Printer-friendly format  Article citation        


Dancing with Authorization: From the Reservation to Ramallah


Brenda Farnell and Robert N. Wood


Figure 1
Figure 1
Figures 1 and 2.


Introduction 1

In this paper, we explore two contrasting cases of changes in choreographic form and dance practices that we find significant for the understanding of danced knowledge and for larger questions concerning authenticity and appropriation in the circulation of intellectual and cultural capital generally. First, we examine El-Funoun, a Palestinian popular folkloric dance troupe from the West Bank town of Ramallah (Palestine) that, in 1998 through 2001, invited Robert Wood, as an expert in Western contemporary dance, to conduct a choreographic residency. We then compare and contrast this with indigenous North America, specifically the experiences of a Northern Plains Men's Traditional dancer Brenda Farnell came to know, who performed with the touring com­pany American Indian Dance Theater (AIDT).

            We first note that both dance traditions exist in sites of ongoing colonial oppression, which entail loss of land, resources, and political autonomy. Palestinians and North American Indians share histories of displacement and military violence: Palestinians endure and resist an active military occupation and explicit violence waged against them daily, while in the U.S. and Canada, the colonizers camouflage their violence via a complicit media, which ignores the transgressions, as struggles over land and resources continue and neocolonial appropriations of spiritual practices and other cultural knowledge remain rife.

            Note also that each dance group holds contrasting attitudes to change in choreographic form and content: El-Funoun actively sought to incorporate change through interaction with new choreographic methodologies in its desire to reach out to new Arab and Western audiences, while American Indian Dance Theater's goal was to present 'authentic,' 'traditional' American Indian dances on the Western stage, thereby denying the incorporation of change.

            Issues arising from these sites have prompted a series of related questions about authenticity, authority, and authorship in relation to dynamically embodied knowledge and poetic embodied intelligence, questions that are worth examining.


Authenticity, Authority, and Authorship

According to the Oxford English dictionary, the word authenticity comes from the Greek αθεντικός, meaning 'principal' or 'genuine,' and from authentes, 'author.' Related concepts provide us with a useful set of Wittgensteinian 'family resemblances': 2

  • Authentic: original, real, actual fact, truth, genuine (opposed to imaginary, pretended), accuracy, legitimacy, validity, reliability; really proceeding from its reputed source or author; of undisputed origin. (Opposed to counterfeit, forged, apocryphal).
  • Authority, authoritative: properly as possessing original or inherent authority; entitled to obedience or respect; legally or duly qualified, authorized, licensed.
  • An authority: one whose opinion is entitled to acceptance.
  • Author: one who does a thing himself, a principal, a master.


There has been a postmodern critique of 'authenticity' that justifiably rejects reified notions of truth and accuracy as well as positivist essentialisms, 3 recognizing the ever-present influence of unequal power relations, ideologies, and contested interpretations. In colonial and postcolonial contexts, we find such essentialism at work in the reduction of indigenous peoples by their colonizers to a fixed, core idea of what it means to be, for example, 'Indian' or 'Arabic' or 'African.' It is also found in exoticizing essences such as 'the Celtic spirit,' 'Négritude,' or 'Islam,' where "sources, forms, style, language and symbol all derive from a supposedly homogeneous and unbroken tradition" (Rushdie 1991: 67). 4

            At the same time, G. C. Spivak has drawn our attention to the importance of "strategic essentialism" as a political strategy that, ironically, simultaneously positions but can also empower oppressed minorities (Spivak 1996: 214). 5 Likewise, Paul Gilroy's "structures of racial feeling" underscores the necessity of strategic essentialism (or discourses of authenticity) as a redress for the common experience of oppression (1995: 2).

            Strong versions of postmodernism frequently reject use of the term authenticity as being necessarily essentializing, but we take a critical stance toward this. The theoretical challenge is how best to include critical analytic attention to 'discourses of authenticity.' We find that the postmodern substitution of 'discourses of authenticity' becomes problematic if it endorses an extreme relativism that undermines the legitimacy of certain knowledge claims over others or ignores the kind of unequal power relations that have very real consequences for oppressed peoples. Several observers of indigenous dances, for example, note that it is indigenous claims to such knowledge that ground spiritual as well as cultural and political identities and frequently support concepts of ownership in the face of uninvited and unwelcome appropriations.

            We hope that, without falling into the trap of a positivist essentialism, we can explore what happens if we shift the focus of attention from 'authenticity' conceived as a quality that inheres in a cultural form as if a natural object--according to which something either is or is not 'authentic'--to a focus on legitimizing or authorizing discourses and processes involved. Instead of being treated as a static feature of a dance or danced knowledge, 'authenticity' thus becomes an aspect of situated practice, work that members of a society actively perform to constitute performances, objects, or texts as 'authentic' according to shared criteria of validity held by knowledgeable practitioners and status holders--in other words, by those authorized to make such knowledge claims. Legitimizing or authorizing discourses and processes thereby constitute a dynamic expressive resource by means of which people systematically link present action with a meaningful past and endow a particular cultural form with value and authority. 6

            In seeking to relocate the possibility of authentic knowledge with the dynamically embodied agents who understand and share the lived meaning of that knowledge, we also recover the Greek origin of the term authentes as 'author' with its etymological connections to 'authority' and 'authorship.'


