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Gaining Perspective

Dance Fest and Ethnography

By Joel Torgeson

Lugging the water jug from the kitchen to the lobby, I passed a competitor, fresh off the floor, smelling vaguely of sweat and hairspray. As I shuffled out of her way, she shot me a quick smile before joining the throng of people surrounding the big LCD screen; bronze callbacks were due any second!

Dancers Studio was packed to the brim with competitors, volunteers, and spectators, and yet somehow the small space just worked. In the practice room, Elena Bersten was teaching a Latin cha cha lesson while newcomer smooth waltz danced their early rounds. Cheers and applause greeted the conclusion of a dance as I set the heavy blue container down on a table in front of three patient, thirsty dancers. I smiled, stepped back, and took a minute for a break in the Saturday afternoon sun. I’m happy I chose the Twin Cities’ ballroom dance community as the site for doing some ethnography.

Ethnography? Not a word that comes up outside of academic circles very often! This month’s article is a brief summary of what it means to do ethnography. I realize that this will not be the most interesting of my series of articles, but ethnography bears explaining before I start into it full force. I promise I’ll relate it back to ballroom.

In a basic sense, ethnography is doing research about human culture. Culture is not just opera houses and fine wines, though; it is all the social behaviors, customs, beliefs, and patterns that are present in a given set of people. It goes beyond the simple eating-and-reproducing realities of the animal world and brings a new dimension to human existence. Everyone from homeless beggars to the kings of England have culture. Ethnography, then, is involved with trying to scientifically understand and describe the culture of a specific group or subset of people.

Some may point out that this does not seem very scientific at all, and in a strict atoms-and-cells sense, they may be right. The debate over how scientific the so-called soft sciences are has raged far and wide for many years, and it’s beyond the scope of this article to delve into it. However, there is one point I would like to address with a ballroom spin: objectivity.

For many years ethnography was plagued by, quite frankly, white western men traipsing across the world making judgments about other cultures as if their own upbringing was inherently the norm. Armchair anthropology (researchers drawing social conclusions about peoples they’d never met, let alone studied) served only to exacerbate the problem. The result? Volumes of work so biased and skewed as to make it often unusable. The problem? It took years for researchers to learn to acknowledge their own biases.

To illustrate this point, imagine yourself to have only danced international standard for your entire life. No smooth, no Latin, no rhythm, just standard. Now imagine you take a vacation to a Midwestern American city (what they heck? Minneapolis, for example) and go out social dancing. A delicate waltz begins drifting through the speakers, but no sooner than you get into frame with a partner do you see a couple down the floor break theirs—on purpose! They actually are trying to do that! You’d heard whispers of that sort of behavior over the years, but you couldn’t believe it to be true. Who would do such a thing? After sitting through several more appalling dances—their rendition of a foxtrot finally puts you over the edge—you leave immediately for the first plane home. Back in the comfort of your own studio, surrounded by people who dance just like you, you decide to record your experiences in a local paper, recounting your shocking experience to the world.

This is the kind of ethnography researchers of today strive to avoid. It’s also why last month I gave you a taste of what my upbringing, in life and in dance, was like. Only by understanding and acknowledging the biases we have can we start to say something interesting about the world or another culture. Nobody is an objective observer, but we can still observe and record, as long as we keep that fact in mind.

So where does this leave us with ethnography? The point I’m trying to make is that as an observer and researcher, I can’t possibly know and treat every viewpoint on ballroom in the Twin Cities. I will, however, try to get as many as I can, and try to fairly express them all. As someone doing research, I will express the opinions of others as well as those of people in the dance community, and I’ll try, as best I can, to synthesize these into broader frameworks and point out the connections between things.

As a part of this, I’ll be adhering to what I know of anthropological ethics. This means that any quotations or opinions I use will be credited to pseudonyms to protect identities. This may seem an unnecessary step, but I’ve decided to follow it nonetheless. Further, I’ll always check in with people I’ve used quotes from to make sure they feel that they and their opinions are being accurately represented, even if their names are not attached.

Ethnography is basically just observing a culture (or a part of a culture) and forming opinions about it. Over the next few months I hope to bring you ethnographic accounts of the various parts of the ballroom world, intersecting and interacting in interesting ways. If you would like to contribute or make a suggestion, you can always email me at joeltorgeson@yahoo.com, if you’d like.

Last, I’d like to thank Daniel O’Connell and Michael Kasinkas, and the many other volunteers, for pulling Dance Fest together out of nearly thin air, and further, thank you to all the schools who came and made the event a pleasure to attend! I look forward to next year’s competition. Until next month, may your music be fresh and your shoes well worn.