Dance, Time and Ritualization
An Interview by Christa Sütterlin
Ch.S. Walter, we met at the Human Ethology group in Max Planck Society Seewiesen in the eighties. You have been working at your comparative study on human dance that involved also some forms of dance in animals – a study that was very well received and discussed within the field of Human Ethology. With this subject you aligned consequently with the theme of your doctoral thesis about “man, motion, space” – done at Zurich University – but on other scientific grounds. Your doctoral work was elaborated as a rather phenomenological study within the humanities, actually in the field of psychology, whereas the study done in Seewiesen considered already the comparison of different dance forms on an ethological base. It appeared as a happy coincidence that the research of Eibl-Eibesfeldt decisively is concerned with biologically and culturally evolved behaviors and shows many interfaces between biology and the humanities.
W.S. Right, I came on Ernst Pöppel’s advice to whom you introduced me earlier. Pöppel as well was highly interested in artistic performance and expression, that’s why I was invited to his colloquium about the “Biological aspects of Aesthetics” in Bad Homburg. It was Pöppel and Ingo Rentschler who mediated the contacts to Irenäus Eibl-Eibesfeldt and Human Ethology.
Ch.S. I remember this colloquium very well, which I joined for four years myself. I think this was a real pioneer enterprise that brought together most distinguished heads in natural and human sciences.
W.S. When I came to Seewiesen and saw this huge material of films, taken by Eibl-Eibesfeldt, I recognized at once that a study like the one I had done in Zurich was not any more possible. The field of psychology elaborated at that time there was strictly the one of a “individual psychology”, and something monographic like “the organism, the human body in space” seemed inconceivable to follow up. I have been confronted with all these actions in groups, and it seemed clear to me, that the new question has to be reduced – and on the other hand enlarged! Enlarged to the implications of the group, but reduced in formal regard, and this in direction of some few, simple and distinct criteria that allow for comparison between different cultures and even species. I have to add, that I did my degree in Zurich, but mentally I came from the Frankfurt school!
Ch.S. This was the era of the famous “nature-nurture”-discussion in the seventies in sciences ....
W.S. Exactly, and the Frankfurt school of thinking defended completely the nurture-aspect. This means, that I shared the concept of the purely cultural determination of human behavior, also the artistic behavior, of course. So when I started my work with the films, I had to go through an immense amount of material, first the animal dancing. Afterwards I trawled through the mass of film roles taken in different cultures with scenes of spontaneous and ritual dancing and looked for key points or key situations for some hint of comparison, something I could get hold of: similarities of presentation and similarities of function. This was looking for single trees in an endless wood. I came at once to a small sequence that became a kind of a starting point for my later on effected studies. It was a scene with dancing San (!Ko) children that in some respect reminded me of scenes of animal “dancing” seen before. It was the way these children started to form themselves into a common movement. I could recognize in the foot tracks of the group some patterns, something like a structure that composes itself – and then dissolves again.
The question of what makes up this structure was the one that bothered me most in the beginning. I had seen things like that before, as I said, in animal behavior. Then this crucial concept of ethology came to my mind – which helped me to understand what I saw: the notion of ritualization.
Ch.S. Indeed one of the central concepts to apply specially to processes in visual communication.
W.S. There are certainly many elements to observe in such movement formations, but there are two of them that really struck me: the one is the fact that is mentioned already by Oskar Heinroth and Konrad Lorenz, that nothing happens just somewhere casually in space, but with organisms set in a specific orientation – for instance orthogonally or frontally to each other.
Ch.S. You still think in spacial terms, like in your psychological doctoral thesis on dance!
W.S. Of course.
Ch.S. I rather thought of communication first – since most of these processes happen in a kind of dialogue with a partner or in a group. But we shall come to this back later.
W.S Spacial relation is a highly important factor if communication takes place, as pointed out Lorenz in particular. Only if the observer or receiver is in a defined bodily position in respect to the actor, he is able to perceive what really happens.
Ch.S. Or to be perceived himself!
