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Commentary: Movement, Mobility, and Action

Brenda Farnell

In the early 1980s, when the 'anthropology of human movement' and JASHM were in their infancy, I recall that it was not uncommon for interested inquirers to remark, "Oh, I suppose you study migration and displacement, immigrants, travel—that sort of thing." The unexamined assumption was that 'movement' within an anthropological framework would refer to human mobility across geographical spaces. Academic colleagues and nonacademic observers alike did not, for the most part, conceive of our subject matter as the study of bodily actions. Clearly, the idea that there might be considerable value to understanding the social and cultural meanings of human movement as action in constructed social spaces—as both an expressive medium of considerable complexity and site of myriad mundane practices and skills—went largely unrecognized. Subsequent study has identified this attitude as a prominent feature of both "disembodied social theory" and a more widespread, persistent Cartesianism (see Varela 1995, Farnell 1999, 2012). At the time, this kind of response alerted my fellow students and me to the uphill battle we faced if our chosen field of study was to gain recognition, even within the social sciences. Thirty years later, then, it is of considerable interest, and not without irony, that the articles in this issue of JASHM seek to bring together these two somewhat disparate meanings of the word 'movement'—on the one hand, 'mobility' as travel across geographical or physical spaces of various kinds, and on the other, the actions of dynamically embodied persons in "(at least) four dimensions of space and time" (Williams 1982)—in this case, three idioms of dancing.

     Before I discuss the articles, I would like to situate them briefly within a broader disciplinary context. I propose that the concept of 'circulation,' the theme of the 2010 Annual Meeting of the American Anthropological Association where the papers were first presented, reveals a metatheoretical or paradigmatic shift underway in current anthropological thought. I suggest that the three ethnographic case studies presented in the articles under consideration provide instructive examples of this shift, and I will conclude by pointing to some implications for the anthropology of human movement.

Themes in the History of Anthropological Thought

Informed by Johannes Fabian's discussion (1983), we can characterize nineteenth-century anthropological theorizing as coalescing broadly around the trope of 'time,' as evidenced by the prominence of evolutionary theories and ideologies of cultural change as 'progress.' Many theoretical developments in twentieth-century anthropology related instead to the trope of 'space,' as illustrated by widespread concerns with social structures, mental/cognitive maps, structuralism, and bounded concepts of culture and nation. Not always so straightforwardly separate, however, time was also frequently linked to space, as Fabian also points out, in the sense that the more distant geographically people were from Western (that is, European and derived) centers of anthropological theorizing, the more distant in time (that is, 'primitive') they were often perceived to be—and, we might add, all the more distant as anthropological 'Others' from anthropologizing selves.

     Perhaps it is not too soon to characterize early twenty-first-century anthropological theorizing as beginning to coalesce around the trope of 'mobility.' Undoubtedly, in part, a response to broader international processes of 'globalization' and enabled largely by contemporary forms of travel and electronic modes of communication, today we find theoretical attention in anthropology coalescing around topics that involve the mobility of persons (as both individuals and groups) and the marked increase in the circulation of ideas and practices. For example, it is not difficult to find anthropological studies of diasporas, border crossings, migrations, effects of globalization, multisited ethnographies, transnational flows, hybridization, global networks, and movement in and out of virtual as well as actual worlds. Such studies are often fueled by new interdisciplinary interests that make older intellectual boundaries ever more permeable—a case of intellectual 'mobility' mirroring broader cultural change perhaps or evidence of the tendency for any new trope to expand its metaphorical purview.

