The (re)construction of tradition

When thinking about a traditional genre of dance, one expects that its performances mainly repeat elements familiar to and generally accepted as ‘traditional’ by the community that practices the tradition in question. To an extent, this is also the case for sabar dancing: The event follows a certain overall structure, although there is quite a lot of room for variation and idiosyncrasies within the habitual framework that defines the event as a ‘sabar’, i.e. the type of performance that I am calling a sabar dance event or a sabar event (see Seye 2014 for a detailed discussion). Although the sabar rhythms can be played and the sabar dances can be danced in many kinds of settings, not all of these situations would be called a ‘sabar’, because the Wolof concept of a sabar refers to a specific kind of occasion where improvised social dancing is central.

Within a sabar dance event, the dance rhythms are always played in more or less the same order, although some rhythms may be revisited if the drummers notice that certain rhythms are preferred by the participants. There are also optional musical elements that may be included at certain points as well as new variations of older rhythms or new musical creations that may be introduced if the drummers find them fitting for the particular event. Similarly to the music, the dance solos of participants largely follow habitual structures and make use of traditional movement materials that can be varied and combined in different ways, but also new elements (typically deriving from dances seen on pop music videos) may be incorporated.

In the video examples included in this exposition, the dancers’ solos consist for a large part of a few movement motifs characteristic of the dances in question (farwujar and ceebujën), although this might not be obvious to people not familiar with the genre due to the wide individual variation in the execution of these motifs. This repetitiveness is the prerequisite for the communication between dancers and drummers: it is the duty of the lead drummer to interpret the dancer’s movements musically, to make them audible as she is dancing, meaning that he actually has to anticipate the dancer’s movements. Therefore, the dancers’ improvisatory solos cannot deviate too much from ‘tradition’, the habitual patterns of sabar dancing, if they expect a musical response to their movements from the lead drummer. Furthermore, it is not enough for the dancer to just dance in rhythm, to follow the beat, but the dance solo should also make sense musically (see Seye 2014 for a more detailed discussion).

The sabar tradition is thus reconstructed at each sabar dance event primarily through the choreomusical interactions of the sabar drummers and the dancers, where adhering to ideas about ‘tradition’ guides the performers’ actions and enables effective communication. I have put ‘tradition’ in quotation marks at times because people often have differing views about what is traditional in sabar dancing and drumming and what is not, and sabar dance events provide one space where these views are performatively negotiated. Consequently, a sabar event is never simply a re-enactment or a variation of an ‘original’ (real or imaginary) tradition, but rather the sabar tradition exists only as performances and it is therefore continuously reconsidered, reinterpreted and reconstructed in sabar dance events.

Practices of Performing at Senegalese Sabar Dance Events

Elina Seye

Sabar dance events as performances

In my PhD thesis Performing a Tradition in Music and Dance (Seye 2014), I analyzed sabar dance events as performances, understood as “ritualized behavior conditioned/permeated by play” and as situations where “another reality” with rules different from everyday reality is created, following Richard Schechner’s (2006: 52, 89) definitions. In my analysis, sabar dance events were shown to serve as ‘places’ for (re)constructing social relationships, identities, and tradition in addition to providing entertainment for various festive situations. At the events observed, different kinds of performing took place:

(1) The (re)construction of tradition: Each sabar dance event follows a certain overall structure, where traditional dance rhythms are played in more or less the same order. Similarly to the rhythms, all dance solos make use of traditional movement materials that can be varied and combined in different ways, but also the solos largely follow habitual structures.

(2) Performances of self, or cultural performatives in the Butlerian sense: Most of the dancers are not consciously performing anything to anyone, but rather simply enjoying themselves through social dancing in the company of their friends and relatives. Because the sabar is a solo dance, dancing also gives them an opportunity to present themselves in front of other participants at a dance event.

(3) Expression of alternative selves and realities: Although sabar dancers primarily present themselves while dancing, a sabar dance event is still something clearly separate from everyday life and the ways of expressing oneself and communicating with others within these events deviate clearly from the rules of everyday life interactions. The frame of the dance event thus offers at least a possibility to express oneself in ways that would not be deemed appropriate in everyday contexts, even to construct alternative selves and realities.

Here, I want to explore and demonstrate through video examples, how these modes of performing appear in sabar dance events, sometimes simultaneously, although the three modes may seem partly contradictory.

Performances of self

For most of the participants, sabar dance events are first and foremost social spaces: they attend a dance event because they enjoy dancing or because they have been invited by a friend or a relative to a celebration that happens to include dancing. Unlike the drummers who have been engaged by the organizer to play for the dance event, most dancers at a sabar event do not see themselves as performers but simply as guests or participants, and therefore their dance solos can be considered cultural performatives in the Butlerian sense (e.g. Butler 1999).