Ethnographic Context--Ramallah

El-Funoun Palestinian Dance Troupe is a group of fifty-five to seventy dancers and musicians who, since 1979, have been performing works that seek to maintain the expression of Palestinian historical and cultural knowledge in spite of overwhelming odds. Often performing in refugee camps containing over five thousand people, they are frequently accompanied by politicians and poets who speak before the dance performance to raise awareness and deliver messages to the audience. 7

Figure 1
    Figure 3. Early morning light over Ramallah, West Bank, 1998. Photo by Robert Wood.


            Since its inception, El-Funoun has aimed at "expressing the spirit of Arab-Palestinian folklore and contemporary culture through unique combinations of traditional and stylized dance and music" ( Reviving and reinvigorating Palestinian dance and music were political as well as artistic accomplishments since they helped to "counter the systematic attempts by the Israeli Occupation to suppress the Palestinian national identity" (Steinberg 2006). 8 Toward this end, for example, in 1986, El-Funoun initiated an annual Palestinian Folklore Day.

            The troupe's earliest productions retained the Palestinian tradition of using dancing for such celebrations as harvests and weddings (Zacharede). The earlier choreography frequently includes folkloric forms such as dabkeh, a line dance widely used throughout the Middle East; baladi, often referred to by Europeans and Americans as 'belly dance'; and shaji, a line dance accompanied by a poetic call-and-response. "At that stage, [El-Funoun was] dancing our identity, reviving our roots," said choreographer Omar Barghouti (cited in Steinberg 2006).

Figure 1
    Figure 4.

            Their dilemma was that in being a folkloric company with a responsibility to stage traditional narratives, the members also wanted to develop a new work on the contemporary themes of Palestinian love, exile, estrangement, resistance, catastrophe, and an all-encompassing longing for the homeland. "People like to put us in a box, but Palestinian dance isn't just about one form" said Barghouti. 9 "The more profound development that's taken place … is in El-Funoun's themes--going beyond connecting with the artists' roots to asking, 'What type of modern Palestinian identity do we want, as progressive, secular artists who wish to live in an open, free, democratic society?'" (cited in Steinberg 2006). This has meant challenging a number of strictures within Palestinian society, such as the repression of women, resistance to cultural change, and relative intolerance of intellectual pluralism, all of which have cre­ated obstacles for the dance troupe (Steinberg 2006). 10 For example, El-Funoun women dance on stage with male dancers and may hold hands with them, which involves a radical break with tradition.

            Producing dance works in a society living under occupation has presented El-Funoun with particularly serious challenges. Travel bans and random arrests of troupe members were part of the repressive measures of the Israeli occupation. Although not overtly political in their earlier work, members of El-Funoun consider that the Palestinian cause will not be understood unless knowledge from the inside can be communicated accurately beyond the Arab world. In 1997­98, they desired to make a new Palestinian contemporary dance work that would identify and communicate their current social and political realities, both within the community and to the outside world, and were looking for new choreographic procedures that would allow them to communicate these complex issues. Of the new developments, Barghouti has said, "We call it contemporary Palestinian dance. It is inspired by our folk tradition, but not imprisoned in its limited realm" (Barghouti 2003).

Figure 1
    Figure 5.

            Statements from El-Funoun's funding materials outline their goals for this new work in their own words. They are a company "renowned for pioneering and creative work in reviving an evolving Palestinian folk dance," who desire "to break new grounds in dance and in concepts" by creating "a dance saga of love, exile, estrangement and resistance." They "decided to work with an internationally recognized dance figure to bring in varied spectra of artistic experience, and to help broaden and deepen El-Funoun's own dance vocabulary, philosophy and emotive value." 11

            As they sought to articulate both the Palestinian cultural heritage and a vision for the future in a new work called "Haifa, Beirut and Beyond," the members of El-Funoun selected to go outside their own cultural traditions through an international partner with whom they were comfortable--Canada. They requested references to someone who would be appropriate to this task. Wood fit the bill perfectly on a number of fronts: first, he was recognized by the Canadian artistic intelligentsia as a choreographic specialist. As a highly experienced dancer, choreographer, and director within the professional New York contemporary dance community, he could bring the troupe the expertise of fifteen years' experience in what was then considered to be the world's dance capital. At the same time, Wood is not an American, a crucial political factor! He is a New Zealand passport holder and the son of a New Zealand diplomat, with an understanding of various dance forms in diverse cultural contexts. He is also well known for his distinctly humanistic mode of making choreographic work and directing, employing an artistic openness toward creative procedures that is congenial to Palestinian sensibilities. In sum, El-Funoun had access to American knowledge without American 'bravado' or political baggage.

Figure 1
    Figure 6. Members of El-Funoun and friends relax and enjoy social dancing, Ramallah, 1997. Photo by Robert Wood.


