by Joyce Marcel
American Reporter Correspondent
January 10, 2009
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- On the way to industrial development and globalization, groups of people lived in cultures they created themselves.
Despite today's wishy-washy worship of multicultural diversity, not all those cultures were equally worthy - some espoused slavery, human sacrifice, cannibalism or polygamy, for example.
And in America, some of the touchstones of alternative cultures - like the use of psychedelic and psychotropic plants for vision quests and long conversations with the deities - now buy you multiple years in jail instead of insight into the cosmos.
For the most part, the world has lost a lot of its cultural diversity. What's left of many indigenous cultures is - well - cultural: clothing, food, music and dance.
Food travels well and can make itself at home anywhere. Music is always adapting, absorbing and morphing into something new. Ethnic clothing becomes colorful "costume." And then there's dance.
Just as Isadora Duncan tried to revive Greek dance by copying robes and body language she saw depicted on ancient vases, the authenticity of a lot of what we call ethnic dance is questionable. Very little of it serves its original purpose - community affirmation, ritual or religious rite. African warriors don't often go into the bush to hunt lions. Lions are endangered. Instead, warriors sing with Paul Simon and tour the world giving concerts. Hula? More often than not it's found in Hawaiian beach hotels. Tango made it all the way to Broadway.
I used to think this was a sad thing - that putting on "native" dress and dancing for tourists was a pale, cheap imitation of something precious, real and heartbreakingly lost.
But I'm starting to change my mind, and it's because of a sleazy and yet wonderful new television show called "The Superstars of Dance."
Permit me a small digression. I'm writing this in Ft. Lauderdale. I'm here visiting my mother, who has dedicated her life to dance. A copy of a Degas dancer greets you at the entrance to her house, and sculptures and paintings of ballet and modern dancers are scattered throughout.
Although she's now 91, my mother is in the process of directing and choreographing a new show. She goes to rehearsals, trains new dancers in the afternoon, and gives an exercise class once a week. She's even doing a dance number in a show that's being directed by someone else. If we could tap the energy of people like her, we could probably decommission our nuclear power plants.
Another digression, if you'll permit me.
One of the many reasons I am happy with President-Elect Barack Obama is that he has lived in other cultures. Also, he and his wife have traveled widely.
The insularity of most Americans is something I find frightening.
It's more than not being able to find Panama on a map. If I remember correctly, President George W. Bush had never been outside the United States when he became President. (Although he's taken several world tours since then - on our dime.) When France refused - correctly - to go along with our country's attack on Iraq, the U.S. Congress, in a fit of pique, idiotically renamed the French fries in the cafeteria "freedom fries."
Most Americans appear to live entirely within the borders of their own country. It's black and white: America, love it or leave it. Sometimes, Americans seem to live entirely within the borders of their television sets.
Nothing makes it easier to objectify the Other than ignorance. Once a person, race or culture is objectified, it can be denigrated and, sometimes, targeted for destruction. We saw that process happen to the Jews in Nazi Germany. Ironically, we see it today on our television screens with the Israelis and the Palestinians. We see it in our own culture with the radical religious right and homosexuals. Many irrationally demonize immigrants.
Nothing can eliminate this kind of ignorance, this contempt and fear of the different, but the kind of knowledge that allows the Other full personhood and acceptance.
So let's get back to "The Superstars of Dance."
In this international version of the successful "Dancing With the Stars" program, professional dancers from eight countries are competing in front of judges for numerical scores that will ultimately determine the "best" solo and group dancers.
So far, in prime time, we've seen Indian temple dances, Shaolin monks flying through the air, American popping, South African interpretive dance based on indigenous movement, Argentine tango, Cossacks kicking up their heels, Irish step dancing, American tap and a host of other dances.
I'm going to take a wild guess here that most rural Americans have never seen a Bollywood film or even a Russian ballerina. Yet here they are on NBC, Monday nights in prime time!
Yes, the costumes are beyond glitz and the choreography owes a lot to Las Vegas. But to many Americans, this is eye-poppingly new - in the same vein as the opening of the Olympics. Yes, there are other countries out there, and yes they have cultures that differ from ours, and yes, some that is just plain wonderful to see.
America is finally opening its eyes and joining the world of nations. It makes me very proud.
And by the way, I accompanied my mother to a rehearsal today. It was written by the president of the Jewish organization Hadassah, and will be performed by a group of Jewish women dressed in the clothing of the Ivory Coast. The dance, to African music sung in French, was a celebration of the birth of a newborn baby.
It's a brand new world out there, and it's about time. In the immortal words of Gene Kelly, "Gotta dance!"
Joyce Marcel is a journalist whose first collection of columns, "A Thousand Words or Less," can be ordered from her Website.