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  • Janice

Anthropology and its relationship with dance, afrobeats and representation: A reflexive commentary.

Updated: May 1, 2020

The topic of dance as a focus of study is nothing new in anthropology. Dance has always been extensively described and documented in ethnography and classic ethnographic films, with most being associated with important rituals or cultural events. The study of dance has not only been limited to anthropology but has grown in academic interest to become a separate sub-field of study, known as ‘Ethnochoreology’. Ethnochoreology etymologically means ‘the study of ethic dance’ but has expanded as a field of study to include more modern recognised dance styles like ballet. It echoes academics attempts to understand dance’s existing role within a group’s cultural history and social events through an application of academic thought, moving away from previous notions that dance is simply a static representation of a society’s history.

In the past, anthropologists would observe, analyse and interpret dance movements and costumes through a social or cultural context under a disembodied gaze. It was always rather contradictory to me how academics would go into great details about these elaborate movements, analysing what they represented and meant, yet they had not fully experienced the physiological experience of the dance themselves. They had not participated in the dance. Instead they studied these movements from a distance, a static standpoint, where they only focus on the visual aspect and ignore all other bodily senses. How could academics begin to truly understand, describe these bodily practices, or infer its importance within a community context if they had not participated and physiologically experienced it for themselves? How could the ethnographies written and ethnographic films produced by anthropologist begin to represent the other when the anthropologist themselves have not fully immersed themselves in the bodily experience? It brings our attention to a crisis of representation in anthropology, highlighting the issue on whose authority it was over a community’s representation – the academic studying the group, or the people themselves?

However, with global digitalisation and an increased accessibility to cameras, and media, there has been a shift in recent years, with communities taking control of their representation through the production of their own media. This is known as indigenous media and a notable example of this would be Maori TV, which has begun to gain popularity internationally.

Through the process of creating this project, I found myself asking: Could Afrobeats be considered a form of indigenous media? Afrobeats music videos and media often featured a variety of upbeat fusion music and dance moves influenced by West African elements, and has become more accessible and popular globally. Perhaps it could be considered a form of indigenous media to an extent. The term ‘Afrobeats’ itself was coined in the UK to place a label on a new range of sound emerging in the London music scene, one that reflected the shifting demographics with an increase of British Africans residents living in British cities, where most were either children of migrants or were migrants themselves. These were individuals whose relation with Africa were unclear as most adopted a dual identity, identifying as a British citizen but still held onto their African heritage. In this sense, Afrobeats can be seen as representative of a growing group of minorities that lived in British cities, living with dual identities, and is socially transformative because it allows a way for these individuals to take control of their image and representation, thereby, giving them a voice to be heard. But is Afrobeats a form of indigenous media? This is something that I cannot answer confidently at this moment in time.

As Margaret had mentioned in the film, the British-Nigerian identity that both her and Foyin have is unique because although they both grew up as a minority in the UK, whenever they visited Nigeria, there wasn’t a complete sense of home there either. This leads us to question the idea of home, what is considered home? Is it the place we were born, or is it the place we would come to settle in? With migration occurring globally, is it possible to link home to a single place anymore? Or has the idea of home has begun to change overtime, especially in the world today where more individuals have adopted multiple national identities. Perhaps the notion of home has evolved to have different meanings to different people. To some, it might be their birthplace but for me, home has become where my family is.

On the topic of dual identities, it is one that I can resonate with on a personal level. When I first came to University and had been asked about my nationality, I would reply that I was Malaysian-Chinese. To me it was a simple answer and one that I have grown up with all my life, but it seemed to confused people and often lead to a follow up question: Are you Malaysian or Chinese? Hence, I then found myself explaining my dual identity – how I was Malaysian and how there were three main ethnic race groups in Malaysia, and that my race was Chinese, however I was not from China. Like Margaret and Foyin, I also identity as a member with a Chinese tribal group. Therefore, it was easy for me to connect with the subjects of my film, Margaret and Foyin, because although we don’t share the same experiences, we’ve encountered similar experiences to each other as individuals with dual identities that we can understand.

An example of an experience like this would be that I had also choreographed a cultural dance (‘Red Rose’) as a way of celebrating my culture, similar to Margaret’s and Foyin’s intentions. However, when watching the opening scenes of my film, their intention might not have been conveyed immediately. It is evident that sometimes the intentions of our subjects, or the filmmaker cannot easily be revealed by a camera. Margaret’s and Foyin’s intention were only revealed later in the film’s narrative through a series of interviews, which demonstrates how the camera can reveal intentions but only when asked about it directly. If the audience was to simply watch the film without an interview, it would be highly unlikely that they would be able to interpret the choreographers’ intentions to celebrate their culture by watching them dance. From the range of close-up and mid-range shots, they could have possibly perceived a sense of motion from their body’s movement but otherwise, their intentions would have remained unconveyed by solely focusing on the visual aspect. Perhaps we need to rethink the ethnographic method that strongly focuses on only the visual and adopt Sarah Pink’s proposal for a sensory ethnography – one that acknowledges all the bodily senses as a whole.

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