Role and function of dance: Historical context (Part 1)
- Dr. Anonna Guha, Mumbai

November 5, 2012

(Excerpt from the Phd thesis ‘Dance in the urban culture’ under the guidance of Dr. Sharit Bhowmik.)

Dance is an expression of self and emotion. It involves physicality of movement both bodily and facial. For centuries, dance has been a part of various cultures – from primitive man to the modern urban individual. Right from celebrating marriage, birth, to warding off evil and pacifying the supernatural, dance has been a mode to fulfill various  desires and aspirations. Dance to a large extent has been documented in anthropology though it has been a neglected area as far as Sociology is concerned. Anthropologists have studied dance and society of various cultures in the world.

Dance is a product of society and while interacting with it can trace its roots to several centuries. The role and portrayal of dance has to be seen and understood in the context of the various cultures they belong to. Dance is believed to be therapeutic, functioning as a safety valve. Right from dealing with the fear of the unknown, to creating a special place as an art form, dance has played different roles and served diverse purposes. The relation between dance and society would be mutual: both drawing from each other. Society with its physical element, diffusion, development of language and culture forms the basis of dance. Dance on the other hand creates images, stories and spreads messages of society. Society in turn internalises its lessons of content and pleasure from dance.
(Spencer 1985: 1-38)

Field work done in dance frequently focuses on its cathartic value i.e. releasing pent up emotions. This notion has evolved in the writings of Herbert Spencer. He explored the variety of emotions that expressed themselves in muscular action – music, laughter and then dancing. According to him emotion was a form of nervous energy, which had to have a natural outlet. If that was denied, then it would get intense and had to be released through some other channel. In a similar vein anthropologist Evans Pritchard suggested that Azande Beer dance (South Africa) served among other things ‘to canalize the forces of sex into socially harmless channels’ while Margaret Mead suggested that the informal dances of Samoan children provided a release from their rigorous repression and subordination by adults in other spheres. (Ibid)

To comprehend the differences between cultures, one has to look beyond the universally  shared biological or psychological considerations. The kind of dances in lieu of the social contexts gives a more comprehensive understanding. The notion of tension release   through dance as studied by anthropologists can be gathered from Hartwig and Gluckman’s fieldwork. According to the former, the pre-colonial dancing that took place among the Karebe (Tanzania) as an inter village competition, essentially provided an emotional outlet to men during the slack season. This was opposite to their otherwise tough life under the stagnation and decay of an oppressive regime. The dance craze during and following World War one in Britain is sometimes portrayed in these themes. On the other hand, Gluckman interprets the Swazi (South Africa) first fruit’s ceremony as a form of tension release, which was preceded by a period of economic worries, anxiety and rebellious forces against the King. The dance enacted the rejection of the King by the followers and then his appearance through an isolated wild monster’s crazy elusive dance being finally reunited with his nation. (Ibid)

These theories have of course been criticised on various grounds, one of the arguments  being that the intention of the dance for the community would be stress release. On the other hand, these dance movements itself may lead to anxieties of tension and sense of foreboding of things to come. Another argument is that dance is not always related to emotion of the artiste though the portrayal may depict emotion. This is especially true of the art of dancing – dance as an art form. (Ibid)

Functionalist theories have also viewed dance as an organ of social control and as an educational technique. In the 18th century, there was a practice in Britain, where the  debutante had to display her vigorous training in dance by taking to the floor in her first ball in an assembly of people. It was considered a reflection of etiquette and set of values that maintained the distinctiveness of the elite. In 1693, “the effects of dancing… give to children… not mere outward gracefulness of motion, but manly thoughts and a becoming confidence.” (John Lock) 

