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Dance, Narratives, Heritage

Dance and Narratives


Dance as Intangible and Tangible Cultural Heritage

28th Symposium of the ICTM


Study Group on Ethnochoreology
717 July 2014
Korula, Croatia

Editor
Elsie Ivancich Dunin
Copy-editors
Kendra Stepputat
Sonja Zdravkova-Djeparoska
Ivana Katarini

ICTM Study Group on Ethnochoreology


Institute of Ethnology and Folklore Research
Zagreb, Croatia
2015

Symposium 2014
7 17 July
International Council for Traditional Music (ICTM)
Study Group on Ethnochoreology
The 28th Symposium was organized by the ICTM Study Group on Ethnochoreology,
and hosted by the Institute of Ethnology and Folklore Research
in cooperation with Korula Tourist Board
Program Committee: Irene Loutzaki (Chair),
Barbara Alge, Ivana Katarini, Kendra Stepputat
Organizational Committee: Elsie Ivancich Dunin,
Iva Niemi

Editor: Elsie Ivancich Dunin,


Copy-editors: Kendra Stepputat, Sonja Zdravkova-Djeparoska, Ivana Katarini
Cover design: Maa Hrvatin
Cover photograph: Andrija Carli, 2015, Turistika zajednica Dubrovako-neretvanske upanije
Printers: Denona
Printed copies: 200

2015, Institute of Ethnology and Folklore Research


ISBN: 978-953-6020-98-0

Cataloguing in Publication Data (CIP) is available in the Catalogue of the National and University Library
in Zagreb under the number 000909364

28TH SYMPOSIUM ICTM STUDY GROUP ON ETHNOCHOREOLOGY: KORULA, CROATIA 2014

Nina GRAEFF
Berlin, Germany
EMBODYING CANDOMBL DANCES:
SAFEGUARDING INTANGIBLE HERITAGE
This paper presents examples of my fieldwork in the sole Afro-Brazilian Candombl
House of Germany for discussing the dynamics of safeguarding a cultural practice an
intangible heritage outside of its cultural context. By learning the tradition myself I take
account of the subjective process of embodying, beyond techniques and knowledge, values
and meanings. Field notes focusing on dance show the development of my objective and
bodily understanding of candombl, to which I felt bonding in the course of time. I argue
that, if something is meaningful for someone and for a community, they will find strategies
of preserving it, even if adaptations to the context are necessary.
Keywords: Germany; candombl; Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH); embodiment

