The Study of Dance - Towards an ethnography of dance

In Greece the study of the traditional way of life is the province of Folklore Studies (Laographia), a somewhat equivocable discipline of which there are chairs in the universities. Laographia, as the suffix "graphia" suggests, is mainly concerned with "writing down", that is compiling inventories and giving descriptive accounts of collected material. Rarely did Greek folklorists proceed to analytical, synthetic, critical or comparative treatment of it. On account of this sterile approach Laog­raphia cannot be considered a true social science, equivalent to Ethnology in Europe and Cultural Anthropology in the English-speaking countries.

A century or so ago the word "folk", in German "Volk", meaning "of the people", was a term much in vogue and its synonym "popular" is frequently used today, though without scholarly connotations. A "popular singer", for instance, is one who sings in public but has never had a singing lesson in his life, formal or traditional. A self-acclaimed "popular" leader is one whose election is not based on the democratic process, he may even be a tyrant or demagogue. From this image of "popular", we should suppose that the "people" is an amorphous mass of wretched beings at the mercy of exploitation by others.

Historically, we may speak of classes (e.g. the class struggle), according to their place in the productive process. Sociologically, the population may be divided into groups, categories or strata, based on such criteria as age, income, residence etc. Culturally, we may speak of literate and traditional (pre-literate). No-one, however, can define what is meant by popular (or folk) and non-popular, they are merely terms of convenience, hollow expressions. And furthermore, the "people" never speaks of itself as the people, the concept of the "people" is not "popular".

All too often such adjectives as "simple", "unspoilt", "natural" are used to qualify references to villagers. Condescending cliches such as the "simple country folk" indirectly imply that we, who are not villagers, are "complex" (if not more "evolved", "civilised" or "superior", all of which are overtly reactionary concepts). Folklorists of all people should be acutely aware that the objects and practices they describe are far from simple, and only appear so to those who come from another milieu and are neither cognizant of nor conversant with their encoded meanings, and thus unable to decipher and understand them.

Without doubt a word such as "the people" or "folk" is a heuristic device, much less clumsy, for instance, than phrases such as "the economically weaker classes". However, when used systematically as the specific subject of an entire discipline it arouses misgivings. Is not this concern for a subject which is consciously so ill-defined suspicious? Does it perhaps conceal an ulterior motive? Indeed it does, and this ulterior motive is the folklorist's conviction that village culture is inferior to urban culture. Deep down, the Greek folklorist is ashamed of his rural origins and the rural culture of Greece.

In effect, if not in so many words, Folklore Studies set out to prove that "in the last analysis, these folk (the villagers) are not really so uncivilised after all". Whenever folklorists (and indeed the majority of Greeks, not to mention the State) speak of culture, they automatically mean either that illustrious civilisation of our ancient forebears, or those breathtaking achievements of our technologically advanced Western neighbours.

This division of peoples into cultured and non-cultured or civilised and uncivilised is the ideological basis of imperialism and by using it in our own country we are, in fact, denegrating ourselves. It is not fortuitous that the host of cultural associations scattered throughout Greece actually use the word "civilising" (ekpolitistikós) in their title, a tacit acknowledgement that the people is "uncivilised" and needs "civilising", that is inoculating with literate culture, which is considered superior. It is no coincidence that to a Greek "serious music" means Western classical music, not Oriental classical music, or Byzantine hymnody, or even traditional music: these are not "serious".

Not surprising then that it has never crossed the folklorist's mind that traditional society is neither inferior nor superior, simply because there is no such thing as a superior or inferior culture (or civilisation). The fact that industrial society has brought hitherto unknown material affluence, has raised the level of life expectancy etc. etc. in no way signifies that it is better, simply that it is different. Just as the fact that the pyramids of Egypt are larger than the Parthenon does not mean that the Egyptian civilisation was greater than that of Classical Greece. There is no yardstick against which civilisations can be measured. Each society can only be evaluated on its own terms, when seen through the eyes of another society it is bound to be found wanting.

