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Rites of Initiation
The word “initiate” derives from the Latin initiare and means “to begin or to originate.” The two
most frequent usages of the word are to admit new members into a society or club and to teach
fundamentals of something to someone. Rites of initiation are often divided into three different
1. In the first category we find rites that are connected to the passing from childhood to
adolescence. Also known as puberty rites and termed “life crises rites” by Victor Turner,
these rites are always in the form of rites of passage.
2. The second category of initiations brings the candidate into a secret or close society. In
secret society rites, the candidates cannot apply for membership but are instead invited
to join by the society itself. There are various ways of determining whether a person is
qualified to join a secret society. For instance, the right to become a member of a
Dancing Society, a North American secret society, is hereditary.
3. The third and final group of initiations is that of the heroic and shamanic rites. The
principal characteristic of this group of rites is the experience of a state of ecstasy or
trance that must be achieved by the candidate in order to be recognized as a shaman.
In this module, we will examine three initiation rites case studies. Flip the cards to discover:
Rites of passage are understood as ceremonies that correspond and bring dramatization to
major life events, such as, birth, coming-of-age initiations, marriage, and death, and they consist
of a series of rituals that convey individuals from one social status or role to another.
Alejandro Iborra
A Navajo girl, upon reaching the age of 13 and experiencing her first menstrual period, becomes
initiated into womanhood by a beautiful four-day ritual ceremony called a Kinaalda, which is part
of the Navajo Blessing Way Ceremony. The word Kinaalda is used interchangeable with both,
the girl and the ceremony. The onset of menstruation is regarded by the Navajo people as a
time for rejoicing. The fact is announced to the whole community in a dramatic four-night
ceremony as the girl becomes a tribal symbol of fecundity.
The Navajo Puberty Ceremony celebrating maturity of girls among the Navajo is held generally
on the fourth night after the first evidence of the maiden’s entrance into womanhood. On the first
morning following the moment of this change in life the girl bathes and dresses in her finest
Later she stretches herself face downward on a blanket just outside the hogán, with her head
toward the door. A sister, aunt, or other female relation, if any happen to be close at hand, or if
not, a male relative other than her father, then proceeds symbolically to remould her.
Her arms and legs are straightened, her joints smoothed, and muscles pressed to make her
truly shapely. After that the most industrious and energetic of the comely women in the
immediate neighborhood is called in to dress the girl’s hair in a particular form of knot and wrap
it with deerskin strings, called tsklólh.
Should there be any babies or little tots about the home, the girl goes to them, and, placing a
hand under each ear, successively lifts them by the neck, to make them grow faster. Then she
darts off toward the east, running out for about a quarter of a mile and back. This she does each
morning until after the public ceremony. By so doing she is assured of continuing strong, lithe,
and active throughout womanhood.
The four days preceding the night of the ceremony are days of abstinence; only such foods as
mush and bread made from may be eaten, nor may they contain any salt. To indulge in viands
of a richer nature would be to invite laziness and an ugly form at a comparatively early age. The
girl must also refrain from scratching her head or body, for marks made by her nails during this
period would surely become ill-looking scars.
All the women folk in the hogán begin grinding corn on the first day and continue at irregular
intervals until the night of the third, when the meal is mixed into batter for a large corn-cake,
which the mother bakes in a sort of bean-hole outside the hogán.
The ceremony proper consists of little more than songs. A medicine-man is called upon to take
charge, being compensated for his services with blankets, robes, grain, or other articles of
value. Friends and neighbors having been notified, they assemble at the girl’s hogán fairly early
in the evening.
When dusk has settled, the medicine-man begins his songs, singing first the twelve “hogán
songs” of the Bahózhonchi. After he has finished, anyone present who so desires may sing
songs taken from the ritual of the same order. This motley singing and hilarity continue until well
toward sunrise, when the mother brings in a bowl of yucca suds and washes the girl’s hair.
Her head and hair are dried with corn-meal, after which the girl takes her last run toward the
east, this time followed by many young children, symbolically attesting that she will be a kind
mother, whom her children will always follow.
The hatál, or medicine singer, during her absence sings eight songs, generally termed the
Racing songs. On her return the great corn-cake is brought in, cut, and divided among the
assemblage, when all disperse, and the girl may once more loosen her hair and partake of any
food she pleases.
Day Ritual Activities
First Day
Grind Corn
Put pot of wheat near outdoor cooking fire (after the molding).
Second Day
Grind Corn
Spread wheat in the sun to dry (after digging the pit).
Soak cornhusks (while working on the batter).
Third Day
Grind Corn
Dig pit; build fire
Make mush
Put batter in pit; bless it
Cover pit
Gather soapweed root and white clay for morning (during the singing).
Fourth Day
Run to east while four songs are sung.
One Twelve Word song, unless the ceremony is the first Kinaalda,
when this song is omitted.
Make offering to Mother Earth.
Prepare white-clay basket (during the Racing Songs).
Lift children (after the molding).
Girl goes back into hogan (after returning goods).
Retie girl’s hair.
Naerim Kut
The Naerim Kut is a Korean shamanic initiation rite. Shamanism is a deeply rooted tradition in
Korea. Young girls experience a mysterious spiritual illness known as Sinbyŏng in which they
experience eating disorders, profound depression, hearing voices, and other discomforts. These
symptoms are interpreted as a spiritual call and the girl is urged to find a shaman mentor and
undergo an elaborate and dangerous ritual to become a shaman or mudang. A Korean shaman
is perceived to be a mediator between the spiritual and the human world. And becoming a
shaman demands moral, psychological, and physical strengths, such as experiencing trance, or
walking on sharp blades.
A shamanic initiation is often connected to an ecstatic state that must be achieved in order for
the initiate to be recognized as a shaman. There are three ways of becoming a shaman: first, by
spontaneous vocation (the “call” or “election”); second, by hereditary transmission of the
shamanic profession; and, third, by personal “quest,” or, more rarely, by the will of the clan. But,
by whatever method s/he may have been designated, a shaman is recognized as such only
after having received two kinds of instruction. The first is ecstatic (e.g., dreams, visions,
trances); the second is traditional (e.g., shamanic techniques, names and functions of the
spirits, mythology and genealogy of the clan, secret language, etc.). This twofold teaching,
imparted by the spirits and the old master shamans, constitutes the initiation.
In 2012, The National Folk Museum of Korea (NFMK) presented an exhibition on shamanism
titled,"Mediator between Heaven and Earth-Shaman" and curated by Jongsung Yang. The
objective of this exhibition was to present a comparative explanation of widely dispersed
shaman practices in cultures of Central Asia and East Asia, centering on the Himalayas
shamanism. The exhibition aimed to provide an opportunity for visitors to experience
shamanism through a variety of displayed objects, multimedia, and performances.
National Folk Museum of Korea. It includes design for promotional materials, such as posters,
banners, an invitation card, and exhibition graphics like information panels, sign system and wall
It is common that folk arts and culture are considered as old and jaded. It was important mission
to mash-up the old and new and hopefully to gather more interests from the domestic crowds.
For the foreign crowds we wanted to communicate what the exhibition is about without for them
understand Hangul.
From the curating point of view ‘Shaman’ is a mystic and alien subject. Hence, our mission was
to create a balanced graphic that is not so light nor heavy. Also the exhibition covers the
Shamanism in Himalayas, Siberia, Middle East and Korea. To represent different cultural
aspects of Shamanism in unity was also a challenge
This exhibition had a long period of incubation. There were 500 pieces of relics and researched
documentations collected and presented across the Himalaya, Siberia, Middle East and Korea.
These relics, such as ‘Shamanist Costumes’, ‘Spiritual Statues’, ‘Spiritual Masks’, besides their
form of beauty, focus on the person, ‘Shaman’. Therefore, we decided to focus on ‘Shaman’
before the form of relics as a design approach.
We used three amazing photographs of Shaman from Nepal, Ainu and Korea. A series of poster
uses crossing lines as a connecting motif, three different Shaman under a bigger umbrella of its
own. The Gold background was chosen to represent theocracy and the red, blue and yellow are
the primary colors used in Shamanism.
The Abakwetha
The Abakwetha is a traditional coming of age ritual in South Africa among the Xhosa people.
Xhosa is one of South Africa's official languages spoken by 18% of the country's population.
Traditional Xhosa initiation rites use ritual circumcision as an integral part of a rite of passage
that marks the transition from boyhood into manhood.
In this module we explored three rites of initiation that follow the tripartite structure in a rite of
passage: with pre-liminal, liminal, and post-liminal phases. Elements of social transformation
were apparent in all three case studies. Neophytes underwent great ordeals of sacrifice. They
were secluded, fasted, asked to perform extenuating physical feats or prescribed symbolic
actions, dressed in different clothes, painted or marked. All of these performances making them
humble and ready to accept a new a new way of being, a new social function, and a new role
within a community of practice. Have you undergone a process of initiation in your life? If we
look around carefully, we may begin to recognize initiation rites in our school, community, or
culture that mark important passages and transformations in life.
Module 9: Play
What is Play?
Play is a concept that fills our minds with contradictions when we try to think deeply about it. It is
serious, yet not serious; trivial, yet profound; and imaginative and spontaneous, yet bound by
rules. Play is not real, it takes place in a fantasy world; yet it is about the real world and helps
children cope with that world. It is childish, yet it underlies many of the greatest achievements of
Peter Gray
To play means to do something that is neither “serious” nor “real” yet play is nonetheless
important, for it demands risks and promises rewards that may have consequences for our
everyday lives. We play to escape, to step out of everyday existence, and to observe a different
set of rules. We play to explore, to learn about ourselves, and to better understand the world
around us.
Playing is a genetically-based behavior of humans and many other animals. Play is common
among humans and animals as part of the process of learning adult behaviour and developing
survival skills. For example, much of the play of kittens and other young animals serves to
develop hunting skills. Following a ball or string prepares the kitten for stalking prey.
In his book, The Play of Man (1901), the German philosopher and naturalist Karl Groos
extended his insights about animal play to humans. He pointed out that humans, unlike the
young of other animals, must learn not just the skills that are crucial to their species but also
those that are unique to the specific culture in which they develop. Therefore, he argued, human
children have a strong drive to observe the activities of their elders and incorporate those
activities into their play.
Play can take many forms
Play theorist Sutton-Smith (1997) argues that play defies one-factor explanations. Some play
behaviors are more ritualistic or rule bound (like sports, chess, and other games) while other
expressions are more spontaneous or improvisational (like make-believe or improvisational
theater). Some forms of play are strictly organized (like the Olympic Games) and other forms
seem rebellious and disorderly (like traveling carnivals and fairs). Play can be competitive or
cooperative, goal-oriented or open-ended.
Some forms of play are culturally focused; some emphasize social communication; yet other
forms foster imagination and spontaneous creativity. Almost always, play involves some sort of
action: sounds, gestures, movements, props and the like. While play can be an exercise that
connects us with familiar behaviors, it also celebrates the unpredictable and surprising. Often
the thrill of risk of playing is in itself play's ultimate reward, as in gambling, skydiving, or riding a
roller coaster.
Why People Play
Psychologist Michael Ellis wrote a book called Why People Play (1973) in which he postulates
that play is “a word we use to categorize behaviors that elevate arousal.” We seek out the
distinctive encounters we call play with the anticipation that we will be rewarded with a
succession of positive emotions.
Play can help us spark our creativity, solve problems, resolve social conflict, get along with
peers, overcome isolation, tame down narcissism, learn to share resources, and gain insights
on how to deal with our own insecurities and fears. As such, play is a vehicle for both selfrealization and self-knowledge. Indeed, play is also a practice mechanism into the challenges
and responsibilities of social living.
As humans, we learn not just the skills that are critical to our survival in play but also those that
are unique to the specific culture in which we live. We play with dolls to practice how to care for
others and build intricate imaginary worlds that provide us shelter, abundance of resources, or
social challenges. Play helps us practice, enact, and envision the behaviors that will make us
most successful in our societies; and for that reason, play is an important agency of social and
cultural change.
Why do we study play in Performance Studies?
Playing, like ritual, is intrinsic to performance. When we are on a stage, performing a character,
recounting a story, or pretending to be someone besides ourselves, we are engaging in a type
of play. Richard Schechner explains that "performance may be defined as ritualized behavior
conditioned or permeated by play." Play is intrinsically part of performing because it embodies
make-believe, fantasy world, and creativity.