     More directly related to the anthropology of human movement as a realm of inquiry, we can also observe how prior shifts in anthropological thinking during the late decades of the twentieth century had already moved toward more dynamic models of human events: for example, from structure to practices, from language and linguistic models to discourses, and from 'the body' as a bio-psycho-social object to dynamic embodiment—that is, moving persons interacting in multisensory environments, enacting meaning-making practices that are simultaneously corporeal and discursive (Farnell and Varela 2008; Farnell 2011, 2012; Williams 2004). This theoretical enrichment, which has moved us from 'the body' to 'dynamic embodiment' as the activity of skilled, moving persons (Varela 1994), has brought new interdisciplinary attention to performance, performers, performing, and performativity—interests that, while certainly not new to anthropology, can offer insight into how we might conceptualize such a turn toward embodied practices in ways that emphasize both corporeality (the body) and body movement as action. That such embodied practices and performances increasingly circulate across a variety of boundaries and borders is the focus of these articles.

Discussion of the Articles

Each of the three authors whose ethnographic research is presented in this issue has investigated the mobility of persons and groups associated with a distinct idiom of dancing, and the resulting studies provide us with stimulating material for comparison. Emily Wilcox provides us with a richly documented, historically informed account of contemporary Chinese dance artists who travel extensively within the People's Republic of China, to share their performances certainly, but also to gain choreographic inspiration from learning, and learning about, the skills of working people and sharing their work-life experiences. Among mobile performance troupes that are constantly on the road in their "theater on wheels," artists themselves frequently engage in participant observation as a research method, embracing the visceral experience of the 'proletariat' as a source of movement for new artistic works. Wilcox carefully situates current performance practices within a specific political history of the performing arts in the People's Republic of China. Here, we have an ethnography of dance artists whose physical mobility, as well as choreographic creativity, operates within (and occasionally against) the shifting ideologies of a strong, state-controlled political economy.

     It is not only the performers who travel, but danced knowledge also circulates, sometimes independently of the performers. During frequent political turmoil in twentieth-century China, Wilcox describes how the performing arts were frequently in the service of political control and indoctrination. We learn that the so-called ethnic folk dances of the many minority groups in China did not escape appropriation and 'adaptation' in service of a dominant political ideology. This finding resonates with Holly Fairbank's documentation of the process by which a virtual army of Han Chinese dance researchers 'collected' the dances of these minority groups in the 1980s, only to change much of the movement content to reflect what was acceptable to a nationalist Communist ideology (Fairbank 1985, 1986). However, as Wilcox also points out, the situation under oppressive Communist regimes was not entirely without opportunities for art to be in the service of creative political change from the grassroots up, especially during times of shifting political ideologies. Wilcox's research also makes an important contribution to studies of Communist regimes and socialism in resisting the tendency to treat them as all alike.

     Whereas Wilcox describes Chinese dance artists who traverse intracultural borders within a large nation state, Elena Bizas describes Senegalese Sabar dancers and their students who travel interculturally back and forth across an ocean between two large urban centers in two nations, one Western and one non-Western—Dakar, Senegal, and New York, United States. Bizas's article contributes a thoughtful and stimulating case study of Senegalese Sabar dancers and teachers in New York City, whose trans-Atlantic travel takes us into the realm of danced knowledge as a form of cultural capital. In this case, Senegalese teachers return regularly to the place where Sabar was developed to keep up to date with the changing repertoire of 'moves' in Sabar practice. This validates their teaching practices and has positive economic consequences, since they return to New York with new information for consumption by their non-Senegalese students. The New York students of Sabar are also encouraged to travel but for different reasons. They espouse a discourse of "authenticity" and "genuineness" that "being there" (in Senegal) is assumed to provide, in contrast to New York City, which is considered somehow to be not the "real thing." Expressions of desire to know more about the dance form's "context," seem to refer to a first-hand familiarity with the people, place, and purposes of the dances as practiced in Senegal—the source of the dance's origin and belonging.