Expanding and Enhancing Choreography and Training

What did El-Funoun specifically want from this choreographic consultancy and cultural exchange? First, the members desired knowledge of Western choreographic procedures that would allow them to include abstraction in their work, thereby enriching and expanding the expressive potential of their tradition. They were aware that Western contemporary dance had successfully mastered the art of communicating nonnarrative meanings (i.e., dances without a storyline) and of using symbolically transformed movement, and they felt that knowledge of this mode of making dance work would better serve their artistic goals. For example, Mohammed, the company's lead dancer, choreographer, and orator, was especially interested in learning how to work with abstraction in representing through movement his loving memories of the working skill and lifestyle of fishermen, a lifestyle that is no longer possible due to security restrictions. He sought to work literally with the situated action but also add abstraction to the movement content, mindful of how far he could go with innovations without separating the dance company from its local audience. Likewise, more recently, in addressing members' experiences of living under occupation and sometimes under siege, Barghouti choreographed a dance in which "people are trapped in a circle and battered from all directions, while trying, as much as possible, to remain steadfast" (cited in Steinberg 2006). Wood introduced ways of orchestrating movement in an open yet organized fashion, typical of his own choreography, that would facilitate these kinds of artistic developments.

            Second, El-Funoun wanted its work to be recognized and understood by the Western world, possibly to create sympathy for its national aspirations. In order to achieve this long-term vision, Wood felt it was necessary to work toward enhancing the strength and flexibility of the body. He developed and employed modified modern and postmodern dance techniques, which enhanced the dancers' skills without losing the dynamic flow of their own circular forms of motion or their vibrant immediacy in performance. Always supportive of their desire to go further and seeking a spiritual as well as cerebral expansion of possibilities, Wood facilitated the dancers' own intuitive explorations of their bodies, enhancing their creativity and finding channels through the body to expand their uses of space, facing, and direction, in ways not found in their own dancing and its history (Wood 2003). In addition, he sought to expand the dancers' perceptions of what they felt they were 'allowed' to do culturally. Behind closed doors, for example, he introduced a number of partnering techniques, ways of moving with other bodies that were quite foreign to Palestinian norms. These strategies were aimed at presenting possibilities for expanding movement vocabulary and enhancing choreographic form beyond lineation and the kinds of in-place group stagings typical of Middle Eastern theater conventions.

            Third, integral to the innovations El-Funoun sought was not only the idea that movement does not have to have narrative content but also that it does not have to be tied to the rhythmic structure of music or other sounds for the communication of complex information. Wood and the dancers worked on this innovation by creating movement in silence. This allowed the dancers to focus on using their individual body size and to experience the 'metronome,' as it were, of their own specific body, letting it function without any external sound stimulus. In another situation, they explored the idea of moving through (rather than to) diverse sounds, including those that may elicit emotional responses or suggest an internal emotional landscape.

            Fourth, as one shifts from notions of the dance as "organized patterns of steps" toward more postmodern conceptions, one can shift away from considering explicitly symbolic movements (i.e., this movement stands for or represents that) to explore instead what kinds of personal responses movements may evoke in the dancer. Wood proposed that an appreciation of meanings that emanate from, or are elicited by, people's embodied experiences and their investigation of them would assist the dancers in understanding that this can generate the difference between something that is experienced viscerally by an audience versus something that is simply viewed as spectacle.



In writing about Wood's visit, El-Funoun was careful to state that he had not choreographed the new work, that he was "widening the perspective of EFchoreographers and dancers … leaving El-Funoun to create its original choreography for the work," and that he had contributed "a sincere effort to enrich, enhance and nourish." Such statements clearly index El-Funoun's firm retention of ownership over the choreographic content. This functioned in part to avert any in­ternal criticism that aspects of Palestinian national culture were being undermined or polluted by borrowing from outside--especially from American sources. This is especially intriguing because, in fact, the Palestinians acquired primarily American dance information with Canadian money from a New Zealand-New Yorker! 12 This was a necessary political strategy, however, as a result of ongoing American financial and military support that enables the Israeli occupation. The Palestinians were very clear about not accepting American money. 13


Ethnographic Context--Indigenous North America

Our second case study involves the American Indian Dance Theater, a widely acclaimed company of sixteen to eighteen dancers, singers, and musicians drawn from many different indigenous nations, which has toured widely in the United States as well as in Europe, North Africa, the Middle East, and Australia, often with the support of the U.S. State Department. It was founded in 1987 by indigenous Kiowa playwright/director Hanay Geiogamah and produced by a Euro-American, New York-based concert and theatrical producer, Barbara Schwei. Unwittingly invoking a colonizing American nationalism, on the AIDT website, Ms. Schwei tells us that she and Geiogamah formed the American Indian Dance Theatre to "fill a void in the dance world… . I wondered why every country except the United States had its own national dance companies representing the diverse segments of their cultures," she said, adding

This company provides Native Americans with a chance to share their heritage and culture with the American public and the rest of the world. We have received strong support from the American Indian community which has applauded our goal of trying to preserve an important part of the culture and traditions of Native American people. (Shwei, AIDT website 2008, emphasis supplied)

Schwei thus fails to comprehend the nature of her own neocolonialist discourse inherent in offering contemporary indigenous peoples opportunities to 'share' their heritage, and 'preserve' their cultures; after five hundred years of systematic and determined attempts by the U.S. government to eradicate them!