Art making and the human process of creativity - whether writing a novel, painting a scene,
acting in a play, or composing a song - is directly related to the play principle. In his book, The
Psychology of Art (1924), Soviet psychologist Lev Vygotsky discusses the role of play in the
creative process of humans, the link between emotion and thought, and the bridge between
reality and imagination in human activity.
Vygotsky's analysis reflects upon the artistic process. When the artist creates art, he or she
creates an aesthetic work which, informed by their reality, produces a world outside real-life.
Thus, J.K Rowling creates the fantasy world of Harry Potter (1997), Pablo Picasso births the
Guernica (1937), and Lin Manuel Miranda tells the story of American Independence through hip
hop in Hamilton: An American Musical (1995).
The connection between art and life is a complex one. But, essentially, the aesthetic emotion
brought about by the art, touches upon the emotions of the audiences who interpret the work by
using their imagination.
The Play Experience
Play is a term very hard to pin down because it refers to the experience of play (as a playful
state of being or as a play mood) and play behaviors (or the act of playing). To experience play,
we have to achieve a particulate state of mind. More than a form of behavior, play is an attitude
intrinsically linked to motivation.
The act of playing does not guarantee that we are experiencing play or are in a playful state of
Moods are always shifting; we may be engaged in a game for one minute and disengaged the
next one. If a player is injured during a game, the entire event is affected and the play mood is
A football game provides a good example for reflection on play mood as oppose to the act of
playing. Let's pause and think:
Are football players enjoying themselves on the field at all times?
Do the external pressures such as money, fame, coaches, managers, and media affect
a player’s capacity to enjoy play?
Are they playing or working on the field? And can they be doing both?
Answers to these questions may be varied, but I trust that the example can help you grasp the
volatile nature of the principle of play.
Huizinga's Definition of Play
Dutch historian and cultural theorist, Johan Huizinga, masterfully analyzed several
characteristics of play and demonstrated the importance of its role in the very development of
civilization. He wrote a phenomenal book called Homo Ludens (1938) in which he investigates
the creative quality of the play principle within culture. He explains:
"Summing up the formal characteristics of play we might call it a free activity standing quite
consciously outside 'ordinary' life as being 'not serious,' but a the same time absorbing the
player intensely and utterly. It is an activity connected with no material interest, and no profit can
be gained by it. It proceeds within its own proper boundaries of time and space according to
fixed rules and in an orderly manner. It promotes the formation of social groupings which tend to
surround themselves with secrecy and to stress their difference from the common world by
disguise or other means."
Functions of Play
There are many outcomes produced by the play principle. In general, our motivation to
participate in play does not come from these outcomes but rather our desire to play. Play is an
autotelic activity in which the experience of play in itself is the main goal.
Play scholars explain that the rewarding feeling of enjoyment and pleasure we experience while
playing is based on the temporary suspension of typical social patterns. In fantasy play, we
create an alternative world; in games and competitions, we play within the boundaries of a new
set of behavioral rules outside our ordinary social reality. It is this loosening of social restraints
what creates a sense of freedom and liberation in play. Here, I list some of the outcomes we
may be able to gain through play:
1. Play can be attention-focusing and enable us to be present
2. We play to create a friendly atmosphere and to release stress
3. Play can enhance our motivation, stimulate interest, or spur enthusiasm in a subject
4. Play can help us develop desirable attitudes and promote engagement
5. And lastly, play can encourage competition and self-improvement.
Characteristics of Play
"A great human ability, which distinguishes us from other animals, is our ability to imagine in
ways that are not random but are structured by rules, which allows us to produce potentially
useful new products. That is the essence of creativity"
Peter Gray
Roger Caillois
Roger Caillois (1913-1978) was a French sociologist who greatly contributed to the
understanding of the relationships among play, games and culture. His seminal work Man, Play
and Games (1969) includes a fourfold classification of play. Caillois was somehow unsatisfied
with Huizinga's definition of play and identified other versions of play beyond competition such
as those based on chance, role play, and the pursuit of turbulence or vertigo. He also articulated
the differences between the more artificially constrained forms of play (ludus) and its freer
versions (paidia). Furthermore, Caillois attempted to connect these differences in play
preferences to the social characteristics of societies. Noting the considerable difficulty in
defining play, Caillois proposes six core characteristics.
Caillois' Characteristics of Play
Free, not obligatory activity--one can stop when one wants
Separated in time and place from "ordinary" life
Uncertain--there is always an element of doubt about its outcome
Unproductive of goods or wealth
Governed by rules
Fictive, imaginary, or make-believe
In the Handbook of Child Psychology, Rubin, Fein, and Vandenberg (1983) characterized play
as behavior that is intrinsically motivated, focused on means rather than ends, imaginative and
world making, trivial yet liberating. Below, I explore and expand on these characteristics of the
play principle.
Intrinsically motivated and voluntary
Play is always voluntary. It is what one wants to do as opposed to what one is obliged to do.
Players not only choose to play but they also choose what and how to play. Players direct their
own actions in play and as so, play is intrinsically motivated. If an individual is ordered to play
('now you must play with balls'), then the play mood is not induced or attained. Play thrives in
freedom. Players engage in play voluntarily and have the freedom to quit at any time.
Focusing on means rather than ends
Play is a type of behavior in which means are more valued than ends. Play is done for its own
sake more than for some reward outside of the activity itself. Play often has goals, but these
goals are experienced as part of the activity, not as the primary reason for the activity.
When we are not playing, that is-when we are at work-we value most our results and we direct
our actions toward efficient ways of achieving our goals. In play mood however, all this is
reversed. Our attention is focused in the now, we are having fun in the moment, and thus
means are more important than achieving the ends.
Imaginative and world making
Play always involves some degree of mental removal of oneself from the real world and a desire
to enter an imaginary world. Imagination is most obvious in fantasy play, where the players
create fictional characters and plot, but imaginative play is present in various types of human
play. We pretend a fight when engaging in rough and tumble physical play. In constructive play,
we build castles from sand, not real ones. In formal and rule-bounded games, we accept a preestablished fictional situation that provides the foundation for the rules. For example, in Live
Action Role Playing (LARP), people enter worlds of collective make-believe where they assume
roles within the fantasy conducting battles, going on quests, and otherwise living imaginary lives
for weekends at a time.
Trivial and liberating
Due to its imaginative nature, people often think of play as frivolous or trivial, and, in a sense, it
is. Play is not directed toward achieving food, money, or praise and it takes place, at least
partly, in a fantasy world. But curiously one of the most valuable attributes of the play principle is
the immense educational power of its triviality.
Play is the ideal context for practicing new skills or trying out new ways of doing things precisely
because it has no real-world consequence. Play is experimental and fun; and thus provides us a
simulation world and safe space to practice and hone practical skills for the real word.
Categories of Play
Roger Caillois qualifies different categories of playing, from unstructured to highly controlled, as
well as four types of games based on the general attitude of the players: competition, chance,
simulation, and vertigo. In doing so, Caillois delivers a profound lesson on the playful diversity of
human culture.
Paidia and Ludus
Caillois explains that play can be placed on a continuum between two opposite poles. At one
end, play can be free, improvisatory, and spontaneous like in children exploratory or makebelieve play. He terms this fantasy-like type of play paidia. At the other opposite end of the
continuum, play may be disciplined, imperative, and rule-bounded by tedious conventions like in
games and sports. He calls this type of play ludus.
Paidia in greek means children
Agon (competition) are games with winners and losers. Here the outcome of the playing activity
is determined by the skill of the player. Strength, speed, endurance, intelligence, ingenuity and
the like are some of the factors that determine the outcome. Agon entails two players or teams
in straight opposition (polo, tennis, basketball, boxing, etc.) that will try to demonstrate
superiority and gain recognition. The practice of agon presupposes concentration, training,
application of skills, and a desire to win.
EXAMPLES: Weightlifting, Wrestling, football, chess, 2 different teams, based on skills
Alea (chance) is the Latin name for the game of dice, and it is basically the opposite to agon.
Here, the player has no agenda or control over the outcome. Fate, luck, grace, or destiny are
the factors that determine the winner. The player is entirely passive. In contrast to agon, alea
negates work, skills, and qualifications.
EXAMPLES: dice, roulette, random bases on luck
Mimicry (simulation) presupposes the temporary acceptance of an imaginary world. Here the
player forgets or disguises his own personality adopting that of a character. He makes others
believe that he is other than himself.
EXAMPLES: theater, children’s make-believe play, tag
Ilinix (vertigo) is the last type of game and includes the pursuit of vertigo which consists of an
attempt to momentarily destroy the stability of perception. Playing in this category, induces a
disoriented experience, a sort of panic, shock that abruptly destroys our reality.
EXAMPLES: spinning, rollercoaster rides, getting drunk, riding at high speeds in a car, skiing
Games and Society
A Society is the Games it Plays
In his book, Man, Play, and Games, Caillois explains the reciprocal relationship between
societies and games. For Caillois, playing is a central trait of all cultures, which is why their
values, customs, rules, and beliefs are expressed in the games they play.
In a way, this concept of games mirroring cultural values of a given society has been introduced
earlier in this course under the umbrella of cultural performance. Here, Caillois parallels Milton
Singer's idea by postulating the significance of games in affirming and shaping cultural
idiosyncrasies in a given society. Here is an excerpt from the assigned reading:
"[There is] a truly reciprocal relationship between a society and the games it likes to play. There
is indeed an increasing affinity between their rules and the common characteristics and
deficiencies of the members of the groups. These preferred and widely diffused games reflect,
on the one hand, the tendencies, tastes, and ways of thought that are prevalent, while, at the
same time, in educating and training the players in these very virtues or eccentricities, they
subtly confirm them in their habits and preferences. Thus, a game that is esteemed by a people
may at the same time be utilized to define the society’s moral or intellectual character, proved
proof of its precise meaning, and contribute to its popular acceptance by accentuating the
relevant qualities."
Play can be everywhere and nowhere, imitate anything, yet be identified with nothing. Its
metamessages are composed of a potpourri of apparently incongruous elements. Yet, although
"spinning loose" as it were, the wheel of play reveals to us the possibility of changing our goals
and, therefore, the restructuring of what our culture states to be reality.
Victor Turner in "Body, Brain, and Culture" (1983)
The degree to which social and cultural factors channel expressive activity through play has
been a theme of many historians, sociologists, and anthropologists. They argue games are the
vehicle by which people publicly display their character, capabilities, and status, not only as
individuals but as communities. While playing is a free and creative activity separated from
ordinary life by its rules and demarcated spaces, games and play experiences differ both within
and across cultures.
Aggie Football Games
What is in a game?
It can be argued that a strong sports culture represents an evolution of culture toward a more
meaningful society. As a form of play, the essential importance of sports is derived from their
power and agency in communicating and asserting a community's sense of identity, core
values, beliefs, and traditions.
An Aggie Football game is an example of play at the service of social and community values.
There are many rituals and traditions associated with this major sporting event that help express
what it means to belong and be part of the Aggie Spirit. Let us take the tradition of the 12th Man
as an example. About a century ago (1922), Aggie student E. King Gill was in the press box
during a football game helping reporters identify players on the field. As the Texas A&M team
was suffering from numerous player injuries and a fast depleting bench, Coach Dana X. Bible
beckoned to Gill and asked him to suit up. With passion for his team and school, Gill ran under
the bleachers to put on the uniform of injured running back Heine Weir.
Selfless Service, Teamwork, And Support
In embodying the passion of the crowd, students and fans of Texas A&M football, Gill's vigor to
step up and assist his team in a moment of need began a tradition of selfless service continued
by Aggies today.
"The power of the 12th Man is echoed in the unity, the loyalty, and the willingness of Aggies to
serve when called to do so. And it is the reason that Texas A&M has earned a name that
embraces Gill’s simple gesture of service: Home of the 12th Man."
Playing Communities
The exponential growth in communication technologies, social media platforms, and interactive
gaming consoles have allowed us access to a wider set of spaces for playing communities to
In these cyberspaces, cultural process within a virtual community allows members to
experiment with their identities. We can create an avatar image, move around, use nicknames,
add tags, obey or subvert rules of interaction, and behave in ways that are starkly different from
the physical world.
The fact that these playing communities may be inhabited by people from many different
backgrounds and ages has raised questions and some moral concerns regarding security and
the protection of privacy.
Virtual Realities and Playing Online
The introduction of virtual reality worlds such as Second Life where participants created different
identities and built up alternative lives online has seen theorists take different positions.
Philosophers such as Hubert Dreyfus sum up the suspicions against life online, reading it as
pure “play” lacking any real engagement. Choosing to surf the internet protected by its
anonymity would be a way to avoid responsibility and engagement with others.