According to definitions by performance theorists like Bauman (1975: 292) and Schechner (2006: 93), a sabar dance event is certainly a performance, because it is a specific, named situation that is framed as separate from everyday life with particular musical signals and with specific modes of communication, but most of the participants at sabar events would probably not call sabar events or their own dancing performances in the same sense as a theatre play or any other stage performance. Instead, they would be likely to describe themselves simply as participants in a socially significant situation where dancing serves as the primary medium of communication. In addition to the choreomusical interactions between dancers and drummers, dance movements and gestures can be directed at other participants of the sabar event or they may refer to and comment on previous dance solos.

Dancing at a sabar dance event is for many Wolof women the only situation where they can present and express themselves individually in front of a large number of people. Such presentations of self through dancing (see Goffman 1959) use a different ‘body language’ than everyday performatives, but one can also see many parallels with everyday expressions and norms of behavior. What is involved in the “repeated stylizations of the body” (Butler 1999: 43) at sabar events is not only dance movements but also the way one looks, dressing up, and having a beautiful hairstyle and makeup, which are all ways to construct an image of ideal femininity (Seye 2012, Neveu Kringelbach 2013: 87–89).

Furthermore, simply by participating actively by dancing, one also expresses one’s friendship, solidarity and respect towards the organizer(s) of the event. Solidarity towards others, as well as hospitality, are all esteemed qualities for women, and one often sees women at sabar events encourage others to dance. Such instances are also visible in the video examples included: sometimes the dancers direct their movements to someone sitting in the audience (rather than the group of drummers) as a gesture of friendship or respect, but also as an encouragement for them to dance next. Another signal of friendship would be when two women dance face-to-face or side-by-side and mirror each other’s movements. Respect and consideration for others may be shown by giving space to others if several participants happen to start dancing at the same time.

The contrasting side of these expressions of friendship and solidarity can sometimes be seen, too. It sometimes happens, although not in the video examples here, that a dancer attempts to ‘break’ another dancer’s solo by going in and trying to catch the drummers’ attention with her dancing before the previous dancer has finished hers. Such behavior, like any expression of negative sentiments, is against the social norms of everyday life, but possible in the frame of performance of a sabar dance event.

Sabar dancing

The sabar is a dance form of the Wolof people living mainly in parts of Senegal and the Gambia. The dancing is accompanied by drumming which is referred to with the same name. The most common situations where sabar dancing takes place are social dance events that may be organized to celebrate almost any kind of occasion, from marriages to political gatherings. The majority of participants in most of these social dance events are women and for the most part relatively young, although this depends on the situation, but older women dance primarily at family celebrations, and grown-up men very rarely dance anywhere unless they are professional performers. Especially at smaller events, the only men present are usually the group of drummers who have been hired to accompany the dancing.

The dancing in these events usually takes the form of very short (10–20 seconds long) improvised solos, and it is the duty of the drum soloist to follow the movements of the dancer. Because of this interdependence of dance and music, the dance solos, although improvised, need to be constructed in a predictable way for the drummer to be able to interpret the dancer’s movements musically. Therefore, the dance solos usually combine traditional movement motifs and phrases into a short sequence. The primary task of the drummers is to serve the dancing with the rhythms they play, but they also have the role of an MC, guiding the dancing through their musical responses to dancers’ solos and occasionally through verbal commentary.

As a whole, a sabar dance event forms a temporary space, which is framed as a performance with musical signals (see Seye 2014: 85–87). Within this frame of performance, a particular kind of social interaction happens largely through the means of dance and music, but other kinds of physical gestures and verbal expressions are also used.

Sabar dancing takes place also in other contexts where it appears in different forms, e.g. in the staged choreographies of folkloric dance ensembles, or ‘ballets’ as they are known in Francophone West Africa, but here I will limit the discussion to the improvised solo dancing of social dance events.

Expression of alternative selves and realities

As mentioned in relation to the performances of self through dance, the frame of performance of a sabar dance event also allows the expression of sentiments that one would not show openly in everyday life. Similarly, the ways of expressing oneself through dance commonly takes forms that would not be considered appropriate for women in other contexts. Already the act of dancing in front of others, putting oneself in the center of attention is against the local ideals of femininity and respectable behavior (Heath 1994, Neveu Kringelbach 2013: 90, Seye 2014: 49, 108).

Furthermore, the characteristic dance movements of the sabar dances frequently reveals the dancer’s legs and sometimes even her thighs, and this practical effect of the leg movements is sometimes exaggerated by lifting up the hem of one’s skirt at the end of the dance solo. In the video example 3 one can also see a woman wearing her beeco, a net-like wrap that is used as an underskirt, on top of her clothes, whereas normally the beeco is something one would avoid showing in public just as any other piece of underwear. This kind of playful reversal of everyday social norms is a regular feature of sabar dance events.

A similar reversal of social norms happens on the level of the whole event, since it is the women who take the lead at sabar dance events, as organizers, participants and dancers, and through the focus on female sociability men are effectively excluded. Consequently, several researchers have interpreted dance events to offer an arena of empowerment for women (e.g. Castaldi 2006: 80–90, Penna-Diaw 2005: 213–214). The reversal of hierarchies and social norms is, however, always temporary, and ultimately the dancing at sabar events seems to serve more the performative construction of oneself as a ‘good woman’ in the eyes of others than actual empowerment (Seye 2012, Seye 2014: 116).

