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I’ve been thinking recently about how cultural traditions confer authority, and how in two realms – religion and dance – I see multiplicity dispersing authority (this will make sense after I explain it, I promise).

Image of different types of leaves.
Photo by Tolga Ulkan on Unsplash. In public domain.

Multiplicity is a concept that is primary to the study of folklore. Pretty much every item of folklore circulates with variation, meaning there are multiple versions of jokes, legends, customs, and so on. Even where you have a fairly fixed-phrase genre (the text remains constant in its phrasing most of the time) such as proverbs, multiplicity and variation sneak in: the text can have different meanings in different contexts, its meanings can change over time, and so on.

For this reason – and others – it’s usually incorrect to talk about the “original” version of anything folkloric in nature. Like sure, from an intertextual perspective, you can talk about the version you first encountered and/or find most meaningful…but unless a text is 100% original, like Hans Christian Andersen’s literary creation “The Little Mermaid,” it’s unlikely that you’re actually talking about the first of its kind. Again, folklore circulates with multiplicity and variation, that’s how we define its existence for the most part!

One counter-example is polygenesis. As I explain here, polygenesis refers to how a practice or text arises in multiple places over time (as opposed to monogenesis, when something has one origin, usually lost to the mists of time, and then diffuses to other places as people spread it). Some classic examples of polygenesis are tales about star-crossed lovers, since that’s a simple enough concept that multiple cultures came up with it on their own, and made it their own, infusing their texts with their other values and relevance.

Where I see multiplicity in terms of religion is that there exists a multiplicity of religions in this world, both in the sense that there are multiple religions floating around looking for believers, and in the sense that many religions overlap in terms of their myths and sacred narratives, practices, and so on. Many of them dipped into the same motif punch bowl, in my view, since by golly there are a lot of virgin births and sacrificial deaths and so on in various world religions!

The concepts of folk religion and vernacular religion hint at this multiplicity and complexity, but those aren’t what I’m interested in right now. The problem, as I see it, is that most religions with an institutional basis (a single holy text; some sort of hierarchy/structure) deny multiplicity. Each of those religions says “I’m the only true religion, unlike all those other religions out there also claiming to be the only path to truth” and honestly that just raises my hackles. I realized this early on, when I was 8 or 9 years old reading a book of world mythology, and I was like, if each one is claiming to be the only valid path to the divine, how can that possibly be true?!

Multiplicity decenters authority: having a whole bunch of religions claiming to each have access to the singular divine authority is, er, rather contradictory. How do you know that you happened to be born into a culture that practices the One True Way? Awfully lucky of you, eh? Too bad for the rest of those suckers on planet Earth, huh? The whole premise just weirds me out and is a major reason why I’m a non-believer.

In a rather different realm, I see claims of authority in the dance world unfolding in ways that are fascinating and sometimes, also, kinda contradictory.

As I’ve written recently, Western belly dancers are having ever more conversations about the origins of this dance form and the most ethical ways to try to engage with it. Overall I think this is a good thing…but it’s made more complex by the fact that the Middle East, North Africa, and the Mediterranean are giant cultural areas that are not a monolith. There is no single authority on belly dance; the Amazigh peoples of North Africa have contributed to it, as have Egyptians, as have Turkish and Greek people, and so on. Similarly, in the U.S. there are various schools of belly dance – which some have critiqued as a colonizer’s approach, to take a folk dance and codify it and make money on it – and many of these schools have their own hierarchies and leaders (for better or for worse).

So, when there’s a discussion going on about the origins of belly dance and how best to interact with it if you’re not from the originating/source cultures, who to believe? Obviously, those closest to it (those who grew up in source cultures) will have had the most experience with it, so they will have a ton of accurate information on it. But due to the multiplicity of the dance form, their views are necessarily partial; I wouldn’t expect an Egyptian dancer to be an expert on Amazigh village dancers and vice versa. Both of those views are still probably closer to accurate than those of an American dancer, though, unless that dancers has spent lots of time in the originating countries, learning their languages and their values and as much as possible while trying to shed colonialist and Orientalist views.

Having this perspective on multiplicity is actually helpful for me, as I try to sort through all the views being expressed by dancers from a variety of schools and backgrounds on how Westerners “should” interact with belly dance. I think that the dominant American worldview is one that embraces hierarchy and wants clarity, so it’s little surprise that so many American takes on belly dance have codified the steps and created schools/brands that revolve around their interpretation of the dance. As someone who teaches and dances FatChance BellyDance style, I see the beauty in that approach: it gives us a common dance language so we can jam and improvise together. I think this is also why so many American practitioners of fusion belly dance styles are waiting for the leaders/creators of those styles to weigh in; we crave the kind of clarity that comes from a top-down approach and we want validation that we’re doing the “right” thing, even if such a moral authority probably does not exist.

But I also see why dancers from source cultures are upset about this: no one gave us permission to take their dance movements and run with them. Also, decontextualizing folk dances by taking them out of their earlier contexts (festivals, harvests, weddings, and the like, to take examples from North African folk dances) and codifying the steps is literally the opposite of the point of folk dances, which are folkloric and informally passed along, rather than taught on DVDs and in workshops.

Multiplicity decenters authority: no single dancer will have the ultimate authority to say what is right or wrong in a dance form that is essentially a folk dance. But as with anything folkloric in nature, there will be a weight to tradition, a volume to many voices. Enough American kids grew up with Disney’s Beauty and the Beast as “the original” and the “correct” version of the text, so that’s their reality. Enough American belly dancers have acclimated to the idea that we have the right to do this dance form, so that’s our reality. Learning to hear the dissenting voices is taking some practice, but as I assert in this blog post, it’s a multiplicity of voices, so there is no one right answer (thought there are probably better and worse directions to move in…I think for American dancers to utterly ignore the voices of source-culture dancers is the wrong move).

This is just one example of how my scholarly background as a folklorist informs my approach to the world around me, whether religion or dance. Attuning oneself to multiplicity has the benefit of decentering authority, which I think makes the world more interesting, but it also means there are fewer quick and easy answers within our reach.

FOXY FOLKORIST Studied folklore under Alan Dundes at the University of California, Berkeley, and went on to earn her PhD in folklore from Indiana University. She researches gender and sexuality in fairy...

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