In 1767, “is there anything more useful for young people than to be able to enter a drawing room with self confidence, to address a person of rank with decorum, everyday? What are children until they have had instruction in the dance?” (Chavanne quoted in Spencer 1985: 8). The Ubacala (South Africa) girls’ dance is comparable to the 18th century practice. Among the Venda of southern Africa, over a period of one to four years the girls learn a sequence of dances that symbolically prepare them for motherhood and culminate in the unforgettable collective experience of the Domba dance. Through the power of music and dance they become aware of the transformation within themselves as they pass from girlhood to adulthood. This is the period of girl initiation in schools, when they are not in the grip of the elder’s control. (Spencer 1985: 1-35)

Interaction within the dance and the maintenance of sentiments is seen as another of dance’s functions. In 1857, Herbert Spencer’s theory of ‘The origin and function of music’ elaborated on the significance of intonation in ordinary speech. He emphasised the importance of communicating emotion and evoking sympathy. Beyond purely verbal understanding, he perceived the non-verbal expressions as the highest ideals of society that bind people together and these he suggested form the basis of non-verbal arts. This is a point of view that Susanne Langer reiterates. More recently, Whistell has examined the extent to which gestures and intonation comprise an essential element in normal speech, serving to magnify, emphasise and occasionally substitute for words by opening out the nuances of meaning. Dance is an obvious metaphor that has been used to describe this non-verbal signaling. (Ibid)

Radcliffe Brown’s analysis in ‘the Andaman Islanders’ focuses on the power of music and dance as a moral force acting on the individual. He based his analysis on Herbert Spencer’s theory of the relevance of subliminal communication in the arts and in society. Thereafter he switched the focus, from a shared emotional experience through the arts as an ideal that binds people together, to the intense involvement in society as an emotional experience and an end in itself. Through the rhythm of their music, Radcliffe Brown perceived the Andaman dancers and singers as performing together as one body. The rhythm generated a force that acted on the dancer from without and yet also found a response from within. He was made to conform in the common activity but also lost himself in the dance and became absorbed in the unified community. This made him reach a state of elation in which he felt himself filled with the energy beyond his ordinary state. These precise sentiments were generated but in different contexts: when two groups danced together after a long period of separation and generated a feeling of harmony; when warriors danced to induce a collective anger before setting out to fight; or at a ceremony of peace making and reconciliation. On each occasion, the sentiments of the unity and harmony were intensely felt by every dancer and this was a primary function of the dance as a central example of his analysis of custom and belief. The Andaman Islander was regulated in his responses, thoughts and emotions, deriving all these from within himself and at the same time from his society. Radcliffe Brown’s theory was essentially a homeostatic model, treating society as a living organism and looking at the dance with its rhythm, acting like public opinion to bring back into the fold any individual who was so to speak out of time. Through control over his body, his thought and sentiments too were brought under control. (Ibid)

Dance has also been assigned the power of generating solidarity. The notion of generating solidarity has been applied to a variety of communal activities including singing, prayer, feasting, drinking or joint participation in some sacred act. However dance additionally provides a whole hearted communion of joint action, a sustained coordination of the whole physical being and collection of physical beings and is known for its quality of being a luminous vision. (Ibid)

Another dimension of dance is about it being a cumulative process: the theory of regeneration. It is a theme considered by Durkheim in relation to the mounting collective passion, a sort of electricity, which is formed when Australian tribesmen collect together. He observed that it ‘quickly transports them to an extraordinary degree of exaltation.’ Durkheim was not concerned with dancing as such, but with what he perceived as the genesis of religion among the Warramuga (Australia).  Nevertheless he cites, “It is clear that dancing (in their fire ceremony) or dance like movements that accompanied singing (to placate the Wallunqua totem) played a continuous part in the steady build up to the ceremonial climaxes.” (Quoted in Spencer 1985:16)

