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.