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.