Thursday, October 31, 2013

Regular People Dancing

Watching regular people dance will almost invariably elicit a great sense of satisfaction. Proof of this satisfaction is all over youtube. Home videos from weddings, family reunions, and all manner of public dancing, executed by mostly untrained and un-choreographed "regular" folks, receive tens of thousands of views everyday. We like to watch non-professional dancers wiggle their parts at least as much as we like to watch the professionals. Dancing is available to everyone (albeit in varying degrees of gracefulness) and observing dancing is, unlike many human experiences, almost as good as actually doing it.

Although we can see a regular person dancing just about any day (by turning up the speakers and dancing in front of a mirror), we are collectively, as a human culture, so smitten with watching one another dance that we reproduce this phenomena and seek to publicly associate ourselves with the good feelings brought on by seeing how our (sometimes uncoordinated) peers use their bodies as a physical response to rhythm and melody.

A little while ago, I began to keep track of professionally-made music videos whose content solely featured what I refer to as "regular people dancing." Here are a couple:

Dancing is about communicating with other bodies while at the same time becoming very personally aware of your own. Dancing is about simultaneously controlling yourself and letting yourself go. It serves to remind us that our brains only go so far in controlling the way we move through the physical world-- the messages going from brain to our body parts ("Ok, hips, start wiggling") are sometimes executed by those body parts in ways our brain couldn't or didn't predict ("Huh...ok...what am I doing?" or "Dang, I am extra-good at wiggling tonight.").

But perhaps one of the most alluring things about dancing is its potential ability to allow us to transcend the limits of our bodies and our world. For centuries, dancing has been the passageway into trance, into spirit possession, into a personal experience with something eternal.

I mentioned in a previous post that I had been reading a lot about a messianic movement from mid-16th century Peru, referred to as Taki Onqoy (which translates as "Sickness of Dancing" or "Dancing Sickness"). The only documentation we have of this movement comes from the Catholic priest, Cristobal de Albornoz, who took it upon himself to extirpate the movement, which he considered dangerous and heretical.
Guaman Poma's rendering of Cristobal de Albornoz's
extirpation of the Taki Onqoy movement in 16th century Peru
The documents Albornoz produced about the Taki Onqoy are addressed directly to the King of Spain and always close with an overt request to be made bishopric of Cuzco. His personal interests likely influenced the way in which he documented the Taki Onqoy, including the probably inflated number of participants and the blurry details about movement leadership.

What does seem clear, however, is the way in which this movement was practiced: after a period of fasting and abstinence, the taquiongos would enter into a trance through dancing. These were powerful experiences that allegedly lead dancers to reject Christianity and believe instead in a Pan-Indian, post-European and post-Incan society in which andean huacas (deities) acted as a united force, allowing their followers to live free of the oppression suffered at the hands of both Spanish and Incan rulers.

That dancing was central to this movement is not disputed. But rarely have critics and historians been able to explain why dancing was so crucial. ...

What happens to us when we dance? What happens to us when we watch others dance?

Fast-forward back to the present day--I've been reading a ton of books on Candomblé and Umbanda practice in Brazil. These are Afro-spiritous religions whose expression also has dancing rituals at their core. Dancing leads to spirit possession and, from within the ritual space of a terreiro, the pantheon of deities becomes fully present within the body of a dancer, before the eyes of on-lookers.

I could probably (and should probably) do a whole post on what I've recently learned about spirit possession in Brazil... but my point here is that dancing, regardless of borders, history, language, and belief systems, is experienced as a truly unique and mystical encounter of human and spiritual bodies.

These are just two examples of how dancing leads to spiritual connection and even messianic impulses... but I know there are so many examples from around the world and throughout history that would tell a similar story of dance's power. For the moment, however, I guess I am merely trying to point out the fact that even in mainstream pop-culture, we can see clear evidence of our profound attraction to dance--to regular people dancing.

What do you make of all this??
What are your favorite videos of "regular people" dancing?

Until next time-- keep rustling!

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Faint Rustlings

Coffee and Vitamin C for fall mornings
My petticoats have been silent for a month! You must've begun thinking that I got too carried away with the apocalypse theme of the last post... But I'm back, and ready to begin rustling the crinolines of literature and art once more.

Colorado has been changing colors these days, going from green and gray to bright fiery reds, oranges and yellows. I will have to get out and take some photographs of all the beautiful leaves before we get a heavy snow (we've already had several light snows!). As a result of the changing weather, mornings have been filled with cozy sweaters, muted light, and the satisfying crunch of leaves under boots. I really love this time of year; it's great reading weather.

A short stack of reading materials and a devil sculpture made by my husband, Emiliano Lake-Herrera 
Recently, my dissertation theme has begun to take shape... a very recognizable shape, as a matter of fact, complete with pointy tail and horns. I have decided to investigate the figure of the devil in Brazilian literature, most likely as expressed through the poetry chapbooks, Literatura de Cordel. Now that I have a general direction in which to go with my research, I've happily begun shirking all other responsibilities in order to read broadly about the idea of the devil and the idea of Brazil...

The devil is often portrayed not as a towering black beast, but as a man. In fact, he is so like man that characters often mistake him for a simple stranger initially (in contrast, if an angel were to appear in a narrative, there is no mistaking their presence and their divine importance). So the devil appears not as an external push towards sin or wrongdoing through fear or coercion, but rather he seems to work more like a magnet, drawing out our trickster qualities when he is near. And the human characters' task is to out trick him-- we must be more clever, better liars, and as sneaky as possible in our dealings with him (human characters must out-devil the devil!).

I am really excited to be working on this project and have already read some amazing things, including an ethnography on Candomblé (an African spiritous religion) and I should really do a whole post on that book alone! So much rustling to do, my friends...

 In the meantime, I'm just happy to be back on the blog. I hope you have all been doing well and finding good things to read. What has been on your bookshelves recently? What has been rustling your petticoats???
My most faithful reading companion, on the job, on a chilly morning

Until next time-- keep rustling!