Shall We Dance? Who’s culture? Our culture!
Reclaiming art, dance and music.
A few months ago I went to an extraordinary workshop titled “Climate Change: Moving from Despair to Empowerment” that was based on Joanna Macy’s Work That Reconnects. Through principles of systems thinking, deep ecology and engaged Buddhism, Macy addresses the fatigue and emotional numbness that sets in from coping with non-stop global crisis. Her purpose is to enable people “to reframe their pain for the world as evidence for their interconnectedness in the web of life, and hence of their power to take part in its healing.” The all-day workshop concluded with the Elm Dance, a spiraling folk dance that was created by people living in areas contaminated by the Chernobyl disaster which serves, as Macy puts it, to “strengthen our cultural immune system.”
Macy writes, “It is crucial to know this: We can meet our needs without destroying our life-support system.” The hopeful alternative to the collapse of industrial society is known by many names such as sustainability, resiliency, re-skilling or transition. The Bible of the transition movement is The Transition Handbook: From oil dependency to local resilience (Chelsea Green) by Rob Hopkins. “There is no reason why a lower-energy, more resilient future needs to have a lower quality of life than the present,” he writes. “Indeed, a future with a revitalized local economy would have many advantages over the present, including a happier and less stressed population, an improved environment and increased stability.”
I was reading along, nodding my head in agreement when my mood was spoiled by this: “We need not all re-learn Morris dancing, deprive women of the vote, or re-embrace feudalism. We can adapt our culture to a more local context with creativity and the results will be beyond our current imaginings.”
What’s wrong with Morris dancing, I want to know?
The jab at Morris dancing was probably just reflexive on the part of Mr. Hopkins, who is British. Morris dancing is an English custom that is a remnant of pre-Christian seasonal pagan rites. (I wanted to learn more but The History of Morris Dancing, 1458-1750 was checked out of the library. Who can there possibly be in Salt Lake City besides me who wants to read an academic study of Morris dancing?) In any case, British people generally consider Morris dancing twee and old-fashioned because, well, Morris dancers wear silly costumes decorated with bells, flowers and ribbons and they skip around in circles playing games with sticks.
But hell hath no fury like a Morris dancer scorned. In 1993 irate Morris dancers protested outside of the British Parliament against a proposal to replace their sacred May Day holiday with a different holiday in October (the dancers won); Morris dancers are planning flash mobs for the 2012 London Olympics after being snubbed by the committee that is planning the opening and closing ceremonies; Neo-pagans are re-inventing Morris dance with Goth costumes that look more Sacre du Printemps than Mary Poppins; and on YouTube there are videos of an anarchist group called the “Morris Liberation Front” dancing to a mandolin version of “I Fought the Law and the Law Won.” After a confrontation with a policeman one of the dancers proclaims, “We don’t have permission to dance! But we are going to dance anyway! Collaboration and sharing is in our blood! It’s not for sale! Whose culture? Our culture!”
I understand Rob Hopkins’ concern—we don’t want to conflate transition to a lower energy future with rose-colored nostalgia about the past. But surely Morris dancing has persisted through the centuries for a reason, and the dancers themselves seem to understand pretty well what it’s all about. As Kalle Lasn, founder of Adbusters Magazine and the visionary behind Occupy Wall Street wrote in Culture Jam: The Uncooling of America™ (William Morrow), “American culture is no longer created by the people. Our stories once passed from one generation to the next by parents, neighbors and teachers, are now told by distant corporations with something to sell as well as to tell.” The spectacles that surround the production of culture have become the culture.
We can change that. In Salt Lake City, Tim DeChristopher’s support group, Peaceful Uprising, has launched a project called Communities of Resilient Resistance, distilling what they’ve learned through three years of organizing and activism. From their website (corr.peacefuluprising.org): Start learning songs and teach them to your Beloved Community; Challenge yourself and your community by planning a Flash Mob, Mic-Check or Street Theater performance; Concentrate on a message or event that your community has coming up and get busy making art!
And one I’d like to add: Dance together. Collaboration is in our blood. It can be something we invent for ourselves. It could be the Elm Dance. It just might even be Morris dancing.