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Gregory Sporton

Real & false cultural understanding. Ideas, policy & practice for multi-ethnic Britain.

Sporton, Gregory: "Real & false cultural understanding. Ideas, policy & practice for multi-ethnic Britain", 16th International Congress on Dance Research, Corfu, Greece, 30/10-3/11, 2002.


Modern Britain is a demographically diverse and sophisticated society whose cultural policy and resources still make a significant difference to the kind of art that can realistically be presented. Dance in particular, has a been a focus of the Arts Council of England’s attempts at being creative and serving the communities of Britain, whose specific dance traditions appear to have a purchase in the flow of cultural policy. This inherently leads to a hybridity, and some interesting conflicts. The West’s insatiable appetite for the exotic meets a profoundly conservative and nostalgic immigrant group, whose expectation of the work is not its manifestation in the modern world but its ability to evoke the past. This paper is partly a tour of a confused cultural policy as it has evolved through a range of reports and discussion documents, counterposed with examples of the developments in the practice being funded. The demand for a certain kind of tradition that it be interpreted in innovative and creative ways rests uneasily with the popular rationale that brought it to light as a fundable practice in the first place. What does it mean when the gesture/meaning relationship of Bharata Natyam is displaced by the modernist separation of the gesture of communication into the gesture of significance?

The work of British South Asian dance is viewed through the prismatic legacy of a colonial past, a deeply conservative cultural history and an extension of the Western fascination with exoticism. This paper represents a moment of critical review, where the questions of what is gained, by whom and how are addressed as a means to explain the practical results of a cultural gesture.

‘The weakness of all traditional culture outside its tradition provides the pretext of improving, and so barbarically mutilating it.’ (Adorno, T., Minima Moralia, London: Verso Press, 1993, p.223).

I have suggested in my abstract that an approach to the issues for discussion is to begin by acknowledging the separate arguments made for particular practices, and then to watch how these convect towards a political or policy based settlement about the role and support for different kinds of dance practice. To this end this paper is intended as something of a clearer thinking exercise rather than as ethnographic research, though of necessity it draws on some known facts, some ethnographic concepts and some of the ideas that have informed the application of ethnography to dance. I will also discuss material from the Arts Council of England and the Runymede Trust’s recent report of Multi-Ethnic Britain as well as some other sources to show how the ideas in question pervade our thinking, and come to some conclusions. In such a short paper these may seem necessarily negative, but do not really need to be so. A pluralist society cannot please everyone, and the assumptions of pluralism can also be ethnocentric, as my paper may show.

I have begun with this interesting quotation from Adorno. My aim in selecting it is to encourage a debate about what constitutes cultural understanding in the context of a society of cultures, to ask questions about what constitutes the authority of cultural authenticity and what perspective can be taken of our own culture when it seeks to process other cultures, in a progression from observation to critique to adoption, then finally to ownership. Adorno’s critique is ranged against the idea that a work of art can be understood ‘purely on its own terms’,i and that it isn’t possible to appreciate artistic practice without an understanding of what passes for it. The premise of art is that by making it strange we lose our specialist cultivated ability to have an artistic experience, and may be trading an artistic appreciation for a cultural one. For art forms practiced where the audience may have little or no sense of its artistic intentions or cultural suppositions, a range of conclusions can be prematurely formed. The search for an audience introduces new tensions and ultimately new owners of the right to speak authoritatively about the work.

For Adorno, knowledge of tradition assists contemplation in two ways. The first is to provide a context for the work of art, and the second is to provide the circumstance for critique. The process of making strange, the temptation of seduction by the exotic, proves vapid because it misses the point and purpose of art in the first place: experiencing the validity of art is possible only through the cultural memory of others who have seen it. This is quite a promise and quite a case for tradition, that it enables this individual encounter with culture that is based on the importance of critique. Tradition, in Adorno’s account, demands a critical and familiar audience that knows and expects. The uninitiated run the certain risk of misunderstanding as they try to fit what they see into their own cultural framework. It is also not possible by this account to experience art without a concept for it or a means of understanding it. Such a concept would be based on experience and would find itself modified though experience as well. This is the effect of a developing taste or critical judgement.

