Making better citizens through dance

Public-facing note-taking for Philosophy of Music Education with David Elliott

This week, I’m taking a look at two chapters from a new book on the red-hot topic of artistic citizenship, the social responsibility of artists and arts educators.

Artistry, Social Responsibility, and Ethical Praxis

First up is “Music, Social Change, and Alternative Forms of Citizenship” by Thomas Turino, whose book on the differences between participatory and presentational music cultures is a must-read. Turino is interested in the way that participating in music does not just reflect our cultural habits; it can powerfully shape those habits as well. Political and religious leaders have long recognized group singing as a way to bind their followers together, and advertisers exploit shared musical associations to tie those associations to brands and products. Musical participation is an effective way to change minds. As Turino puts it:

If you want to create new and lasting alternative forms of citizenship, you are going to need to change people’s habits. Participatory music is an effective way to do that.

Turino addresses a specific alternative form of citizenship in this chapter: an American identity that is separate from capitalism. Participatory music cultures are some of the few cultural spaces in America where monetary profit is not a primary value, where our jobs are not our major identifying characteristic. It’s no surprise then, that mainstream America regards music participation as a frivolous leisure activity, a diversion from “real life,” and certainly not as important or valuable as professional music. Community music is to “real” music what softball games are to major league baseball. Turino is dismayed by this attitude, because music making can be fundamental to our sense of self and a cornerstone of our happiness.

Turino makes a sharp distinction between participatory music and other kinds of practice: presentational performances like symphonic concerts or rock concerts; recordings, both commercial and “artistic;” and newer, digitally mediated forms. These fields of practice aren’t just different genres. Turino considers them so far removed from each other as to be separate art forms. The difference isn’t so much the musical content as in the value systems underlying that content. Presentational music fits better into the capitalist ethos because it’s professionalized and can be turned into a commodity.

In capitalist societies, “real”—that is, valued—music and musicians are defined by presentations, recordings, and professional status. The fit between presentational/high-fidelity music making and capitalist ethics is based on the profit-generating potential of these fields; the status of full-time professional musicians as “real,” or somehow more important, again fits with the higher value of one’s income-generating activity.

It’s possible to use superficially similar music to very different effect within the different fields. Imagine two bands, both of whom play similar blues-oriented classic rock, one operating within the presentational sphere, and the other within the participatory sphere. The presentational band plans sets in advance, and songs mostly follow a predetermined structure, regardless of what the audience is doing. It’s a mark of the best presentational bands that they give the same show whether it’s a bar with twelve people in it or a packed football stadium. The music might include sudden shifts in tempo, dynamics or meter, which sound good but make it hard to dance to.

The participatory band, on the other hand, builds its entire approach to help the crowd dance or sing along. They favors predictable dance grooves, with open-ended loop structures. If the audience members are on their feet and dancing, the band will extend the grooves in response to their energy. A good show will be measured by crowd involvement more than technical polish. The Grateful Dead were much loved by their fans for having a more participatory ethic than any other band at their level of commercial success and popularity.

How can participatory music making and dance be so effective at creating social change and enacting alternative models for citizenship? Turino lists four factors:

  • The values and practices of participatory cultures are diametrically opposed to the capitalist ethos.
  • Anyone who is interested can get involved. Membership in the community is voluntarily, which engenders egalitarian consensus building.
  • Music and dance are gratifying socially, physically, and emotionally, to the point of being addictive. Participants have a strong emotional incentive to stay involved over long periods of time, engaging in the consistent practice that leads to habit change, and even personality change.
  • Consistent participation over time builds up special social cohorts, affinity groups who come to share the broader social values underlying the music or dance practice.

Turino observes:

[C]ohort members support each other in the alternative values/practices that the activity entails. When the ethics of the cohort stand in opposition to those of the broader society, this social support is key, and it is especially so in the socialization of members’ children.

If you haven’t been involved in a participatory music scene, you’re likely to be surprised by how different the expected roles of performer and audience can be from presentational culture. Ideally, there should be no distinction between performer and audience at all, only participants and potential participants.

If everyone is to be attracted, a participatory tradition will have a variety of roles that differ in difficulty and degrees of required specialization… Participatory traditions have evolved so that people can join in at a level that offers the right balance of challenge and acquired skills, and they typically include an expanding ceiling of challenges and the other features mentioned. The deep concentration of flow activities liberates people from their normal senses of “self-consciousness” and from everyday concerns and are thus attractive, even addictive… In highly participatory traditions, the success of an event is judged by the degree of participation achieved; the etiquette and quality of sociality is granted priority over the quality of the sound and motion produced.

Turino’s paradigmatic example of an American participatory music subculture is the contra dance scene, the Yankee version of square dancing.

Contra dance

Middle-class contra dance scenes exist in many college towns and most cities throughout the United States, although they are largely unknown beyond the often fanatical group of people who participate in them.

No kidding. I had never even heard of contra dance until my mid thirties, when I became friends with Chris Jacoby, an avid scene participant.