     The unexamined presupposition in this discourse of authenticity is that simply 'being there' and learning to move appropriately in that location and cultural environment will unproblematically provide access to 'real,' authentic knowledge. The student Bizas encounters who says she wants to learn the depth of the dances and what they mean, not just physically how to do them, correctly identifies the ethnographic problem here. There is a vast difference between learning how to do the movements—being able to copy the action, however accurately—and understanding those movements as action signs (Williams 1982): that is, knowing the embodied cultural meanings they instantiate. In semasiological discourse, we call this the difference between enacting or observing "gross physical movement" and understanding "action-signs," as movements in a structured system (such as a dance idiom) that cannot be separated from both shared symbolic and contextually specific indexical meanings. In this sense, learning how to perform the movements from an unfamiliar dance form can be like learning how to pronounce the sounds of a language without knowing what the words mean. Sadly, it is still the case that anthropologists who pay very careful attention to spoken language translation often overlook the need for movement translation, as Malcolm Chapman pointed out long ago (1982).

     Back in New York, for the students of Sabar, a Wolof greeting and Senegalese dress indexes (points to) those who have traveled to Senegal and authorizes them as authentic knowers—they have acquired "context." For their teachers, as mentioned above, the return with "new moves" has positive economic consequences because they can subsequently market their newly acquired knowledge. Both the acquired "context" and the "new moves" serve as currency—legitimizing and authorizing as knowledgeable these participants (consumers of African authenticity?) in the urban West. We might surmise that this attention to "authenticity" in the discourse of Sabar practitioners will probably prevent or deter this cultural exchange from resulting in a hybrid form or forms, but only time and further influences on changes in the Sabar repertoire of movements will tell.

     Bizas documents how success in this trans-Atlantic intercultural exchange requires significant cultural adjustments. We learn how creative adaptation to cultural differences in class, gender, belief systems, and pedagogy enable new economic opportunities on the one side (the Senegalese dancer/teachers in New York) and the acquisition of "authentic" West African cultural capital on the other (the New York students in Dakar). Two otherwise radically different social and cultural groups from different continents thus interact around this dance idiom and its practices, both in its non-Western cosmopolitan place of origin and in a Western cosmopolis located an ocean away.

     While recognizing the limitations of a conference paper to pursue additional topics, I encourage Bizas to pursue the fact that such 'intercultural exchange' has implications that are very different for the people on either side. There are significant inequalities at work in impoverished 'developing' countries such as Senegal and their counterparts in technologically advanced capitalist countries like the Unites States of America, wherein such 'interculturalism' has been more strongly promoted as a business and can support an ideology attached to discourses about the benefits of 'globalization.' Such appropriation, disguised as 'intercultural exchange' often occurs at the expense of any in-depth understanding or appreciation for genuine cultural differences, although this may not be the case here. Rustom Bharucha, the Indian theater scholar and critic of "intercultural theater," has summarized the problem this way:

Exposure, to "other" cultures has not always been a matter of choice—colonialism does not operate through principles of exchange—rather it appropriates, decontextualizes and represents the "other" culture often with the complicity of its colonized subjects. It legitimates its authority only by asserting its cultural superiority (1993: 1–2).

Acknowledgment of these facts raises questions about the New York students' desires to claim "authenticity" for the knowledge they acquire from the former French colony of Senegal. Is this practice yet another a neocolonial appropriation of indigenous knowledge or something else? Are the Senegalese teachers who promote their dance arts 'colonized subjects' caught up in a system that coerces them under the guise of 'economic opportunity' to market their wares abroad as good capitalists? Bizas could enrich her study by taking into consideration the colonial and neocolonial implications embedded in the relationships that must be negotiated between the two unequal sides of this exchange. One is also led to wonder what roles 'blackness' and 'whiteness' play in this practice, in both sites.

     The gendered and caste components of the Senegalese context for these practices, to which Bizas refers, provide us with fascinating appetizers that also deserve more elaboration than she could include in her conference paper. In New York, we find male teachers and female students, while a biological determinism is at work in Senegalese men's discourse about the "nature" of men and women. We learn that men have inserted themselves as comic/mocking appropriators of women's dances in Senegalese contexts, and, if they are "professional dancers," sometimes these men significantly change the practice from being comprised of short, improvised solos that respond to the drummers to prechoreographed sequences with acrobatics.