In the following example, Weber’s concept of charisma – a gift of grace – that enhances the moral authority of a leader in the eyes of his followers has been described where the build up of a dance acted as a charismatic symbol. The cult of the Bori spirits among the Hausa of Nigeria has been described in general terms by Michael Onwuejeogwu and with particular reference to the establishment of a market at New Giwa in Mary Smith’s rendering of Baba of Karo. One gets given a clear insight into the relevance of this dancing for the establishment of the market as a thriving commercial centre. Hausa towns develop around their markets and their viability as communities in a predominantly rural economy depends on their ability to compete for trade from the surrounding rural areas at each others’ expense. (Spencer 1985: 1-35)

Formally, each town was governed within the strictly Islamic hierarchy of the local emirate. However market forces are known to be unpredictable and the well being and economic condition of the town were linked to the pagan belief in Bori spirits. These were popularly held to be beneficent and protective beings on the one hand, but with a erratic streak on the other hand and a passion for dancing. Each spirit was known to have its own characteristic dancing rhythm and guise, such as a prince, a slave, a lame woman on which its dancing was modeled. Each town had its own Bori cult, prostitutes and unattached divorcees between marriages who fell short of the Islamic ideal, though they had considerable influence with their suitors. A successful market town was thought to have a flourishing community of Bori spirits whose presence manifested itself in the skillful vigorous dancing of the adepts. Attracting a crowd of onlookers and sustaining the reputation of the market was to be their domain. The higher the reputation the larger the number of spirits who might on different occasion possess her (or him). (Ibid)

A successful market town was thought to have a flourishing community of Bori spirits. If several adepts were possessed at a Bori dance by different spirits simultaneously, then the scene enacted before the local audience ostensibly revealed the ongoings of the spirit world, but were also a reflection of the aspects of contemporary Hausa scene and the popular feelings and uncertainties in the minds of the onlookers generally. To attract Bori spirits to a local market gathering, drummers would beat out their characteristic rhythms, tempting the spirits to possess the adepts. If it did happen that sometime the adepts did not successfully respond, then this was interpreted as reluctance on the part of the spirits to leave their abodes, or they may have been attracted to some other town by a rival dance, reflecting the rivalry between markets. For the Hausa it was the benevolent presence of the Bori spirits made manifest in the continuous dancing that determined the community spirit and the success of the market. Analytically it is necessary and logical to reverse the causal connection and to regard the community spirit as the source of the belief in a Bori presence. If one sees it from this angle, then the low response of the drummer or adept would be perceived as a failure of the whole community, onlookers included, to generate the right atmosphere for possessions to take place, thus signifying apathy and lack of morale. In the market place, the Bori cult may be seen to reflect an emotional outlet for women whose status in Hausa society was generally depressed and as an expression of community spirit and a means of public redress, spreading gossip, exposing deceit and serving as a caution against wrong doers. (Ibid)

Anthropological classics have frequently referred to the element of mounting competition through display in dancing. Such dances are considered as confrontations. F. G. Bailey suggests that during a confrontation, the parties communicate to indicate their stand and intentions. If things are not resolved then the next step is an encounter. Each culture displays its own style of confrontation and dance, is highly appropriate because it can display the power initiative and coordinated discipline that give strength in the event of an encounter since it can be overbearing. According to Roy Rappaport, the Maring of New Guinea faced population pressures, which led to disputed boundary areas and fighting. Mass dancing was equated to fighting, recruiting potential allies and indicating the military strength of the host in case of a war. To the extent that such a display led to the dispersal of a weaker group, direct encounters were avoided. Even among the Yanomamo of Venezuela, Chagnon has described the aggressive dancing at their feasts. This displayed the fighting strength of different groups in a situation of widespread feuding. (Ibid) Judith Hanna has stressed the element of confrontation in her interpretation of certain dances in West Africa, where women unite together in order to raise their voice against male domination. They extend their parody of song and dance a stage further, defending the boundary of their own domain against abuse. The reversal of roles in which they adopt a masculine or even a military stance is interpreted as a veiled threat, which implies that they may reject the authority of males completely. In one instance in East Africa, bitterness spread among the women after one of their daughters  had been raped. Resentment and anger against the culprit was then expressed through a particular dance. However when the culprit tried to save his cattle against the onslaught of their fury, they seized him and maimed him for life. No sane man it was claimed would ever want to cross the path of Maasai women performing this dance:  their boundary had been violated and the response was a dance display that was transformed into an attack. Thus in such examples one is reminded of animal displays in boundary situations parading strength before rivals. (Ibid)