            AIDT directors claim they were the first company to present traditional Native American dances successfully in a theatrical setting without sacrificing the basic integrity and meaning of the dances. "All our dances are traditional and authentic, but have been staged as theatrical pieces" says director Geiogamah. "In making this transition, however, we have been careful not to alter the basic structure of any of the dances" (ibid.).

            Geiogamah's rhetoric of authenticity is typical of producers elsewhere who subject local social and/or ritual dances to a standardizing process so as to conform to Eurocentric notions of correct performance and appropriate stag­ing for the purposes of entertainment. Ethnographic evidence from Artry-Diouf (2005), Bruner and Kirchenblatt-Gimlet (1994), Williams (2000), and others illustrates that such stagings may be in support of newly emergent postcolonial nationalisms, economic gain through cultural tourism, educational purposes (sometimes in the service of cultural revitalization), and national or diasporic celebrations of 'heritage.'

Figure 1
Figure 1
Figures 7 and 8. Studio photos of Men's Traditional dancers and Men's Fancy dancer, unidentified members of American Indian Dance Theatre. Photograph by AIDT Gallery.


            The claims to traditionality and authenticity, grounded in the notion that they "have been careful not to alter the basic structure of any of the dances" is belied, however, by a conversation Farnell had with one well-known traditional pow-wow dancer, whom we shall call Tim, who returned to his reservation community in Montana having performed for two seasons with American Indian Dance Theater in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Tim explained how marked changes in the structuring of the dances radically altered the meaning of his dancing, to such an extent that he felt it damaging to his spiritual and emotional health to continue, despite the interesting opportunities for travel and financial reward. We have summarized the main points that arose from our conversation around the topics of space, time, and the performance context itself and analyzed them as follows:


1. Space

In order to analyze the spatial component, we draw upon three technical terms from Williams's anthropological theory of human movement, semasiology: the first two are 'deixis' and 'form space.' 14 Deixis is a Greek word meaning 'pointing' or 'indicating,' used most often by linguists to identify signs that locate persons and actions in time and space. The concept includes several indexical elements such as location, direction, and spatial orientation. Bonnie Urciuoli puts it succinctly as follows:

The structure of action fans out from the center, the locus of you and I, to delineate where and when everything happens relative to the central actors: he and she versus I and you, there versus here, then versus now, present versus non present (past or future). (Urciuoli 1995: 190)

            The 'form space' of a dance refers to "the total shape of the piece seen as a whole, not in terms of fragmented steps or parts" (Williams 2000: 348). A third insight from semasiology is Williams's observation that persons move [their bodies] in spaces that are simultaneously physical, conceptual, moral, and ethical (Williams 1988: 6). Lived space is, therefore, not a given physical reality but an intentionally achieved structuring. We see each of these three components at work in analyzing the differences between American Indian Dance Theater's staging of pow-wow dances and their original form.

            We maintain that Tim experienced a loss of integrity to what he was doing since his actions were removed from the semantics of the performing space in which his dancing normally took place: the sacred dance circle of the pow-wow with its ongoing clockwise progression of action and the four cardinal directions that determine the placing of entrances and exits from the dance arena. Space does not permit us to expand upon the multilayered symbolism involved in the concept of the circle and the four directions--two spatial forms that are paradigmatic to indigenous worldviews on the Northern Plains--except to emphasize that they require careful translation. As Farnell has written elsewhere, for the Nakota, for example, the four directions are integrally connected to spiritual practices and conceived as 'the four winds' (t'ade topa), areas from which power comes toward a person in contrast to Euro-American conceptions as single lines pointing outward, as on a map. This is not to imply that all participants interpret such semantically laden spaces in the same way, however. Another dancer, for example, noted that dancing in the sacred circle reminds her that "symbolically we are moving around this life cycle, this circle holds a lifetime of change--there are people at all different stages of the life cycle here." 15 For Tim, this kind of multivalent spatial semantics integral to a real pow-wow event was completely lost in directing his dancing toward 'stage front' on the proscenium stage.


Description of Constituent Spatial Components at a Pow-wow 16

After a prayer from an elder, usually in a Native American language, each afternoon or evening session of a three or four day community event called a pow-wow begins with a 'Grand Entry.' Veterans of the U.S. armed services lead a procession into the sacred circle of the dance arena carrying four or five flags. 17 They enter from the east, moving around the arena clockwise. Following them in single file come the adult Men's Traditional dancers, then Grass dancers, and Fancy dancers, each genre having its own specific style of regalia and action signs (movement patterns). Women's Traditional dancers enter the arena next, followed by Jingle Dress and Fancy Shawl dancers. The dancers gradually spiral in, youth and then younger children following in a similar order as the arena gradually fills up with vibrant activity. Once all the dancers are in the arena, they face the flags (now in the center and facing the announcer's stand on the south or west side), and dance 'in place' facing the center of the circle as the community's flag song and a victory song are sung. During informal intertribal dancing (in which anyone present can join) or during competitions, dancers always adhere to the distinct movements pertinent to their particular genre and its regalia, moving clockwise around the sacred circle. 18 These conventions make up the form space of the dance events central to a pow-wow. They create meaningful sets of deictic locations (here, there, over yonder), directions (forward/backward, inside/outside, up/down, etc.), and spatial orientations (toward the East, moving sunwise), not in words but in kinesthetic and spatial understandings. The structure of action fans out from the center, the locus of 'I' that is the person dancing, always in relation to 'you' and 'we,' the community.