W.S. This spacial relation is one thing, as I said. But there is a second one to observe in the flow of filmed material to review, and this is the repetitive character of the movements.
C.S. Conspicuity is augmented. Exactly as Huxley (1966) defined it and Eibl rconceived and described it in his two textbooks on classic and human ethology (1967 and 1984) ...
W. S. In fact, a movement is performed in a certain intensity, it is enlarged
Ch.S. Exactly, the amplitude is considerable larger than in the normal behavior
W.S. But it is the two of them, which make the special appeal: the spatial organization and the one in time! And the enlargement of movement combined with its repetition have the effect that the partner is forced to look at again and again. For example when males of birds (as shown in the film on paradiseae apoda) assemble for a kind of concerted action. There you can observe what we call a collective courtship, in German “Arena-Balz”, where a group of male birds synchronize each other in this waving movement. This looks like a gorgeous spectacle – at least in the eyes of a human observer. Females choose their favorite partner among these performers. This last film I mentioned was made by Dr. G. and U. Konrad, as I remember.
Ch.S. It may have looked like a perfect mise-en-scène for you as a scientist of human dance.
W.S. ... knowing that all this represents a biological program that simply acts out! To make the story short, both elements, the spacial organization as well as the temporal organization of body movements observed in animal ‘dancing’ were the criteria that interested me most for a comparison with human ‘dancing movements’, and I tried to translate them as a working hypothesis into the study of spontaneous dance scene observed in children of a traditional African culture, the !Ko San of Central Kalahari. The first question was, if the spacial and the temporal structure were something to be measured! How do children start to orient their bodies? And second: is there a synchronizer that (or who) gives the rhythm?
Ch.S. I imagine this as a quite difficult enterprise, whereby the temporal structure appears to me easier to analyze than the spacial one. Did you have to plot the step positions in the still pictures?
W.S. It was quite tricky, since the whole scene happened in the sand. Which means, that you couldn’t actually see the exact point of contact of the feet with the soil. So I was proud to find a more reliable measurement of rhythm: the deepest point of bending the knees. You see the girls jumping forward and then backward, and I had to define the “pulse” for each girl separately. I looked for example in which moment the knee of person A has reached his lowest position. This was not easy at all, since the girls in the beginning were dancing each in its own space and rhythm, quite chaotic to look at from a distance. And in the course of this short phase of individual dancing it is fascinating to see how things begin to organize, actually quite fast. And suddenly you get a stable rhythm.
Ch.S. How long you would rate this phase or process into synchronization?
W.S. The films were taken with (in) 24 pictures per second, and I had to analyze about 500 pictures for this preliminary action. That means that after 20 seconds a common pulse was established. And on the grounds of this pulse very soon first variations start to evolve – which is again a fascinating thing to observe. As soon as a common base is stabilized and sensible to the participants, elaboration begins to work within this rhythmic frame. This was a kind of elucidation to me, because in general we think that the pulse is given through music! Now I understood, that time is nothing that runs somewhere externally, independent of the human body, but is made by the human organ- isms and shared among them.
Ch.S. Would you say, there is a internal timer, like a physiological clockwork?
W.S. I would say, that these possibilities to enter a time setting are biologically given. The question is, how we deal with it. What struck me most is how easily these children already play with temporal structures, and how quickly they establish an individual variation within a given rhythm, that still fits into the frame. They decide to perform a figure just a little bit delayed in time, they create rhythmic syncopes, or they fill the gap with more beats than the others.
Ch.S. And this individual variation stays individual, or does it lead to a restructuring of the rhythmic figure?
W.S. Mostly it does not touch the frame. The individual freedom of moving within a common pulse is evidently a factor of pure lust. One enjoys to step outside the order for a moment and to add his own flourish, an individual note to it, but re-enters with all expressions of pleasure! This switch is a displayed bodily competence!