Like square dancing, contra dancing is nostalgically associated with rural, communal American life and local community. Likewise, the bands commonly play some form of regional traditional music, either from New England with fiddle accompanied by piano, accordion, or guitar, and bass, or southern old-time with instrumentation including fiddle, banjo, guitar, mandolin, and bass, although new original musical styles (including electronic instruments and hand drums) have begun to emerge over the past decade.

Chris uses Ableton Live with his contra dance band to play techno grooves and samples. He points out that the “boom-chick” rhythm of contra dance tunes is perfectly compatible with four-on-the-floor techno rhythms, so the contrast between fiddle tunes and Ableton loops is not as extreme as you might think.

Turino describes the contra dance scene as politically liberal, outdoorsy, and crunchy in aesthetic, valuing material simplicity. (Chris and his friends from the scene fit all these descriptions.) Superficially, members of the contra dance scene might seem like any other NPR-listening leftists, but within the scene, the social mores are different from normal American life.

Here is a place where “avocations” rather than occupations are valued and often take the center. This alone marks a striking difference from the way North American adults typically configure their identities and what is important in their lives when operating within the broader society. I am reminded of Tony Seeger’s description of the Suyá in the Brazilian Amazon (1974), or my experiences with the Aymara in southern Peru, who tend to emphasize the activities that bring them joy (ritual, festival, music, dance, games) rather than subsistence when conceptualizing and presenting what is important to them and who they are.

So many of our social norms and habits are instilled and reinforced by peer pressure. To change those norms and habits, we need prolonged exposure to alternative sets of peer pressures.

The habits formed during early socialization—both within families influenced/sustained by alternative cohorts and through children’s participating in alternative cohorts themselves—result in a more sustainable and profound type of “political change” and new citizenship than event-driven movements ever could, no matter how dramatic.

My own early socialization through participatory music came from folk singing, some of it in my secular humanist hippie school, and even more at a socialist summer camp run by relatives of Pete Seeger. Tony Seeger himself made regular appearances. Long before I found out that he was a revered ethnomusicologist, I knew him as an earnestly goofy white guy in khaki shorts who sang Latin American protest songs with a banjo to a group of bemused Jewish kids from the Upper West Side. The sole black kid in my cabin wore a hooded sweatshirt to these singalongs, covering his walkman headphones. He mostly drowned out the folk songs with Snoop Dogg and NWA. In retrospect, who can blame him? When I was in seventh grade, I was terrified of music like that, which of course was precisely the point of it.

This leads us neatly into the other chapter I read this week: “Moving Comfortably Between Continuity and Disruption: Somatics and Urban Dance as Embodied Responses to Civic Responsibility” by Naomi Jackson. She talks about a cultural shift taking place in the dance program at Arizona State University, as the orthodoxy of modern dance and ballet gives way to postmodern dance on one hand, and “urban” (hip-hop) dance on the other. A similar shift is taking place at most progressive schools.

Postmodern dance is closer to what we think of when we imagine formal dance study in the college setting: slow, abstract, smoothly flowing gestures, with attention directed inward, and a focus on individual expression. There’s an overriding aesthetic of gentleness and calm, and an overt connection to ideas from yoga practice about healing the body and mind through wholeness and compassion.

Postmodern dance: the Trisha Brown company

Urban dance is outwardly totally different: fast, aggressive, with sudden starts and stops, polyrhythmic, socially and politically engaged, immersed in pop cultural tropes like cartoons and video games, and fraught with symbolic violence.

Hip-hop dance: B-boy

These two forms have different racial and class connotations. My stereotype of a postmodern dancer is an older, middle or upper class white woman in a leotard and no jewelry. My stereotype of a breakdancer is a young working-class black or Latino man in a T-shirt, baggy pants and sneakers, with a sideways baseball cap. As you might imagine, there is some tension between the postmodern and urban dance tribes at Arizona State.

Jackson describes the high-minded social ideals of the postmodern dance movement:

The previous model for public engagement had largely consisted of housing a preprofessional company that toured the state, presenting prepackaged repertory. In contrast, new “socially engaged” experiences were being designed as long-term, collaborative, reciprocally beneficial projects for/with underserved populations such as minority children, the homeless, and “at risk” youth.

Urban dance in the academy has similar democratic ideals, motivated by a push toward racial and class diversity, giving voice to traditionally disenfranchised people through their dance styles. But hip-hop culture has some problematic aspects to it.

The urban dance forms sometimes accept a level of aggression and authoritarian pedagogical practices that challenge egalitarian and collaborative ideals, which are characteristic of contemporary postmodern dance. Some of the movements and terms make reference to violence and gang life, which are competitive in nature, and can be taught in dogmatic ways by practitioners. For instance, a gesture from “locking” might be rooted in an obscene gesture, and students are taught to “battle”; a b-boy dancer might teach a floor move like a head spin without sensitivity to physical safety. These aspects seem(ed) contrary to the ideals of artistic citizenship that were being promoted by postmodern dance, which favor reciprocal, sensitive, and cooperative approaches to art making, education, and public interaction.

The postmodern, somatic movement’s focus on holistic healing comes with its own particular value system.