Some scholars have argued, instead, that online interaction may enrich our offline lives. For
example, by participating in a social networking website or playing in a virtual world, people
learn new strategies, acquire different skills and knowledge, perform and play with certain
aspects of their identity, and establish or maintain social connections.
Playing in this way would be a way to rehearse reality. In other words, online play, whether in an
educational virtual world or not, would be a sort of training and complement to (and for) off-line
existence. The role-playing strategy we may use online is not unknown to psychotherapy,
where, by performing other people's identity, we gain a different perspective on the way we
structure and live relationships.
In this module, we explored the different functions of play as a cultural phenomenon and its role
in shaping and constructing meaning in our lives and societies at large. We observe the
contradictions inherent in the notion of play: from being playful (mood) to being engaged in play
(action), to its lightness and seriousness, spontaneity (paida) and rule-boundness (ludus). We
discussed that there are many different types of play and studied the different categories of play
postulated by Roger Caillois: agon, alea, mimicry, and ilinx. These concepts will serve us as a
theoretical frame to analyse several case studies in subsequent modules.
Categories of Playdan
La Danza de los Voladores
The Danza de los Voladores (Dance of the Flyers) is an ancient Aztec-Indian ritual still
performed today by the Totonac people in and around the city of Papantla, in the Mexican state
of Veracruz.
The ceremony is performed by men dressed in vivid clothes resembling birds. The voladores or
"fliers" also referred to as hombres pájaro or "birdmen," launch themselves from the top of a
pole of up to 150 feet in height, and slowly descend circling the pole. It is a breathtaking
The ritual begins with five men circling and dancing around the pole. One of the men plays
music with a flute and a small drum. The flute symbolizes birds’ singing, and the drum evocates
the voice of the gods. The voladores then climb the pole and position themselves on a small
wooden rotating platform at the top. The man playing the music is called the caporal. He stands
in the center, playing his flute and drum, and dances, facing each of the four cardinal directions
in turn. This is one of the most breathtaking moments for the audience, as he performs his
dance standing at the top of a pole without a harness or any protection.
The platform begins to spin and the four voladores launch themselves off and begin rotating the
pole upside down. They are attached by a rope around the waist, but they twist a leg in the rope
to maintain an upside-down position. The caporal remains at the top of the pole as the others
descend. In their descent, each volador circles the pole 13 times—thirteen times for each of the
four voladores, for a total of 52 rotations, representing the number of years in the Mesoamerican
calendar cycle.
Legends and Play
There are several legends that attempt to explain the men’s disguise as birds and the seemingly
effortless flying down through the air. One account tells that the four men impersonated the
souls of dead warriors and sacrificial victims who, after they had finished their services to the
sun-god, returned to earth in the form of birds and and butterflies. Another account explains the
ritual was first performed after a severe drought in the Totonacapan. Elders instructed young
men to perform sacrificial offerings to ask the gods for rain and bountiful crops.
Across the centuries, this ritual has embraced some variation but the costumes have always
maintained the same intent: the impersonation of birds. The voladores wear white shirts and red
pants trimmed in bright colors with a yellow fringe. On their heads, they wear a handkerchief,
over which they place a round hat with a multicolored tuft representing the head of a bird. They
wear a colorful sash shaped as two semi-circles over the right shoulder, over the chest and the
back, which represent the wings of the birds. On their feet, voladores wear black leather boots
with a heel.
Categories of Play
This case study illustrates the junction of ritual and play. Having been performed by centuries,
the ritual features two categories of play: mimicry and ilinx. Mimicry is used by the flyers as they
try to represent birds with elaborated wind-like sleeves and colored headpieces. Ilinx is present
by the action of climbing; descending from the pole is certain to induce a feeling of vertigo and
disorientation. In order to help the ritual survive and thrive in the modern world, the ceremony
was named an Intangible Cultural Heritage by UNESCO.
Carnival in Rio
The way people play perhaps is more profoundly revealing of a culture than how they work,
giving access to their heart values."
Victor Turner
Carnival is a season of celebration associated with the pre-lent period of the church year. The
celebration of carnival marks the beginning of fasting right before Ash Wednesday. The
etymology of the word, carnival, comes from Latin carne vale (meaning flesh farewell) marking a
period of feasting and revelry just before the beginning of Lent, in which fasting and abstinence
are observed. Carnival is known in Spanish as carnaval, in French as mardi grass, in English as
Fat Tuesday, and in German as Fastnacht.
Carnival is an urban festival because it is celebrated in the villages, towns, cities, and big
metropolis such Rio de Janeiro, Trinidad and Tobago, and New Orleans. The carnival in Rio de
Janeiro is a spectacular event that happens at the peak of the summer and attracts thousands
of people around the world. It is fair to say that this is the world’s biggest party!
Rio de Janeiro
Rio de Janeiro is home to the spectacular Brazilian carnival. Rio is located on the Atlantic coast
and, as one of Brazil’s largest cities, attracts millions of tourists from around the world. Rio has
beautiful beaches, some of the most famous are Ipanema and Copacabana. Ipanema was
immortalized in the famous Carlos Jobin’s song: A Girl from Ipanema. An important feature of
the city is the Crito Redentor (Christ the Redeemer) statue on Corcovado mountain.
This magnificent celebration is characterized by a stunning parade of thousands of people
wearing revealing and coordinated costumes, masquerading, dancing, music making and
sambpresenting nothing short of astonishing floats. The carnaval parade takes place in the
Sambódromo, a giant permanent parade structure with a capacity of 65,000 people. The
sambodromo was built in 1984, and consists of 700 meters of a street with bleachers on either
side for spectators. During carnaval, the street becomes the meeting place. The private
becomes public, vented out. The streets are no longer an impersonal location but rather the
place of action. The city is truly transformed into a big stage.
Preparing for Carnival
This yearly event, takes literally the efforts of an entire village and community of practice to
come to fruition every year. Let's investigate how Brazilians prepare for this spectacular event.
1. Samba
Samba is an Afro-Brazilian musical genre that is iconic of Brazilian culture. During
carnaval, samba is ubiquitous in the streets, the bars, the beaches and amplified during
the carnaval parade as a type of samba sub-genre known as samba enredo.
The word samba comes from the word semba, referring to a type of ritual music from
Angola, Africa. The word has a variety of meanings to the African slaves brought to
Brazil during the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. It meant to pray or invoke the spirits of
the ancestors and the gods of the African Pantheon. As a noun, the word samba means
a complain, a cry, or something like "the blues."
2. Samba Schools
Samba Schools are neighborhood associations located in suburban areas in the skirts of
Rio known as favelas (shanty towns). Samba schools are private organizations, with a
bureaucratic structure, which provide invaluable jobs to the community. People are
employed year-round in the production of costumes and floats. Samba schools are
comparable to a club or fraternity.
3. The plot or "enredo"
Every year, each school creates a particular theme or plot called enredo. An enredo
consist of a melody and lyrics that illustrate a theme or plot to be performed at carnaval.
The songs, colors, costumes, floats, and choreographies are carefully coordinated and
planned. Samba schools rehearse all year round to perform their enredo as part of a
fierce competition during carnival. Everybody has a chance to dance, play an instrument,
compose a song, dress up and parade in the Sambodromo.
4. The Sambodromo
The Sambodromo in Rio de Janeiro is a giant permanent parade stand used during
carnival. It was built in 1984 and consists of 700 meters stretch of a street with bleachers
built on either side for spectators. The runway is carnival's stage per excellence and
home to a spectacular extravaganza.
Each samba school may take to the parade anything from 3,000 to 5,000 members and
showcase 6 to 8 floats down the Sambodrome. All costumes and floats are original,
made from scratch every year.
Ritual of Inversion
Carnaval is colorful and splendorous, magical and subversive. Commonly categorized as a
ritual of inversion, the celebration of carnaval reverses social hierarchies, statuses, power
positions, social roles, and genders. Cross-dressing and drag are common practices during
It is an equalitarian ritual in which the distinction between poor and rich, popular and elite, high
and low, feminine and masculine is blurred or at least momentarily suspended. The magical
inversion of status and the cancellation of class differentiation grants the experience of
communitas: a feeling of togetherness, of being one with the other.
Carnaval is paradox and contradiction
Carnaval’s primary source of energy is located in the tension between subversion and
affirmation. Carnaval subverts the public order, laws, and values by temporally suspending
them, inverting, or discarding them. But at the same time, carnaval affirms art, fantasy,
expression, community, and sexuality. Carnaval expresses the tension between what is
considered respectable and what is regarded as vagabondage and grotesque.
Categories of Play
Carnival is play at its utmost display. It signifies a time out from everyday life; the suspension of
social rules and normal order grants a liberating spirit to the celebration.
The four categories of play elaborated by Roger Caillois are present in carnival.
1. Agon in the competition among samba schools. Each school presents an enredo (plot)
illustrated with flots, song, dance, and elaborated costumes. One single school is
selected as winner.
2. Ilinx or vertigo in the chaotic gathering of thousands of people dancing, singing, pushing,
(and drinking!) on the streets.
3. Mimicry or simulation in the use of costumes, masquerading, and the samba school’s
enactment of a plot. It is through mimicry that the revelers are able to transcend their
social conditions, identity, and gender.
4. Alea in the street gambling of the illegal kind of lottery known as jogo do bicho (a
numbers game involving animal symbols).
Curiously, carnival can be an example that embraces the two opposite concepts of play of
paidia and ludus. The paidia (child play) is the epitome of the anti-structure. The chaos, the
inversion of laws, the spontaneity and freedom of carnaval are aspects of this un-ruled play. On
the other hand, the celebration of carnaval can be only achieved by the systematic year-long
preparation of rehearsing, making costumes, choosing a theme, a plot, coordinating
choreography, music, lights, special effects, etc. It takes a great amount of order to produce
such a “disorder” and a great deal of structure to create this great anti-structure.
In this module, we explored two case studies that are closely related to elements of both, ritual
and play. The Brazilian Carnival and the Danza de los Voladores (Flying Men of Papatlan). The
Brazilian carnival exhibits all categories of play (agon, alea, mimicry, and ilinx) as well as the
principles of paida and ludus in the strenuous preparation of this extravagant event. On the
other hand, the Flying Men of Papatlan exemplifies the importance of traditions in
communicating and ensuring the survival of rituals. Elements of mimicry and ilinx are present in
its performance.
What power does play have that men risk their lives or relinquished basic needs for its sake?
Why do people perform time-consuming, difficult, and risky activities for which they receive no
monetary or other discernible rewards? In this module we will explore a particular type of
experience that in the field of positive psychology is termed, Flow. How do we attain flow and
what are the conditions for enjoyment are some of the questions we will seek to answer through
an analysis of the experience of flow in our everyday lives. Let’s get started!
A Case for Enjoyment
Life must be lived as play, playing certain games, making sacrifices, singing and dancing, and
then a man will be able to propitiate the gods, and defend himself against his enemies, and win
in the contest.”
We often consider play and enjoyment only suitable to leisure activities. We seem to have lost
playfulness and pleasure in learning activities and in the workplace. In the Western world, play
has been considered frivolous, unimportant and a major source of distraction tempting people
away from work and productivity. If we can find what makes play such a liberating activity, we
can start applying this knowledge outside its realm of experience, and as suggested by Plato,
start to 'live life as play.' This module explores the concept of flow postulated by Dr. Mihaly
Flow is a subjective state that people report when they are completely involved in something to
the point of forgetting time, fatigue, and everything else but the activity itself.
Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
A difficult last name
Famous psychologist, Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced ‘chick-sent- me-high-ce’), is the
author of the assigned reading for this module, "A Theoretical Model for Enjoyment."
Csikszentmihalyi is currently Distinguished Professor of Psychology and Management at
Claremont Graduate University and former head of the department of psychology at the
University of Chicago. He is noted for his work in the study of happiness and creativity, but it is
best known for his bestselling 1990 book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. He
defined and explored the concept of flow as our experience of optimal fulfillment, enjoyment,
and engagement.
The Concept of Flow
What is Flow?
Flow is a particular state of experience in which people feel totally present and at once with their
actions. In this state of complete immersion in an activity, they are entranced and oblivious to
their surroundings. In sports, we call this 'being in the zone' and in gambling we say 'we are on a
role.' We experience flow when we read a good book that we can't put down, when watching a
movie or playing video games. Anytime in which we are totally absolved by an activity and
highly focussed, we experience flow.