Modernity, however, thrives on innovation, and from evident breaks with tradition, from a critique that rejects tradition as a technique or as an enabling programme of understanding. Innovation and creativity become the dominant values within modernity, and critique is essentially an expert field, rather than the response of individuals. [2] The project of modernity draws traditional art into its view, but uses the absence of verifiable context as the permission to adapt art. This is often in search of a mass audience without what we might describe as a traditionally cultured view as a basis for an understanding. The material for this paper provides a very interesting encounter between these views, an evident tension between different conceptions of the role of art, but one based in the workaday reality of modern Britain, and politely disputed between a number of parties.

Before proceeding to those workaday tensions, there is a deeper agenda informing the behaviour, ideas and the shape of the dances under discussion. I am going to argue that two main presumptions create confusion here between parties: the first is epistemological and the second teleological. My intention here is to identify them as concepts in the action of culture, and to show how belief systems, with their practical implications, manifest in certain ways, and can have unexpected results or implications.

The first of these, the epistemological, is the popular view of dance as a unified practice. The second, the teleological, is that the aim of all dance and all dance forms is towards a liberal, modernist social interaction, that all dance agrees to become the material of modernity, and that this is unproblematic.

Since Sachs (1937) anthropologists and ethnographers of dance have chosen to argue up the commonalities and unity of dance practices. They have invariably created taxonomies of purpose to show shared values with distinct or local manifestations. Questions of the legitimacy or seriousness of a dance practice are avoided, for reasons that are complex, but their omission assists a view of dance as a unified field. Differences have been dealt with through reconciliation, with the place of dance within a particular community argued as central, usually as a crucial part of ritual, marking significant events or indicating mood states etc. Indeed, it is this approach that excites different accounts of ethnographic practice, contrasting Sachs with Kealiinohomoku (1970), or more latterly Buckland (1999). This premise that dance is essentially unified, with common values, provides a celebratory account of dance that has furnished the theme for this conference. It is assumed that through dance we can find a more direct understanding of cultures other than our own, as it becomes about appreciating physical experience and not dependent on a common language. We may watch with the impression of objectivity or from sympathetic curiosity, or even apply our experience of seeing other forms of dance to the situation at hand. This is interesting to note, especially given the structural linguistic turn of the ethnography of dance: it seems that we can understand dance on the one hand because it behaves like language, and we can understand dance from an intercultural point of view precisely because it isn’t language. This collapsing of boundaries and sharing of practice is much treasured within dance, though it does not always possess a harmless character. It tends to create certain paradoxical positions amongst dance scholars: that dance has some universal and highly beneficial character, and yet is also somehow marginalised and requires promotion; that it can be discussed as if it is monolithic when so much of its practice is culturally specific; that support for dance is unequivocal but plenty of dancing is boring, poor or of nugatory value in relation to a statement about art, culture or physicality.

This view of dance as a carrier of cultural significance is invariably selective. It is led by categorising particular types of dancing as ethnic, rather than as artistic statement. This is the subject matter of Keali’inokohomoku (1970). I am obliged to Buckland (1999) for recently pointing out weaknesses that contemporary audiences might find to this kind of anthropology today, though I would add two problems relevant to our discussion. The first is, despite the care taken to make distinctions in local variation of other dance practices, the treatment of ballet is monolithic, and this appears problematic and parodic. The second draws on Bourdieu (1977). In ‘Outline of a Theory of Practice’, his masterful critique of anthropology, he points out that the reality of a particular model, one that might, as in this case, deal well with the Hopi Indians, can distort the model of reality when applied to a different practice. This, as Kealiinokohomoku’s essay shows, makes comparison possible, but assumes the framework of the practices to be similar (against the flow of her earlier argument), and renders the teleology insignificant. It is arguable when it might have happened, but ballet as a broadly based practice became so partly because of the differences in the means of production. Like other modernist art forms, the means of production is the location of expression, not the traditional symbolic representations or the subject matter. This produces a general problem for ethnographic accounts of dance. As Jeyasingh (1990) says, ‘Bharatha Natayam dancers came to be valued as race relation officers, cultural ambassadors, experts in multi-culturalism, anthropological exhibits – everything save dance technicians.’[3]

The problem with viewing all dances as ethnic is that the significance to the individual of their dancing, their motivations and their purposes, all of which will be informing their particular practice, all of which effect the dancing, can be lost in more general arguments and purposes for the ethnographer of the dance form.