[A]rtistic citizenship in/through dance means encouraging people to “let go” of those things that don’t serve their overall wellness, like the fear of how one appears from a third-person perspective. Fear especially appears as a potent mode of emotional blockage—fear of looking silly, awkward, or not “good enough” needs to be released just like the physical tension that is seen to accompany it. With the focus on internal sensation comes a value of self-understanding and acceptance of where one is at specific times in the process of self-discovery. When doing Bartenieff fundamentals, for instance, the directive to not judge oneself according to others in any context but focus on one’s own breath and internal flow of sensations is repeatedly emphasized.

This is all very high-minded and unobjectionable. Why, then, do I find myself rolling my eyes in postmodern dance settings, and why do I feel so uplifted and connected by hip-hop dance? Is it just a matter of taste? Or is there something in the values of the scenes that appeals to me differently? Let’s examine why hip-hop dance speaks to me so clearly (and to millions of people around the world.) Jackson describes forms like b-boying as “body talking” or “performative oratory.”

They involve fusing the beat and feel of these musical styles with the rhythm of the body in a dynamic, syncopated manner characterized by speed, attack, and vitality. Whereas somatics emphasizes softness and “relaxation,” urban dance is often punctuated by abrupt, tense movements such as freezes, locks, and pops.

Postmodern dancers gaze inward, and try to actively ignore how other people see them. Hip-hop dance is all about engaging with your peers through improvisational dialogue, and about keeping it real. There is some abstraction, but there are constant “real world” references too, to struggle and oppression around race, class, gender, and religion. Postmodernism is about peace and cooperation, but hip-hop is full of conflict and competition, symbolic, commercial, and sometimes physical. Power gets expressed and negotiated, hierarchies are established and challenged, and there’s constant tension between group cohesion and struggles for status within the group. Like rappers, urban dancers earn respect by battling, one-upping each other through insults and mock threats.

Within these aggressive street contests, those who come out on top successfully achieve recognition within a social setting, often with metaphors related to royalty: “I’m a king,” “Everybody know me,” and “Everybody respect me.”

It would be simplistic to say that hip-hop is only about conflict and dominance, however.

[D]ignity and respect are more often linked to ritual/spiritual processes in which the very act of dancing intensely in the communal context increases one’s sense of self-worth… From this vantage point, to act as if you are the best or the king of the dance is not so much about dominating others as it is about achieving a sense of dignity and recognition for one’s individual inventiveness and skill.

Like I said above, mainstream hip-hop culture has some problematic aspects if you’re a dance educator trying to unify people with a message of tolerance, cooperation, and care.

[T]he verbal and embodied rhetoric [of hip-hop] can be either explicitly or implicitly misogynist and homophobic, with certain crotch-grabbing, in-your-face gestures and mocking imitations of rivals’ movements that privilege heterosexual Black masculinity. Women can appear as eye candy, on a lower realm, defined solely in terms of their sexual availability, or they may assume similarly confrontational relationships as men, mirroring the pattern of traded embodied insults based on physical power and sexual conquest that establish relations of dominance/subordination, superiority/inferiority.

My own feeling about hip-hop as an educational tool is that while it engages with gender and sexuality in difficult ways, at least it engages. The conversation does not need to end with gangsta rap gender politics.

[T]hose supporters of civic engagement who believe in urban dance’s egalitarian message stress the popular practice of urban dance by youth of varying genders, sexual orientations, and ethnicities, and the value of its methods for engaging in democratic, communal conversations around race, gender, class, nationality, and ethnicity. They point out that in the last decade there has been an explosion as urban dance has been adopted internationally by male and female youth of different ethnicities, races, and nationalities. Hip-hop appeals to a broad, multiracial, multiethnic, and multinational constituency, and in-person classes, online tutorials, and scores of festival/competition/dance videos are easily accessible on every conceivable urban style.

My colleagues who practice hip-hop pedagogy put a value on embracing conflict and trying to work through it via open conversation. They advance a social justice agenda through what Jackson describes as “courageous conversations about race and power, an understanding and belief that levels and types of oppression exist, and that hip-hop both perpetuates and interrogates these forms of oppression.”

It’s worth considering that postmodern dance has evolved within institutions, and with their blessing, while hip-hop has evolved outside institutions, where it is either ignored or actively condemned. What does it mean for an art form that grew in parking lots and basement parties to find a home within big institutions like universities? For one thing, it forces some reality checks on postmodern dance.

[T]he presence of urban dance effectively troubles and fractures the sometimes naively rose-colored vision of civic engagement presented in somatics-based practices. Urban dance brings to the fore issues related to race, gender, and class and an awareness of dual consciousness derived from minority status, revealing that somatics can have a Eurocentric bias in its often-assumed neutrality and universalizing rhetoric around bodily experience.

There it is, the reason that postmodern dance makes me eye-roll, even if I agree with its cultural values in theory. It’s perfectly admirable to want to have a dance culture without conflict. But that keeps the culture from meaningfully engaging with the conflict-filled world around it. Hip-hop culture is more difficult, but it’s better suited to meaningful artistic citizenship in the world we live in.