Flow is a state of mind in which and individual feels in control of his actions, in which there is
little distraction between self and environment, between stimulus and response or between past,
present, and future.
Flow is a state of mind in which and individual feels in control of his actions, in which there is
little distraction between self and environment, between stimulus and response or between past,
present, and future.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
Flow and Motivation
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi set himself to study motivation and the experience of enjoyment to
discover who and how we can experience flow. In the assigned article, "A Theoretical Model for
Enjoyment," he interviewed a number of subjects, notably artists, dancers, painters, musicians,
actors, but also athletes, surgeons, and chest champion players. He noted these subjects
dedicated their lives and much of their time to perfect a craft often not achieving significant
material gains. And so he wondered, what is the real motivation for these people?
A male singer
two male chess players
paint of different colors and a brush
climbing a rock
He discovered that the absence of conventional rewards (money, trophies, recognition, etc.)
does not imply an absence of gains. His subjects obtained some sort of satisfaction from their
activities, a state of enjoyment, if you will, and that satisfaction was in itself the reward. The
activities (playing music, painting, playing sports, rock climbing, or performing a surgery)
provided the subjects a little world of their own which was very enjoyable, and he called this
experience flow.
Csikszentmihalyi identified several qualities of flow and developed a theoretical model of
enjoyment. His main purpose was to discover how enjoyment works and how it can be applied
to other experiences in life, even work!
Finding Flow
Flow denotes the holistic sensation present when we act with total involvement in our actions. It
is the kind of feeling of enjoyment we experience during play but also during activities that
demand our utmost concentration such as exams, competitive sports, or when performing a
task that could be physically dangerous to us. Scholars have also used the term "peak
experiences" to describe this optimal state of involvement (Maslow, 1971).
Csikszentmihalyi explains "it is the state in which action follows upon action according to an
internal logic which seems to need no conscious intervention on our part. We experience it as a
unified flowing from one moment to the next, in which we feel in control of our actions, and in
which there is little distinction between self and environment; between stimulus and response;
or between past, present, and future."
In addition to play and creativity, flow can be also found in religious or transcendental contexts
such as collective rituals, practice of zen, yoga, meditation, and more.
Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic Rewards
In a society where power, social status, and money are symbols of success, one may ask why
some people are willing to sacrifice a comfortable living for an activity that does not provide
external rewards?
External rewards are those of a conventional type such as money, fame, social or hierarchical
advancement. Many artists including dancers, actors, painters, musicians, and writers dedicate
their lives and time to perfect a craft that often does not render significant material gains or
external recognition. Often, we select our careers after careful examination of the internal vs.
external rewards dichotomy.
Csikszentmihalyi's explains "the achievement of a goal is important to mark one's performance
but is not in itself satisfying. What keeps one going is the experience of acting outside the
parameters of worry and boredom, the experience of flow."
When a person acts because his behavior is motivated by the enjoyment s/he finds in the
behavior itself, he increases his self-confidence, contentment, and feeling of solidarity with
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
Autotelic Activities
In the assigned article, "A Theoretical Model for Enjoyment," Csikszentmihalyi explains that
many flow activities have an autotelic quality. Autotelic activities are those who have an end or a
purpose in itself and do not seek external rewards such as monetary gain, public recognition, or
prizes. Subjects in his study seemed to be driven by intrinsic rewards, that is, an inner state of
mind comparable in many instances to a form of ecstasy or a pleasurable experience. Subjects
found the experience of flow personally rewarding, satisfying, and worth performing for its own
Although flow is often related to autotelic experiences that seek no external goals or external
rewards, there are some flow activities that may be encouraged by external goals or external
rewards, such as competitions or gambling. Yet, Csikszentmihalyi claims that, on a closer look,
these external goals function as mere tokens that justify the activity by giving it intention and
direction. The true intrinsic motivator for all subjects was this inner state of experience called
The Elements of Flow
In this video, I summarize the theoretical model of enjoyment I explain the 8 elements of flow.
Follow along the video and take notes to learn more about these particular elements.
No dualistic experience
Focus of attention
Loss of ego
Heightened sense of control
Altered perception of time
Balance between skills and challenges
Non-contradictory demands
Autotelic quality
The Conditions of Flow
Flow experiences are relatively difficult to attain and experience in everyday life, but almost
everything—work, study or religious ritual—can be conductive of flow when certain conditions
are met. There are three conditions of key importance to attain flow.
First, flow tends to occur when the activity contains a clear set of goals. These goals serve to
add direction and purpose to our behavior. For the swimmer, these goals can be selfdetermined by the overall speed, the number of strokes per lap, or the overall stamina the
swimmer sets to achieve. For the musician, these goals may be marked by playing all the notes
on the score or producing a beautiful sound. The clearer the set of goals performers define
beforehand, the more conductive their performance will be to the flow experience.
The second condition is a balance between perceived challenges and perceived skills. When
the challenges demanded by an activity match the skills level of the performer, as in a
successful music performance or a swimming match, attention is completely absorbed. This
balance, however, is fragile and often difficult to to negotiate. If challenges begin to exceed
skills, one typically becomes anxious; if skills begin to exceed challenges, one relaxes and then
becomes bored.
The third flow condition is the presence of clear and immediate feedback. The individual needs
to negotiate the continually changing environmental demands that are part of all experientially
involving activity. For example, in rock climbing, every next step demands careful examination
of the conditions in the surrounding environment. Each movement we take provides immediate
feedback to allow us to strategize the next step. Immediate feedback tell us how well we are
progressing in the activity and dictates whether to adjust or maintain the present course of
Clear goals, optimal challenges, and immediate feedback are all necessary features of activities
that promote the intrinsically rewarding experience of flow.
Video notes:
1- Merging of action and awareness
• No dualistic perspective
• When one perceives the activity from "outside," flow is interrupted
• Flow is difficult to maintain without interruptions
2- Focus of attention on a limited stimulus field
Concentration is focused No distractions
• Oblivious to our surroundings
• Some stimuli may enhance concentration: competition, material gains, physical danger
3- Loss of ego
• So involved that one forgets about oneself and one's problems
Transcendence of individuality
Fusion with the world
4- Heightened sense of control
The person feels in control of his actions and of the environment
• Sense of power
- Control over the game
5- Altered perception of time
•Feel in the present moment (not future, not pass)
Time flies by or we lose track of time
6- Balance between challenges and skills
• The task must be within one's ability to perform
> High challenges induce anxiety
• Low challenges induce boredom
• Flow is only attained when the skills match the level of difficulty of a task.
7- Non-contradictory demands
- When in a flow state, a person clearly knows what is 'good' or 'bad' The person is too involved
in the experience to reflect on it
8- Autotelic quality
The activity appears to need no goals or external rewards Goals are rather tokens but not the
end on themselves
The doing is the thing
Flow is a state of mind in which an individual feels in control of his actions, in which there is little
distinction between self and environment, between stimulus and response or between past,
present, and future.
Module 12, showcases the processes by which our globalized world is changing and
challenging pre-established concepts of authenticity and identity in traditional performances. We
will explore how interculturalism, as an area of interaction where cultural traits are combined to
create new forms, contributes to cultural cross-pollination producing new and relevant work.
Three case studies will be used to exemplify the continuous evolution, adaptation, and
commodification of global performances. Let’s get started!
Interculturalism promotes dialogue and interaction between cultures resulting in better interethnic understanding and civility.
The last hundred years have seen unprecedented changes in the advancement of
communications, transportation, digital technologies, economic interdependence, and
globalization. As a result, the world has grown smaller and cultural realities have changed more
radically than ever before. We live in a world where people of different cultures and ethnicities
meet and mix freely, creating a dynamic cultural fabric that questions fixed ideas of identity,
belonging, and cultural identification. As travel becomes facilitated and news are instantly
available through the internet, we seem to learn about The Other (other cultures) instantly
whether by travels, news, or through directly meeting and making friends from around the world.
This interconnectedness has provided opportunities for our performing arts to be enriched and
to reflect upon the complex and diverse societies in which we live. On our campus alone, we
can see Chinese New years’ Celebrations, Lion Dances, Indian classical music, Mariachi,
capoeira dance, and a number of festivals and events that provide an opportunity to learn about
other cultures.
Exposure to these forms provides a meeting point of cultures that always lead to some sort of
exchange. In the performing arts, such meetings have a history of being enormously enriching.
Artists are permanently influenced or inspired by cultural exposures and often these
experiences are transferred into their work. This new work, inspired by a culture other than their
own, is the starting point of interculturalism.
The term globalization appeared in the mid-1980s to replace others terms such as
"internationalization" and "trans-nationalization." Globalization describes our ever-shrinking
world and the perceived process of cultural homogenization on a global scale. Globalization is
linked to the exponential acceleration of the flow of migrants, to the growth of the tourist trade,
to the development of communications technologies, and the increasing interdependence of
world economies.
In the arts, the process of globalization causes a reciprocal exchange or ‘conversation’ among
traditions often resulting in cross-breeding and regenerative new forms. From the 1980s
onwards, we have seen a growing interest in the global representations of the local and the
marketing of the local in the global stage. The process of making the local global entails the
commodification of a tradition by incorporating show-like traits that proved marketing and
consumption success. Along with the hybridization of cultural elements, traditions are
conceived as main-stage shows with spectacle-like visual components from coordinated
dancers, dazzling performances, dramatic elements, to staging, and lighting effects.
The 12 Girls Band
The 12 Girls Band is a traditional Chinese musical group comprised of twelve female members.
These accomplished musicians perform on both traditional Chinese and Western music
instruments. The members were all classically-trained at various music conservatories in the
People’s Republic of China including the Central Conservatory of Music, the China Academy of
Music, and the China National Chinese Opera and Dance Drama Company.
The founder of the band, Wang Xiao-Jing, decided he wanted to create an all-female ensemble
in June 2001. More than 4,000 contestants signed up to audition throughout the People’s
Republic of China (PRC). Only 13 Chinese girls (later on, the ensemble was reduced to 12
members) who were both attractive and musically gifted were selected as finalists. The number
12 has significant importance in Chinese mythology. For example, the twelve jinchai (12
hairpins) represent womanhood. The Chinese Zodiac associated with good fortune and
perfection is comprised of twelve symbolic animals used to denote the year of one's birth.
To find a suitable name for the band, Wang Xiao-Jing found inspiration in yuefang, a musical
ensemble originated in the Tang Dynasty (A.D. 618 to 907). “The Tang Dynasty was a historical
period famous for its prosperity, openness and active cultural exchange, which is quite similar to
the current climate of China today,” said Wang. The girls called their band yuefang, literally
‘music workshop,’ to evoke the legendary practice of an all-female ensemble in the imperial
court of Wude, the 1st emperor of the Tang Dynasty.
A Sense of Purpose
Since their premiere performance at the 21st Century Theatre in Beijing on October 5, 2001, the
girls have shared a common ideal “performing melodious music with traditional instruments and
bringing it to the world.” As a vehicle for intercultural exchange between the East and the West,
the band has created and popularized a new and hybrid musical form by merging elements of
traditional Chinese and Western music. Deemed as a ‘folk-techno-acoustic fusion ensemble,
their presentations are visually engaging and appeal to contemporary audiences worldwide
tapping into the global music market.
The talented roster of musicians comprising The Twelve Girls Band are highly trained in
classical and traditional Chinese music specializing in one or more of the following instruments:
the erhu, pipa, dizi, guzheng, and yangqin. Open the boxes below to reveal more information on
these traditional instruments.
The erhu is a two-stringed Chinese fiddle with a cylindrical or hexagonal resonator. Pitch slides
and bends are characteristic features of this instrument.
The yangqin is a hammered dulcimer. Each string is stretched over a bridge. The strings are
struck with light, thin bamboo sticks or hammers.
The pipa is a four-stringed lute with a pear-shaped body. The body is solid, not hollow, and
made from a single piece of wood. It has frets raised above the finger board to facilitate fixed
pitches and pitch bends. Plectra (or picks) were utilized in the past to pluck the strings but,
nowadays, players use artificial fingernails
The dizi is a bamboo flute. Because it sounds great, is easy to learn, light to carry and
inexpensive, the dizi is one of most popular Chinese instruments in Asia. It has a very simple
structure: 1 blowhole, 1 membrane hole, 6 finger holes, and two pairs of holes in the end to
correct the pitch and hang decorative tassels.
The guzheng is a zither with movable bridges. The plectra, a form of pick, is taped to three
fingers on the player's right hand while the left hand effects pitch bends and vibratos by
pressing down on the string behind the bridge.