            For Tim, the spatial semantics--the circular form space and associated spatial deictics integral to a genuine pow-wow event--were completely lost in being required by the AIDT-staged choreography to direct his dancing (a) toward and away from 'stage front' on a proscenium stage, (b) cross-stepping sideways in a straight line or moving diagonally in threes or fours in straight lines across the space, and (c) keeping in step with other dancers (see Figure 9).

Figure 1
    Figure 9. The excerpt notated here is transcribed from a video made for AIDT Touring Inc. by Gary Lindsey Artist Services (2006). Each numbered segment illustrates a particular change in spatial orientation that violates the conventions of Northern Plains Men's Traditional dancing: 1. Dancing anticlockwise around a circle; 2. Dancing backward; 3. Anticlockwise circling. 4. Forming a straight line facing the audience. 5. Stepping sideways inter­weaving with other dancers maintaining a facing toward the audience.

            Since the choreographic form of Northern Plains traditional dancing is structured improvisation, one might suppose that conventions governing the internal semantic space of this dance genre would be less affected by externally imposed staging, but again the requirements of Western stage presentations undermined local conceptions. For example, the steady forward progression of Men's Traditional dance is rooted in the Plains warrior tradition and involves imaginative reconstructions of battle experiences. It involves a moral commitment never to retreat, and so a traditional dancer never dances backward. Such imaginative reconstructions can also relate to hunting and close observations of the natural world. As one elder put it:

Now we dance and imitate different things--like we might be tracking something or might be tracking somebody, or we'll be imitating a bird coming off of a perch and going down, swooping down and picking something up, or hunting it could be--it has a lot of meaning to it--it's a lot more than just getting out there and just going round in a little circle. (Cited in Into the Circle, Meadowlark Communications [video])

The disruption of the form space of the dance in order to accommodate the staged choreography largely precluded the dancers' being able to attend to this imaginative, improvised symbolic content, thereby also contributing to a sense of diminished meaning and hence a loss of authorship/ownership of their dancing.

            The staged version of Northern Plains' Men's Traditional pow-wow dancing violates all the canons of the internal spaces of Men's Traditional dancing by virtue of

  • the absence of the circle

  • adhering to facing 'the front' (i.e., the audience) 19

  • making straight pathways (or track data) through space

  • performing sequences of synchronized actions with other dancers.


2. Time

Kevin Shane, a champion Crow/Cheyene Traditional dancer, notes that

for a traditional dancer, the thing I look for is keeping in time with the drum. I like to see a dancer go low and a lot of body movement--different parts of the body all need to be moving with the drum--head, shoulders, legs, the bustle. What I look for is the dancer's effortless expression because that's when they are dancing with their heart. (Cited in Into the Circle, Meadowlark Communications [video])

It was the absence of this crucial emotional component that Tim felt most deeply. As one is inspired to innovate within a dance form, one is honoring the call­ing of it, its heritage, its connection to ancestors and land; and it has its own time frame. At a genuine pow-wow, action occurs when things are right over a period of three or four days.


Description of Constituent Temporal Events at a Pow-wow 20

At a typical pow-wow, trucks, trailers, campers, and cars start pulling into the campground two or three days before the event, some visitors having traveled for days to get there. Local families set up tents and campers in their usual desig­nated places around the grounds but may sleep at home until the pow-wow starts. Early morning risers greet the sun and fresh, cool morning air. Perhaps they start their day with prayer, get the campfire going, make the coffee, and take in a visit or two with neighbors. The pickup truck distributing food rations swings by each camp leaving enough buffalo meat, cans of vegetables, potatoes, and coffee so no one goes hungry. The water truck is busy dampening the dance grounds and tracks to keep the dust down. Later in the morning, taped pow-wow music starts playing over the loudspeaker as dancers and singers begin their preparations for the days events, checking their regalia and thinking about the competitions and ceremonies to come. Around noon, the arena director starts calling people to the arbor (dance arena), families set up their seats and blankets in their usual places around the edge of the dance circle, and drum groups set up their sound systems and start warming up their voices. The first Grand Entry is set for 1 p.m. or thereabouts, when everyone is ready. During the afternoon, the dancing will be interspersed with a family ceremonial event--a 'give away' for a loved one who passed away a year ago (thereby ending the official period of mourning) or a sponsored dance for a child who is dancing for the first time. The sun gets hot out there in the dance arena, and everyone seeks shady places to sit between the dancing. Supper break occurs around 5 p.m., and the arbor clears as people visit camps offering feasts in honor of those loved ones. Pretty soon, everything begins to wind up again for the evening session, which begins with a Grand Entry around 7 p.m. and continues late into the night until all the competitions for the various categories of dances (classified by age group and gender) have been completed. This general pattern of events will be repeated over the next three days, and the final evening may go on well into the early hours of the morning.