Since folklorists do not consider traditional culture on a par with their own, they have showed no interest in examining the laws or principles governing it. It has never even occurred to them that the phenomena they observe are all ultimately inter-related and subject to a common logic. They have progressed no further than giving superficial descriptions of village life, as if they were describing the delightful antics or games of a group of small children. Not only do they have no respect for the subject of their research, they have no desire to investigate further, to reveal its underlying structures.

And so Folklore Studies have not delved deeper but soared to the heights. Since the days of Nikolaos Politis they have been overburdened with philology. Libraries are crammed with hundreds of volumes of collections of "Songs of the Greek People", in which one song follows another, like poems to be recited: transliterated, edited, censored, in fact denuded of any element which could bespeak their provenance. The folklorist presents his material in a clean, shiny form, divorced from its traditional context, as if it were a pearl discovered in a dung heap.

As the philologues scrutinise the mores recorded, Homer is uppermost in their minds, for their aim is to show that these were exactly the same as in his time. It goes without saying that whatever does not prove our noble origins is considered worthless. As they sift through a local dialect they enthuse volubly and proudly about those words which seem to have an ancient root, yet dismiss with disgust anything which is Turkish, Slav or Albanian, instead of trying to puzzle out why this particular word has been changed and not another. And the State does exactly the same. Thousands of historical place names have been deliberately changed just because they were not to the liking of the Provincial Prefect.

The fact is that Greece has a long history of reactionary government and it is only to be expected that this has left a cultural legacy (i.e. "civilising" = "Europeanising"). Furthermore, too few persons are interested in extensive and intensive ethnological studies, so urgently needed before the final demolishing blow is dealt, and funds are inadequate. Those few specialists and responsible indi­viduals are unlikely to raise their voices since they are all well-accommodated, and those few persons who are actively describing and recording facets of village life are mainly school-teachers or pensioners who have no proper instruction, guidance or even the satisfaction of knowing that what they are doing is worth the effort.

But perhaps we should not be too harsh with the folklorists, after all they have provided us with thousands of books containing a wealth of material, now gathering dust on the library shelves. Moreover, in recent years there has been a certain trend towards systematic ethnography. The State, which no longer seeks our cultural annihilation in the name of westernisation, could easily project those vital remnants of traditional culture, instead of imposing the Athenian way of life all over Greece. It would not do any harm if an announcer with a Cretan or Macedonian accent were heard on the radio. Nor would it do any harm if television stopped presenting the farmers as if they were some kind of extra-terrestrial beings, bombarding them with the most stupid and inane questions, fired by a reporter who, all to obviously, is in a hurry to get back to his cosy office. Is it really so impossible for a village to make a programme about itself (with some technical assistance), presenting its people in its own way, without mimicking, without striving to impress?

It is high time we abandoned for good those stereotyped images of the village, formulated and established throughout a century of enamoredness with, or rather adoration of, urban life. Images such as are conjured up by phrases like "we have come to hear about your problems", or "my, how quaint and unspoilt you are here". Once and for all, it should be understood that such approaches mask a predatory opportunism, they are a justification of the economic, political and cultural subservience of village to town. It was in exactly this way that the Europeans masked their colonial exploitation of the countries of the third world: the pure, simple blacks and Indians living in misery had to be civilised.

The exploitation of the proletariat by the bourgeoisie is a much-discussed issue. Why then does no one speak of the cultural exploitation of the village by the town? An exploitation which is nowadays so total that most people can only think of a village as a tiny town. But it is not size which differentiates the village from the town, the differences are qualitative and it is precisely this factor of quality on which Folklore Studies should focus: the folklorist should penetrate below the surface of life in the village, below the overlying strata of industrial bourgeois culture, in order to unearth those elements of traditional society which are still extant.

This then raises the question: Who are sufficiently mature to study traditional culture? Who are quite clear in their own mind that the material and intellectual weaponry of industrial society gives them no right whatsoever to consider them­selves superior or more advanced? Who among us is capable of looking at a traditional culture through its own eyes, on its own terms - putting aside, as far as possible, contemporary rationalism?