A Hybrid Approach
In addition to their hybrid style combining elements of techno, rock, and Chinese traditional
instrumental music, The Twelve Girls Band uses a number of tactics to commercialize and
commodify their performances. Here, the term commodity refers to the creation of an object (in
this case a cultural object) of economic value intended for exchange or profit.
Their repertory includes original music written for the ensemble, arrangements of preexisting
traditional works, as well as traditional Western classics such as Jingle Bells, Swan Lake, My
Heart Will Go On (from the film Titanic) and even arrangements of great classic works such as
Beethoven 5th Symphony or Mozart’s Symphony No. 40. The band credits its Western appeal
to the wide utilization of Western bass, drum, and rhythm tracks supporting the more exotic
traditional Chinese instruments. A careful selection of tastefully coordinated costumes, staging,
and lighting effects contribute to create a modern (rock-like) atmosphere to their presentations.
Departing from the customary seated position in Chinese instrumental performance, the girls
are instructed to perform in standing position emulating performance practice common among
pop stars in Western genres.
The picture below shows a traditional Chinese instrumental ensemble starkly different from the
modern performance setup of the Twelve Girls Band.
Conquering the Global Stage
Traditional Chinese music has undergone significant transformations throughout history. During
much of the 20th century, westernization and professionalization proved especially important.
However, since 2001, commercialization, commodification, and globalization have exerted
increasing influence to create new forms of traditional Chinese music that can be appealing and
thus consumed by audiences all around the world. The Twelve Girls Band is one clear example
of the stylistic hybridity inspired by these three forces.
The Band’s album Eastern Energy, released on August 17, 2004, in the United States, was
ranked 62nd on Billboard’s 200 chart, the highest debut ranking achieved by an Asian artist or
ensemble in the history of that poll. On the World Music chart, the album lingered for more than
15 weeks, during which it ranked No. 1 most of the time. It is in Japan, however, that the group
has claimed its greatest successes to date. Beautiful Energy, released in that country in July
2003, remained at the top of the Nipponese chart for 30 weeks and sold more than 2 million
Interestingly, the group’s reception in the PRC has been mixed. Although recognized by its
commercial success, mainland critics have questioned the band for portraying a simplified and
overly Westernized version of Chinese music. Their critics have raised concerns about issues
of nationality, authenticity, and their "Chinese-ness." Confronted with accusations that the band
has nothing to do with China’s xin minyue (national music) tradition, Wang Xiao-Jing has
carefully responded:
“Our group does not claim to represent [any kind] of new national music (xin minyue), avantgarde music, or world music. We simply are what we are. What people hear is what they get. By
combining Western music with Chinese instruments, I have provided a new venue for players of
minyue. At the same time, I have provided an opportunity for foreign audiences to appreciate
Chinese music.”
Finding a Place in the World
Wang has used a number of strategies to consolidate the Band’s mainstream worldwide
popularity. Among these tactics are:
Replacing the Girls’ traditional national costumes with vaguely Western ones
Have the Girls perform in standing position
Tapped into the visual appeal of beauty and youth to conquer the international music market
Created a hybrid musical product by 1) presenting Chinese melodies with rhythmic features
borrowed from jazz, rock, techno, and other pop styles; or 2) rearranging Western hits to be
performed on authentic Asian instruments.
The Twelve Girls Band exemplifies interculturalism by the process of merging elements from
different cultures to create a new, original style of music. This case study raises questions
about gender politics, tradition, commodification of culture, authenticity, national and
international identities, as well as the future of culture. As you review this module, prepare to
respond to the following questions: Is our globalized world changing pre-established concepts of
the ‘authentic’? Do economic forces driven by the international market directly impact the
creation of new cultural commodities? And in doing so, is our understanding of traditional,
authentic, and identity transformed?
History of Riverdance
Since the late 1980s, there has been a growing trend in the Irish tradition to transform elements
of their art forms into inter-cultural, marketable, and contemporary syncretic forms (that is, forms
that are influenced by two or more styles or traditions). The largest scale phenomena in the
globalization of Irish music and dance were the mega-shows Riverdance and Lord of the Dance
by the Riverdance Irish company.
Abundant in cultural elements drawn from American popular culture, Riverdance was conceived
in Ireland and marketed to an international audience. The show grew out of a seven-minute
interlude in the 1994 Eurovision Song Contest broadcasted from Dublin to over three hundred
million television viewers in Europe. Producer Moya Doherty commissioned composer and
keyboard player Bill Whelan to create a short percussive piece that would showcase Irish
dancers, singers, and musicians. Whelan’s previous collaborations with the Dublin based
singing group, Anúna, and Spanish and Hungarian musicians, influenced both his composition
and his choice of performers for the piece. Two Irish-American step dance champions, Michael
Flatley and Jean Butler, were brought in as the lead dancers. A clip of this historical
performance is featured in video below.
Spectacular Success
The huge success of this performance was followed by Riverdance hitting the Irish Top Ten as
number one within a week and staying there for several months. This success inspired Whelan
and Doherty to create a full-length show that merged Irish music and dance with other world
traditions. The show, Riverdance, opened in 1995 in Dublin with a cast of eighty performers,
including 30 champion Irish step dancers, a large band of traditional Irish musicians, members
of Anúna, the Moscow Folk Ballet, the Deliverance Ensemble from Atlanta, Flamenco dancer
Maria Page, guitarist Rafael Riquenti, American tap dancers, and Hungarian gaida and kaval
player, Nikola Parov. The phenomenal success of this show led to multiple world tours.
Watch this Riverdance grand finale featuring legendary performers Michael Flatley and Jean
Butler. The performance is breathtaking as rows of dancers coordinate intricate step dance
rhythms in perfect alignment and unison.
A Global Phenomenon
Riverdance brought elements of traditional Irish culture to mainstream audiences in a more
global, contemporary way. Female dances had more freedom with their arm movements and
shed their stiff costumes covered in Celtic embroidery for simple loose miniskirts. Male dances
wore shirts and trousers in contrast to the kilt. Irish dance was turned into a symbol of power,
professionalism, and virtuosity as long lines of dancers pounded out rhythms in perfect unison.
The dancers casted for the show had to be hard-hitting, fast, and precise, so that their
performances would lend themselves to a spectacularly visual and theatrical experience.
Irish Dance is Sexy
The choreography, dance style, and personality of the dances led the press to coin the phrase
“Now Irish Dance is Sexy.” Whelan’s music was newly composed and highly influenced by
Eastern European rhythms.
The show also made use of traditional symbols and themes of Irish culture such as emigration
and nationalism. The incorporation of various world art forms into the show not only contributed
to broaden its global approval ratings but also challenged the ingrained concept of Ireland as a
remote and insular nationalist identity. By embracing world dances and music, Riverdance was
able to portray Ireland as an important cultural contributor to the world stage.
Hybridization or Westernization?
The success of Riverdance was determined by economic and global perspectives timely in
place in the 1990s. However, it was the particular combination of dance, music, lighting,
costume, and technology on a "big stage," that enabled Irish dance to become acceptable to
popular audiences.
In his 1991 famous article, “The Local and the Global: Globalization and Ethnicity,” Stuart Hall
states: “global culture is essentially centered in the West.” Riverdance is undoubtedly centered
in the West as reflected in its plot, technology, clothing, lighting, music, and structure of dance
routines. The show's mass appeal, however, may rest on the hybridization of disparate cultural
dance forms, such as tap dance, flamenco dance, and Russian folk ballet, along with Irish step
dance. These diverse dance forms, intermixed with speech, choruses, and instrumentation
contribute to a sharing of human experience.
Riverdance’s program reads: "We are one kind. We are one people now, our voices blended,
our music, a great world in which we can feel everywhere at home. Ni neart go chur le cheile:
together we are strong."
The hybrid nature of Riverdance is equally evident in the music. Influenced by Eastern
European rhythms (particularly Bulgarian), composer Bill Whelan broke from the usual eightbar, regular structure of Irish traditional dance music and choreographed foot motifs to adapt to
the new musical phrasing. Rock music, too, influenced the show. For example, the Riverdance
orchestra appeared on stage at all times, so that the audience could see the interplay between
the musicians and dancers. Often individual musicians took center stage and performed with
rock-like gyrations, not typical of the traditional Irish musician.
Riverdance was an attempt at representing a contemporary Irish identity to both the Irish
themselves and to the world. The show positioned Ireland as an autonomous (different from the
English), rich, and vibrant national identity as globally exciting and competitive.
Although globalization may have contributed to bringing Irish traditional step-dances to the
global stage, some traditional elements were lost, transformed, or altogether substituted by
foreign cultural traits. This process of commodification, of creating a cultural artifact for mass
consumption, raises questions of authenticity, identity, and representation of traditional values.
As you conclude reviewing this cases study, try answering these questions:
Is Riverdance a truthful representation of Irish culture? Is the hybridization of cultural forms
diluting them to the point of extinction?
Are performances that are inter-cultural in nature betraying or advancing the very cultural tenets
that they hold dear?
Hula Dance
Hula is the language of the heart, therefore the heartbeat of the Hawaiian People." —
Hawaiians have deep cultural connections to nature, chant, and dance. The hula dance evolved
from a sacred ritual known as ha’a with deep religious significance. The hula and mele (the
chanted poetry to which hula is danced) were performed at temples under the auspices of a
kahuna (priest) to honor the Hawaiian polytheistic pantheon. Performances of hula were
accompanied by drums to honor the gods and to praise the chiefs and their ancestors. Hula
dances were performed to appease and please the deities so that the people’s prayers would
be answered.
Hula hãlau (hula school)
Hula practice was sacred and governed by strict rules. Dancers were taught in a hula hãlau (a
consecrated training ground or school) run by a master teacher called a kumu hula. Men or
women of any class could receive training in the hãlau. Talented troupes of dancers could find
patronage and prestige in the royal courts.
European Influences in Hula
Hawaiians have been subjected to cultural invasion for centuries. After the arrival of European
Missionaries in 1820, many Hawaiians converted to Christianity and the new religion banned the
hula. Missionaries did not attempt to understand hula’s religious, cultural and aesthetic
significance and quickly condemned the dance for its provocative pelvic movements as a
heathen dance. Ironically, and as a testament of societal and cultural changes through time, the
hula dance once considered pagan, was eventually incorporated in Christian church services.
Today, hula performances at a worship services are common in the island.
A Paradise Island
Hula became an important cultural attraction that cultivated the imagination of tourists around
the world. One example includes the Hollywood film industry which portray the ‘paradise’ island
through stereotypical images of Pacific Islanders in grass skirts and coconut bras. The
distinctive swaying movements of the hula dance, became a part of the burgeoning Pacific
tourist trade in the first quarter of the 20th century. These sounds and sights came to signify
Hawaii whenever and wherever one encountered them.
Assigned Reading
In this article, Adria Imada traces hula’s first North American tours and appearance at the
Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893. The author discusses the controversial role of
American colonization which formalized as annexation of Hawaiian territory in 1898. She argues
that hula operated as a form of gendered and sexualized colonial exhibition which brought
Hawaiian culture into national and global consciousness.
The Poetry of Mele
Mele is the chanted poetry to which hula is danced. We could say that hula is a choreographed
interpretation of a poetic text called mele. The poetry of mele is communicated in hula through
the use of symbolic hand gestures representing both concrete and abstract ideas. As the dancer
enacts the story told by mele, one or two hands can form a symbol for specific objects (such as
a flower, a wave in the ocean, or a mountain) or convey an emotion such as love or nostalgia.
Hula and mele share a symbiotic relationship: without this poetic text, there is no basis for the
choreographic interpretation of hula.
Hula Today
Several hula festivals emerged in the early 1970s as Hawaiian culture experience a
renaissance. The oldest and most popular festival is the Merrie Monarch Festival which invites
prestigious hãlau to compete every year. A roster of world-renown judges adjudicate
performances based on the dancers interpretation of mele, precision of footwork, hand
gestures, and costuming. These competitive performances often spark passionate debates
about authenticity as some hãlau present performances anchored in ancient and sacred
practices that intend to preserve traditions while other hãlau use tradition as a foundation to
innovate contemporary versions of hula. The video below concisely explains what it takes for a
hula school to compete and become a hula champion.
Hula Warriors
A common misconception about hula is that it's a dance tradition strictly for women. In ancient
Hawaii, men danced hula to the sounds or drum beats. The best dancers in a hãlau were
chosen to become warriors. Today, Ke Kai O Kahiki, one of Hawaii's most famous male hula
schools, carries on this tradition by telling warrior stories with dance. This short video illustrate
how to dance and train like a warrior.
