Re: Dance (long)

Clyde Davenport (clyde@BUS.HIROSHIMA-PU.AC.JP)
Thu, 15 Feb 1996 12:24:46 +0900

I would like to make a few comments on some of the things being discussed
recently. First, I think Antoinette Errante is right in suggesting that we
look more closely at how internet culture may create a fractious style of
discourse. The exact reasons may be difficult to determine (is it the
anonymity, the speed with which the messages are both transmitted and
written, the difficulty in sorting through the scores of email messages,
the problem of the evaporation of space (distance, geography) with the
concomitant elongation of time and duration, the disappointment occasioned
by the realization that computers are expensive toys which fail in their
promise to make us any happier, etc.?), but clearly the impact of computers
on our lives is both positive and negative. And perhaps it is in truth
more negative than positive as the connection of the development of both
computers and the internet with the military establishment as well as their
role in maintaining transnational corporate culture would suggest. The
anthropological perspective could potentially shed light on this problem.

I am not an anthropologist although I have some sense of the rough outline
of its concerns through my undergraduate studies and my occasional forays
into recent anthropological works (often on Japan since that is where I am
living). Thus, in some ways it is difficult for me to venture off into the
next area I wish to comment upon. I have no expertise, so it is difficult
for me to say whether what I will say will have significance in
anthropological terms (anthropology as a set of practices). As an aside,
in my work I also must deal with linguistic theory as I am an English
teacher. In particular, I am interested in pragmatics. Interestingly,
though, there is no easy definition of what is pragmatics. If pragmatics
is merely the social use of language, then what differentiates it from
sociolinguistics, for example? The difference between sociolinguistics and
pragmatics is more a matter of practice than of content. The scholars in
each field have their own specialized terminology and discourse conventions
that they use to speak about more or less the same topic. And they also
have a professional interest in maintaining the separation of the two
fields since their academic identity depends on this.

The debate on dance vs. drill is an important one I believe. I have not
yet read the book in question, so it is impossible for me to evaluate the
author's arguments. Nevertheless, it is obvious that dance is an important
element in human culture. The question of the relation to dance and drill
while an interesting one suffers from the problem that there seems to be no
adequate way of conceptualizing the role of dance in culture. John
McCreery suggested using the notion of elaborated and restricted codes to
compare dance and drill. He also suggested that the differences between
improvisational and structured dances might reflect the type of social
organization (hierarchical vs. egalitarian). Warren Sproule offered the
idea that dance and drill could be compared to speech and writing,
respectively. And many other people attempted to analyze dance based on
their own experience of dance in their lives. Lynn (N. Bannister-L.
Maners) in reference to one individual's comments had to emphasize that
dance is "more socially oriented (in the broader sense) than individually

What strikes me in this whole discussion is that even in anthropology there
seems to be no way of dealing adequately with dance. The attempts at a
theoretical analysis of dance I received all used language as a model (with
most people remaining at the level of using their own folk knowledge of
dance to describe it). Yet if dance bears a similarity to language the
reverse may also be said: language is like a dance. And probably from an
evolutionary point of view, dance is as ancient (if not more ancient) than
language. Dance is also intimately connected to religious life (one
contributor to this discussion mentioned the relation between dance and
trance states). How is it that such an important part of human life has
(apparently) not received the (degree of) attention it deserves? What does
this say of the methodology of anthropology and of the social sciences in

Dance is one of the modes of "being" among human beings. Perhaps "being"
is not the right word, but dance at any rate is somehow part of our nature.
As much as language, it is a fundamental form of both self-expression and
sociality. Perhaps dance has not received the scholarly attention it
deserves because it is a non-linguistic mode of being. Another reason may
be that dance is in the process of dropping out of our lives. Dance has
become the improvisational dance of the disco or the party. This form of
dance is of course enjoyable, but has not something been lost, too? Both
the rural tradition of folk dance and the urban one of ballroom dancing
(for example) have largely disappeared. Dance has lost its connection to
our lives in our communities. To take another example, in the 50's and
early 60's, dance was of the rock-and-roll, improvisational type, but still
there were definite styles and types of dances. Some of the dances were
actually quite complex in form and required technique. Today, though, my
impression is that most people have no knowledge of dancing styles and
techniques. Dance has lost its sense of being a "language" of expression
and has merely become a relaxing way of moving the body.

The above discussion is of course oversimplified, but I think that it is
true that in modern (postmodern) society we are losing dance as a way of
being human. In ways, too, we are losing "song" as a way of being.
Professionals sing, but ordinary people don't (when was the last time you
sang a song while you were walking down the road?). In my own life,
recently my wife had a baby, and I have found that even though I want to
sing to my baby I remember almost no songs. In Japan, many people still
sing, though. This is because of the phenomenon of "Karaoke" where people
sing with a video machine which provides the accompanying music and the
written lyrics. It allows people to pretend that they are professional
rock stars, "enka" (Japanese country-western music) singers, etc. The
results can be disastrous musically, but more to the point this style of
socializing makes it very difficult to carry on a conversation. Little
communication goes on at "Karaoke" parties. And, naturally, people do not
carry their knowledge of song with them when they leave the "Karaoke" bar.
Singing remains disassociated from their ordinary lives at work and at

A related phenomena is the loss of folk tales. People no longer tell folk
tales. We have lost this aspect of "talk" in our lives. People still tell
stories of course, but these stories are grounded in personal experience
rather than the life of the community. The loss of our folk culture of
dance, songs and stories is an important one. It is unprecedented in human
evolution, in fact. What will be the consequences of this loss? And how
does this loss relate to the "mediazation" of our lives through television
and now the internet?

I wonder why anthropology seems to lack a coherent theory of things like
song and dance. While I know that studies of these phenomenon have been
made in anthropology, my impression is that they are not central concerns
and instead are relegated to the margins (ethnomusicology, ethnochoreology,
etc.). Recently, too, I think there has been little theoretical work done
concerning folktales (after Propp I know of no major theoreticians,
although this may just reflect my ignorance of more recent scholarship).
One other area where I feel there is a lack of attention is "eating."
Levi-Strauss is one exception as is K.C. Chang (his "Food in Chinese
Culture"), but in general anthropology seems to have eschewed the idea of
building a theoretical framework to deal with the interrelation of food and
culture (despite its obvious importance).

One contributor to the list recently commented on the unique role of
anthropology in being a holistic science encompassing many facets of human
experience and culture. While compared to psychology, linguistics or
sociology, anthropology may, indeed, be more holistic, the apparent lack of
systematic treatments of things like song, dance, and eating would seem to
indicate that anthropology has its own methodological shortcomings.

Perhaps I am wrong in my point of view here. I do not have an exhaustive
view of the anthropological literature, so I am skating on thin ice here.
But my impression is that while many small-scale studies of dance, song,
and eating habits in particular communities have been done, they have not
been synthesized into an overall theory which makes sense of these
phenomenon as basic facets of the human character and human culture. At
any rate, I'll be looking forward to enlightening comments from those more

Clyde Davenport
Hiroshima Prefectural University