Introduction
In my master thesis about the Afro-Brazilian dance and music tradition of Samba de
Roda, UNESCO's Intangible Cultural Heritage since 2005, I confronted the problematics of
imposing safeguarding measures into cultural practices (see Graeff 2012). Since then, I have
been interested on the conceptualization of music and dance traditions as Intangible Cultural
Heritage and of safeguarding measures that correspond more likely to their own dynamics
(Graeff 2014b).
It is taken for granted by Heritage experts that Intangible Heritage is more fragile and
vulnerable than tangible heritage (see Bouchenaki 2003), since the medium of their
transmission, the human body, is ephemeral (see Wulf 2011). I also used to share this idea, as
well as the idea that marginalized cultures get lost very fast with worldwide homogenization.
But then I decided to assess the maintenance of cultural traditions by their own means: how
marginalized traditions like samba and candombl live on after slavery, persecution and
prejudice and spread all over the world with no need of safeguarding measures trying to
guarantee1 their flourishment? And then I changed my mind:
While people might be deprived from their material goods by natural catastrophes, by
forced exile and by the slave trade, no one can take away the cultural heritage they carry
within their bodies. Human beings have always developed unique strategies of practicing and
protecting what is meaningful for them. Material things may disappear of their lives, but the
meanings they convey cannot. For they are part of humans' personal experiences, of their
bodies, and constitute thereby their social reality [Butler 1988:527].
That is why in my current Ph.D. project I thematize the dynamics of transmission of the
Afro-Brazilian religion of candombl in transcultural contexts by being myself part of the
dynamics, that means, by learning and embodying the traditions myself, for I believe that this
is a requirement for understanding bodily and subjective processes. I present some results
from my one-year fieldwork in the sole candombl house in Berlin, focusing on dance, for
arguing that preserving a cultural practice is transmitting it with the body, which means not
only embodying techniques, like dances, rhythms and songs, but the meanings and values
they convey.
Orixs and the body in candombl
Candombl praises West-African deities, the orixs, which are forces of nature and
were human beings before becoming gods. That means they have no claims of being perfect;
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they make mistakes like human beings and their forces can be used for doing good and doing
bad, just like nature. Each person is governed by an orix, which defines his energy and
personality. Praising one's orix means much more than betting to him; it means developing
different means of communication with him, which involve all senses: the vision, by
decorating beautiful offerings, shrines and costumes; taste and scent, while preparing foods
for offerings and showering with sacred herbs; hearing, by singing and praying melodically
and by hearing the sacred percussion; and touch, by means of the gestures and dances
performed for greeting the orixs and calling them to the practitioners' bodies. The highest
point of a ceremony and of communication with the orix is when he makes himself present
by possessing the believers' bodies, in order to dance and celebrate with humans.
For developing such means there is no manual or sacred book. It is solely through
practice, or more specifically, through the 'iniciatic practice', as the priest Babalorix2
Muralesimbe calls it, that one learns to greet, pray, sing, cook and dance for the orix. The
particularities of such kind of learning, a situated learning (Lave; Wenger 1991), which
happens inside of communities of practice (Wenger 1998) through mimetic processes
(Gebauer; Wulf 1992; 2003), seems to become very evident in the case of my research
subject. For transmitting a religion in a very different environment than the traditional one
implies many challenges as well as attempts to transcend them.
Candombl in Berlin
My observant participation (Wacquant 2004) taught me about the difficulties of learning
candombl outside of its cultural context: the community meets only once a week and most of
the members do not have a background on candombl; public ceremonies, which can be held
weekly in Brazil, are only allowed to happen five times a year; there are only three masters
frequenting the house that know a vast musical repertory and they have many tasks in the house
other than teaching and rehearsing songs and dances. This all means that only sparsely the
members get in contact with the knowledge of tradition. As Babalorix Muralesimbe puts it:
Candombl in Brazil is part of the culture; it's not something apart from it
like here [in Berlin]. () We live in Germany; it doesn't belong to German
culture, does it? Hence, people don't have the habit of going to candombl,
the habit of singing a song like 'In this city everyone is of ['son' of the orix]
Oxum', which is a popular song, a radio song, but that tells about Oxum and
then one knows what Oxum is about3 [Muralesimbe 2014:interview].
Here Murah Soares4 is explaining that with no references of the tradition other than his
own house, practitioners can only count on these sparse moments for getting in touch with the
tradition. For memorizing the songs, they depend on the presence of the few masters that
come from different candombl traditions in Brazil and know each one different repertory and
ways of performing the songs.
Learning the dance steps implies even more restrictions, for the priest, who is a
professional dancer, is the only one to transmit them. In addition to private rituals taking place
approximately once a month, it is only at the public dance workshops given by him each two
months, that believers have the opportunity of learning and rehearsing dance steps of all
orixs. Besides, as Babalorix Muralesimbe himself says, dance entails a huge diversity of
symbolic information in each gesture of each part of the body.
Embodying orixs' dances
I would like to discuss the process of embodying the orix's dances with examples of
my auto-ethnographic experience. I had never taken dance classes before, but I have
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developed great body awareness through other activities. I believe these conditions are
adequate for describing the dance learning process of newcomers not aiming to be dancers.
Besides, I have been constantly receiving recognition from the masters and members of the
house for my fast embodiment of the tradition.
I show three field notes from different moments of fieldwork for discussing important