Unlike the swaying and gentle moves of female hula, male hula performances are characterized
by swifter and vigorous moves, stomping, and chanting. This short video illustrates the history
and training of male hula dance.
Hula Dress
Traditional hula costuming was made of kapa, a material made from pounded mulberry bark,
fashioned into pa'u (skirts) wrapped around the waist. Men wore their pa'u over a loincloth. Male
and female dancers further adorned their bodies with garlands of leaves worn on the head,
shoulders, ankles, and writs. Rattlers made of whale teeth, bone, or shells were also worn as
wristlets and anklets. Both men and women performed bare chested until missionaries insisted
they wear a holoku or loose cotton gown covering the dancer from neck to toes.
Today, dressing varies per hula halau school. Generally, hula is danced barefoot; while male
dancers have chests uncovered, female dancers wear colorful tops and ankle length skirts with
loose hair. Traditional garlands and rattlers are still a visual signature in hula performances.
Hula has evolved from being a sacred ritual to a commercialized form of entertainment. Outside
Hawaii, hula has become a global art form that inspired the imagination of many practitioners.
There are an estimated 40 hula schools in Holland, over 600 in Mexico, and at least 1,000 in
Japan. In mainland USA and Hawaii, there are many hula schools that strive to negotiate the
traditional versus commercial innovations of this ancient art form.
Interculturalism implies a meeting place, an ongoing process of cross-pollinating and
interactions where cultural traits are combined to produce new works. In our current times, there
are many examples in which performance traditions are merged in a process of hybridization,
cross-pollination, and reciprocal influences.
The three case studies included in this module exemplify the continuous process of evolution
and adaptation. The Twelve Girls Band integrated elements of traditional Chinese music with
borrowed elements from jazz, rock, techno, and pop performing styles. Riverdance created a
global showcase of local Irish dance while hula dance was transformed from a ritual
performance to a highly commercialized art form.
In sum, this module showcases the processes by which our globalized world is changing and
challenging pre-established concepts of authenticity. A growing interest in the global
representations of the local and the marketing of the local in the global stage has undoubtedly
contributed to the commodification of local art forms.
Interpreting Dance
As we explore the case studies on this module, we will find that dance’s numerous postures and
movements carry multiple significances. A dance can be entertaining, an exercise routine,
practiced to enhance health, convey a political message, and shed light on cultural attitudes
toward sex and gender relationships. In order to infer the meaning of dance, we must consider
three issues.
The use of space and relationship between the dancers
A Middle Eastern line dance positions multiple dancers side by side in a horizontal arrangement,
whereas a couple dance brings two people together face to face within an intimate space. Line
dance is restricted to individuals of a single sex with limited physical contact between dancers.
This linear configuration mirrors the physical separation of the sexes in other aspects of daily life
like that of in the Middle East. In contrast, most dances of Western European origin unite the
two dancers in an embrace that exposes patterns of flirtation. This spatial configuration of
couple dances may reveal assumptions about proper relationships between men and women in
Western societies.
Stereotyped movements and postures
Posture and specific stereotyped movements can assert or challenge gender and cultural
norms. In tango, prescribed roles as leader and follower are assigned to male and female
dancers, respectively. The very steps of the dance aid in affirming social constructs of male
dominance. In capoeira, the evasive movements of the two contestants highlight and reinforce
long-held beliefs on cleverness and superiority of character.
Prop, dress, and settings as bearer of meaning
When studying a particular dance form we must take into consideration its conventional props,
dress, and setting. Body movements are conditioned and built on these distinctive tools. For
instance, we cannot interpret classical ballet without considering the ballerina’s costume of a
tutu and her toe shoes. Likewise, we cannot interpret tango’s sexuality and gender norms
without the female dancer’s heeled shoes and provocative skirt. A spontaneous capoeira spar
performed in the street will have a different meaning and outcome from the same spar taking
place in a capoeira tournament. The props, the dress, and the setting (or place where the dance
takes place) are critical to meaning-making.
Patterned movements are part of all rituals, from courtship to religion, all around the world.
Analyzing spatial relationships, movements, and contextual aspects of the dance can help us
understand the many ways in which we use our bodies to represent and affirm important social
and cultural tenets.
If I could tell you what I mean, there would be no point in dancing!
Isadora Duncan
Dance as a bearer of meaning
Bodies in movement can create a rich vocabulary of non-verbal aspects with multiple
constructions of meaning. Tango is a living tradition with continuously shifting significance
through time and place. The settings in which tango is practiced and the audience to which it is
targeted are critical in determining tango’s meaning. The tango practiced at home in Argentina
is radically different from the tango showcased on TV shows such as “Dancing with the Stars” or
the tango danced in a diaspora community outside Argentina. Tango, as a multifaceted and
always-changing tradition, embraces different meanings according to its performance practice
and the settings in which it is performed.
Read the assigned article "Entangled Tangos" by Ana Cara below to learn more about the three
different tango traditions identified by the author: home tango, tango for export, and nomade
Tango music and dance has its origin around the 1880s in the outskirts or slums of Buenos
Aires known as arrabales. Rural Argentine gauchos (cowboys of the pampas) and African
influences joined with the musical traditions brought by European immigrants to create the
Tango originated in the brothels of Buenos Aires where compadritos (a type of urban gaucho)
both lover and pimp, met with female dancers, often prostitutes of immigrant descent. Early
controversies about the acceptance of tango in Argentina as a reputable social dance focused
on the dance’s overt representation of sexuality and its links to these sites (i.e., brothels) of
illegitimate encounters.
Four compadritos in 1906 chatting and singing along a guitar in a conventillo (tenement house)
in the slums of Buenos Aires
From 1840s to 1940, millions of immigrants poured into Argentina. Most of them came from Italy
and Spain but some also from France.
From 1840s to 1940, millions of immigrants poured into Argentina. Most of them came from Italy
and Spain but some also from France.
The compadrito, the quintessential tango male figure, was a native-born, street tough guy, and
an important figure in the development of tango.
The compadrito, the quintessential tango male figure, was a native-born, street tough guy, and
an important figure in the development of tango.
The Bandoneon
The bandoneón, tango’s signature instrument, was brought to Argentina by German immigrants.
The distinctive, nostalgic sound of the bandoneón merged with the syncopated rhythms of
traditional gaucho and African style to give tango its distinctive rhythmic sense. The musical
foundation of tango features a strong and regular beat, easy to follow on the dance floor.
Formerly associated with old men who enjoyed the tango, the bandoneon has experienced a
revival since 2000. Young musicians (often male) are attracted to the contemplative sound of
this tango instrument and it is not uncommon to see them performing in the streets of Buenos
Aires. Tango bands comprised of youthful musicians are currently merging elements of
traditional tango with rock, punk, rap, techno, and more.
You can take a peak at this contemporary tango band, Fernandez Fierro, with a row of
bandoneones (in plural form) in concert. Can you appreciate the energy and rock-like feel of
their presentation?
The Embrace
Themes of overt sexuality and male dominance are embedded in the choreography of the
dance. In a tight embrace, the man advances leaning his stiff torso over the female partner as a
statement of both dominance and protection. Dancers move in circular motion performing a
series of standard motions called ‘steps’ or ‘figures’ displaying intricate footwork.
To explain the feeling of the tango’s embrace an instructor explains:
“The first step for the dancers is moving into each other’s embrace, peacefully. An air of quiet
reassurance from the man says to the lady, come to me and trust me. The gentleman should
hold the lady in his arms like a baby during the dance so that she feels safe, secure and happy.”
A female dancer shares her point of view:
“When I embraced my tango partner, I embrace the person – I embrace who the person is.
Really HUG him. With love. Real love. [I] Just completely surrender and give myself, my heart
to them, no questions asked.”
The Poetry
Nostalgia for a heterosexual communion based on love and companionship, the longing for a
woman companion, not the presence of an instrument of lust.
-Ana Cara
In spite of the overt sexual overtones of the dance, tango’s lyrics speak about nostalgia for a
heterosexual communion based on love and companionship. Lyrics are overwhelmingly sung by
men longing love and companionship. Most tango songs are male confessions of
uncorresponded love and betrayal. The female, in tango lyrics, is portrayed as an archetype of
unattainable love and desire, not as an instrument of lust. Lyrics are often anchored in the past
and express dramatically pessimistic views of life and love.
The lyrics below, belong to the first verse of a well-known tango titled, Naranjo en Flor,
composed in 1944 by Virgilio Exposito with the lyrics written by Homero Expósito.
Naranjo en flor (Blooming Orange Tree)
Sung by iconic tango singer Roberto Goyeneche.
Era más blanda que el agua,
que el agua blanda,
era más fresca que el río,
naranjo en floor...
Y en esa calle de estío,
calle perdida,
dejo un pedazo de vida
y se marcho...
She was softer than the water,
than the soft water,
she was fresher than the river,
orange tree in bloom...
And in that summer street,
lost street,
she left a piece of life
and she left...
Cambalache ("Junkshop")
Cambalache is another traditional tango composed in 1934 by Enrique Santos Discépolo. The
lyrics portray a pessimistic worldview anchored in a better past and predicting an apocalyptic
Que el mundo fue y sera una porqueria ya lo se…En el quinientos seis y en el dos mil también!
..Pero que el siglo veinte es un despliegue de maldad insolente. Ya no hay quien lo niegue.
Vivimos revolcados en un merengue y en un mismo lodo, todos manoseados…
That the world was and it will be filthy, I already know…In the year five hundred and six and in
two thousand too!
..But, nobody can deny that the twentieth century is a display of insolent malice.
We live sunk in a fuzz and in the same mud, all well-worn…
Home Tango
At home in Argentina, tango is a social dance practiced at the milongas, a venue for social
dance were tangueros (people who dance or play tango) gather at night. At the milongas, tango
is dance by all, transcending differences of age, skin color, or body size. Tango is practiced
there as an intimate dance that uses seduction through a playful contestation of bodies. The
proximity and intimacy of the tango embrace renders internal feelings and emotions between
the dancers through a dialogue of bodies. Indeed, during the dance, dancers are not supposed
to talk but rather communicate through their bodies by reading and sensing the subtle intentions
of their partners. As explained in the assigned article by scholar Ana Cara, this type of tango is
“a tango of intimacy and understatement, soulful, and not intended for showing.” It is concise,
compact, without any extra mannerism. This is the true tango of Buenos Aires.
The video below shows professional dancers Miriam Larici and Leonardo Barrionuevo dancing
in a milonga venue. Their moves are intimate, concise, compact and without extra manierism.
Tango for Export
"Tango for export" does not always indicate a kind of tango executed for sale outside of
Argentina. It also embraces local performances staged for the foreign eyes and ears of tourists.
Ana Cara
When tango spread outside of Argentina, it was considered exotic and was exploited as a
commodity. In 1983, “Tango Argentino,” the first tango show premiered in Paris and was then
brought to the United States and Asia. This dramatically performed dance spectacle brought
tango to the stage and emphasized elements of the dance that were accessible and universal to
all audiences. Tango’s popularity around the globe is grounded in universal notions of sex,
love, passion, eroticism, and connection. Indeed, all of us can relate to these common universal
aspects of our human experience. Tango conquered the imagination of audiences around the
world as an explosive, flamboyant, and provocative expression of passion and love. Passion is
sold to entertain, to make profit.
This tango conceived for export and profit, is the staged version of tango, that one that
capitalized on the external aspects of the tradition, the exotic, fanciful, flamboyant, flashy, and
showy. It is a choreographed version of tango that draws on traditional tango dance but also on
modern dance, cabaret, and even ballet.
In Argentina, tango shows are a common tourist attraction. Here, skilled dancers move through
pre-established choreographies along a plot that usually recalls the history of tango. The shows
can be enjoyed along a fancy dinner with prime traditional Argentine beef and assortments of
This extraordinary tango couple, Miriam Larici and Leonardo Barrionuevo, has conquered TV
shows such as "So You Think You Can Dance" and "Dancing with the Stars." They live in Los
Angeles and serve as choreographers and dancers for a variety of tango espectacles in the
USA. In this video you will see their flashy and provocative performance maximizing the 'tango'
effect for the big screen.
