Academic journal article Western Folklore

Embodiment and Community

Academic journal article Western Folklore

Embodiment and Community

Article excerpt

To understand how bodily practices such as folk dance encourage or create community, we must examine the processes that underlie the formation of community feeling and participation. The process of learning movements or positions and the process of learning associated feelings both necessarily take place within a social and cultural context, that is, a community. They also depend on specific bodily techniques that are utilized by worship or dance practices-these in turn rely on certain qualities of the body. Further, like worship, dance makes use of what John Blacking refers to as "shared somatic states" (1977b:10).

Folk dance can also be understood as a shared text. Dance does not need to be programmatic, like hula dance or indigenous dances that reenact myth, to be experienced as shared text, nor does it need to communicate definable ideas. Rather, the body's knowledge is valuable in itself and pertinent to relations with others. It is not necessary for the intellect, the rational mind, to "own" this knowledge for it to be considered a text.

The first issue in writing about bodily practice is to see that we need to start our investigation at the most fundamental level. If we are going to examine the relationship between individual bodies and community, then we must examine what we mean by "body." In contemporary American culture, the body is understood to be a material, medicalized organism-a biochemical mechanism. Even consciousness is regarded as merely neural firings and does not exist separately from those processes. Bodies are considered to be independent and to be under the direction of the intentions and willpower of some kind of "self"-this is itself a contradiction to the medical view. Bodies are also generally considered to be local, bounded entities.

Other definitions and meanings of "body" include the Christian idea of the mystical body of Christ, and concepts of a "subtle" body, an astral body, and so on. Recent experiments with healing prayer have lead to the idea of "nonlocalized" wisdom of the body.2 Medical anthropology suggests concepts of "social body" and "political body" as well as the personal body (Scheper-Hughes and Lock, 1987), and current anthropological conversation questions the bounded quality of bodily experience.

To begin to speak of the need for a new definition of the body, even a holistic one that acknowledges the necessary condition of our experience of ourselves in the world as embodied, is still to be steeped in a dichotomous culture. Our need to define the body as having its own qualities of intelligence and agency is predicated on the fact that we cannot help but think in terms of "body and mind" if not "body and soul," the body being merely of a lower or animal nature. Our culture marginalizes the body. The Buddhist concept of "body-mind" (we cannot even transmit it without having to use these two terms) is perhaps closer to the working definition we need in order to understand how bodily practice both engenders and is informed by feeling and cultural ideals. In this essay, I am interested particularly in how learning and participating in traditional group dance activities leads to an increased sense of community or experience of spiritual participation.

Specific qualities of somatic experience are critical for my discussion, the primary one being the intelligence of the body and emotions. The body's intelligence is not based on reason but on direct knowledge of the world. Its immediacy can be seen in the speed with which athletes react to situations or the astounding feats of acrobats. We can observe it in ourselves as well, in quickly hitting the brake in a car-much too fast to be a reasoned response-or riding a bike after many years without one. The latter experience is so ubiquitous that it has become a maxim for body memory of this type: "you never forget how."

Body knowledge differs from the intellectual kind in several ways. …

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