Tag Archives: anthropology

“. . . And she done the fandango all over the place”

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The Body and Everyday Life by Helen Thomas, the source of the fandango story in this post

The Body and Everyday Life: excellent guide to the field by Helen Thomas.

I’ve just found another beautiful piece of dance research. Beauty might be an odd adjective to use, but there is something deeply attractive about the careful observation, and attention to  social and musical details in this particular study. It resonates strongly with the kind of thing I and my ballet pianist colleagues often see in classes and rehearsals, and the analysis and conclusions throw interesting light on our world too. 

I found it in Helen Thomas’s excellent book, The Body and Everyday Life (Routledge, 2013), on pages 32-33. Thomas refers to Anya Peterson Royce’s description of arguments between members of a Zapotec dance group from Juchitán, Mexico (Royce, The Anthropology of Dance, 1980, pp. 27-31).  The detail is what makes the story, so there’s a lot you can’t skip, but I’ll try to summarize it briefly.

The fandango rehearsal

In Royce’s account, six couples are rehearsing the Fandango, a dance which has alternating fast and slow sections. Four of the couples change place two bars before the new tempo begins, whereas the other two change place right on it. An older dancer from one of the “two-bars-before” couples , considered an expert on dance and a regular performer at the annual dance festival, corrects one of the women from the “right on the tempo change” couples, saying that two bars before is the correct way. She also happens to be the right-on-it woman’s older cousin, as well as being from a distinguished old Zapotec family.

You’d think that the younger cousin, being younger, and being outnumbered and outclassed in terms of dance experience, would have just said “OK, thank you” and taken the correction from her older cousin, especially as there were other relatives from the same family in the rehearsal who sided with the two-bars-before view. But she didn’t. She insisted that her way was right, and what’s more, she’d even learned it  from her older cousin’s grandmother—considered one of the best dancers in Juchitán. She refused to budge, and said that the grandmother should be called on to arbitrate. 

Having seen both versions, the grandmother declared the two-bars-before version to be the correct one. I rather like the sound of the younger cousin, who now says that she’d seen the grandmother moving on the tempo change, not two bars before it, on a recent occasion. When grandmother asked her daughter (i.e. the older cousin) whether that was true, the cousin said, no it wasn’t, she’d moved two bars before, as they’d been saying all along. The younger cousin had finally to bow to pressure and give way in the face of all the odds stacked against her. 

But Royce later performed the fandango with another member of the two-bar-before family, and in keeping with what she had observed in the family drama, made to move two bars before the upcoming tempo change. At this point—and if you work in the dance world, you’ll have guessed this bit already—she was told that she should only move when the music changed! After a lot of questions and further observation, she realized that it was acceptable to do the dance both ways, changing before or on the tempo change—but under the circumstances, family values won the day, not choreographic truth. It reminds me of those rehearsals where everyone does what they’re told if the visiting choreographer or ballet mistress wants a change made, but as soon as they’re on a plane, things get changed back to how they were, at least for those who have sufficient status to get away with it. 

Commentary on the fandango rehearsal

I love the story, but also Thomas’s commentary on it: 

The dancers’ body movement in time and space in the context of the rehearsal became a site of resistance to and an affirmation of the cultural codes of behaviour which almost go unnoticed in everyday life. This case also raises the question as to when a performance event (in the case of a rehearsal) can be said to begin and end, which, in turn, leads to a questioning of the closed-off notion of the ‘performance event’ from everyday life” (Thomas 2013, p. 34). 

As class and rehearsal pianists for ballet you get to see, or hear of, similar altercations about music that are about so much more than just music because they are thoroughly embedded in social structures (for some reason, dance seems to be particularly prone to such things, perhaps precisely because it involves bodies moving together socially). And yet, you absolutely have to have the musical detail for the story to make any sense at all. That’s why I think this is such a beautiful bit of research. It’s about so little and so much at the same time, and music is not accompaniment or background, but part of the cloth from which the whole story is woven. 

She done the fandango

I couldn’t resist calling this She done the fandango all over the place. Years ago I was at a party at house of the wonderful poet, Kit Wright. He’d found a Victorian music hall song with that title in a compendium of such things, and as after-lunch entertainment, sang it, accompanying himself on the guitar, in the style of a Country and Western ballad. Every time I hear fandango I remember that song, and that party. I am certain that Kit’s book had it as She done the fandango, rather than she “did” or “does,” because that was why it sounded so funny, but I’ll have to wait til my copy arrives to find out. Meanwhile, here’s the chorus from Henri Clarke’s 1883 song, “She does the fandango all over the place.” 

She sang like a nightingale, twanged her guitar
Danced the Cachuca, and smoked a cigar
Oh what a form, Oh what a face
And she does the Fandango all over the place.