Tango in the Movies
"This is the tango, the song of Buenos Aires, born in the suburbs, today queen of the whole
From "Song of Buenos Aires"
Movies such as Scent of a Woman (1992), Moulin Rouge (2001), Shall We Dance (2004), Take
the Lead (2006), and Fading Gigolo (2013), have tapped into these stereotyped concepts
exaggerating the dramatic elements of the dance often betraying the actual steps of the dance.
Most tango scenes in these movies feature dance couples adopting a severe and rigid stance
and moving with assertiveness and drama from one side to the other in the dance floor.
Below you can compare two very different tango movie scenes. The first video shows the
movie Tango, an Argentine film directed in Spanish by Carlos Saura. The scene featured here
shows a traditional milonga (a gathering place to dance tango) and internationally acclaimed
tango dancer Juan Carlos Copes with Cecilia Narova. Both performers very skilled in tango
technique, dance here a quintessential Argentine tango known as La Cumparsita. Look at their
smooth, sensual movements. Their eye contact is intense but deeply caring. The footwork
toward the end of the video is masterful. In the background, the scene shows a tango orquesta
típica (a typical tango orchestra) comprised of bandoneones, violins, piano, and string bass.
Shall We Dance?
In contrast, the romantic comedy, Shall We Dance, shows Jennifer Lopez trying to teach
Richard Gere to follow the lead. A concept radically foreign to tango as, traditionally, the male is
and must be the leader for the dance. They employ fast jerky movements to portray a version
of tango that is overtly charged with gender tensions and dominance struggles. The scene is
accompanied by a contemporary rendition of tango music by the band Gotan (the word tan-go
reversed), merging elements of traditional tango with techno, rock, and electronic music.
In Argentina, tango practice moves beyond issues of gender and sexuality, evolving from a
comment on poverty and underground living into a symbol of Argentine national pride. Tango
practiced at home by tangueros is an intimate and soulful dance not intended for showing.
Argentines have learned to capitalize on the universal appealing of tango by commodifying
passion. Tango shows became popular in the 1980s and continue to be a touristic attraction of
Buenos Aires. Outside Argentina, tango has captured the imagination of mass-audiences and it
is often portrayed as a dramatic dance to illustrate issues of gender tension and dominance.
“Capoeira is not an outfit that we wear in certain moments or for special occasions. Capoeira is
our own skin. It is with us at every moment.”
-Mestre Acordeon
In the seventeenth century, the Jesuit preacher and missionary Frei Antonio Vieira described
Brazil as having 'the body of America and the soul of Africa.' Roughly the size of the USA, and
the world's fifth-largest country, Brazil encompasses nearly all of South America and borders
most of the continent's other nations.
In 1531, King João III of Portugal sent the first settlers to Brazil, who soon discovered that the
land and climate were ideal for growing sugar cane. At first the Portuguese enslaved the
indigenous population, despite their resistance, hunting them into the interior. The first Africans
arrived in Brazil in 1538 to replace the indigenous labor, and from the 1580s, the forced
migration of Africans to Brazil increased dramatically. During the seventeenth and eighteenth
centuries, most Africans were taken from Angola and the areas on the Indian Ocean coast such
as Madagascar and as far north as Zanzibar. In the mid eighteenth century, when the sugar
boom was at its height, around 40 percent of Brazil's enslaved population was involved in the
cultivation of sugar cane. Slave uprisings and other factors helped to undermine the slave trade
system and, finally, in 1888, Princess Regent Isabel issued the emancipation decree, the socalled Golden Law.
Today, Brazil's economy, demography, cultures, politics, faiths and religions have been
considerably shaped by its history of enslavement and the country's considerable African
Capoeira: An art form practiced by African slaves in Brazil as a form of resistance to colonial
Mestre: The capoeira group leader, master, or expert practitioner.
Mestiçagem: The process of mixing races and cultural heritages
Racial Democracy: A social ideology that sought to promote a harmonious mixing of European,
African, and Indigenous people as the foundation of a unique Brazilian national identity.
Capoerista: A capoeira practitioner
Embodied knowledge: Knowledge is transmitted by Mestres via their bodies.
The origins of capoeira are subject of much debate. There are different theories about the origin
of capoeira but all of them recognize its African influences to different extends. Some scholars
believe that capoeira derives from an African dance called n’ogo, also known as “Dance of the
Zebra” that was performed by two male contestants as part of a female initiation ritual.
Many people believe that capoeira was a disguise for training and building strength in
preparation for battles and uprisings, and was therefore a tool of resistance. Many accounts
propose that slaves disguised their fighting games as a dance so slave masters would not see
that they were training themselves in an art that could disarm, confuse and defeat an opponent
of any size-without weapons.
Whether the practice was brought from Africa or created in America, capoeira served as a way
to resist oppression, transmit culture and traditions, and lifts spirits of enslaved Africans.
Capoeira created a culture of camaraderie amongst Africans in the New World.
Friendly Sparring
Capoeira is a physical dialogue where players signify and communicate with their bodies as
they play (jogar) what they commonly call a game
Laurence Robitaille
Many anthropologists, historians and capoeira practitioners claim that capoeira is an ambiguous
genre: not exactly a dance, nor a fight, nor a sport or a game with definite winners and losers.
Capoeira, as it is practiced today, is not a fight and does not display violence. It is a friendly
sparring that does not focus on injuring the opponent but rather emphasizes skill. The
performance takes place in the capoeira ring termed roda, pronounced “HAW-dah.”
Participants, known as capoeristas, take turns playing instruments, singing and sparring in pairs
in the center of this human circle. Inside the roda, the capoeristas attempt to outmaneuver, trip,
or strike each other while coordinating their dance movements to music. Capoeira is about
dance, movement, anticipating the moves of the opponent, making deceptive moves, and
tricking the partner.
Capoerira has no codified system for determining a winner. Capoeristas defend themselves by
avoiding impact rather than by blocking strikes. Games are typically inconclusive as dominance
in the roda is subjective to psychological and aesthetic parameters. Who moves more
gracefully? Who’s movements are more deceptive? Who has felt to the floor? are all indicative
of dominance in this friendly sparring.
The Ginga
The ginga or ‘the sway’ is the fundamental movement in capoeira. Neither strictly an attack nor
a defense, the ginga is a swinging movement from side to side in wide-legged stances that all
capoeiristas learn to master first. All other movements are then added to this fundamental
One of the most compelling characteristics of capoeira is the extensive use of acrobatic display:
movements such as cartwheels, and flips, and even turning their bodies upside down on the
arms or head. The game employs a diverse array of deceiving techniques. Feints are an
important skill for a capoerista. There are also a series of ground attacks such as sweeps, trips,
kicks, or head butt that are used to knock the adversary to the ground.
Malícia is the word used by capoeira Mestres (Masters) to indicate a fundamental trait of the art.
In contrast to its English cousin malice, the Brazilian term, denotes positive aspects of
character. The term, translated here as “cunning,” indicates a number of qualities from: a talent
for deception, viciousness, playfulness, quick wit, savvy, aesthetic flare, and street smartness.
The Music
Music and dance in capoeira performance are tightly interwoven. There can be no capoeira
without music. Music shapes the game: determines the beginning and end of a game, the tone,
and the speed. The rhythms affect how the game unfolds, control the severity of competition,
and sets the style of interaction. All capoeiristas must know how to sing and play and
instrument. Capoeira’s stylized movements are accompanied by a capoeira orchestra called the
The berimbau
The quintessential instrument in the orchestra is the berimbau, a single-stringed musical bow
with a gourd resonator. It looks like an archer’s bow with an attached hard-shelled gourd at the
bottom that acts as a resonator. It is played by striking the string with a stick and changes in
register are obtained by pressing the string with a large metal coin or smooth stone against it.
The number of berimbau in a traditional bateria is three.
Percussion instruments
Other percussion instruments in the bateria are:
The atabaque, a tall cylindrical drum
The pandeiro is a circular drum similar to the tamborine
The agogo resembles a double cowbell
The reco-reco is a scraper.
Along the sounds of the bateria, capoeristas sing songs. Songs recall epic stories about famous
capoeristas and remind those at the roda that the art arose through violence and struggle. The
songs encourage capoeiristas to feel the past and to feel the weight of a once violent art into
their bodily experiences.
Game of Capoeira
The documentary below features Mestre Acordeon recounting the history of capoeira and the
different meanings this art form has adopted as it travels to communities outside Brazil.
Acordeon is an active capoeira master who teaches in the San Francisco Bay Area and abroad
since 1979. Native of Bahia, in northern Brazil, he has been recognized as a pioneer capoeira
Mestre who links traditional capoeira practices with contemporary trends outside Brazil.
Capoeira is an Afro-Brazilian art that combines elements of dance, music, and martial arts. As
its heart, capoeira commemorates strong elements of resistance against injustices suffered by
enslaved Africans. By making pervasive reference to the history of capoeira in songs, music
generates a sonic world that evokes capoeira’s meaning and past. Once disguised as a
harmless dance, today capoeira is a joyful and defiant expression of Afro-Brazilian culture.
Capoeira is a global phenomenon practiced worldwide that acquires different meanings as it is
adopted by practitioners outside of Brazil.
Recontextualizing Performances
Performance is never insignificant. It is simultaneously a strong and unifying communication tool
and a revealer of cultural identity. It is through performance that cultures communicate their
sensibility and understanding of the world. Performance is always a bearer or meaning.
When the expression of peoples and places is reinvented; when the sounds and movements
have been separated from their original sources of identity, performance has been
In this module, we will explore how performances from around the world can be borrowed,
evoked, hybridized, appropriated, or altogether reinvented in Western re-interpretations of
peoples and places.
Performance is simultaneously a strong and unifying communication tool and a revealer of
cultural identity.
Kabuki Theater
“Art lies somewhere in the shadowy frontiers between reality and illusion."
-Chikamatsu Monzaemon
What is Kabuki?
Kabuki is a genre of traditional Japanese theater that combines a number of disciplines
including music, drama, dance, make-up, costumes, and mime. It encompasses brilliantly
colored costumes, elaborate staging devices, romantic love plots, highly codified movements,
and actors trained in dance, drama, and singing. The word ‘Ka-Bu-Ki’ is comprised of three
characters meaning Ka ‘music,’ Bu ‘dance’ and Ki ‘acting.’
Kabuki, one of Japan's most valued cultural treasures, started as a rebellious theatrical form in
Kyoto during the 17th century. Although performed only by male actors today; Kabuki was
originated as a form of entertainment performed by a woman named Okuni.
Origins of Kabuki
Kabuki originated among the common people in the Edo period (1600-1867) of Japan. Until the
Meiji period, Kabuki continued to evolve by incorporating interesting narratives and performing
styles from many other types of stage entertainment, such as nō, kyōgen, and bunraku. Kabuki
began as a suggestive dance in which troupes of women entertainers in and around Kyoto put
on revue-like shows dancing in a row. One particular troupe was led by a woman called Okuni,
and it is she who is said to have created Kabuki in or around 1603. The origin of kabuki was
linked to prostitution and in an attempt to erase its connection with this practice, women were
banned from the kabuki stage in 1629. Over the years, Kabuki has evolved into a highly
complex and sophisticated art.
Okuni was a female temple dancer to whom the origin of Kabuki is attributed. She was an
iconoclast who dressed in men's attire and wore foreign hats to amuse audiences along her
troupe in which women performed as men. Her dances were enhanced with with seductive
humor and pantomime and performed outdoors on the banks of Kyotos's Kamo River. Okuni
became famous by her portrayal of a handsome men who makes passionate love to a
courtesan. Her lusty and explicit pantomime captivated the imagination of commoners who
flocked to see her performances. As her popularity grew, high-class samurai began attending
her shows disguising themselves as to conceal their identities. Okuni's commanding
performances prompted the support of Emperors and lay the foundation for kabuki theater. She
died in 1610.
The Pleasure Quarters
In an effort to control rapidly growing prostitution practices in theater circles, the Shogunate (a
military official) confined theaters and teahouses to an area known as "the pleasure quarter." All
actors and prostitutes were required to live and work within its limits and it was common for
female actresses to also work as bathhouse girls. Many pleasure seekers were attracted to
kabuki and their passionate penchant over performers brought about heated brawls in the
audience. Kabuki became a rampant vehicle for prostitution and was called yu-jo-kabuki
(pleasure women's kabuki). Attempting to combat this situation, the Shogunate put a ban on all
female stage performers in 1629. Young boys replaced women in wakashu kabuki (young
men's kabuki) but moral vice continued to endure. Finally, in 1652, a decree stated that only
mature males could be kabuki actors and yaro kabuki (men' kabuki) was established. This is the
kabuki tradition practiced today in Japan.