Dance has also been considered as ritual drama: of communitas and anti structure. Victor Turner (1969) discusses the paradox present in any society where social inequalities, rivalries and property interests divide people according to some prevailing structural premises, yet there is at the same time human bonding, a communitas, that unites them all regardless of differences in status. Keeping aside the differences in status, caste, creed and class, all human beings are subject to the cycle of nature be it birth, death, fertility or the uncertain impact of nature. They are beyond the control of individuals and are closely related to the expression of communitas, because humans crave to be with each other and look for solace among their group and community. Therefore, on the one hand one sees the structured aspect that dominates day to day existence and on the other hand the underlying force of communitas rises to the surface in times of anxiety. Neither structure nor communitas is complete in itself; together they give shape and meaning to human existence.

Dance in such a thought process displays itself as a asocial and leveling activity that draws people together in solidarity. It is also frequently marginal and anomalous in its own way since it contrasts with normal everyday life by taking the dancers out of their structured routine and into a realm of timeless charm. (Ibid) Spencer). During dance, structure and stratification are forgotten; people come together expressing themselves freely.

On the basis of this theme, one could look at Robin Horton’s analysis of the ritual cycle of masquerade dances among the Kalabari also associated with spirit possession in Nigeria. The Kalabari were a coastal people whose traditional economy was based on fishing. Each village had its own Ekine men’s society organized around the annual performance of a cycle of thirty or more masquerade plays. According to popular belief, the cycle was originally devised by water spirits who controlled the weather and abundance of fish in distant creeks, but had also been partly tamed by the Ekine, bringing creativity and innovation to Kalabari. Each spirit was represented in the cycle by a particular mask and associated with drum rhythm. The cycle enacted episodes that reflected the thrust of Kalabari life. They competed keenly for status and influence. However the opportunities for success were limited and they didn’t take kindly to failure. Popular interest especially among the women spectators centred on the ability of each   asked dancer to translate the rhythm faultlessly into the appropriate dance steps as though  the drumming had entered his legs and was pushing  him around. At this point, the owner of the dance – the water spirit - was held to be walking with the dancer and ideally at some point it would actually take possession and enter the mask itself. In functionalist terms, the whole performance could be regarded as a highly engaging and popular symbolic representation of the competitive ethos of Kalabari society reinforcing their values. The risk of public ridicule in certain dances and of mystical punishment by the water spirit in the event of a blunder could further add spice to these values. One could advance through the hierarchy of the Ekine society: a youth in the lowest grade needed to impress a senior patron with his dancing ability to advance to the next grade – or risk public humiliation, which could even lead him to commit suicide. Conversely, within each grade, the Ekine tried to be self consciously egalitarian and uncompetitive making status and influence irrelevant. The most prominent members were expected to be relaxed and gregarious and were unlikely to be suspected of sorcery or to achieve prominence outside Ekine. Thus they contrasted outwardly with the aggressive and thrusting politicians who succeeded in public office. They were also in contrast with the ancestral spirits who were thought to sow discord among the living, inciting their descendents to perpetuate the struggle for status between rival lineages. For this reason, members of the Ekine were expelled from the society at death when they became ancestors and all reference to ancestry was avoided. (Ibid)

