The Body in Folklore Keynote: Body Art & Dance

The Body in Folklore Keynote: Body Art & Dance May 14, 2016

Welcome to part 3 (of 5) of my folklore conference keynote speech. I recommend reading the intro, part 1, and part 2 first (here’s the link for part 4 if you’re skipping ahead, and the conclusion is part 5).

These two genres – body art and folk dance – are intimately connected to the body, and are also still developing in terms of depth and complexity of their scholarship.

Pravina Shukla defines body art in her book The Grace of Four Moons: Dress, Adornment, and the Art of the Body in Modern India as any aesthetic modifications and/or supplementations made to to the body. This spans temporary (clothing, makeup, jewelry) and permanent (tattoos, piercings, scarification, surgery) forms of adornment.

Shukla situates body art as part of material culture, because it fulfills the basic human need for clothing the body, along with housing and feeding it. However, Shukla observes that unlike vernacular architecture and foodways, “the examination of everyday clothing is not yet fully developed. Surveys of national dress tend to generalize, homogenize, and anonymize individuals, discounting personal interpretations of social norms. Other books focus on extreme cases – the counter-cultural youth with their tattoos, the economic elite with their enthusiasm for high fashion” (3). This is a continuation of my earlier observation, that extreme bodies seem to get more attention than mundane ones.

While many well-known examples of body art studies are from other disciplines (anthropology, fashion), folklore scholars have also made some important contributions to the study of body art. Examples include:

Sadly, we run into problems of trivialization, which multiple folklorists have noted that serious studies of children’s folklore have also faced: Shukla says “Though extraordinary dress, because of its survival and its inherent excellence, carries the scholarly attention away, the great need in body art studies is close, serious attention to everyday dress. We need to know what people think about their own clothes.” (415) And I’d add, we also need to know what people think about their own embodiment.

Due to its kinesthetic and emergent nature, dance has always been difficult to study. As the American Folklife Center points out on its web resource about dance, studying dance “presents special problems for documentation” even as it has rich associations with heritage, national identity, and ethnicity. Unfortunately, this means dance scholarship can fall prey to the assumptions people make about ethnicity and related concepts.

For example, in her 1921 book Poetic Origins and the Ballad, Louise Pound recounts the theories of her day of the origins of ballad, folk poetry, and music: the throng or the primitive horde that, in its communal swaying and singing, somehow managed to compose works of art. Taking a laudably comparative view, Pound describes worldwide instances of solo dancing and small-group dancing even among less-civilized people, thereby aiming to disprove the current ideas circulating about the interrelated history of dance and song. I realize that Pound is claimed more as a ballad scholar than a dance scholar, but her representations of bodies in her work struck me as highly sensitive given the time period she was working in.[i]

In terms of contemporary folklore scholarship on the body in dance, there’s been some excellent work which I’ll detail a bit below.

  • Laurel Horton and Paul Jordan-Smith’s work on contra dance is very attuned to the body, especially patterned and coded movements within the community
  • Rebecca Sachs Norris’s essay on embodiment and community in Western Folklore takes a body-centric approach to understanding how folk dance and ritual are similar in their facilitation of a transcendent participatory experience
  • Tom Mould, working on African-American fraternity stepping, takes a very nuanced approach to gender and sexuality, and how the dancing bodies express these attributes (there’s also a great documentary about stepping on Folkstreams)
  • Mickey Weems on the gay circuit scene (download his book for free here), their ecstatic dancing, use of substances, and so on
  • Sheila Bock and Katherine Borland on representations vs. embodiment of “exotic” identities (found in both belly dancing and salsa dancing in the U.S.)
  • My own work on the numinous, expanding on the difference between flow state and trance state, and what they both require of the body (read my article in the Journal of Ethnology and Folkloristics here).

As with the attachment of values to bodies in folk narrative, the bodily constructions in body art and folk dance are subject to stereotypes, stigma, and other forms of folk belief. These assessments impact how we view others, and how we ourselves are viewed, forming a part of a coherent cultural whole about which bodies are welcomed into which spaces, and which are treated with disdain if not outright violence. I could point to the laughably unenforceability of the transgender bathroom bills around the country, or the poor treatment that sex workers – and those suspected of being sex workers – face, as examples of how mainstream views of subcultural bodies matter.

Before moving to matters of academic context, I’d like to say a brief word about the bodies of folklorists. As Noyes observes, academics tend to be distanced from their bodies. She writes, while trying to integrate at her field site: “It was a job for them to get my body off the balcony and feeling with them. Think what it means to be an urban academic. What has my whole life been but an effort to escape the body?” (32) I suspect this has been the case for many of us.

We discuss Bakhtin’s theories of the grotesque and carnivalesque with ease, but how many of us comfortably apply those concepts to our own lives? And if we do, how many of us would admit it in public or to our peers?

Like it or not, our bodies are educators are implicated in the following arenas, which I’ll discuss next: sex education, alt-ac career paths, and the university classroom.



Bock, Sheila, and Katherine Borland. “Exotic Identities: Dance, Difference, and Self-fashioning.” Journal of Folklore Research 48.1 (2011): 1-36.

“Dance.” American Folklife Center. Web. Accessed 15 April 2016.

Hale, Matthew. “Cosplay: Intertextuality, Public Texts, and the Body Fantastic.” Western Folklore 73.1 (2014): 5-37.

Horton, Laurel, and Paul Jordan-Smith. “Deciphering Folk Costume: Dress Codes among Contra Dancers.” The Journal of American Folklore 117.466 (2004): 415-440.

Jorgensen, Jeana. “Dancing the Numinous: Sacred and Spiritual Techniques of Contemporary American Belly Dancers.” Journal of Ethnology and Folkloristics 6.2 (2012): 3-28.

Magliocco, Sabrina. Neo-Pagan Sacred Art and Altars: Making Things Whole. Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 2001.

Mould, Tom. “‘Running the Yard’: The Negotiation of Masculinities in African American Stepping.” In Manly Traditions: The Folk Roots of American Masculinities, ed. Simon J. Bronner. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2005. 77-115.

Noyes, Dorothy. Fire in the Plaça: Catalan Festival Politics After Franco. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003.

Pound, Louise. Poetic Origins and the Ballad. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1921.

Sachs Norris, Rebecca. “Embodiment and Community.” Western Folklore 60.2/3 (2001): 111-124.

Shukla, Pravina. The Grace of Four Moons: Dress, Adornment, and the Art of the Body in Modern India. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2008.

Weems, Mickey. The Fierce Tribe: Masculine Identity and Performance in the Circuit. Logan, Utah: Utah State University Press, 2008.

Wojcik, Daniel. Punk and Neo-Tribal Body Art. Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 1995.

[i] For example: “The English and Scottish ballads should no longer be inevitably related to primitive singing and dancing throngs, improvising and collaborating. We can not look upon creations of such length, structure, coherence, finish, artistic value, adequacy of expression, as emerging from the communal improvisation of simple uneducated folkthrongs. This view might serve so long as we had no clear evidence before us as to the kind of thing that the improvising folk-muse is able to create. When we see what is the best the latter can do, under no less favorable conditions, at the present time, we remain skeptical as to the power of the medieval rustics and villagers. The mere fact that the medieval throngs are supposed by many scholars to have danced while they sung, whereas modern cowboys, lumbermen, ranchmen, or negroes do not, should not have endowed the medieval muse with such striking superiority of product.” (161)

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