     Also involved are Senegalese concepts of the "arts" as a profession being inherently corrupting—indexing either homosexuality or promiscuity—and this in itself being tied to local notions of social caste as an essentializing alterity. The gendered prejudice in Senegal that positions women dancers whose partners are male foreigners as "loose" and involved in sex and prostitution, while positioning men in similar heterosexual relationships as respectably "married," all have to be reconfigured by the male teachers in the New York context. This suggests that we have three facets of circulation at work here: not only a circulation of dancers and danced knowledge but also the circulation of a host of cultural attitudes regarding gender, race, class or caste, and pedagogy that influence the first two.

     The pedagogical contrasts are equally fascinating in Bizas's article. In Senegal, responsibility lies with the learner—a good performer is the best teacher, whereas in New York responsibility lies with the teacher, who is required to break down the movements into component parts to communicate the content for students to copy. Thus, a Senegalese pedagogical strategy that emphasizes the possibilities for creative composition has to change in the New York context to one of teaching the movements as building blocks toward learning and repeating predetermined choreographic outcomes: creativity in instantaneous choreographic composition versus accurate reproduction. What this has to say about larger cultural differences in pedagogy and the absence of creativity in most U.S. teaching of dancing wherein learning a 'technique' is separated from 'composition' would be an interesting development. I look forward to more.

     In contrast to both the intracultural peripatetic movements of Chinese artists and the intercultural Senegalese Sabar dancers and their students, Jonathan Marion's study of professional ballroom dancers illustrates the international scale of their mobility as they fulfill professional commitments to participate in the so-called worldwide competition circuit. Ironically perhaps, and despite much international travel, rather than crossing any cultural boundaries during this process, they appear to create and carry the norms and practices of their own subculture with them wherever they go. Marion describes how ongoing travel around an annual circuit of international competitions engenders a markedly transient lifestyle, one that comes to define not only what counts as 'home' (within their network of fellow competitors) but also their 'nationality' and with whom they will partner in competitions.

     Although Marion does not address this topic explicitly, we can surmise that the scale of the networks created by professional ballroom dancers is probably driven by its competitive nature. This raises additional questions worth exploring regarding the extent to which the introduction of competition alters a dance idiom (cf. Hall 1985 and Larsen 2010). In the case of professional ballroom dancing, what was once a social dance form has been radically changed, combining 'dancing' with 'sport' to become a new genre—a 'dancesport.' The degree to which national and international ballroom dance competitions flourish because promoted by the mass media and supported financially as a form of popular entertainment rather than a social dance form or artistic practice, are additional economic factors that Marion could consider. And in how far, and in what ways, do economic factors affect the aesthetics of the practice?

     Marion's article also asks us to conceive of "circulation as destination," a paradox that he presents as a means to encapsulate the "always-on-the-go" lives of professional ballroom dancers as they move from one location to another across the many wealthier parts of the globe in pursuit of competitive success and renown. Although I understand the sense in which this phrase is meant, I wonder if it undermines the thrust of his paper by implying an end point, when the ethnographic facts suggest otherwise, and this is precisely his point!

     Regardless, Marion presents us with a complex networking community, among whom being identified in a local informal studio environment is seen as surprising (because out-of-circuit), while "being seen" at a large international circuit event is expected and marks belonging. And it is this "being seen," both on the dance floor and off, that builds one's cultural and economic capital within this community, as Marion clearly demonstrates. Further investigation of how the circulation of ballroom dancers is both similar to, and different from, other equally competitive and international endeavors and activities that circulate, wherein social status and economic gain are also derived from 'being there' at events and constantly moving on to the next one, would be interesting. I am thinking here of musicians of all kinds (that is, the "music business") and other sports activities such as ice skating (within which ice dancing is presumably also a dancesport), or boxing, as well as dance genres such as national folk dance troupes and the Native North American pow-wow circuit, for example. There is much scope for some interesting comparative ethnographic studies here, and Marion's article invites questions regarding appropriate models and methods.