Moving away from the usual pattern of the restricted choices of everyday life, each member of Ekine was free to select from a wide range of masquerade personalities in order to master one dance pattern to perfection. This could be his consuming pleasure and provide a sense of secure identity and success. The immediate aim in dancing was to enhance the standing of the Ekine as a whole rather than that of the individual dancer, who was expected to remain anonymous and concealed by his mask. When his performance excelled, it was regarded as an achievement of the possessing spirit rather than that of the dancer himself.  Indeed the competitive element of the masquerade plays was removed one further step from the performance by the notion that it was not the actual spirits who were betraying relentless opportunism, but the characters in the play they had devised: the dancers were possessed by spirits who were only acting. This separation of competitiveness from Ekine activities was an ideal that was only partially achieved in practice. In fact, the water spirits by reputation had a vicious streak, which had only partly been tamed by the Ekine society; and dancers were not wholly incognito and their success could bring them into rivalry for the favours of women. Yet the emphasis in Ekine was against competition and the basic ideals of the masquerade were to disentangle the character and the themes of the plays from the personalities of the dancers, giving a certain detachment essential for true aesthetic performance and for appreciating these performances as ends in themselves. (Ibid)

This brings an intriguing situation whereby mortals, both the dancing Ekine men and women spectators in convivial mood were treated to a performance by spirits who parodied the uncomfortable realities of Kalabari existence. It is as if instead of looking up to the spirits, the human beings were looking down on their own antics with a detached enjoyment. On applying Turner’s model to the Kalabari, one sees the contrast between the high regard for achievement, which dominated their economic and political reality and the masquerade cycle associated with recreation and concerted fellowship. It was in the Ekine activities that the spirit of communitas became dominant and the notion of struggle and status seeking became mere play. The mode of expression being dancing and masquerading explained that it was indeed a parody. However, beyond the masquerading lay dangerous forces expressed in the vicious reputation of the water spirits, the danger of inciting them by inept footwork and even in the possibility of suicide if a novice was publicly unmasked for some mistake. The structure of Kalabari society divided men but in the final analysis, they were united in the survival of their way of life. The competitive ethic translated into a dance parody may be seen as a dialogue that maintained the vitality of community existence, while preventing it from plummeting into chaos where fierce competition would lead to deterioration. (Ibid)

Among the Lugbara of Uganda, dancing is significant in situations where there is  uncertainty and disorientation. These include the women’s dances following bumper  harvest or a long dry season and even the men’s dances after death. In each of these situations, there is a sudden change in everyday existence and a general notion that normal orderly pattern of life has been thrown out of gear. After a death, the dangerous power of Divinity and the dead is felt to suffocate the village. Death dances are performed, permitting several reversals of normal behaviour and a display of  individualism and jostling in a community which feels disoriented and is trying to deal with nature and supernatural power. Out of the dance display, a sense of order in society and time is recreated. The bleakness is pushed back and the dead person incorporated in the protective world of ancestors. An intriguing expression of their sense of disorientation is the Lugbara claim that they are the ‘like children’ thereby transcending structured oppositions, leading to the suggestion that the genesis of communitas lies in the uninhibited play of childhood. (Ibid)

Dance may be defined and understood in the manner that seems most appropriate to the specific situation of that society, the moot point being that society creates dance and it is to society that we must turn to understand it. (Ibid)
Dr. Anonna Guha, a Visharad in Kathak, is a scholar and researcher with a double doctorate - in Sociology and in Human Relations. She holds a post graduate diploma in personality development and psychology. Anonna has trained in the performing arts under her father Dr. Tushar Guha, the Founder-Managing Director of Nrityanjali - folk  dance, acting, singing, voice modulation, oratory, choreography and personality development. Anonna is a counsellor, a trainer in behavioural sciences and imparts Soft Skills training pertaining to Human Relations, Emotions, Communication, Personality Development, Stress Management to young students and adults. She is the Trustee and Jt. Managing Director of Nrityanjali. She has written the syllabus content for Masters degree in Sociology, Mumbai University. She has many articles, research papers and dissertations to her credit, one being her Phd thesis on ‘Dance in the urban culture.’

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