In 1928 Evans Pritchard observed,
“In ethnological accounts the dance is usually given a place quite unworthy of its social importance. It is often viewed as an independent activity and is described without reference to its contextual setting in native life. Such treatment leaves out many problems as to the composition and organization of the dance and hides from view its sociological function.”
This from a (1928) article in which E-P was, of course, not talking about ballroom, nor any form of Western dance, but Azande dance. Even ethnographers who, from today’s enlightened vantage point might hasten to agree (he was right, after all), marveling at this oversight by their early 20th-century counterparts, would probably affect the same stance toward contemporary social and competitive ballroom dancing. The assumption is that ballroom dancing (or contra-dancing, swing dancing, square dancing and other social/folk forms) is a relic of outmoded Puritan (or other) sensibilities, something Americans used to do for wholesome social fun, like picnics and sack races, but no longer a serious part of the cultural habitus. Moreover, in contrast with the elite pedigree that indexed the courts and formal ballrooms of Europe, today’s ballroom world smacks of popular culture. Television has repackaged ballroom choreography and techniques (exemplified by the “heel lead” and “frame” continually invoked in judges’ critical discourse) with pop music, scanty costumes and the constant foregrounding and hyperawareness of sexuality and “sexiness.” Nevertheless, a few theorists have picked up threads of distinctly anthropological interest.
Dance scholar Juliet McMains (McMains 2006:54-55) calls the ballroom world and its associated commodity, “Glamour,” a “magical system,” in which esoteric specialists (dance professionals) and other actors, including eager amateurs, manipulate signs within a particular system of value (as in advertising) in order to uphold the cosmological order and advance their own agendas. These include, on one hand, making a living (getting economic capital) and on the other, acquiring knowledge and skill and being an “insider” in this magical system (gaining symbolic capital). Ethnographer Jonathan Marion followed the competitive DanceSport circuit during his fieldwork, analyzing its associated rituals, costumes, and relationships. Echoing E-P (above), Marion argues “…the institutionalized practices of ballroom establish a conceptual framework for movement and meaning. These movements and meanings are more than intellectual abstractions, they are about real bodies in real life” (Marion 2008: 124). These theorists and their excellent works focus more on DanceSport Professionals (dancers who make a living teaching dancing and operate within the professional sphere).
My own analysis shines the light more on the practices, attitudes and socialization of amateur ballroom dancers (and the movements, efforts–sometimes struggles–of their all-too-real bodies, in stark contrast with those of their professional teachers who are, typically, young and extraordinarily fit). I am concerned here with the “semiotic regimentation of social life” (to invoke my grad school semiotics professor, Rick Parmentier) and the syntagmatic and paradigmatic relations that constitute Marion’s “conceptual framework…” I will use “ballroom” in different contexts to indicate different physical and social venues for the expression of partner dancing. For example, when one is at home in one’s quotidian life, the ballroom is the local studio, which functions as a nexus of sociality, education, community, identity-creation, practice, and self-reference. At a competition, the ballroom is, quite literally, the hotel ballroom where the event takes place. In dance enthusiast parlance, the Ballroom community is at once local, national and global. Insofar as the ballroom is a social world and a dance enthusiast’s social life ordinarily revolves around it, Parmentier’s concept is the one that will reverberate in this inquiry.
In considering–okay, obsessing over–an optimal framework for my analysis of the culture and conventions of ballroom dancing, an exercise which has occupied many hours and which I can only compare to culling the contents of the attic of a house long resided in, I mentally stumbled upon the work of C.S. Peirce, whose work I first encountered in the aforementioned semiotics seminar. Aways clever with titles, Parmentier called the first chapter of his book Signs in Society, “Peirce Divested for Nonintimates,” invoking a quote by Peirce himself from a 1909 manuscript, ” Truth as it walks abroad is always clothed in figures of which it divests itself for none but its intimates.” The ballroom world is a world in which one is continually confronted with the distinction between insider and outsider, in which the category itself is a shifter and intimacy is always relative and contested.
I don’t know why the work of Peirce didn’t speak to me sooner, because now that I have remembered it, with its emphasis on logical sequences and cultural belief, it seems the only fitting starting point for analyzing a world within a world, a culture within a culture, a system of signs that systematically indexes other salient systems of signs (age, gender, class–yes, harping on these again), and a culture of performance. It seems natural to apply this theoretical framework to a world in which icons, indexes and symbols dance circles around each other at every level of engagement and practice. At the time that I actually studied Peirce, it felt like straining to fixate on a far-off star. I could understand it just well enough to see that it was useful, practical, intuitive, perhaps brilliant, but never quite well enough to feel confident invoking it in my own analysis. At this point though, I am ready to cast off my apprentice’s cloak take the great book of spells down from the shelf, dust it off, and flip to the page with the most potent spell of all.
Evans-Pritchard, E.E. 1928. The Dance. Africa 1(1): 446-462.
Marion, Jonathan S. 2008. Ballroom: Culture and Costume in Competitive Dance. Oxford, New York: Berg.
McMains, Juliet. 2006. Glamour Addiction. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press.
Parmentier, Richard J. 1994. Signs in Society. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.