            A time frame for 'a performance' in the Western sense changes all this: one is working within a condensed time frame, and this necessarily changes the relationships that can occur. Because time and space are interrupted, the relationship of the energy has changed; one is moved away from a connection to spirit and the sensations of land and sky to an indoor sensibility and having time organized by a Western work ethic with its hourly timetable: rehearsal, 10 a.m.; technical run-through, 4 p.m.; performance 8 p.m.

            Tim also referred to the time factor in noting the differences involved in dancing for one's family, representing one's community: "It's about remembrance," he said as he talked about his regalia--who in his family made them, who honored him and his dancing by contributing parts of the regalia. One's dance regalia, far from being simply a 'costume,' in the theatrical sense, evoke echoes of sacred histories and ancestral information saturated with energy and power that are brought into the present moment.


3. Context of Performance

Shifts in the social context of the performances also altered the meaning of the dancing for Tim as follows:

  • A pow-wow is fundamentally a participatory event. There are participants who dance and participants who are not dancing, but this is radically different from performing for the entertainment of an audience. For Tim, AIDT turned his dancing into a 'performance' in the Western sense of a presentational event for spectators, rather than a participatory act.
  • Pow-wows are multipurpose events and complex expressions of community, family, and ethnic identity. They feature not only highly skilled competitive dancing and music but also memorial feasts, honoring of family members, naming ceremonies, give aways, and more--none of which was present in the AIDT production.
  • At a community pow-wow, whether competitive or not, a dancer is dancing to honor family members and relatives and as a representative of that family and community. It is not an individualist enterprise; pow-wows are fundamentally about belonging and community. As Tim put it, "It's medicine for me. A lot of my older people tell me, a lot of times you don't dance for yourself, you dance for someone that can't dance, maybe an old person or a person in a wheelchair sitting at the side; you get caught up in it and feel good out there. A lot of times we don't dance for ourselves: we dance for other people."

For dancers such as Tim, the shifts in meaning caused by changes in spatial deictics and the form space of the dance, time factors, and social context were a direct result of relocating pow-wow dancing onto a proscenium stage for the entertainment of non-Native audiences. This resulted in an irrevocable, irresolvable loss of cultural relevance in the new context.

            In sum, for this pow-wow dancer, adapting his dancing to fit Eurocentric modes of presentation and notions of correct performance in a Western theatrical setting in order to entertain largely non-Native audiences violated all the canons of the internal form space of traditional pow-wow dances, effectively turning them into a piece of entertainment for tourist consumption. The alterations in space, time, and social context unambiguously altered and diminished the meaning. His authorship over his dancing with its indexical and semantic properties was lessened. Relationships to land, spirituality, language, and sacred histories were severed or disrupted, thereby lessening his dynamically embodied sense of self as an indigenous person.


Concluding Remarks

For the pow-wow dancer subject to adapting his dancing to fit the conventions of Western theatrical performance to entertain largely non-Native audiences, the alterations in space, time, and context unambiguously diminished the meanings. His authorship over his dancing and its indexical and semantic properties has been lessened. While the AIDT producers employed a rhetoric of 'authenticity' to market the company, the dancer engaged in a reflexive counterprocess in order to maintain the cultural integrity of his dancing. That is, in explicitly recognizing the differences and rejecting the absence of mean­ingful spiritual satisfaction in his dancing in the new commercial and commodified context, Tim actively embraced the original embodied knowledge that he judged to be legitimate--legitimate because it carried the traditional authority that came from within his home community. Each time he performed with AIDT, Tim engaged in a strategic process of resistance against the loss of authenticity; that is, he refused to let go of the prior semantic structure and content of his dancing, while physically submitting to the choreographic structure demanded by the new context. Over a considerable period of time, this disjuncture turned into a stressful experience that eventually led to his leaving the group.

            In contrast, the Palestinian group El-Funoun actively sought to adopt new ways of working with movement and abstraction to develop repertoire that would adequately express the current political, economic, and cultural oppression under which the troupe now lives. In contrast to the adoption of Eurocentric modes of presentation and notions of correct performance that lessened the experience of authenticity for the pow-wow dancer, we have here the active solicitation of innovative strategies that promote new knowledge. The changes El-Funoun selected--these cultural borrowings from another dance tradition--were seen as enhancing and enriching their work. The innovations enabled new works to be made that bring their own tradition into the present political moment. In seeking such strategies for innovation from an external source, the Palestinian dancers enhanced their agency and authorship over the direction of their work. In making it responsive to and expressive of the current political moment, incorporating the new information into their own working procedures was a process of authorization--making it their own.

