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Commentary: Fixity and Forms of Dance Circulation

Helena Wulff

Many thanks for inviting me to comment on a very interesting and inspiring set of articles on 'dance in circulation.' The focus is on the meaning of dance practitioners' circulation as they perform in different places regionally, nationally, and globally.

     Two points emerge immediately: first, there is no circulation without some kind of fixity phrased as 'home,' 'place,' or the 'local'; second, the relationship between circulation and fixity is often experienced as contested even though they may, in fact, complement each other. There is, however, an obvious upswing of circulation in "dance culture" (Neveu Kringelbach and Skinner, in press)—as in many societies at large. I am pleased to note that the analysis of circulation in dance and performance studies is yet another instance of the dance speaking to larger issues. Dance is good to think with, and not only in the anthropology of dance but in social and cultural theory more generally.

     The articles were first presented as papers in a panel at the American Anthropological Association in 2010, and the abstract of the session asks, "What happens when practitioners' work requires them to constantly be on the go, especially when professional value is inextricable from such circulation? For these individuals, circulation is not the exception, but the rule, whether an appearance in Shanghai this week, a workshop and competition in South Africa next week, or a South American tour next month." As the abstract points out, these dancers are "on the move not because they have no home, but because their work requires it."

     Let me consider the concept of 'home.' Nigel Rapport and Andy Dawson (1998: 27) analyze how 'home' and 'identity' come about through movement. As they say, not only can one "be at home in movement, but that movement can be one´s very home." This also concerns dancers´ touring and travel to training, competitions, and coaching abroad. There is much evidence of this in these articles, not least in Jonathan Marion's substantial discussion of circulation as destination in the competitive ballroom world where serious participants "spend more time on the road than at 'home.'"

     In many dance forms, ranging from contemporary dance and ballet to 'ethnic' dance and dancesport, there is a notion of dance styles originating from a particular place and sometimes a certain type of mentality. However, there are, of course, good dancers who move to another place or just learn another national, or other, style very well, which contradicts this idea. In dancesport, as Marion shows, competitors often compete for a national team other than that of their own country. As in sports, these teams are, in fact, more often than not, rather mixed.

     Related to this is the observation made by Akhil Gupta and James Ferguson (1992) who argue that 'place' (or we could say here 'home') is also produced in large part by movement and circulation—by people, ideas, and material objects going back and forth to these places, and even moving around within them. In a larger perspective, circulation clearly produces new connections with and meanings of place—certainly new power structures.

     In socialist China, professional performers were nomads by design, we learn from the fascinating historical account in the presentation by Emily Wilcox. Here, circulation takes three forms: it was first made by dancers who were asked to travel to do field research in factories, villages, and military barracks, in order to create performances that featured the everyday lives of real people. Second, circulation was made by dancers when they toured around China and performed for workers, peasants, and soldiers. And third, circulation was what happened in the classroom or the theater when dancers imaginatively transport themselves 'back' to a reality experienced in another place. Now all this has changed, and dancers are 'free' to produce their own realities. Wilcox laments the loss of "creative practice and aesthetic experience." One issue raised here is how such contemporary dance productions (like visual art) relate to and critique socialist China.

     Identifying circulation as travels between New York and Dakar, Eleni Bizas explores how Sabar students and teachers—or more precisely those who can afford the cost and have the time—go to Dakar. There, teachers "reactivate" their cultural capital and position in New York, while students appreciate the cultural experience as a commitment to the dance form. In Senegal, Sabar is traditionally a gracious female dance that women still perform among female groups, while the few men who dance Sabar do it with acrobatic movements as professional dancers. This gender distinction is not taken into account in New York where most teachers are men and the dance students are women. Here, students expect a teaching technique where movements are broken down into smaller segments, which is not how Sabar is taught in Senegal where there is a focus on making connections between movements. In order to be able to make a living and stay in New York, teachers depend on attracting students and, thus, make changes meet their expectations, which results in the development of a local Sabar form.

     Even though many categories of dancing, from folk and ethnic to concert, ballet, show, street, and dancesport have circulated for a long time—as emigrants have brought their dances with them to the new country (see Wulff 2007 on Irish dance) or as dance practitioners have traveled to various centers (Wulff 1998, 2008)—there is a recent expansion of dance circulation. Competitive ballroom is again the captivating translocal case as described in Marion's article. As in many such "dance worlds," not only the dancers but also judges, students, spectators, and even vendors travel in the ballroom world. There is an "always-on-the-go" dynamic that shapes dancers' personal and professional lives. This constant circulation is, in fact, necessary for a dancer who wants to build a reputation. It is interesting to note that, as Marion tells us, ballroom "'centers' are not entirely fixed, but are somewhat mobile and transitory as more elite dancers and coaches travel across geographic, temporal, social, political, and economic landscapes." It seems plausible that some centers such as Blackpool are more fixed than others that keep changing. Taking a global view of the translocal ballroom world, it also appears to be quite different when looked at from different vantage points whether from the U. S., from the U.K., or even from Sweden.

     In conclusion, I find this JASHM issue to be a fine accomplishment. I appreciate that the articles explore dance forms in both Western and non-Western contexts, and that there are examples of circulation that move across this division. The idea of 'fixity' in the form of center, place, and home recurs in the articles as nodes in networks of circulation. But the pivotal point that is made is that the circulation of dance idioms has increased and is taking on new forms. Local and global circulation creates new spaces of connection, as well as new conflict. Importantly, research on circulation also requires new methodological strategies: as respondents travel, so in many cases does the fieldworker. I recall that, when doing multilocal fieldwork in the transnational world of ballet, one of the companies with whom I spent time was the American Ballet Theatre in New York. Toward the end of my fieldwork, the company was going on a tour to Washington, DC. Had I not been able to go with them, I would have been a fieldworker left without a field as my field was moving away! (Wulff 1998). A final point: a contemporary understanding of the dance relates to issues such as hybridity, social media, copyright, production, and consumption, as well as to questions of taste. We must not forget the market, the dance market, and negotiations over aesthetics versus economic factors. These issues keep raising new questions for research on the 'dance in circulation.'

References Cited:

Gupta, Akhil and James Ferguson
1992. Beyond "Culture": Space, Identity, and the Poltitics of Difference. Cultural Anthropology 7(1): 6–23.

Neuve Kringelbach, Hélene and Jonathan Skinner (eds.)
[In Press]. Dancing Cultures: Globalization, Tourism and Identity in the Anthroplogy of Dance. Oxford: Berghahn Books.

Rapport, Nigel and Andrew Dawson
1998. Home and Movement: A Polemic. In Migrants of Identity (ed. Nigel Rapport and Andrew Dawson). Berg: Oxford: 19–38.

Wulff, Helena
1998. Ballet across Borders: Career and Culture in the World of Dancers. Oxford: Berg.
2007. Dancing at the Crossroads: Memory and Mobility in Ireland. Oxford: Berghahn Books.
2008. Ethereal Expression: Paradoxes of Ballet as a Global Physical Culture. Ethnography 9(4): 519–36.



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