The Problem of “Culturally Specific” Dance: The Search for a Critical Multiculturalism in Dance, Apr 2009

By Alice Fu


One of the blessings of Bay Area living is our access to a rich variety of dance—a choreological panopoly often summarized, for the sake of convenience, as “modern, ballet, and culturally specific dance.” While “culturally specific dance” enjoys wide circulation in Bay Area dance discourses, I am more interested in problematizing this term.

But first a disclaimer: I do not wish to play the beat cop on a PC Language Patrol, an endeavor which I find works against the goals of honest introspection and inquiry, as well as the vested interests of artists like myself who seek to shift the underlying cultural politics around dance. Rather, I would like to explore some of the ideologies that construct and frame this term in the hopes of disrupting this limited and limiting conceptualization of dance.

In the aforementioned summation of dance, “culturally specific dance” often serves as the sweeter, euphemistic substitute for “ethnic dance,” a term which carries with it the association of “ethnic” people and the ever lingering specter of ethnic violence. Setting aside the immediate problems that arise with the equation of “culturally specific dance” = “ethnic” dance (after all, how would burlesque, ballroom dance, or those Saturday morning dance workout classes fit into this exclusive schema of “dance”?), such a formula begs several questions: What does “culturally specific” dance mean? How is it different from contemporary dance and ballet?

Arguably, the phrase “culturally specific” serves to emphasize 1) the birth of a dance from a specific culture, and/or 2) a conscious, or even deliberate, tethering of a dance to a culture. It seems intuitive that the first count applies to any form of dance since dance, like any sort of art, is as much produced and shaped by culture as it can produce and shape culture. Yet even when we acknowledge the cultural origins of modern dance and ballet, we still see them as capable of crossing and even transcending culture, in a way that “culturally specific” dance cannot. Still, the second count applies to any dance form as well; the themes explored in modern dance and ballet are concerns found in Euro-American cultures. In her famous 1970 essay, dance anthropologist Joann Kealiinohomoku writes on the need to turn an ethnographic eye on ballet, to view ballet as an “ethnic” dance in order to understand it as a dance specific to a particular culture. Thus, even when dance appears to have dislodged itself from its culture of origin, it remains embedded in some culture, invisible though it may seem.

The tendency to not see contemporary dance and ballet as “culturally specific” lies in the reluctance, or more frequently, I believe, the failure to identify Euro-American culture as a culture. This failure of recognition tacitly works to maintain the illusion (or imperative) that “high” Euro-American dance is (or should be) a universal somatic language. When such recognition does occur, it is often followed by an even stronger reluctance to question the primacy and privilege institutionally granted to Euro-American dance forms in America. Both of these processes are essential for preserving Euro-American dance as the center of dance experience and pushing “ethnic” dance to the margins: constructing exotic electives for a whitewashed core curriculum.

In a parallel move, loyal aficionados of “culturally specific” dance forms often passionately assert that their dance can cross all boundaries and speak to the very heart of human experience. This rhetoric of universality can be seductive. While speaking to a transcendent quality of dance making and dance witnessing, it also minimizes or elides the messy cultural politics that shape such processes, as well as how dance is sponsored, presented, bequeathed, remembered, and indeed, if it is even considered dance.

Locating dance—situating it within the material realities that inform its creation and dissemination—helps counteract this universalizing (and depoliticizing) impulse. Yet the process of location is often fraught with trouble. “Culturally specific” dances are usually pinpointed into a pigeonhole, locked spatially and temporally into their originating circumstances (or at least what have been deemed to be their originating circumstances) and permitted to travel outward only at the risk of being deemed “inauthentic” or “untraditional.” On the other hand, modern dance and ballet are granted malleability, mobility, and the space for growth and self-contradiction. This double standard is another consequence of the ideological premise upon which “culturally specific” dance is constructed, an ideology which functions in truth as a means to suppress conflict in a pluralistic society.

Consequently, “culturally specific dance” suffers from a structural deficiency that renders it, and many other similar terms which refer to “Other” dances, problematic for describing any kind of dance. It is a concept that is informed by a paradigm of social relations that now predominates discourses about pluralism: what I would describe as a “roulette” multiculturalism.

Supposedly replacing the olden metaphors of the melting pot and the mosaic, the roulette offers yet another symbol for understanding how we manage cultural difference in a pluralistic society. In this model, marginalized cultures, which come to serve as stand-ins for marginalized peoples and marginalized discourses, are brought into mainstream circulation—the roulette wheel. However, mainstream participation comes at a high price: “ethnic” cultural products are forced to adopt the meaning assigned to them by the dominant, and thus coerced into a particular relationship with the dominant. In this way, “culturally specific” dances are normalized and streamlined to fit into a one-size-fits-all mold, like the uniformly calibrated slots of the roulette wheel. Dances live within these highly circumscribed cultural spaces, pulled towards a single hegemonic center which contains the potentially conflicting demands of each culture by co-opting each culture and thus rendering it manageable. Under the centripetal force of the spinning roulette, any counterhegemonic potential of a dance text, or possibility for commenting on the hegemonic, is neutralized and defused. In playing a roulette multiculturalism, we gamble away the opportunity to subvert the politics which marginalize “culturally specific” dances and reduce them to exotic spectacles.

Rather than one center, comparative literature scholar David Palumbo-Liu proposes a “critical multiculturalism” in which the demands of multiple centers are in continual contestation. Rather than passing through cultures appreciatively, a critical multiculturalism would be attentive to the tensions that arise from the sometimes contradictory demands of multiple centers. It would also be critical of the ideological devices that distribute resources and power unequally amongst the constituents of a pluralistic society. Urging constant movement, a critical multiculturalism calls for a continuous rewriting of the relationship between cultures and the hegemonic in order to prevent such relationships from stabilizing and solidifying.

In dissecting the phrase “culturally specific dance,” we arrive at the broader politics that inform cultural production, and it becomes clear what must be done to maintain the vitality and insurgency of “culturally specific” dance. This is not a call to arms for a race war. Rather, it is a call to our cognitive and creative capacities to continuously rethink, relearn, reinvent, and redefine our dances as a center unto itself.

For more information on the works referenced in this piece, check out:
Joann Kealiinohomoku, “An Anthropologist Looks at Ballet as a Form of Ethnic Dance” (1970)
Deborah Wong, “Speak it Louder: Asian Americans Making Music” (2004)
David Palumbo-Liu, editor, “The Ethnic Canon: Histories, Institutions, and Interventions” (1995).

Alice Fu is the Communications Attachée at Dancers’ Group. She is a practitioner of two dance forms which are specific to a culture: flamenco and kathak.