Communities of Practice: Traditional Music and Dance

By Jordan-Smith, Paul; Horton, Laurel | Western Folklore, Spring 2001 | Go to article overview
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Communities of Practice: Traditional Music and Dance


Jordan-Smith, Paul, Horton, Laurel, Western Folklore


This collection of essays had its origins in panels entitled "Emergent Communities," organized by Lucy Long at meetings of both the American Folklore Society and the Midwest Society of Ethnomusicologists in 1998. Both sets of papers examined the behavior of people who have formed voluntary groups on the basis of shared enjoyment of and participation in traditional music and/or dance and who self-consciously construct themselves as "community." Burt Feintuch, discussant for the AFS panel, drew attention to problems inherent to the use of terms such as "community," which, he contended, were value-laden and therefore risky in scholarly use. The dialogue initiated by these panels inspired a further panel at the 1999 AFS meeting on "Aesthetic Issues in Traditional Dance," also organized by Long, who then suggested that papers from these panels might form a substantive journal issue.

True dialogues do not remain static. The focus of the present collection has shifted from those of the original panels, away from the problematized use of "community" and more toward questions of how such self-consciously constructed communities create and enact their connectedness through their modes of participation, their repertoire and style, the contexts and textures of performance, and the rhetoric they use in describing themselves.

All but one of the papers have resulted from fieldwork, much of it participant-based, in one or another of the dance forms that fall within the scope of what is often referred to as the British Isles tradition. This tradition includes such cadential (music and dance) forms as English country dance, Appalachian clogging, Northumbrian music, Scottish country dance, contra dance, American "club" square dance, and Irish step dance. The papers in this collection deal specifically with music and dance in all but the last two of these forms, examining the relationship of the various forms to historical continuity and traditional genre, the place of communitas, and the strategies used in constructing the envisioned ideal. The paper by Rebecca Norris, although not drawn from the original panels, examines the role of the body in the establishment of feelings of communality and provides a valuable theoretical perspective that supports and enhances the work of the other authors. Although these collective essays appear to address only a narrow range of subject matter, the points made by the contributors are not confined to a single ethnic tradition or even to the single cadential genre of music and dance.

The term "community" is clearly a problematic one. What exactly do we mean by it? As Burt Feintuch points out, the term is value-laden and is often used by people whose primary social relationships center on a single activity, one that they engage in for pleasure. "One could argue," he writes, "that it's an overused, underconceptualized word in a society ... that often laments its demise, whatever it is." To warrant being called a community, a group needs a dense set of relationships rather than a single practice as its common denominator. It needs, moreover, a common attitude among its members toward one another, an attitude of "concern both for one's own integrity and for the well-being of others." The more general term of "group" is useful in discussions of the range of social dynamics that unite people, from what might be called a "nonce community," a gathering of people organized for a single event and having an appeal limited to the purposes of the event, on up to stable, well-integrated, and dense social networks that more accurately merit the name community.

The German philosopher Georg Simmel addressed the issue of multistrandedness of practice within a group in his 1922 essay, The Web of Group Affiliations. What he called "affinity groups" were those who initially coalesced around a single common interest, such as an occupation, but developed dense social relationships beyond the scope of the original interest, sometimes to the extent that the group retained its integrity when the initiating factor was no longer present.

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