            Instead of being treated as a static feature of a dance or danced knowledge, we have reconfigured 'authenticity' an aspect of situated practice, work that members of a society actively perform to constitute performances according to shared criteria of validity, a dynamic expressive resource by means of which people systematically link present action with a meaningful past for a poten­tial future, endowing a particular cultural form with value and authority. We have proposed a concept of active and strategic processes of legitimization/authorization adhering to a variety of practices involving cultural change and their consequences. We have also sought to recover agentic components of these processes as authoring and authorizing: that is, as inclusive of the legitimizing perspectives of knowledgeable persons (as dynamically embodied agents) involved. Accusa­tions of such legitimizing strategies as necessarily essentialist deny the right to such cultural claims. In seeking a middle ground that recognizes claims to truth, validity, and legitimacy held by indigenous dancers and other knowledge holders as cultural members, this paper honors their response as valid.



This paper is a revised version of papers presented at the annual meeting of the European Association of Social Anthropologists, Bristol, U.K., and the Department of Dance Studies, University of Surrey, U.K., September 2006. An expanded, earlier version of the second case study was presented in Farnell's keynote address at the 4th Annual Conference of the Dance Research Society of Taiwan (DRST), National Dong Hua University, November 2007, and published in the DRST Journal 2008.

            1 Figure 1. American Indian pow-wow dance regalia. Photo Jason Lindley, Perceptive Visions, with permission. Figure 2. Building damaged by Israeli bombing in the town of Ramallah, 1997. Photo by Robert Wood.

            2 There is of, course, a certain irony attached to this appeal to the textual authority of a dictionary in examining the very concept of 'authenticity.'

            3 In the philosophy of science, 'essentialism,' according to Karl Popper, refers to the doctrine that the aim of science is to discover the true nature or essence of things and to describe them by means of definitions. It involves the belief that knowledge or science starts with (theory-neutral) observations of individual events and then proceeds by simple inductive enumeration until their 'essential' properties are grasped by intuition. Other essentialist doctrines include arbitrary claims such as "essences so discovered are unchanging," "every object has some ultimate single essence," and the dogmatic "we can obtain absolute, incorrigible knowledge of the essence of an object" (Sayer 1992: 163).

            4 Buckland notes the discourses of authenticity at work in speculative histories of European dance traditions, when those associated with the classic 'folk' paradigm cite the longevity of ceremonial dance performances as signaling evidence of authentic ritual, "more often than not a speculation often accompanied by interconnected assertions of ancientness, purity and legitimacy and evolutionist notions of pagan origins" (Buckland 2001: 1). See also Bendix (1997) on 'authenticity' in folklore studies.

            5 The postmodern critique has focused largely on discourses of identity and questions the very possibility of 'authentic selves,' especially in media-saturated societies. Attention has also been paid to the 'politics of authenticity.' In the U.S., the self-presentation and discourses of politicians have also been subject to questions of 'political authenticity.' See, for example, Rossinow (1998) and Johnson (2003). We would argue that these are very different from constructing a sense of authenticity for oneself and to oneself as a participant/practitioner as is the case with the Native American dancer to be discussed later.

            6 This move parallels that of Handler and Linnekin (1984) in determining that 'tradition' does not refer to "a core of inherited cultural traits whose continuity and boundedness are analogous to that of a natural object" but refers to a symbolic and interpretive process that embodies both continuity and discontinuity. As a scientific concept, 'authenticity,' like 'tradition,' fails when "those who use it are unable to detach it from the implications of Western common sense, which presumes that an unchanging core of ideas and customs is always handed down to us from the past" (1984: 273).

            7 The municipality of Ramallah (population 290,000) is less than ten miles north of Jerusalem in the West Bank and has figured prominently in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. For example, the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat remained confined to his compound in Ramallah for four months in 2002.

            8 San Diego dance critic Janice Steinberg, writing about El-Funoun's U.S. visit stated: "[Former Israeli Prime Minister] 'Golda Meir boasted that there was no such thing as the Palestinian people,' said Barghouti [El-Funoun choreographer]. 'We did not exist in the eyes of the colonizers.' Meir's 1969 statement, published in The Sunday Times of London and The Washington Post, was, 'There were no such thing as Palestinians. When was there an independent Palestinian people with a Palestinian state?' Although Meir later said she'd been misquoted, the comment was seen as reflecting an attitude held by much of the world. And the handful of artists who founded El-Funoun set out to prove that they indeed had a national identity, giving even their most lighthearted dances a political purpose" (Steinberg 2006).

            9 Cited in an article by Gia Kourlas, New York Times Magazine, Dec. 2, 2005.

            10 Steinberg (2006) suggests that Palestinian society, with its mix of Muslim, Christian, and secular Arabs, is relatively tolerant of women's dancing. In contrast, the Iraqi national dance company no longer performs at home, fearing fundamentalist reprisals against women's displaying their bodies onstage.

            11 El-Funoun funding and publicity materials for "Haifa, Beirut and Beyond" (1997) in possession of Wood, emphasis supplied.  

            12 American dance information tempered by Wood's Aotearoa (New Zealand) sensibilities and informed by Maori dances and dancing as well as New Zealand contemporary dance.

