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Editorial Introduction

Brenda Farnell

The contributions to this issue of JASHM provide ethnographic documentation of two dances and one performance genre across three different continents. Although distinct in many ways, each case illustrates the significance of the dances and dancing as social practices crucial to understanding the people involved and their respective societies. The articles address topics central to sociocultural anthropological interests such as politics, nationalism, ethnicity, gender, class, land and water rights, and the environment. More specifically, relationships between the dances and these broader social processes range from the politics of ethnic identity in Catalonia (Spain) to women's roles and changing gender and class norms in Morocco to local struggles over water and land rights in the Upper Rio Grande Valley in the southwestern United States. The three articles were first published in separate issues of the Journal of American Folklore in 1990 and 1994. Republishing them in JASHM makes them readily available in one venue for comparative purposes, but we also suspect that these excellent contributions to the anthropology of dance and human movement may have been overlooked to date, perhaps as a result of having been classified as "folklore."

     Stanley Brandes's article, "The Sardana: Catalan Dance and Catalan National Identity," provides a historically informed account of the sardana dance from northeastern Spain. He describes the role that dancing plays, alongside widespread use of the Catalan language, in the construction of a Catalan regional ethnic identity. Brandes tells us "Catalan folklorists have rewritten history in an attempt to defend the dance's purity and persistence." Such rewriting is necessary because the dance has come to represent a Catalan regional identity as distinct from France and particularly Spain, within whose political boundaries Catalans have existed for centuries. The sardana dance signifies a number of achieved, rather than ascribed, qualities that Catalans value, such as harmony, democracy, and brotherhood, as well as a national identity as Catalanian. These values are literally embodied in the circle formation of the dance, alongside the personal commitment to learning the steps so as to be able to participate in the dance. In addition to explaining the dance's symbolic potency, Brandes analyzes the origins and contemporary status of the sardana as a national symbol, showing how both the dance and scholarship about it have been used in the service of furthering a Catalan identity. That this is very much an ongoing political struggle is reflected in the recent adoption of a resolution by the Catalonian regional parliament setting out a road map for independence from Spain by 2017.1

     The second article, "Moroccan Female Performers Defining the Social Body" by Deborah Kapchan, takes us from Spain to Morocco on the northern coast of Africa and into the lives and performances of Moroccan female performers known as shikhat. In documenting their gendered and class-laden experiences, and analyzing song texts as well as the dancing, Kapchan reveals a number of crucial contradictions and ambivalences that emerge as a result of changes in the relative status of women in Moroccan society. Simultaneously admired and feared, spoken of with awe as well as disgust, both employed and rejected by society, shikhat are women who "by virtue of their physical expressions of emotional and physical liberty, transgress the social codes of modesty." As Kapchan summarizes, "[I]n breaching the world of male power, they become anomalous and as anomalies they become scapegoats—they epitomize 'the fallen woman.'" On the other hand, however, the shikhat "exemplify feminine potential as embodiments of independent and brave women, albeit outcasts." Ironically perhaps, recent economic gains as a result of their earnings and media attention that highlights their artistry but suppresses their social history have transformed the shikhat: "no longer emblematic of shame, but metonyms for ethnic and regional identity," the shikha has become "an item of folklore in the monarchy's construction of national identity."

     As with Catalonian identity construction, here too we learn that the dance has been subject to folkloric reimaginings. In Morocco, however, shikhat performances serve as a metonymic site for the constitution and performance of national, rather than regional, personhood and ethnic identity. Shikat performances are also distinct in their particular attachment to a social group, in contrast to the Catalonian sardana, which can be performed by any member of the general population.

     The third article, "Arroyo Seco Matachines Dance: Defended Boundaries, Precarious Elites" by Sylvia Rodriguez, takes us across the Atlantic to the southwestern region of the United States and deep into the complex histories and ongoing relationships between Indigenous Pueblo and Hispano-Mexican communities along the upper Rio Grande Valley in New Mexico. Rodriguez documents the 1985 revival of a masked ritual dance drama known as the Matachines. A syncretic blend of American Indian and European elements, it is the only dance-drama shared by both Hispano and Pueblo groups in the region. Common elements in different versions of the dance have consistently been manipulated to reflect two opposing sides in a history of colonialism and forced conversion to Catholicism. As Rodriguez shows, however, more than this is at stake in the twentieth century, as each local community "embroiders its own idiosyncratic combination of symbolic and stylistic elements onto the received ritual dance complex." She documents how, in 1985, a number of circumstances combined to create a social climate in which a revival of the dance served larger political and cultural goals. Those circumstances included community history, changing land ownership and water rights, internal differentiation within the community, and ecological changes due to contemporary tourist resort development and its effects on neighboring settlements. One particular individual and his family, operating under parish auspices, led the revival. During a time of heightened threat to the traditional land and water base, of intensified demographic and economic pressures on already overallocated water rights and land, the dance-drama became a symbolic means to assert ethnocommunal identity.

     As in the performances of the Moroccan shikha, ambivalences and contradictions permeate the Matachines dance. For example, we learn that "the dance symbolizes the conquest and assimilation of Indians and the arrival of Christianity," yet the Arroyo Seco version of the dance also expresses a covert identification with Indians "through the subtext of miscegenation implicit in the burlesque nativity" and "insofar as it jokingly portrays their cunning resistance to the forces of domination." Oppositional relations exist between numerous elements of the dance, as when ambivalent relations between the current priest and his congregation refer metonymically to relations between the community and the Catholic Church more broadly or when relations between the narrator and the clowns and bull are used to index status relations within the community.

     Rodriguez also suggests that the power of the ritual dance, in contrast to overt political protest, is that it accomplishes its commentary about the Indian-Hispano interface in "a socially and aesthetically pleasing manner without ugly confrontation and without directly naming the opposition." Members of the Arroyo Seco community, thus, use the Matachines dance in the service of political goals, as do the Catalonians who dance the sardana, although their choice of strategies to accomplish these ends clearly differs. In closing, the author notes that "Arroyo Seco's water claims and territorial integrity have been precarious from its founding, and today the community faces both new and longstanding threats. The symbolic content of the Arroyo Seco Matachines [dance], as well as the very fact of its revival, express the complexity of this condition."

     Regular JASHM readers may observe that the three papers presented here do not include the kind of movement transcripts and detailed semasiological analyses of action in time/space and choreographic structure typically found in JASHM articles. What might a Catalan taxonomy of the body, spoken discourses that engage spatial/temporal/person deictics, and the semantics of spatial directions and concepts of 'time' contribute to understanding the significance of the embodied discourses that constitute the steps, gestures, and patterning of the sardana, for example? While acknowledging that there is much more to be learned about the dances and movement systems described here in this regard, we instead celebrate the skillful ways in which these experienced ethnographers have utilized their anthropological expertise to articulate the social significance of the dances and the dancing that are the focus of their research. As a result, we understand in considerable detail the multiple functions the dances serve as social practices in their respective cultural contexts, as well as the goals, values, and embodied agency of the people who dance.

     Finally, it is with deep sadness that we convey to our readers the recent loss of our dear colleague Joann Kealiinohomoku (1930–2015) who passed away on December 2, 2015, in Flagstaff, Arizona. A memorial essay on her contributions to the field of dance ethnology will appear in the next issue of JASHM.


1. Spain's Constitutional Court immediately rejected the resolution as unconstitutional. See, accessed December 16, 2015.


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