Cultural Constraints

On our recent trip to Padre Island Texas, my husband Rich and I discovered a new medical clinic with a fitness/rehab center in an adjoining suite. The Zumba sign in the front yard caught our attention, and I was thrilled to have the chance to continue taking Zumba classes while on vacation. The teacher moved so authentically to the salsa, reggae, rumba, samba, hip hop rhythms, it seemed clear she was from a culture where those movements and rhythms are a part of daily life.  My fellow students were white women of various ages who copied the teacher’s steps and seemed familiar with the pattern of the routines. But I noticed that none of them moved any part of the trunk of their bodies. In spite of the teacher’s demonstration to the contrary, there were no movements of the shoulders, rib cages or hips.

Rich laughed when I told him what I noticed about my classmates. He said that when he came to pick me up, and I was still in the locker room, he’d told the teacher, “I’m here to pick up one of the Zumba students.”

The teacher said, “She must be the one who was shaking her tail.”

“That would be the one,” he replied.

One thing I’ve learned is that there are rules about moving the body. They are unwritten and unspoken rules, but our bodies seem to know them, and they behave in such a way as to keep us from violating them and looking “foolish.”  When I first went to New York City as a classically trained ballet dancer and took jazz dance classes, I felt awkward, clumsy, and more than a bit embarrassed. Those moves were not in the catalogue for a ballerina or for a graduate of a Catholic high school. I had to get over the training I had received, both in dance and in life, in order to allow my body to move in what was, for me, a foreign language.

The movement vocabulary in different cultures is distinct, with variations for gender and age. So learning dances of different cultures is a great way to free ourselves from the restrictions of our own. By varying the movements we are able to do, we become multi-lingual and culturally fluent. As ballroom dancers, my husband Rich and I made it a practice to learn a relevant dance when we traveled to another country or region; the Salsa in South Florida, the Quick-Step in England, the Viennese Waltz in France, the Push and Two-Step in Texas.

When musical and dance traditions first emerge, they shock. The tango, the waltz, the gyrations of Elvis “the Pelvis” all created scandal at their introduction. So there’s a generational aspect to what movements are considered acceptable. And as future generations look back, they wonder what all the fuss was about.

Sexuality seems at the center of the body’s cultural constraints. The movie the Black Swan starring Natalie Portman offers insight into what’s behind these rules. Dealing with the Whore/Virgin complex in western culture, the ballerina must play both roles. As the White Swan she dances the youthful virgin, a role quite suited to the technical rules and aesthetic of classical ballet.

Next she must dance the more challenging Black Swan role. She must seduce the prince without the help of a shapely woman’s body containing breasts and hips. These body parts are not allowed in classical ballet. (Even this already quite slender actress had to lose 20 pounds to play the part with accuracy.)

Sex roles are involved too in these unspoken cultural constraints. In the United States boys and men, if they wish the freedom to move their bodies in expressive, artful ways, must overcome the social expectation that men don’t dance. And in my experience, they learn this message early. I remember my 3 year old grandson telling me, somewhat proudly, “I don’t dance.”

When I asked him what he did do, he said, again proudly, “I golf.”

2 thoughts on “Cultural Constraints

  1. Shelia, this is terrific and sums up exactly what i was feeling on Monday! I hope that the trunk of my body will continue to learn that it’s okay to loosen up and keep trying those muscles that have been dormant since my childhood (at least most of the time!):) it’s a joy to share this with you.

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