The idea of dance as a universal practice that easily collapses differences and shares and distributes motivations is an attractive one for those seeking to argue the cultural significance of dance. This is often linked to political justification, as it has been in the UK, and quite specifically in the work of the late Peter Brinson, whose attempt to argue the unity of dance as a field of practice was deliberately political. These types of arguments have been very popular amongst the population of people working in dance and dance related occupations, but less popular with the broader community who are untroubled by the distinction between dancing for fun and dancing as art. This is because of the second, teleological issue related to modernism.

One of the interesting features of Western modernity is the idea, reflected in sources as diverse as Fukayama (1990), Jameson (1987) or Galbraith (1996), that all of humanity is focussed on the project of modernity, and that a world made of democratic capitalism, liberal tolerance and degrees of personal freedom, where we can all be rich, is the end to which all populations strive. This is sometimes derided as globalisation, by definition an evil force that puts a MacDonald’s on every street corner, a Coke in everyone’s hand though it also creates a global culture of internal reference and the promise of prosperity. It remains a moot point as to whether the tragedy and subsequent upheaval of recent times is the final resistance to this globalising project, or whether viable alternatives to modernity exist. For artistic dance practice in the UK this manifests as a series of local crises, and as a result some puzzling policy has developed.

Arguing the political significance of dance often seems a very weak affair. With a narrow audience and a trivialising media, dance in the UK is not a political vehicle of the protest kind. Its political significance ought not to be underestimated. In its more subtle manifestations, it creates moments where belief systems can exist in the same place without even suspecting the presence of an alternative way of seeing the world.

The first problem here is terminology. Virtually all the sensible material that can be encountered in this area in the UK begins with a discussion of terms. This is because of an interesting mixture in the UK, and what I would argue is an overt respect between cultures and cultural frameworks that most writers and policymakers feel needs stating and restating. The language often proves insufficient, though there is a conceptual distinction to be made between dance as identified with race or racial stereotypes and specific dance forms. The literature, like the Parekh Report (2000) or Mason (2000) or Alibhai-Brown (2001) is orderly and respectful, as well as consistent in its definitions, and I recommend those authors as useful in defining terms like race or ethnicity. However, nearly every Arts Council policy document for the past ten years dealing with cultural diversity discusses questions like ‘What is Black Dance?’ argues that there is probably no such thing, that taxonomy or support needs to be based on form and quality, and then goes on to create a policy for a wide variety of unnamed dance forms from specific geographical areas (Bryan, 1993, Arts Council 1996, Arts Council 1998, Siddall 2001). It is the absence of distinctions between types and purposes that artists in particular have clearly found exasperating (Jeyasingh, 1990, Parthasarti, 1993, Bryan, 1993). Additionally, arts policy and artistic practice are constantly on the move. South Asian dance is a deeply problematic term. As Jarret-Macauley (1997) argued, ‘there are some artists who feel completely alienated by the term ‘South Asian dance’, asserting that Indian dance or Indian Classical dance is a more appropriate term for their work. Others, experiencing the constraints of a term which refers to ethnicity and ‘place of origin’ favour freer classifications which acknowledge their relationship with Contemporary Dance in its many forms.’ [4]