     All models, like metaphors and tropes generally, both reveal and hide aspects of a phenomenon. Marion extends an economic model to illuminate specific features of his data. In what ways does this accurately characterize the ballroom dancing networks he is documenting, and to what extent does it focus attention away from other aspects? I am thinking here especially of the absence of information about the dances and dancing themselves, which brings me to my final point—where is the movement?

     It would be ironic indeed if a research focus on 'performance as circulation' focused primarily on the circulation of performers and elided detailed consideration of how such geographic mobility affects the performed action itself. Wilcox is the only author who provides an example of an action sign, in this case, an iconic gesture arising from a work site that became a choreographic element in a Chinese modern dance work. We might ask what precisely are the "new moves" that travel across the Atlantic with Sabar practitioners? What do they signify in Dakar that differs in New York? What are the limits of innovation within this idiom, if any? Likewise, I am eager to know how ballroom dancers respond in physical terms to the increasing competition in a dancesport? What do they change in their carefully choreographed movement sequences and exaggerated postures in response to global circulation? What happens to movement patterns and choreographic ideas? Do they also circulate? And if so, how? What concepts of 'ownership' operate in this realm that apply to choreographic innovation, and what sources and degrees of change to the dances themselves are acceptable? Who decides on changes in the rules that such a competitive arena engenders (cf. Hall 1985, 2008; Larsen 2010)?

     These critical comments and questions are offered in the spirit of encouragement. In congratulating these authors on their fine contributions to ethnographies of the dance in circulation, I seek only to remind us that the heart of the subject matter remains in accounts of dynamically embodied action—the corporeal movement itself. Recognizing that one can only present a fraction of one's research in a conference paper, I want to encourage the authors to embrace further analysis of the performed body movement itself, so as to balance the field, as it were, between movement as mobility and as embodied action.

References Cited:

Bharucha, Rustom
1993. Theatre and the World: Performance and the Politics of Culture. London and New York: Routledge.

Chapman, Malcom
1982. Semantics and the Celt. In Semantic Anthropology (ed. David Parkin). London: Academic Press: 123–44.

Fabian, Johannes
1983. Time and the Other: How Anthropology Makes Its Object. New York: Columbia University Press.

Fairbank, Holly
1985. Chinese Minority Dances: Processors and Preservationists—Part 1. JASHM 3(4): 168–89.
1986. Chinese Minority Dances: Processors and Preservationists—Part 2. JASHM 4(1): 36–55.

Farnell, Brenda
1999. Moving Being, Acting Selves. Annual Review of Anthropology 28: 341–73.
2011. Theorizing the Body in Visual Anthropology. In Made to Be Seen: Perspectives on the History of Visual Anthropology (ed. M. Banks and J. Ruby). Chicago: U of Chicago Press: 136­–58.
2012. Dynamic Embodiment for Social Theory: 'I Move therefore I am.' London and New York: Routledge.

Farnell, Brenda and Charles Varela
2008. The Second Somatic Revolution. Journal for the Theory of Social Behavior 38(3): 215–40.

Hall, Frank
1985. Improvisation and Fixed Composition in Clogging. Journal for the Anthropological Study of Human Movement 3(4): 200–17.
2008. Competitive Irish Dance: Art, Sport, and Duty. Madison, WI: Macater Press.

Larsen, Gary J.
2010. Breaking the Rules: Transformational Forces in American Clogging. JASHM 17(1):

Varela, Charles
1994. Semasiology and the Ethogenic Standpoint: The Proper Alignment of Causal Powers and the Action Sign. JASHM 7(4): 219–48.
1995. Cartesianism Revisited: The Ghost in the Moving Machine or the Lived Body. In Human Action Signs in Cultural Context: The Visible and the Invisible in Movement and Dance (ed. Brenda Farnell). Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press: 216–93.

Williams, Drid
1982. ʻSemasiologyʼ: A Semantic Anthropologist's View of Human Movements and Actions. In Semantic Anthropology (ed. David Parkin). London: Academic Press: 161–82.
2004. Anthropology and the Dance: Ten Lectures. Champaign: University of Illinois Press.



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