Ballet pianists and sacred cows: a correction

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What a difference a sub-clause makes

In an article in Dance Gazette (“Don’t shoot the pianist“, Dance Gazette (2) 2016, p. 44) I was quoted as saying that live music for ballet training is a lot about tradition—the pianist is almost like the sacred cow (in answer to the question, do I think live music for ballet training is a dying profession?). When it first came out, I was rather perturbed that because the rest of what I said immediately afterwards wasn’t quoted, it looked as if I was saying that pianist were “just” sacred cows, i.e. that if we were only to be rational, we’d realise that they weren’t necessary. I wrote what I now see is a very muddled corrective, and some time later, I don’t react the same way at all. 

It was muddled, because I’d failed to see the flaw in my thinking, which William James would have called “medical materialism” (of which more below). I was all excited at the time by an idea I’d read in Catherine Bell’s  book, Ritual: Perspectives and Dimensions (1997), in which she cites the work of Marvin Harris (1927-2001) in regard to cow worship among Hindus in India:

Harris pointed out that the cow was an indispensable resource for Hindu farming families with small plots of land, not only enabling them to plow and plant but also supplying them with milk for food and dung for fuel. If in times of severe crisis, such as an extended drought, people were to butcher and eat their cows, they would lose the one resource they needed to get back on their feet later. Hindu cow worship, the religious obligation to show the greatest respect to cows, ensures that people do not eat their cows in times of crisis —at least not short of total desperation. Hence, the ritual attitude toward the cow guarantees the maintenance of a basic level of economic resources and does so more effectively than any economic argument would. (Bell, 1997, p. 30)

When I said “sacred cow” in the interview, I meant that there might be a very good reason why the pianist was regarded as sacred, as a form of ritual.

Medical materialism, pianists, and cows

But since then, I’ve read Mary Douglas’s Purity and Danger, and was delighted on p. 36 (and 40 ffl.) by the term “medical materialism.” Coined by William James. It refers to a kind of “nothing-but-ism,” a tendency to reduce the spiritual dimensions of experience to something rational and material. In other words, medical-materialist thinkers try to explain other people’s ritual actions as being based not on what they say it is (a ritual) but something else. Unwittingly, when I got all excited about the sacred cow text above, it blinded me to the possibility that perhaps teachers and dancers do like having pianists for ritual reasons. Why not? Why does there have to be a reason? Why can’t ritual be the reason? 

Mary Douglas points out that the opposite of medical materialism is also problematic: i.e. one should think twice before assuming that when “we” wash our hands, it’s for only for hygienic reasons, and when “they” do it, it’s only a ritual. Likewise, a ritual may also serve as cleansing, and cleansing may also be a kind of ritual, whoever is doing it. 

Live and recorded music: problems of framing

My thinking at the time was very muddled, because my conclusion came out in favour of regarding pianists as ritual, but I’d cited something that did not support that view at all. Mary Douglas, William James and medical materialism would have given me the frame I needed to make my case. It’s often the case that people in schools and companies have to justify their expenditure on music to accountants who are looking for “efficiencies.”  You can’t. To frame the argument as “live versus recorded music” misses the point: it treats music as nothing more than a sonic object that emanates either from a clattering cabinet of keys and strings, or a box of electronics.

As soon as you start trying to apply “rational” arguments to the question, you risk losing them.  Live music is better than recorded? What about terrible pianists? You hear teachers all the time saying “better a good CD than a bad pianist. What about the thrill of dancing to an orchestra on CD, rather than an out-of-tune upright piano? Does having live music speed up the process of training a ballet dancer? No.

The worst part of the argument about live versus recorded music is that if you view musicians as an alternative way of achieving the same thing that you get from your iPod, then there’s almost no argument (except that it’s harder work for the teacher, of course, but that’s another story). An iPod wins on almost every point, starting with the financial. But music is wrapped up in everyday life in ways that are much more complex and relational than this, and in a ballet class, with good teachers, the music is neither in the pianist or in the teacher, it’s something woven between them (if you’re familiar with the work of Tim Ingold, you might recognise some of his ideas there).  

An enlightened school or company principal would stand their ground and say that we’re going to have piano for class, at least some of the time, for the sake of doing the ritual the right way. If you can be alert to the ritual aspects of having a pianist to class, then you’re less likely to employ pianists just for the sake of it, because you believe in some unspecified good that they must bring to the process of teaching. Oddly enough, that is more of a belief in magic than having a pianist because it makes the ritual of class nicer. 

Hiring pianists because you think they’ll just bring magic to the class just by virtue of being there and playing a piano, reminds me of the story my Russian teacher (an ex-army Major) told me about WW2:   Russian peasants, never having encountered plumbing before, ripped out the water taps from the walls of the houses they raided, thinking that if they took them home they could get running water in their own villages. 

See also

Two posts on the joys of live music: