Claudine Michel, Professor and Chair Department of Black Studies, Center for Black Studies, University of California, Santa Barbara

"Dancing Bodies/Dancing Spirits: Performance as Text" 

On Thursday, October 25th, the Institute for Signifying Scriptures welcomed Claudine Michel, professor of Black Studies at University of California, Santa Barbara as its guest lecturer.  Her topic, “Dancing Bodies/Dancing Spirits: Performance as Text ” was about how Haitian communities read the movements, rhythms, and symbols of ceremonial dance in the practice of Vodou in a way that allowed them to tell their history, describe past experiences, unite with deities, and communicate with ancestors.

Michel began by stating that Vodou was presented in the West in opposition to mainline religious traditions which measured morality and created systems of belief based on certain dogma, phenomena, and ecclesiastical structures.  These religions used books to promote their values, transmit virtues, and connect with their deity.  Those who serve the Spirits (i.e., practitioners of Vodou) sought to apprehend historical, social, religious experiences in a holistic manner that took the form of various spiritual artistic expressions such as oral performance, memories, metaphoric images, proverbs, songs, prayers, and dance.

For practitioners of Vodou, performance did what written texts could not.  It elevated liveliness, relevance, and functionality over truthfulness and objectivity as permanent virtues.  Indigenous tales and sayings that were acted out brought a sense of vitality to life because they possessed a purpose and meaning beyond that of written words alone.  Though words were important in the oral medium for value transmission, for Haitian societies where the literacy rate was lower than that of their Western counterparts, spoken language had little practical meaning.  Rather, the exercise of the art, the images, tones, and movements gave life and significance to the messages behind the words.  The truth of Vodou centered on its concern with creating harmony, cultivating balance, virtues, and the like, was not limited to words as they appear in print.  Michel contended that Vodou is a religion of dance.  Thus, performance created a fluid medium through which truth can continually be reinterpreted by whoever is possessed by the Lwa (Spirit). 

The discussion continued with a presentation of photographs taken at a Collective Healing Ceremony performed by a Haitian community in Montreal, Canada.  What was intriguing was that the set up of the altar at this event was as much text as the performance that followed.  Michel stated that memory past, a connection between past and present evident through the continuity in the manner that the ritual proceeded, was presented in the spatial arrangement of the altar.  The overscrupulous placement of items such as sunglasses, candles, and icons, itself revealed a body of text.

In the dance, individuals inscribed their bodies in a form of narration.  A Zaka woman,  possessed by the Lwa, struck a pose with one hand on her hips, giving a sassy stance of a market woman and the other hand raised into the air as an expression of defiance. The sly, yet secretive facial expression of another woman, along with the movement of her arms in a delicate and regal manner told interpreters that she held hidden knowledge.  Locked hair spoke of the interweaving of energies.  The touching of heads passed on knowledge, wisdom and demonstrated support.  Matronly embraces allowed the Lwa to comfortably pass from one body to another.  A Gede woman was shown in a strong stance, feet firmly planted on the ground, dress lifted and hips rotating in a sexually suggestive manner without regard for what outsiders may have deemed appropriate.  Another dancer, while mounted by Ogou, a higher level of spiritual energy, brandished weapons which represented the warrior aspect of the deity whom she embodied.  Red scarves tied around her head and arms represented a wounded warrior who nevertheless displayed a level of strength, spirit and humanity.  These performances told the stories and histories of the Gede and Zaka while communicating control of life, health, and sexuality.

The performance that they offered was both a sacrifice to the Lwa and to the participants of the ceremonies.  It was not just about those who were mounted by the Spirit, but also about the direction and instruction sought from those who were drumming, singing, and dancing.   Thus, a dialogue, an artistic conversation between performers, the Lwa, and other participants, took place in a manner that could not be captured by mere words.  Performers gave their bodies as texts that other participants could read in order to determine what the Lwa were dictating, suggesting and even asking of the community.  This narration in space, in colors, and in forms, as Michel calls it, was an actual text or roadmap for understanding what Vodou is about.   The interaction between drummers, dancers, and singers through movement permitted participants to meet the Lwa in possession, liberating the soul and bringing together the community in an eternal dance of freedom.

Questions for further discussion:
In light of the fact that some major religious traditions attempt to control what one can do with the body, how can Vodou be used to develop a methodology for talking about how the erotic is used to express the sacred?

How might we develop a framework for constructing a means of coming to terms with the diversity of African cultural retentions present in the worship practices of mainline traditions in the African Diaspora?

What might be some benefits of widening understandings of literacy and communication to include performance in public and private educational institutions? 

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