            13 Additional statements include "this highly sensitive, yet effective approach reflects a distinguished insight into cultural specifics and a sincere effort to enrich, enhance and nourish, rather than dictate or dominate" and "these qualities have made this partnership between El-Funoun and RWDNY a novel model of cultural exchange and an ingeniously artistic co-operation" (El-Funoun funding materials, 1997, emphasis supplied).

            14 See Williams (1982, 1995, and 2004).

            15 Farnell, field notes (1998).

            16 The description that follows does not describe one specific event but emphasizes those features and principles common to the pow-wow genre as enacted on the northern Plains of the U.S. and witnessed by Farnell over the past twenty years in communities on the Fort Belknap, Fort Peck, Rocky Boy, and Crow reservations in Montana, as well as in urban Indian communities such as Chicago and university-student pow-wows such as those at the University of Iowa.

            17 The flags are usually the American and Canadian national flags, a state flag, tribal nation flag, and POW/MIA (prisoner of war/missing in action) flag.

            18 On the southern Plains, the direction of the progression is anticlockwise.

            19 From a Labanotation perspective, this would be moving forward according to a 'constant frame of reference,' i.e., 'to the front' (see Durr and Farnell 1980).

            20 Again, this description is a composite based on the temporal structure of northern Plains pow-wow events generally. It is not any one event.


References Cited:

American Indian Dance Theater

2007. (accessed May 14, 2009).

Artry-Diouf, Esailama

2005. Unpublished paper, written at University of Illinois.

Barghouti, Oma

2003. Letter from Ramallah. Ballettanz, July. Reprinted on El-Funoun Web site, (accessed April 26, 2009).

Bendix, Regina

1997. In Search of Authenticity: The Formation of Folklore Studies. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

Bruner, Edward M. and Barbara Kirschenblatt-Gimblett

1994. Maasai on the Lawn: Tourist Realism in East Africa. Cultural Anthropology 9 (2): 435­70.

Buckland, Theresa

2001. Dance Authenticity and Cultural Memory: The Politics of Embodiment. In Yearbook for Traditional Music 33: 1­16.

Durr, Dixie and Brenda Farnell

1980. Spatial Orientation and the Notion of Constant Opposition. JASHM 1(4): 226­45.


2008. (accessed April 26, 2009).

Farnell, Brenda

1995. Do You See What I Mean?: Plains Indian Sign Talk and the Embodiment of Action. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Farnell, Brenda and Robert N. Wood

2006. Authenticity, Appropriation, and Innovation in the Circulation of Danced Knowledge. Paper presented at the Biennial Conference, European Association of Social Anthropologists, Bristol, U.K., September.

Gilroy, Paul

1995. The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Handler, Richard and Jocelyn Linnekin

1984. Tradition, Genuine or Spurious. Journal of American Folklore 97 (385): 273­91.

Johnson, E. Patrick

2003. Appropriating Blackness: Performance and the Politics of Authenticity. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Meadowlark Communication

1992. Into the Circle: An Introduction to Oklahoma Powwows and Celebrations [video]. Produced by Scott Swearingen. Directed by Scott Swearingen and Sandy Rhoades. (accessed May 14, 2009).

Rossinow, Doug

1998. The Politics of Authenticity: Liberalism, Christianity, and the New Left in America. New York: Columbia University Press.

Rushdie, Salman

1991. Commonwealth Literature Does Not Exist. In Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism, 1981­1991. London: Granta Books in Association with Viking: 61­70.

Sayer, Andrew

1992. Method in Social Science: A Realist Approach. London and New York: Routledge.

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty

1996. The Spivak Reader. New York and London: Routledge.

Steinberg, Janice

2006. Firm Footing. San Diego Union Tribune, November 13. (accessed May 14, 2009).

Urciuoli, Bonnie

1995. The Indexical Structure of Visibility. In Action Sign Systems in Cultural Context: The Visible and the Invisible in Movement and Dance (ed. B. Farnell). Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press: 189­215.

Williams, Drid

1982. "Semasiology": A Semantic Anthropologists View of Human Movements and Actions. In Semantic Anthropology (ed. D. Parkin). ASA vol. 22. London: Academic Press: 161­82.

1988. Space, Intersubjectivity and the Conceptual Imperative: Three Ethnographic Cases. Paper presented at American Anthropological Association Meeting, Phoenix, AZ, November.

1995. Space, Intersubjectivity and the Conceptual Imperative: Three Ethnographic Cases. In Action Sign Systems in Cultural Context: The Visible and the Invisible in Movement and Dance (ed. B. Farnell). Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press: 44­81.

2000. The Cultural Appropriation of Dances and Ceremonies Visual Anthropology 13: 345­62.

2004. Anthropology and the Dance: Ten Lectures. 2d ed. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Wood, Robert N.

2003. Masalama Palestine. DVD made at the University of Illinois, Beckman Institute. Not for publication.















Content in Journal for the Anthropological Study of Human Movement (ISSN 1940-7610) is intended for personal, noncommercial use only. You may not reproduce, publish, distribute, transmit, participate in the transfer or sale of, modify, create derivative works from, display, or in any way exploit the Journal for the Anthropological Study of Human Movement database in whole or in part without the written permission of the copyright holder.
© 2009 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
Terms and Conditions of Use.