Encircling the dance : social mobility through the transformation of performance in urban Senegal
This thesis looks at the social significance of dance in Dakar, Senegal, both as an everyday practice and as a performing art. The boundaries commonly drawn between stage and mundane performance are shown to be irrelevant, as people circulate between performance spaces and dance forms. The dance itself is described as an elusive and ever-changing way of constructing identity, which is renewed every time it is performed. Most importantly, this thesis introduces dance as a vehicle of social mobility in its multiple dimensions, as an instrument in the politics of ethnicity in Senegal, and as a site of negotiation of gender relations. The complex interplay between the agency of local dancers and global performing circuits is also examined. Transformations in social status of performers are traced through time, space and across three genres of performance: the sabar, which is central in what I call "women's dances", folkloric performance, and recent choreographic experiments, lumped under the misleading label of "contemporary dance". The sabar and women's dance events are examined both as the local movement style that informs some of the choreographic work displayed on stage, and as a central space in which alternative gender relations are experimented with. I suggest that urban dance events have become increasingly dominated by women, for whom the dance is a convenient way of excluding men from their sociality, or including them on their own terms. Women are thus able to retain the control of important aspects of social life (the socialization of young girls, marriage negotiations, exchanging secrets on how to "tie" a husband), engage in trade and coach each other into small-scale business. Alongside the celebration of female solidarity, dance events are also moments of intense female competition. This is achieved through fashion, sexually explicit dancing and elaborate manipulation of the body. I argue that in a depressed economic climate which has turned to the disadvantage of most men, women are discreetly using their favourite form of sociality - the dance to make advances into the socio-economic domain. The argument on the performer's status through time takes the pre-colonial status stratification, particularly the figure of the Griot-performer, as a starting point. I suggest that the international career opportunities generated by the development of the folkloric genre from the 1960s onwards have helped modify the perception of the performer, albeit on a moderate scale. Further improvement has recently been achieved with the emergence of "contemporary dance". This is because the most successful performers within this experimental genre have benefited from the opportunity to promote themselves as individual artists. Moreover, when on tour abroad they are usually paid more and perform in more prestigious theatres than they do with folkloric performance, which often remains confined to "African festivals" and tourist resorts. In Senegal, they engage in collaborative work with visiting artists from Europe, North America or Japan. By contrast with the elitist character of the genre in its early days, in the 1970s, "contemporary" Senegalese dance is gradually becoming popularized, as people promote themselves as artists with a social consciousness. But the thesis also emphasizes that social mobility is not equally available to all, and that success, far from being a linear process, also contains the possibility of its own downfall: touring abroad may lose much of its appeal once people realize that they are being exploited. For performers who experiment with "contemporary" forms, social recognition can easily turn into accusations of doing "White people's stuff". This may partly explain why these performers are so keen to make their "local" grounding explicit, and why they nurture a fascination with "tradition". In a broader sense, this study also highlights the complexities of globalization processes in performance. It hints at the risks of the forms of globalization that reinforce power imbalances. Indeed, the renewed interest in the "contemporary" arts of Africa may be seen as part of a more general movement towards exploiting the creativity of African cultures. I examine people's ambivalent attitudes towards this, and argue that people perceive their own lives, as well as their status in the wider world, as deeply entangled with the representations of Africa which are projected onto the worldwide stage.