Ch.S. This just reminds me one observation done in Namibia myself during fieldwork with the Himba. I watched and filmed a female dance aside a feast, arisen as a complementary action together with singing and clasping. The women formed a semi-circle and danced in a synchronized rhythm. Once in a while one woman stepped out the circle and performed a kind of own cadenza in the empty centre – trying to hold the rhythm with own dancing figures and body actions. Some were quite acrobatic, but always sustained by the clasping and singing of the group. After a while they stepped back and gave the center free for a next individual performance. The tension between own and group-induced activity creates evidently a special physiological and emotional kick.
W.S. I did some flanking observations in other traditional cultures too, but then I decided to invite a group of European students for a comparative survey. I did it rather biased, thinking that our culture does harder with the problem of rhythm and coordination, since we are used to have music as a clock generator and time base available by the media, whenever we like it. And we dance after a given music.
C.S. Right, music and rhythm are always around us, we don’t have to gener- ate it ourselves like for example the San.
W.S. Yes, expecting our people to be more degenerate! That’s why I started the behavioral experiments without music – at the famous ‘Birkenhaus’ in Seewiesen! The surprise was, that the students developed easily a stable rhythm! Which seemed quite amazing also from the age structure.
Ch.S. You mean that adolescents move differently – or less easy – than children.
W.S. What I mean concerns more than the aspect of motoric and physical unbiasedness. It has to do with a more general developmental thing. Children are able to communicate a visible pleasure while generating their own body rhythm, and especially a common body rhythm while playing with others. They experience synchronicity in a deeply physical and sensual way. That something can happen in the same moment as a coincidence. I think, this indicates a real beginning in the behavior of dancing. Your observation of the Himba dance is a beautiful example of what I wanted to stress: the fact that dancers – together with co-dancers – establish a common time structure and second, that each one answers to the movements of others within a common space. This seems to be a special human element not observable in animals.
Ch.S. You mean the element of coordination – in the group.
W.S. Yes – especially how they enjoy it. In animals you have coordination only in behaviors that are highly ritualized. Highlights in behavior! That means, that within animal behavior only in very decisive situations movements must be arranged and agreed on, where individuals have exactly to understand what the other is doing. This is the nucleus of communication. In humans it is freed from these specific situations, human organisms enjoy playing with the elements gained by ritualization and they expand it in time – time for each other – a genuine social component. The building up of a com- mon temporal structure and the mutual spacial reference are the beginning of dance or dancing in my view.
Ch.S. You mentioned in the beginning your arrival in an institution like ours, where the perspective of individual psychology you were trained in, had to be fairly abandoned and replaced by the observation of behaviors in a larger context like the group. This describes exactly the work of Eibl-Eibesfeldt who went into different cultures to study group structures, how they orga- nized themselves into a bigger functional whole. Is this happening via kin- ship, via gift exchange, via affiliation through marriage. What holds a group together? And you have turned your attention to a subject which I think is focal for this special research: dance as a phenomenon that brings up the question, by which mechanisms – sheer physical ones at first – a group of individuals connects and keeps together. How do people arrive to act as one body. And what you point out is the common experience of a same rhythm, a same time and space structure in the !Ko San. In the Himba you observed the juxtaposition of men and women in two semi-circles, and what I filmed myself was the mentioned stepping out of alternating female individuals to give their special performance. The clasped rhythm gave a common guideline for all singular turns. So every individual performance is tied back into a collective platform. This looks like a central discovery regarding the intermediate field between individual and group expression discussed in evolu-tionary biology as individual and group selection.
W.S. The advantage of being held by the group – as seen in the dancing behavior – of course has its backside, also seen in the performances. When a rhythm becomes so imperative that a single outbreak is not any more possi- ble, we observe a rigidification that becomes risky. The common pulse carries away any resistance. Especially in large groups – supported by music - like the army. Dance shows both sides of group behavior: binding towards the inner structure and demarcating against other groups.
Ch.S. Exactly. You know that a project intended over a long time by Eibl was concerned about the physiology of exaltation, especially in social groups like the Hooligans or student’s fraternities with their songs and collective activities that often are rhythmically structured. This can lead to trance-like states that are not any more controlled. Something “takes over” that exceeds the single person – a big feeling like in a rock concert – one feels stronger and taller than normal. It’s a trip! The increase of felt strength leads often to a loose of individual control – and rage. This can be abused, as we know from dance forms that serve the attunement for war like in the Eipo.
W.S. I saw also this film material of Eibl-Eibesfeldt of course – famous scenes! The Eipo back their rhythmical dancing with impressive sounds. It was strangely exciting hearing their play back through the halls of the Institute in Seewiesen.
Ch.S. And in Andechs too! Now back to the initial aspect of dancing. You have also looked through the courtship-dancing in animals, specially birds. They are performed from one individual, mostly the male, towards another, mostly the female, and can be seen as a prelude to sexual intercourse, i.e. the complete breakdown of distance between two individuals. This kind of ex- citement leads again to survival in positive terms. What do you think about human dancing in couples? We know about quite rigid individual body distances that normally are respected in every day life. They seem to be bypassed by the culture of dancing and serving the approaching of two bodies, sometimes ending in pair bonding and/or sexual act. Did you observe mechanisms in human dance that counteract and control these special licenses?
W.S. The bandwidth here is enormous, historically as well as culturally. The breakdown of individual distances between man and women for instance in the Himba performances or !Ko-dancing seems inconceivable. In the European Baroque epoch we have the row dancing with the famous Quadrille, where every woman once faces every man – with all possibilities to make a choice!
I remember just one film sequence by Eibl analyzed in our Institute by Margret Schleidt – the tanim-het ritual of the Medlpa in New Guinea. It is a courtship ritual of potential partners with mutual head rolling, front and nose contact, that becomes a highly intense encounter. The more an agreement upon a common rhythm occurs, the better the chances for marriage appear in the eyes of the two participants. The bodily synchronization is predictive for a later successful copulation so to say.
Ch.S. In animal courtship-dance these rules of approaching are strictly expressed and controlled, mostly by behaviors that appear sometimes harsh to human eyes. Female readiness for male investment must be clearly transferred. Humans have behaviors and words for such a process. What is the relative contribution of dance? Does it offer rules for escape? In group dance it seems easier to avoid individual closeness. In couple dancing you have to regulate distance and closeness yourself.
W.S. Right. So far I cannot remember such determined pair situations in Eibls films of traditional dancing except for the healing dances like in the Yanomami and San, where the healer dances around the patient and keeps a spatially ruled contact with the body of one distinct person. The intimacy of touching or extracting is allowed by the ritual. But otherwise I could find no clear parallels.
Ch.S. The healing relation describes a asymmetric situation, where one is basically stronger than the other. It is an extreme situation, and the healer is allowed to transgress borders that are tabu for others. This is possible via mechanisms of ritualization found in dance as well. Another dyadic situation, similar in asymmetry we find in the relation between mother and child.
W.S. Indeed there is similarity in the sense that the child is in a weeker situation than the mother. And I remember this mother-child-relation being one of the focal research topics in Seewiesen during my stay there in the eighties. Now I would like to rely to a special issue raised by Ellen Dissananyake in the conference. She referred very much to the forms of ritualized communication between mother and child described by Eibl-Eibesfeldt.
Ch.S. ... which means repetitions in gestures and vocalizations, like the “dadada” etc.
W.S. Exactly. And one augments and reinforces his voice and movements, makes them bigger and more clear and expressive ...
Ch.S. Big open eyes, slow and distinct speech with repeated nodding! One could say, that everything is done to catch and bind the attention of the other – maybe not so much in the healing situation, but in others like courtship and warding off by impressing the partner! This is exactly where ritualized behavior is showing up.
W.S. Yes, and the early key-situation is given in the specific mother-child relation, where the child learns everything that is needed to understand this behavior, and how to bind attention. Repetition, accentuation, expressive movements etc. All, what the child sets up in situations with other children later on in common playing for instance.
Ch.S. The bodily agreement between mother and child is the most amazing thing in this dyadic situation. It seems as if the child would “expect” or is tuned to such a behavior of its mother. And that it “learns”, what actually is already there, since its nonverbal answers come readily and precisely.
W.S. Yes, like in a kind of dance. Here we move again in our primary topic. In dance we observe the same way of dealing with two modes of behavior: within a period of completely independent actions one is able to create situations of prolonged mutual attention – by looking at each other and by establishing a common temporal space. Like in our communication now. While one of the two is talking, the other gives signs, acoustically or visually, that he still shares the same temporal space. He sends time markers to show it – like the humming and nodding. It is like a choreography. These two aspects are really fascinating, once you have spotted them. To be visually connected and to create a shared temporal structure that has nothing to do with the time tickering on our watches. We always think, that time is something “out there”, independent of ourselves. But time is part of our selves! We generate it. We can share it with others – getting fast or slow together, share a common meter – be in symmetry.
Ch.S. I remember even materials analyzed in our Seewiesen Institute, where one could predict somehow the psychological agreement of a couple from the quality and degree of its synchronization in movements during a conversation. Data of questionnaires after the take were compared with observations of body movements during the take (video). If you look at the phenomenon from an evolutionary viewpoint, you could see the intense and special interaction of mother and child as a primary individualized bond that separates them from the rest of society. And this includes a first splitting from a gen- eral bonding with humans – in the sense of a “we and the others”. Such a differentiation sets new marks within ontogeny. The embedding in human roots – seen as phylogenetic heritage – is overlaid by cultural and individual interests. But here Eibl-Eibesfeldt has always seen chances for bonding on a wider level. If we are able to transfer our primary empathy within familiar bonding into solidarity with larger groups, we learn for a better understanding without neglecting the differences. – A nearly Hegelian triad, indeed!
W.S. I hope you include the role of fathers!
Ch.S. Of course I do. They just interact in a more motoric way and empathy. Mothers can even be replaced by other care-persons or allo-mothers, as Sarah Hrdy could show.
As I know, your publication entered the text book of Eibl in 1984. He estimated your work a lot. How did it then influence your further career?
W.S. I was in a funny situation: analyzing and drawing beautiful dancing movements of humans while sitting in a rather dark and soggy cellar room. After a while the discrepancies between the vital actions of the dancers and my poor analytical attitude became so painfully evident that I decided in this cellar, to leave the institute as soon as the results of my dance study would be published. I thought of transforming observed actions into own performances. I became a street singer and dancer for a while and in 1987 I founded ‘The City Dancers’ in Munich. In this group we played with synchronization and orientations of body positions in urban spaces and observed parallel effects to the scientific study mentioned above. For instance the attention gathering effect of two or more people acting simultaneously on a same object – let’s say a spoon falling down, the sound of an approaching airplane, the rhythmical sounds of pigeons.
Ch.S. Your effect – (hm) to women? You don’t mean a kind of collective courtship?
W.S. (laughing) No no, the effect on people in public. This synchronization of activity catches a lot of attention, it is a procedural thing, quite unbelievable, and the spoon gets “big like a ball”! This made clear how you can guide and focus the attention of people. Call it visual indoctrination.
Ch.S. You were always interested in theatre as well and the parallels with dancing are quite obvious. In theatre something fugitive like words and attitudes become regulated by its text, and the similar can be true in dancing by a rigid choreography. I know that you were defending the position of the “living theatre”, which is an unwritten theatre actually, that arises with its per- formance and disappears with it. Nothing remains that has not been in the speech and action of the players.
W.S. Yes, performance sets a high focus on the actions in the present. It defines the doing, the act, the gesture as art and behind it all the questions about what makes behavior human.
Dissanayake, E. (2009). The artification hypothesis. Cognitive Science, 5, 148-173.
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Siegfried, W. (1993): Emotion and complexity. In: A. Helbo (ed): Degrés. Revue de synthèse à orientation sémiologique, 21. 75/76.
Eibl-Eibesfeldt, I. (1972). Film-Dokumentationen !Ko !ko-Bushmen, Children Dancing Part 1.
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aus: Sütterlin Ch. Schiefenhövel W. et al.
"Art as behaviour" BIS-Verlag, Oldenburg
ISBN 978-3-8142-2290-5 Oldenburg 2014