Still, sabar dancing certainly offers women a temporary escape from ordinary life and offers them an opportunity to explore alternative selves in the ‘alternative reality’ of a dance event. Within the frame of performance, guided by the nonverbalized and everchanging rules of the sabar tradition, there are possibilities to create something new, to present an unanticipated interpretation of the traditional rhythms and movements or an unforeseen expression of oneself and one’s relationships with others. These new interpretations and expressions can then be taken over by others and slowly incorporated into what is considered ‘tradition’ or disregarded as individual eccentricities.

Dancing for knowledge

Dancing in the context of Senegalese sabar dance events can be considered a performance in several senses and it can convey meaning on several levels simultaneously. As meanings are always cultural and socially constructed, it seems impossible to draw the line between cultural performatives and other kinds of performances. In any case, dancing always involves “repeated stylizations of the body”, the formative constituent of Butler’s (1999: 43) performatives, and this may be the case for other kinds of performing, as well, not just the performative actions of everyday life. Even academic research entails various performances and performative practices that are embodied rather than (exclusively) intellectual or verbal.

In my research, dancing has served as a fieldwork method for gaining insight into the practices of sabar dance events and their cultural meanings. My fieldwork methodology is thereby similar to many projects characterized as artistic research or practice-based research (see Arlander 2013, Hannula et al. 2005), although I situate my research within the academic traditions of dance anthropology and ethnomusicology. In these fields of research, participatory fieldwork methods including the acquisition of performance skills have long been very common, even normative, rather than exceptional (see Baily 2008, Wong 2008, Ness 2004).

Learning to dance the sabar (and also to play the sabar drums) and participating through dance in sabar events could thus be characterized as ethnographic performances that have been central in the construction of my fieldwork and even of myself as a researcher, but they certainly carry further layers of meanings, most of which I am not discussing here. In contrast to many projects situated in the field of artistic research, my involvement in dance practice has not been motivated by artistic goals, such as the development of new choreographies or new working methods to be applied in artistic work, but rather by a search for ethnographic knowledge about sabar dance events, a desire to understand them holistically within their cultural environment.

Familiarizing myself with the sabar tradition through the practical training of movements and rhythms as well as the experiences of dancing at sabar events has served the aim of understanding both the structures and the meanings of sabar dancing, as well as the social interactions of sabar dance events. Apart from learning dance movements and the ways they relate to the rhythms, which obviously helps in making sense of the structures of sabar performances and thereby in the analysis of fieldwork materials, dancing has been an important means of building social contacts in the field, but it has sometimes also served as a tool for analytical experimentation.

Being connected to certain professional dancers as their student already opens up certain social networks, and dancing at sabar events has played a part in making myself known to others. Being able to participate in the dancing at sabar events has probably given more credibility to my efforts of understanding the sabar tradition in an environment where the work of a researcher, especially that of one working in the field of arts, is unknown to many. When asking for interviews and the permission to film dance events, I was sometimes­­—despite my explanations­­—taken for a journalist, which was not ideal, since in these situations my interlocutors supposed that my audio and video recordings would be broadcast on TV or radio and would try to use the apparent opportunity for promoting themselves.

Conversely, when I was sometimes approached by people who had seen me dance, they would often ask me about my teachers and why I was in Senegal (instead of assuming that I was a tourist), and after hearing my response some offered me their views on certain topics relating to my research or pointed me to people they considered knowledgeable and suggested I should interview them. In these and some other situations, I got the impression that having learned enough to adequately participate in dancing at a sabar event convinced my interlocutors that I was seriously interested in their culture and traditions, and therefore they were willing to share their knowledge about it with me.

Furthermore, knowing the dances and the dance rhythms often facilitated communication with dancers and drummers during my fieldwork: it was sometimes easier to show a few movements or sing a rhythm than to explain them verbally. At sabar dance events, I also occasionally used the possibility to try out different combinations of movements in order to see what kinds of movements and combinations would work with different rhythms and how the drummers would respond to them. Although I did not analyze these practical experiments in any detail, they helped me to accumulate my understanding of the basic elements and habitual structures of sabar dance solos.

During the dance and drumming lessons I took with local professionals, I also learned the vocabulary needed to communicate verbally about dance and music with Wolof dancers and musicians. The learning of practical skills was thus accompanied by further cultural knowledge that might have been possible but more difficult to acquire through other research methods. In this respect, again, my practical engagement in sabar dancing and drumming pawed the way to additional sources of knowledge.

In this sense, the participatory and experiential fieldwork for my ethnographic research project has definitely been practice-based and therefore similar to artistic research. However, I do not identify myself as an artist and, consequently, would not situate my research in the field of artistic research. Still, participation in performance has been an essential element of my fieldwork and in several ways the key to gaining an understanding of what is being performed at sabar dance events and how such things can be performed, as I hope to have demonstrated here.


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The video examples included in this exposition have all been filmed by me in Dakar, Senegal, during the fieldwork for my doctoral thesis in 2005–2006.