The Dance of Politics: Gender, Performance and Democratization in Malawi

By Mills, Amy C. | Western Folklore, Summer 2011 | Go to article overview

The Dance of Politics: Gender, Performance and Democratization in Malawi


Mills, Amy C., Western Folklore


The Dance of Politics: Gender, Performance and Democratization in Malawi. By Lisa Oilman. (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2009. Pp. xi + 252, acknowledgments, maps, introduction, photographs, appendices, references, index. $66.50 cloth, $27.95 paper.)

In The Dance of Politics, Lisa Gilman explores gender and economic power dynamics in contemporary Malawi through the lens of women's political dance performances. Much more than just entertainment, the guie wa chipane ("die dance of politics" in the tide) has become a prominent feature of Malawian politics since the mid-twentieth century. Traditional dancing by Malawi's women entered the political realm as a natíon-building tool during the independence movement. Subsequently, under "President for Life" Dr. Hastings Kamuzu Banda, all women in the country were required to participate, as embodied propaganda for one-party rule. In contemporary Malawi, debate has raged about whether diese praise performances should be part of the emerging democratic, multi-party system. Gilman explores the variety of reasons why poor women still choose to perform songs and dances of praise at campaign rallies and political events.

Gilman's book is a skillful, well-documented exploration of how present-day praise performances provide a powerful avenue for poor Malawian women to participate politically - while simultaneously perpetuating their political marginalization. Her interdisciplinary analysis is an effective conversation between existing literature and the perspectives of the participants. Using interviews and event analysis, Gilman creates a nuanced picture of how economically-disadvantaged female performers use performance to bring a litüe money and freedom into their lives, despite die much greater benefits reaped by wealthy male politicians. Her perspective is refreshingly realistic. She reminds us that most people - from poor Malawian women to academic researchers - respond to inequitable systems by conforming, getting by, and practicing small-scale resistance.

Clearly, Gilman's on-the-ground research was extensive and detailed. Writing about dance is always difficult, and Gilman improves the reading experience by providing links to video field recordings at the online Ethnomusicological Video for Instruction and Analysis Digital Archive (EVIA). …

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