The difficulty is compounded by the assumption that those dance practices located in an area as vast as the sub-continent must have something unified about them, and as is evident above they do not. Notwithstanding the difficulties of indicating the various classical forms of dance from the Indian sub-continent as belonging to a reconcilable family of practice, there are also local developments of those forms, radical departures from them, and the popular forms, like filmi dance or bhangra that are lumped in as well. Essentially their treatment in arts policy is linked, then, not to style or the ends of practice but to what Yasmin Alibhai-Brown describes as a ‘visible community’. This is a clear indication that the intention of form is less important to policy than the people doing it. We know white Europeans are capable of doing Bharata Natyam, but that is not why it attracts funding in the UK. De Marigny (1993) was closer to the mark in describing the situation at the beginning of the nineties when he suggested the ‘influence on the current artistic situation has been the movement towards funding work for social as well as purely artistic reasons.’ [5] But ethnicity is insufficient as a qualifier of difference in this case, given that certain practices and people appear to be able to buy into modernism, and others, not short of education or intelligence in any Western sense, want to resist the forces of modernity. This is not out of conservatism but from the reasonable assertion that their art is not about innovation in the modernist sense. This is art that is not intended to lead anywhere, but to reassert cultural processes in order to touch again the live current of art as social experience. In many cases, this is also not inconsistent with a modern life in the technological world.

Suggesting the ownership of attitudes and practices is dissipated by a process of enculturation or a steady absorption into the host culture is most often described as ‘assimilation’, and is discussed in this presentation in relation to ‘integration’, where a process of tolerant and mutual growth takes place, leaving all parties the wiser. Both of these approaches, as policy, look to an interestingly similar result, that at some point in the future the UK will be populated by an homogenous culture. The difference between the positions is the profile of the cultural landscape, and the extent of the incorporation into what Parekh (2000) calls ‘the national story’ of immigrant experiences, customs and mores.

As Said (1993) points out, ‘all cultures…are hybrid, heterogeneous, extraordinarily differentiated, and unmonolithic.’vi The notion of purity in cultural terms is as redundant as that of race. For classical forms hybridisation can be both shocking and banal (think of the ghastly ‘crossover’ CD), and part of Adorno’s warning at the head of this paper is an invitation to us not to ignore the qualities of difficult art. But in Western modernity, hybridity is also criticised as post-colonialism. Notwithstanding Huggan’s (2001) scepticism that post-colonialism is probably academic careerism or part of the ‘otherness industry’, a scepticism which I share, a better fate, at least in the form of the Western story of affluence, awaits those who are willing and able to incorporate their otherness into the national story. If they can do so in a way that reflects the Britain the Arts Council thinks exists they may delight critics by permitting gushing fetishism, say, of Akram Kahn’s exoticism (Mackrell, 2001) without compromising liberal standards. The hybrid forms cited as so exciting by the Arts Council (Arts Council, 1998) would be interpreted by Deborah Root (1996) as simply another example of the West’s propensity to devour the culture of others in search of new food for modernity. Because modernity is so dependent on innovation and creativity, the cultures of others can be legitimately plundered for their potential to interest us, even if it is only in passing, even if it is only partial, and especially if it is sufficiently processed to suit a European palate.

This type of hybridity makes for discomfort amongst some viewers. Traditional Indian Classicism is suspicious of colonisation of its culture by the people and ideas of Western modernity. It is also not blind to the force acting upon it (for example the renaming of the ADiTi’s magazine to ‘ExtrAdiTion’). It is this kind of treatment that Hal Foster (1999) describes as the ‘deconstructive-ethnographic…gambit’. As part of the process of valuing the ‘otherness’ of a practice, a presumed (usually negative) dominant value system is applied as the assumed basis for a much-needed revaluation. Making a show of the political virtue of doing so, creates ‘a temporal line in which one group is privileged as the new subject of history, only to be displaced by another…The result is a politics that may consume its historical subjects before they become historically effective.’ [7]

It remains difficult to see how traditional forms will survive if their only option is incorporation into modernity. There is no doubt that because of modernity exoticism will remain viable, but the resistance that Grau (2001) complains of, dismissed as cultural protectionism, deserves a little more thought than the self-justification that culture, whatever that is, is not a ‘possession or a prison’. It is clear that we have come in the West to think of it as a commodity, and anthropologists who make career moves on the back of it ought to find better justification. We also assume as logical a progression from humanity to culture to politics. As Eagleton (2000) points out, it is most often the other way around, ‘it is political interests which usually govern cultural ones, and in doing so define a particular version of humanity.’ [8]