I believe that the answer does not lie in one particular branch of scholarship, age group, geographical area or section of the public, but in individuals here and there. It is a question of satisfying a personal need for change. A change far deeper than that promised by political changes, which, of necessity, remain within the confines of the same society. Every window one opens onto another society, and especially a pre-industrial one, leaves a taste of utopia.

So, hope lies in scattered individuals who, being involved in a particular profession or occupation, turn their attention to the corresponding field in traditional society. I have in mind the engineer, the physician, the artist, the designer, the cook, for instance, who can look toward the village with respect, as a source of parallel knowledge which they are prepared to make every effort to obtain.

Up until now the folklorist has recorded all the "morals and mores" of a village, describing them in detail but not depth. I propose that henceforth the field should be apportioned in accordance with the particular interest of the persons studying: the engineer should study old techniques, the lawyer the legal customs, the doctor folk remedies and medical lore, the cook traditional recipes etc. No subject is more meritorious than another, recipes are as much part of a people's culture as are its songs and can furnish just as significant inferences for the understanding of a society.

So, modern professional training should be augmented with knowledge of the corresponding activity in traditional society. No longer will every professional person feel himself a fabrication of his times, but will be aware how others before him solved analogous problems. In this way he will acquire a greater esteem for his work, knowing its roots and its evolution to the present state. He will also realise that very often old solutions are quite adequate for new problems.

At the same time ethnographic research should be widened so that people of quite different occupational and scientific backgrounds may cooperate, with the important proviso that they are first fully informed of correct methodological procedure. These potential researchers should also be willing to learn from traditional society and not pass value judgements upon it, idealise it or plunder it in any way.

For this reason we suggest that Folklore Studies (Laographia) in Greece be renamed Ethnography, in order to underline the shift of emphasis from adulation of the ancient forebears (archaeolatry), obsession with the fatherland, phobia of scholarship and verbosity, to the objective, systematic recording of all aspects of traditional society. The ethnographer's task is very like that of the archaeologist: he tries to reconstruct a lost culture, except that instead of digging deep into the earth he digs deep into collective memory.

The ethnographer, that is the observer and collector of data, can be an amateur and can come from any field. He must have enthusiasm, determination and an avid interest in what he is doing, he must be affable and gregarious in order to make the essential personal contacts, he must have a thorough knowledge of his field - not to mention luck in finding good informants. The ethnologist, who seeks to draw general conclusions about the society from this primary source material, must be a specialist scholar. Many ethnographers are needed, while ethnologists are necessarily few.

And now to our specific subject, dance. What better person to undertake the ethnography of dance than the dancer himself? After learning to dance, to know and control his body, he then learns to listen to the music, to synchronise his movements with those of others and express himself through them. His initial training may be acquired in a school of classical dance or a folk dance troupe, but in addition he must learn the secrets of traditional dance by copying the movements as faithfully as possible until they become part of him. Only in time will he really get into the true spirit by dancing with traditional dancers and then his dance will be indistinguishable from theirs.

Parallel with learning how to dance the traditional dance he must also explore its background, that is he must study its non-kinetic content. He must find out where it is danced, when, by whom and in what environment. How people get to the dance, what they do when it is over, what is allowed, what not and what comments are passed on it. These are all vital issues. In other words, he must be aware of the entire peripheral context of the dance movements: the music, costume, mentality of the people, their customs, the history of the village and its environs, its climate and the crops cultivated, personal details of the lead dancers' lives and a thousand and one other things besides. For it is in this way that the dance movements and the dance event in general are linked to the social unit of the village, gain their rightful place and true dimensions.

The next phase in research is the recording of the dance in order to preserve it and pass it on. This can be done by filming, video-camera or dance notation. The non-kinetic content is recorded in writing, in the form of interviews and descriptions, and this information must be subsequently classified. The entire experience is passed on to others through teaching, performances, films and books, or quite simply by dancing and discussing.