distinctions and separations tell us more about what distinguishes a constructed Occidental culture of observers than about the particular defining ‘traits’ of those being observed. My arguments are based on observations of Khoesān dances – in filmed material, through personal ethnographic fieldwork with Khoe-speaking Damara people in north-west Namibia, and via secondary sources – and on my participation and ethnographic work in largely urban-based dance events or ‘raves’, i.e. those that permit and promote the experience of trance-like states through dance movement. I emphasise the term experience because it seems to me that a commitment to the experiential aspects of ‘participant observation’ in an anthropology of the body and of dance often is missing from analyses of ritual and performative events based crucially on body movement and varied subjective states. In this regard the ‘language’ through which I understand and interpret the significance of dance movement is that of movement itself – drawing on my own technical training in, and experience of, a range of dance movement practices. These include: long-term training in classical ballet; preliminary training and practice in dance movement therapy, ‘authentic movement’ (e.g. Chodorow 1991; Pallaro 1999) and the ‘5 Rhythms’ movement system formulated by Gabrielle Roth (1989 (1998), 1997); on-going performance work in contemporary dance with Gravitas Dance Company2; and, in particular, my regular participation as ‘a raver’ in the dance-based events characterising a more-or-less ‘underground’3 dance ‘sub-culture’ in London (cf. Collin and Godfrey 1997; Saunders 1997; Malbon 1999; Silcott 1999).

I explore here some concordances that I believe to exist between the trance-dance practices of Khoesān peoples located in southern Africa, and those of dancers in the rave events that have emerged in industrialised and technocratic society. These suggest to me a universal ability to attain trance-like states through dance movement. Given the globalising dominance of what Laughlin (1992) describes as the ‘monophasic’ culture of ‘the west’ i.e. that values the perceptual mode associated with waking, rational consciousness above all else, a common ability to experience a range of perceptual processes, coupled with the cultural sanctioning and valuing of these experiences, has significant psychological, socio-cultural and political implications (cf. Lumpkin 2000)5. By extension, I argue that resistance to such experiences, incorporating considerations of their ‘deviant’ nature, perhaps reveal more about the characteristics and psychological ‘ill-health’ (cf. Deleuze and Guattari 1988) of a conventional Occidental patriarchal and capitalist culture of observers than about anything else.

I focus on three aspects of trance-dance experiences and events. First, I describe and discuss what I believe to be some components of the individual experience of a trance-like state, especially of the attainment of such a body-mind state through unchoreographed dance movement. Second, I explore some social and cultural phenomena associated with the communal experience of dance movement events that build on such spontaneous and improvised dance movements. Here I focus on the interplay between concepts of ritual and theatre, and of spectator and performer, drawing particularly on the explanatory relevance of the Polish theatre director Jerzi Grotowski’s concept of ‘paratheatre’ (Kumeiga 1985). Finally, I draw some parallels between Khoesān ‘groups’ and ‘ravers’ in what I believe to constitute multifaceted assertions of autonomy, autarky and affective affluence, focusing on the ‘staging’ and performance of dance events as a crucial expressive component of these. Here I draw on theorists such as Lefebvre (1971) and de Certeau (1984) to frame individual and group participation in dance events as powerful political acts that embody the appropriation of bodyspaces, mindspaces and physical spaces from an otherwise all-encompassing political economy of the body and space built on conceptual dualities (e.g. mind-body, nature-culture, male-female, etc.), economic affluence and control (cf. Foucault 1961, 1973, 1975; Deleuze and Guattari 1988). Throughout, I raise some issues regarding authenticity and legitimacy vis à vis the experience of trance-dance: asserting, for example, that the transrational (cf. Lumpkin 2000), transpersonal and transformative experiences articulated as part of the practice of dancing for many ‘ravers’, as well as the ‘subculture’ of ‘rave’ itself, are no less ‘authentic’ or ‘culturally-situated’ than contemporary trance-dancing rituals ‘performed’ by ‘indigenes’ such as Khoesān.

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