issues on the embodiment of these dances and for showing its development. The following
one is from my first dance class:
There was a movement with one hand on the head, the other in front of the
face: we repeat it; we simply imitate it, without knowing exactly where the
hands go, at which height, etc. Then Murah [Babalorix Muralesimbe, the
teacher] looked at me, showed me [the movement] and said: 'the mirror,
don't forget the mirror!' Oxum! [I thought] And then I recognized that it
was the same rhythm of the song 'In this city everyone is of Oxum' [Graeff
2013: field notes June 20].
The mirror is an important insignia for Oxum, the Goddess of beauty and love. I had no
idea what my arms and hands were supposed to do being sustained in the air until Murah told
me to remind the mirror. First, the way Murah does it is implying I forgot the mirror and,
hence, that I knew about it, that was not a beginner, but one of the persons participating in this
learning process. Learning, dance, and candombl, being all cultural practices, are processes.
They have no established beginning and ending. They are never ending. Instead of teaching
systematically the meanings and techniques of each dance to each beginner in his class,
Murah teaches it in the way bodily practices and a practical sense are transmitted, that is,
"within the practice, in a practical state, without accessing the discourse level" [Bourdieu
1980:124]. By doing so, Murah is not detaching mechanical techniques from their context of
emergence, his "pedagogical work is not instituted as a specific and autonomous practice" and
consequently he is transmitting the meanings and values imbued in these techniques.
Second, because I had references of the religion, I could immediately relate the mirror
to Oxum and understand which movements I was supposed to do and what they meant. It was
not only about imagining I was holding a mirror, but representing Oxum admiring herself in
the mirror, with a hand on the back of the head for doing the hair. It was also about vanity,
gracefulness and joy, Oxum's attributes. Relating to Oxum, I could recognize the rhythm
sounding at the class, without knowing yet its name ijex, by remembering the popular song
about Oxum, which uses the same rhythm. At this moment I learned that this was Oxum's
rhythm, which happens to be my favorite rhythm, while my orix is Oxum.
Third, I wrote we were trying to imitate Murah, to repeat his movements with our own
bodies. Dance is learned through mimesis, which does not mean the simple imitation of a
model, as if it was possible to reproduce actions identically, but mimetic processes are
attempts of becoming like the other in one's own way, which requires an emotional
identification with the model. "On the active participation of the body and on the relation of
the agent to the other lies the fundamental difference of mimesis to purely cognitive
knowledge. It aims impacting upon, appropriating, changing, repeating or new interpreting
pre-determined worlds" [Gebauer; Wulf 2003:26].
With time, I learned that not trying to understand the movements intellectually helped
me to embody them:
Generally it is easier to incorporate the movement or its groove / meaning
(?) without intellectualizing it. The step may be wrong, but somehow the
body understands it better. Yesterday I had easiness with Ians's basic step,
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which for many was very difficult. Then Herica came to give me tips, I
guess it was because the feet should be thrown back, and then I couldn't do
it, coordinate it anymore. Xang too: I have no idea if I did it right, but it
fitted well the rhythm and I felt sure to dance it [Graeff 2013: field notes
from July 12].
I still cannot tell if my steps were correct or not at that time. What I can tell is that this
class was again part of a process. I can tell that today, after experiencing other parts of the
process, I can dance the steps much better than in December. Hence, the improvement of
technical skills are also a part of the process: if I feel sure dancing the step, it won't get longer
until it gets technically good; if not, I will either get the feeling of the dance, nor improve it.
About right or wrong dancing Muralesimbe argues:
There is nothing wrong, since the person does it within his ignorance. With
ignorance I mean that he ignores a topic that he doesn't know. (...) When the
person doesn't know, it's much more difficult. First, because the person is
concerned about doing it right, he doesn't know it, so he is gonna copy. By
copying he's no longer there with the head, how we use to say, he's not
concentrated on that. And then everything becomes more difficult"
[Muralesimbe 2014: interview].
Later on he stated that the way the orixs steps are danced and songs are sung is not
fundamental for the religion, instead "the fundamental is that you be present, with the energy
present there, present with the head, present with your heart. Then, it works, it works. It's
believing [Muralesimbe 2014:interview]. The efficiency of candombl's dances if they
"work" is not measured by its technical or aesthetical qualities, but by the spiritual
engagement of believers. They are about spirituality and not about professionalization,
contests, or display. No one will be deprived of participating in it for not dominating its
techniques. Nevertheless, professional dancers who can reproduce the steps with mastery
won't be able to produce the spirituality of candombl, its vital force, and the ax. For the
dance is inextricably linked to the orixs, to their meanings and values and to the whole
complexity of the tradition.
After eight months taking part in a process of appropriating this knowledge, my body
started to dance automatically the steps corresponding to the rhythms played and to hear as
well as respond the drum callings for specific dance sequences. Then I was able to perceive
the space of thick interaction created at public festivals and understand what Babalorix
Muralesimbe always states, that ax emerges from communion, as my field note
demonstrates:
There were moments that 'required' more ax, and at these I gave everything
with my voice, which was rough since the beginning. Especially when we
were singing for Oxum and Iemanj. I knew their songs better too We
learn, embody the constant interaction that ax requires. When we know
what is happening, for whom we are singing and dancing, who is from that
saint, which rhythms is being played and what is the intention of the alab
[the main drummer] it's necessary to know all this in order to collaborate
with the ax. The more all this gets embodies, the freer one will be to feel
and consequently contribute to the ax. SPACE. But by being concentrated
on the step, the lyric, the movements, in oneself, one does not perceive the

