'It's Only the Beginning' – Social Dances as Cultural Storage Systems

In a detraditionalized world we attempt to create new rituals to generate meaning and meaningful social bonds. These rituals include those of social media: twitter, facebook, grinder, tinder, instagram, LinkedIn, etc. that find their expression via the internet in on the world wide web and in different ways have very physical manifestations in the wide, webbed world. But there are other social rituals that do not fundamentally rely on computer technology but rely upon the technical means of the body in the sense outlined by French sociologist Marcel Mauss in his 1934 lecture “Techniques of the Body”. By techniques of the body he means “The ways in which from society to society [people] know how to use their bodies. He uses the latin word habitus to speak about the special habits of a particular society that manifest as “effective and traditional” actions and makes no separate category for magical, symbolic, or religious actions. He insists that, “There is no technique and no transmission in the absence of tradition”.

In regard to Mauss’s notion of techniques of the body, I am interested in social dances, especially contemporary club dancing of all kinds, booty-shaking, jump-step, grinding, raving, juking, twerking etc. I am also interested in couples dancing such as the waltz, polka, minuet, and mazurka, and their more sensual and rhythmic transfigurations through a heated history that enmeshed European and African influences in southern lands such as tango, salsa, the chacha, kizomba, bachata, merengue as well as line dancing, the electric slide, the macarena, and all such dances done at weddings, American high school proms or German Abi-Balls, at Bar and Bat Mitzvahs.

Social dances can be seen as choreographies of coded behaviors. The social dance is laced with the affect and attitudes of its time and preserves them as they are passed down through generations or even centuries. Accounts of the Waltz appear as early as the 16th century and its steps and body position of a closed embrace remain the same, the only difference being its social status and thus certain qualitative aesthetic features. It is referred to in the 16th century as a “godless” dance danced by the “vigorous peasant dancer” who “following an instinctive knowledge of the weight of fall, utilizes his surplus energy to press all his strength into the proper beat of the measure, thus
intensifying his personal enjoyment in dancing.“(1)

High energy and the physical expression of joy or pleasure was tapered and tempered as it rose to aristocratic circles becoming fashionable first in Vienna around the 1780s and then around 1820 in London. Hopping and stamping were altered into sliding and gliding.

Social dances have a strong relationship to music of an era and are not the result of specialized knowledge but instead emerge from within culture as celebration, as ritual, as a social connector. Habitus plays a role in the social dances of any era. Our body postures, our gaits, our gestures, our preferences, are connected to habitus. Habitus, as defined by Marcel Mauss, is made up of those aspects of culture that are anchored in the body and are the totality of learned habits, bodily skills, styles, tastes and other non-discursive knowledges.(2)

I like to think of it as a kind of cultural choreography that is learned, habituated, and continues our culture. I wonder to what degree can we become aware of these sets of intricate and nuanced choreographies that we're performing daily? To what degree can we intentionally shape and change them and what can be learned or gained by doing so? As I see it, habitus if reflected upon becomes not only an exciting site for self-knowledge but a site for modifying, refashioning, and artistically shaping our general constitutions for different contextual environments. To intentionally shape one’s habitus for different contexts would require a high level of receptivity and perhaps a technique to develop it.

I propose dancing as a technique of the body for expanding our literacy of our worlds. By learning and doing dances we open up our field of lived experience, expanding our embodied knowledge. When we are dancing we are conversing with social, aesthetic, and political value systems.(3) It has been argued that dance is a site capable of producing and not just reflecting key cultural values and concerns.(4) I would say then that nowhere would its efficacy to do so be more apparent than in social dance: the dances we do accompanied by music, when we gather to celebrate, at a club, at a concert, or alone in our rooms or in front of webcams. Social dances can be seen as choreographies of coded behaviors.

The social dance is laced with the affect and attitudes of its time. In the same way that an open source program will contain information about its developers and their preferences and interests at a given time so will the social dance. The program is an ordered system of information in action, a kind of living testament to process of code development. It is possible to think the social dance in a similar way, as a cultural storage system, a moving archive of historical trends and aesthetic preferences developed and put to use by people who dance.

In focusing on social dances I would like to clarify the position of the social dancer as combining the activities of watching and dancing. The social dancer is both an observer and a doer. In that she rarely if ever originates a dance, she must first observe the dance and then mimic it in order to learn it and then adapt it to her body and sensibilities. The social dancer's work is not the choreographing of movements but in the nuancing of the moves. Her position is closer to that of the user-developer of open source software rather than the author of the source code. The user-developer makes modifications and adaptations that are beneficial to her personal usage of the program just as the social dancer shapes the dance in a way that is beneficial to her specific social enjoyment and/or social positioning.

I for example love headbanging. I find it beautiful, even rococo in the whirling loops of heads and hair. But I don't really like heavy metal music. I prefer hip hop or electronic music. So I could stand aside at a metal concert, not participate, watch and try to glean from this observation what headbanging is and wonder how it came to be. Or I could do it, to music I like. I could adapt headbanging to to suit my taste.

[After head banging for an audience:]

So now I have the feeling of doing in my body. Headbanging is now a bodily memory and what I've gained from this experience is the exciting idea that physical re-orderings of the body can have radical implications. Headbanging destabilizes the uprightness of the head. Our uprightness differentiates us from animals. The upright spine is a classically hierarchical interpretation of posture. Headbanging knocks the head right off of its pedestal. The first dance notation doesn't appear until the 15th century but we can imagine that thousands upon thousands of years before sequenced movement was used to store and pass on information. Today we have YouTube. Never before have we had such access to social dances from all over the world. Not only can we observe the dancing itself and learn the moves, we also are given information about who is doing these dances, how they dress, how they live. We also have quantitative data about the popularity of the dance in the number of views a particular video has as well as the number of videos that appear with the same tags.

Type in ‘tecktonik’ sometime in the YouTube search field. I don't think we could have had the Tecktonik or other rave dances without the digital revolution, without the internet age. In the same way we could not have had break dancing without the industrial revolution, the machine age. Likewise we could not have had the Wrangler Stretch of 1964, without the revolution of stretch denim jeans. And we could not have had the Twist, the first popular individualized dance without the increasing individualization of contemporary society.

It goes without saying that our experiences of body and self have changed radically through history and continue to change ever more quickly. Our ever-deepening relationships with technology and the internet contribute to the stratifications of self and body, i.e., the social body, private body, virtual body, technologically mediated or modified body. Then there are the stratifications into multiple social and private bodies that are formed in specific relation to the different social configurations we find ourselves in and the roles we occupy within them, i.e. co-worker, parent, lover, friend, etc. The notion of the body is culturally produced and far from holistic and dance as a practice is an exciting way to experiment and explore this assemblage of organs, attitudes, histories, ideas, and micro-organisms we call body. In closing, I’d like to think it is only the beginning of a new more sensual relationship with our bodies.


A 21t Ritual of Gathering: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g5SbHZq3jko