Analysing Cultural Identity

On March 17, 2012

The ethnography of dance (ethnochoreology) and its ties with popular music culture can be important to understanding the key themes of a particular place and time. Dance through popular culture represents the evolution of past trends combined with newer and emerging/marginal themes. Unlike ethnic dance, which has more traditional roots and particular expressive meaning through movement, dance through popular culture has a fashionable phase (where its popularity peaks) and then a phase of decay before becoming outdated and niche. Although such styles may have later revival phases, their cultural effects are never the same. These trends also hold generational and geographical strongholds, with participants holding nostalgic events today. 

Rather than being tied by ethnicity and tradition, popular forms of dance are a derivative of other previous trends in popular culture and are affected by popular music and fashion. We can see this in many forms of popular dance culture, such as swing dancing, breakdancing, rock and roll, disco, house and northern soul. Each of these dance trends goes in hand with the emergence of new music, unlike more traditional forms of dance such as ballet or ethnic folk dances. 

Utilising the northern soul scene, it is possible to identify how the popularity of a musical genre became the foundation of a club scene which formed its own style of fast-paced and expressive dance moves. 

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Source: BBC - © Francesco Mellina

However, in terms of ethnochoreology, the focus is not the study of the physical dance form itself, but the cultural context surrounding it. As Tim Wall notes in his work, the analysis of geographical, sociological and political matters alongside cultural studies and  gender studies can define the meaning for such a dance style far more than the analysis of the physical movements. 

Much like trends in popular music, dance and other symbolic forms (such as fashion and behaviour) can also teach us about the surrounding issues of the time. By plotting such cultural symbols associated with the scene, we can begin to analyse behaviour traits and their meaning. Dancing can contribute to any cultural theme and add a sense of ritualism to the context. For example, although dancing has regularly had negative connotations for men by raising questions over their masculinity or sexuality, dancers often seek to impress the opposite sex with their moves. With all-day and all-night events utilised as a controlled environment for drug use and courting, and with a fast-paced musical scene filled with creative and competitive dancers and gazing spectators, northern soul’s popularity grew – although was only sustained in the north of the country. 

We must also recognise that elements of cultural identity in popular music and dance are not quite the same as cultural identity in terms of tradition and ethnicity. Scenes such as Northern Soul do not represent heritage in the traditional sense, but a combination of factors which create a fashion or trend. As such, the environment is heavily laden with “cool” factor and also has the same emergence, peak and decline correlation as other popular cultural trends such as rock and roll and disco. Ethnic cultural identity and the music, dance and literature which is associated with it has a different sense of longevity. Where popular scenes may decline and possibly undergo revival points (due to fashion trends), they are not given the same importance. Traditional cultural teaching tends to come through community and family seeking to protect heritage, but also receives government funding and sometimes charity status. 

So is it more important to document and maintain one type of cultural identity over another? Should popular cultural symbols have the same attention as maintaining those of tradition and heritage? This is something I want to discuss further, as my assignment is likely to be a comparison of popular and traditional cultural elements, their effects within geographical locations (mainly Ireland) and what effects the convergence of technology and digital media has had. 

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