Female: yu-jo kabuki
Male : Wasashu Kabukii
yaro kabuki
Kabuki Today
Kabuki actors inherit both, the performance tradition and the illustrious name of their forefathers.
Kabuki today is still very much alive. Though the main body of the repertoire comes from the
17th, 18th and 19th centuries, new kabuki works are also incorporated to this traditional longstanding repertoire. Most kabuki plays are about the lives of common people for whom the
repertoire was accessible and fascinating. One particular attraction is the double love-suicide
scenes which inspired a considerable body of traditional works.
The Onnagata Character
(female character)
One of the most remarkable features of kabuki is the onnagata character: the male actor who
specialized in female roles. Acting in the onnagata role is highly codified as the actor trains to
display the most essential traits of a woman’s speech, movement, looks, and gesture patterns.
Through stylized feminine costuming, elaborated wigs, whitened faces, falsetto voices, and
seductive shoulders' sways, the onnagata character portrayed an idealized Japanese feminine
identity. While this tradition of men playing women’s roles does also exist in China and other
countries, in Japan it continues to flourish as a treasured art form.
In 1969 the National Theater established the Kabuki Actor Training Center to provide two years
of instruction to aspiring performers from outside the kabuki world.
"I do not represent a woman, but I suggest the essence of a woman. The audience is then
drawn into believing the illusion I created.
Tamasaburo Bando V
A Hereditary Art Form
One of kabuki’s defining features is that the art is hereditary. All the major kabuki actors are
members of distinguished acting families than can trace their lineage back for hundreds of
years. Actors inherit both, the performance tradition and the illustrious name of their forefathers
(ancestors). For example, Ichikawa Danjûrô IX is the 9th acting generation in the Ichikawa
Traditionally, kabuki is passed from father to son or to an adopted male who will inherit the
father's name after death. Hereditary and adoptive lineages of actors have maintained precious
acting traditions throughout the years. Actors train in music, dance, and martial arts.
Actor Tamasaburo Bando is a national treasure in Japan and an undisputed star when it comes
to playing onnagata female role. He was adopted by a kabuki actor. Being adopted into kabuki
is the only way of becoming a kabuki actor if you are not born into an acting family. Watch
Tamasaburo in a compilation of his most famous onnagata performances.
The Stage
The kabuki stage is equipped with elaborate mechanisms to assist in rapid and effective change
of settings and role’s transformations. The stage has a rotating surface that allows rapid
scenery changes and is further equipped with several gadgets like trapdoors through which the
actors can appear and disappear. The ceiling has rigging for chunori, enabling actors to 'fly'
above the audience harnessed with wires. Another highlight of the kabuki stage is the
hanamichi or 'flower walk,' a long runway platform to the left of the stage that is used for
dramatic character entrances and exits and brings kabuki actors closer to the audience. The
underworld of the kabuki state is called naraku, literally meaning 'hell,' and hides the impressive
engineered stage machinery. The largest theater today is the Kabuki-za in Tokyo, which seats
2,600 and features shows lasting four hours.
There exists no single, unified art form called kabuki. There are dozens of varieties or versions.
The kabuki acted by the Ichikawa family and that acted by the Onoe family are so different that
actors of one family will not act in plays belonging to the other family
James R. Brandon
Kabuki and Video Games
Kabuki performances can last up to four hours. This 5 minute documentary will introduce you to
the types of plays that form the core repertoire of kabuki. The singing and vocal style as well as
the stylized movements of actors convey an idealized perception of beauty, love, and the
human condition. Enjoy this short synopsis of one of Japan's leading forms of entertainment.
Kabuki for XBox
Traditional Japanese theater- with its codified acting, postures, costumes, props and sounds- is
not easy to appreciate by Western audiences. The 2001 video game titled Kabuki Warriors,
released for the Microsoft Xbox was published by Crave Entertainment and earned the
distinction of being named “Worst Game of 2001.” The game was a massive financial failure for
Crave Entertainment. Watch the trailer for Kabuki Warriors below (the first couple of minutes will
do the trick) and compare this product to previous stylized performances referencing art forms
discussed throughout the semester.
What could have the inventors of Kabuki Warriors done differently to make their product more
marketable to a broader audience not familiar with Kabuki performance?
Peking Opera
Peking Opera or Jingju is a type of Chinese Opera distinguished by its liveliness, colorful and
fast-moving scenes with goons and bamboo drumsticks accompanying the actor’s every
movement. The origin of this art form goes back to the 1790s, when Emperor Qianlong brought
Anhwei opera troupes to Peking, which then became the central developing point.
Almost every style of acting used in the history of Chinese drama can be found in Peking Opera:
agile acrobatics, colorful fighting scenes, skillfully painted faces, brilliant exuberant costumes,
delightfully feminine and graceful stylized movements of ladies at the emperors’ courts, and the
dignified movements of governors and scholars in stories from Chinese classic literature.
Origins of Chinese Theater
Although Peking Opera itself is not an ancient art, it was developed as an outgrowth of a well
established theatrical tradition. As in Western drama, the origins of Chinese drama can be found
in religious ceremonies and festivals that were held during the Chou dynasty back in 1, 122 B.C.
During the Manchu Dynasty, a style of local opera flourished in the province of Anhwei and
exerted a great influence. This style became so important the Emperor Qianlong was attracted
to it and brought Anhwei opera tropes to the capital city, Beijing, which became the central
developing point of Peking opera. This move to the capital in 1790 is regarded as the birth of the
Peking opera. The word Jingju literally means "theater of the capital."
Peking Opera is a highly codified form of theater that combines music, dance, drama, make-up,
costumes, and acrobatics. Unlike Western opera, in which the music is the single and most
important feature in a play, all elements of the play in Peking opera have the same importance.
An actor trains in singing, gymnastics, miming, and makeup art. This integration of all arts is one
of Peking Opera's most remarkable characteristics.
After 1911, when the Manchu dynasty was defeated, palace actors no longer received
employment from the court. They either joined existing troupes or remained at the tea-houses
forming new troupes.
Young actors received training privately from actors in the troupes, but often they were born into
acting families and the art was handed down from father to son. Women roles were
impersonated by men until the 1870s, when women were allowed to participate in theater.
In today's Peking opera, cross-dressing is common practice, with male actors performing female
roles and vice versa. Audiences are appreciative of performative cross-dressing for the high
mastery of acting required to pull off the part.
The art of Peking opera is a cultural landmark of China. Ingrained not only in rich traditions but
also in classic Chinese literature and history.
Plays and Learning
Peking Opera plays are mostly based on historical novels or traditional stories about civil,
political and military struggles. Some operas such as the famous, Monkey King, are set on
mythological periods before any historical records. Though the vast majority of works are set in
a particular period of Chinese history and were used as a vehicle for learning about the past and
fostering a shared Chinese identity. The Chinese government considers this traditional style of
drama relevant to be taught at the elementary and secondary levels in public schools.
Peking Opera Today
Unlike Western opera, music is not the most important feature, only a part of the whole. Small
orchestras, mostly of percussion instruments, punctuate the actors’ speech and movements.
The orchestra provides sound effects and supports the distinctive singing style of actors on
stage. Albeit, difficult for Westerns audiences to fully appreciate, the unique style of drama can
be truly fascinating. This very short documentary (2 minutes long) will help you grasp its
distinctive character.
Shen Yun: A Heritage Spectacle
You may be familiar with ubiquitous advertisements for a show titled Shen Yun. Claiming to
“preserve the best of China’s cultural heritage and sharing it with the world” a group of Chinese
artists came together in New York in 2006 with that vision in mind. This spectacle draws on
elements of Chinese Opera and traditional Chinese spiritual practices to present a breathtaking
contemporary product. Shen Yun’s extraordinary global appeal invites audiences to travel back
to the magical world of ancient China.
Study Questions:
Can you recognize in this video what elements are used by the Shen Yun production team to
make this show appealing to the global market?
How is the music in Shen Yun different from the music in Peking Opera?
In your opinion, are the producers of Shen Yun preserving or transforming Chinese culture?
Balinese Kecak
Kecak: a dance-drama
Bali is home to the kecak dance-drama. Located in the Indonesian archipelago, Bali is a
tropical and beautiful island that serves as a tourist destination for many visitors from all around
the world. Endowed with rich spiritual Hindi traditions, the Balinese practice a number of
beautiful ritual performances, many of which, have been transformed for commercial tourist
The Balinese dance-drama known as kecak is performed by a massive vocal ensemble of 200
men or more. Kecak was inspired on an ancient trance ritual called Sanghyang Dedari. During
this traditional divination ritual, a group of male singers surrounding an oil lamp engage in
rhythmic vocal chanting to induce young girls into trance. Once in trance, the girls act as
spiritual mediums to answer questions posed by the community. Divination rituals like these
were frequently practiced in Bali as a way of seeking balance between good and bad spirits.
Kecak is one of the most popular dramatic dance performances to be found on Bali.
The kecak enacts short episodes from the Ramayama, a grand Hindu epic. One of the most
popular plots involves the kidnapping of a beautiful princess (Sita) by an evil king (Rawana) and
her eventual rescue by her beloved Prince Rama and an army of monkeys. Since the chorus of
men acts out the role of the army of monkeys, kecak is also called “Monkey Chant.”
During the performance, a large chorus of men chants the short syllable “cak” in rapid and
interlocking rhythmic patterns moving hands in stunning coordination. The name kecak is taken
from the syllable 'cak' (pronounced 'chak') that is shouted repeatedly by the monkey chorus
The kecak is based on musical and some choreographic elements of the sanghyang dedari, but
it is an entirely newly developed genre. One has not supplanted the other; instead both genres
continue to co-exist in unrelated performance contexts until today.
Kendra Stepputat
A Touristic Attraction
Kecak is a relatively young genre, developed cooperatively by Balinese artists and a German
expatriate painter named Walter Spies. In the 1930s, Spies and Balinese dancers developed
kecak with the explicit purpose of meeting the tastes and expectations of Western audiences.
Since then, kecak has become a dramatic production for tourist performance and a landmark of
cultural Balinese representation to the present day. In the video below, you can watch a kecak
performance as you would find performed in the streets of Bali for tourist consumption.
Kilitan telu
Kilitan telu (kee-lee THAN thu-LOO) is a pattern of interlocking sounds and rhythms that form
the foundation of many Balinese musical genres.
In kecak, the interlocking sounds of kilitan telu are reproduced rhythmically by repeating the
syllable 'cak' as shown in the chart below. This rhythmic 8 beat cycle pattern is repeated several
times without pausing. You can practice the pattern by saying: cak, rest, cak, cak, rest, cak, cak,
Then, the same rhythmic pattern is interlocked by three different chanting groups that we will
call "Cak 1, cak 2, and cak 3." Phasing each entrance off by one beat, the sum of these
syllables creates a Balinese kilitan telu or pattern of interlocking rhythms.
Cak 1
Cak 2
An Interlocked Community
The stream of interlocking rhythms of the kilitan telu are representative of Balinese cultural
values. In every aspect of Balinese culture, from rituals to rice cultivation, Balinese people value
working together in pursuit of communal goals. Individuality, so highly sought after in Western
cultures, is less emphasized by the Balinese. The kilitan telu symbolizes a vision of cultural
interdependence, in which all parts are of equal importance and necessary to the creation of a
communal whole.
Kecak and Movies
Kecak performances have continued to spark the imagination of writers and filmmakers that
adapted its sounds and visuals to convey a variety of meanings. Here we explore two scenes in
major films that evoke kecak performance in recontextualized settings.
Baraka (1992) Documentary
The next video showcases kecak in the 1992 documentary film titled Baraka. The movie
features a collection of scenes of human life and religions. Adapted for the big screen, the
“Monkey Chant” (kecak) scene shows a stylized and dramatic performance of this Balinese art
form. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EWTWhTyINQY
We have surveyed performances that emerged in different regions of the globe and extended
worldwide. Many of these performance traditions are present in the USA where they continue to
reach wider audiences, transmitted through individuals, groups, films, or digital media. Whether
sung, played, or danced, performances in the twentieth-century continue to record the past and
adapt continuously to the present in ways that sometimes recontextualize and reinvent their
original significance. Our awareness of such nuances -between authenticity and adaptability,
tradition and change, past and present-is a core takeaway for this module. It is my wish that
when world performances enter your realm of experience (in films, video games, TV shows, or
advertisements) you may acknowledge the multiple variations that contextualization enforces
upon a performance tradition and its original meaning.