Body-popping is more than a teenage dance fad: it makes a political statement. We find out more in a film that brings home the street-dancers’ message. And we review an anthropologist’s search for a society that survives without a ruler.
Editor: Anuradha Vittachi
Street dance politics
Political dance movie
My kids dragged me off, mildly protesting, to the cinema last week to see a teenage film called Breakdance. I expected to be marginally entertained by the ‘body-popping and breaking’ and terminally bored by the plot.
Not so. Like War Games, which sounded like a film about computers and turned out to be an unambiguous call for nuclear disarmament, Breakdance too has a clear and urgent political message, expressed through a competition between two kinds of dancing.
The first kind is represented by Franco: lean, mean, always talking about discipline and training. He is far more than a character - he exemplifies an ideology. White, élitist and chauvinistic, he stands for the pursuit of excellence and old-style ‘masculinity’: a guru figure, a master, a ‘real man’ who bullies, flatters, manipulates with his sexual and professional power to get his own way. And his own way is the way to the top - that is, to recognition and reward from the rest of society as ‘the best’. His addiction to perfection sets him apart from society. That’s where he wants to be - apart, as long as that means above, everyone else. But above is a lonely place: to get there means sacrificing human needs, repressing especially the need for contact. So he tries to force a pupil from his dance-class, Kelly (the teenage heroine), to be up there with him.
Confronting him are the street kids. They sweep up in grocery stores after closing time. They can’t afford - and don’t need - expensive lessons: they’re taught themselves to dance in their own style. Orlando is our hero, black and beautiful, but with a warmth and vulnerability that the cold Franco denies. He too wants to do it ‘his way’, but he’s not imposing it on anyone. Nor is he interested in middle-class approval. His way isn’t élitist: everyone is eligible. Orlando shows Kelly how street dancing too can be excellent - without being exclusive. They watch a disabled boy with the emaciated legs of a polio victim dance flamboyantly with his crutches - and then throw his crutches away, and continue to dance. The crowd cheers, not out of patronising kindness, but out of genuine enthusiasm: the boy does dance wonderfully. The fact that he can never be ‘perfect’ in physique, in Franco’s terms, doesn’t matter. He is a marvellous dancer on his own terms. He demonstrates that imperfection doesn’t mean a loss of ‘standards’ - what he does is to call into question what those famous standards actually stand for. Do they stand for bringing out the best in everyone - or of holding out a pre-set idea of ‘the best’ and fitting people into that mould?
What was particularly interesting for me in this movie was to see how the old polarity of ‘individuality versus group’ had moved on a stage. In the Sixties, when my friends and I were in our teens,we argued vehemently against competition in any form and pro an amorphous and indiscriminate acceptance. ‘All you need is love’, sang the Beatles, and we agreed. It was a necessary statement for its time: a strong counter to. our parent’s generation, whose watchword seemed to be ‘getting on’ in society. But our naive polarisation brought us a lot of difficulties: if ‘individuality" implied selfishness, then did we always have to give in to the group’s wishes? Was saying ‘no’, or being assertive and ‘demanding’, wicked?
In time, during the late Seventies, a new ideal started to surface: self-realisation, the empowerment of the individual. It was a dicey idea, because it could so easily be hooked by either left or right it could encourage even more drive to individual perfection, a la Franco, resulting in more competition and alienation: the ‘Me’ generation, cut off from social responsibility. Or it could mean more empowerment of everyone, à la Orlando, less dependence on a social norm, more freedom to be different, equality without uniformity.
The danger in the old polarity was that the diffused energies of those who believed in ‘love’ were too wishy-washy to stand against the concentrated force of those who believed in individualistic power. The kids in Breakdance have the best of both worlds - their own individuality and an anti-élitist sense of the value of every other individual.
And as for the dancing - it was terrific. Witty, spirited, inventive, it made me long to join in, where Travolta-type dancing had just made me feel old and creaky.
Where there is no ruler
People Without Government an anthropology of anarchism
by Harold Barclay
Kahn & Averill with Cienfuegos Press (pbk) £3.75
People Without Government is a work of anthropology with a political message. It deliberately sets out to expose the myth that no society can exist without government; that life without the state will inevitably be, in Hobbes’ words, ‘nasty, brutish and short’. Placing his discussion within the context of anarchist theory, Barclay shows with convincing arguments and a wealth of data that for the greater part of their history human beings lived cooperatively and peacefully without rulers.
Barclay classifies his societies under study according to their primary mode of subsistence into hunter-gatherers, gardeners, herders, and agriculturalists. The first type is the oldest and most egalitarian type of human society. They include Eskimos and Bushmen as well as pygmies - who approach most closely the anarchist ideal. Amongst the gardeners, the Tiv of central Nigeria,who number over a million, show that anarchy need not be limited to a small group. As in all the groups, the Nuer herders solve disputes through mediators who invite the disputants to agree: the aim is not to establish guilt but to restore peace.
Even amongst agricultural societies, which can create a surplus for a ruling class and often have governments, there have been a number of highly decentralised federations. The Berbers throughout the Middle East, and especially the Kabyles in Algeria, manage themselves through autonomous village councils which form temporary alliances with each other for mutual defence. Again, the Santals, over three million of whom dwell in eastern India, decide their affairs in free and open meetings with the village headman merely being the voice of the consensus.
But, as Barclay makes clear, ‘anarchy’ or a society without, rulers need not mean freedom in the sense of making available a wide number of choices to the individual. Modern anarchists would be unhappy with the widespread sexism and ageism - the power given to men and elders - which characterise many traditional anarchic societies. In place of laws, there are strong sanctions to reform the wrongdoer, both religious (for example, the threat of supernatural punishment) and diffuse ostracism (ridicule, gossip and fighting). The force of habit and custom can also perpetuate ignorance, intolerance and prejudice.
Barclay is perhaps at his weakest in his treatment of the self-conscious attempts to create an anarchist commonwealth in the modem world. He leads us breezily through the Russian Revolution, where peasants in the Ukraine organised themselves into anarchist communes, through the Spanish Civil War, which saw the greatest experiment so far in urban and rural anarchism, to the more recent small-scale liberation communities in the West. In his last chapter ‘Do Anarchic Politics Have a Message?’, he calls himself an ‘anarchocynicalist’ and suggests that anarchism will always be the ‘politics of perpetual protest’.
But while the main thrust of history has undoubtedly been towards centralised states, the dying breed of indigenous anarchies can tell us much about how to organise society without the policeman, the judge and the executioner. They show that the state is only a recent cancer in the body politic and that its withering away need not be a pipe-dream. Above all, they remind us of the important truth that liberty is the mother and not the daughter of order.