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space space of interaction in which one also interacts. Communion [Graeff


2014a: field notes from October 2].
Candombl's dances are not only dances: they are part of a complex whole. Learning
them is learning this whole. "To dance is to hear", the masters say. Dancing in a ritual
requires not only knowing its structure and symbology, but also perceiving it, something can
only be developed through practice. Performances, be it a ritual or a dance workshop,
represent and make visible only a part of an immense repertoire of possibilities [Taylor
2003:20] and of an never ending process of transmission and of constituting social reality
through and in the body [Butler 1988:257]. Learning a cultural practice "crucially involves
participation as a way () of both absorbing and being absorbed" in it [Lave; Wenger
1991:94].
I absorbed candombl while I was being absorbed by candombl. Because I never acted
as a researcher in the field, but as a participant like the other members, with great respect and
willingness for contributing as much as I could, slowly I began to take part in the rituals,
bring offerings to the orixs, memorize songs, and become a model myself helping others to
learn the songs.
By being absorbed and by absorbing knowledge of tradition I also started to incorporate
candombl values of community life, of solidarity, of perceiving the energy of the orixs
around us and inside of me, which became more and more present in my life. Last March I
was so overwhelmed by the force of the Cuban sea while attending a conference that at some
moment I began to sing and dance for Iemanj, the Goddess of the sea, understanding even
more her attributes with the senses. When I arrived in Korula, I wanted to make sure that the
water in front of my hotel was salted it was and then I greeted Iemanj "Od y!". So in
my fieldwork I have not learned about meanings in candombl; I have learned meanings, I have
embodied them to the point that candombl became very meaningful for me personally, to the
point I could not stop frequenting the house in Berlin as planned or stop getting immersed into
the tradition, even though I can't say today that I'm a Candombl practitioner yet.
Conclusion: safeguarding values
"Practice is, first and foremost, a process by which we can experience the world and our
engagement with it as meaningful" [Wenger 1998:51]. This means that someone will only
practice, learn, transmit, and therefore aim to preserve a tradition like candombl if he or she
can relate to and identify with its meanings and values. This has happened for centuries within
candombl and has even transcended continents.
Accordingly, I believe the problem of safeguarding intangible heritage lies not on its
ephemeral nature, on its supposed fragility; it does not even lie on the tradition itself. The
problem is the asymmetry of power relations that imposes meanings and values of dominant
cultures over others. The moment candombl members identify more with other systems of
beliefs simply because it is more present and bodily experienced in their daily lives, in their
social realities, they switch to it and stop practicing candombl.
Hence, institutionalizing parts of a complex tradition, for instance creating dance
workshops or producing documentation and inventories, cannot guarantee the transmission
and the safeguarding of a practice, for it implies detaching parts of a complex process of
constituting and actualizing the traditions' meanings and techniques, transmitted by human
bodies in the presence of other human bodies. Paraphrasing Diana Taylor (2008), the only
thing that may assure the sustainability of practices is that people find them meaningful. And
this means people should be free to decide what is meaningful for them, instead of being
constantly told by media and other institutions what are the best or correct values they shall
follow.
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Endnotes
1. See Richard Kurin (2004) for a critique on this and other terms used in the convention.
2. Babalorix is the name in Yoruba for the male spiritual leader of candombl.
3. All translations are by the author.
4. Murah Soares is dancer and religious leader of Il Ob Silek, and Muralesimbe is his spiritual name.

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