There is no question that democracy and freedom are concepts to which we can easily subscribe. We want a tolerant and multi-ethnic society to work because we presume it will provide the kind of texture that will make for interesting lives and perhaps some interesting dancing. But it is problematic to assume that the goal of all societies and cultures is that same tolerant and liberal disposition, and that conservatives or arch-conservatives simply need to be coached from their hard-line positions from which vantage point we think they can see little or nothing. Enlightenment has an ethnocentric character. It is our presumption that suggests this as the only possible future, and within this way of looking at the world we create a teleology that is now resisted with considerable force. It cannot be argued, and I have not sought to, that tradition creates immutable practices: it does not, and in the context of dance could not as the shift between bodies of the practices is its own game of Chinese whispers. But the impetus for tradition is not solely made by innovation, accidental or otherwise, but for suitability to the ever-changing purposes of dancers.

This paper began by offering a short critique of the conceptual framework for dance forms as they manifest beyond their traditional location and culture, and suggested that, for all its qualifying practices, artists, audiences and policy makers are unable to explain differences beyond physical form. Because of the assumed unity of all dance practices, it has been suggested that common cause could be found between all people interested in dance. This presumption is not unique to dance, as the arts in general are often presumed to be a carrier of significance, ways in which cultures can transcend the problematics of language or history, and, often automatically, assume an appreciation of the much-discussed and possibly over-valued other. I have argued that geography doesn’t matter in relation to this so much as disposition, and that what becomes increasingly clear in, say, Indian classical dance is not a logical pathway to modernism, but the importance of acknowledging the power of tradition as part of its constituent form. Two important distinctions remain necessary to make: the first is the significance of the differences in dance practices, and secondly that these go beyond questions of the mystical notion of culture (which often seems to mean taste or race). The mystical respect for otherness usually ends in commodification, as modernity devours the significance of a dance. It seems clear that further misunderstandings are going to continue until all parties can agree to disagree on the legitimate purpose of a dance. Modernity is not the only logical outcome of classicism; indeed, I have suggested that classicism hardly needs an outcome at all.


[1] Adorno, T., Minima Moralia, London: Verso Press, 1993, p.223

[2] Habermas, J., ‘Modernity, an incomplete Project’, in Foster, H., Postmodern Culture, London: Pluto Press, 1985

[3] ‘Shobana Jeyasingh on Classicism’, Dance Theatre Journal, Vol. 8, No. 2. p.34

[4] Jarret-Macauley, D., Review on South Asian Dance in England, Oxford: Quality & Equality Organisation Development, 1997, p.13.

[5] De Marigny, C., Ballet International, February 1993, p.31

[6] Said, E., Culture & Imperialism, London: 1993, p.xxix.

[7] Foster, H., The Return of the Real, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1999, p.179, his italics

[8] Eagleton, T., The Idea of Culture, Oxford: Blackwell, 2000, p.7


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Buckland, T., ‘All Dances are Ethnic- but some are more ethnic than others’, Dance Research, Vol. XVII, No.1, 1999, pp.3-21

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Kealiinohomoku, J., ‘An Anthropologist looks at Ballet as a Form of Ethnic Dance’, Impulse 1969-1970, New York: Impulse Publications, 1970, pp.24-33.

Mason, D., Race and Ethnicity in Modern Britain, 2nd Edition, OxfordUniversity Press, 2000.

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Root, D., Cannibal Culture: Art, Appropriation and the Commodification of Difference, Boulder, Col,: Westview Press, 1996.

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The author

Gregory trained as a dancer at the VictorianCollege of the Arts in MelbourneAustralia, and subsequently had a substantial performing career in ballet, contemporary dance, opera and performance art. He has an MA from the University of Warwick and a PhD in Cultural Studies from the University of Sheffield. Prior to his appointment at BIAD, he was Head of Research & Graduate Studies at Laban Centre London where he remodelled the graduate school programme. His research work centres around the epistemology of dance, and in particular its intellectual history. Recent work has included papers on subjects as diverse as managing change in a dance institution, South Asian dance in modern contexts, dance technique as a technology and performing styles in performance art.

Gregory Sporton MA PhD



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