Dance as Ritual The purpose of this entire chapter is to examine dance as function. The crucial concept to remember is that for many cultures both living and extinct dance is not a separate act. Rather, it is a function of life, and tied to nearly every significant event from birth to death. This makes dance a ritual event, and these rituals are needed to insure the happiness, prosperity and safety of the group. A ritual is simply a series of actions that have been established through tradition. These actions are performed as communication with a higher power as well as other members of the community. Through enacting a prescribed ritual the group is able to express their needs, fears and desires through movement, music, and rhythms. Keep in mind for these groups there is no science to explain why people get sick, why disasters happen, or even how babies are made. Instead it is all part of the great mystery of life. It is through ritual that people are given some sense that they can affect their own fate, and gain some control over events that influence their survival.
Even in the modern era we still have ritual events. Most churches and religious groups have a number of rituals they regularly perform. But ritual can also extend into our daily lives. Remember that a ritual is a prescribed series of actions established through tradition. We all have our own little personal rituals
we enact, sometimes on a daily basis. We even refer to it by saying things like, my morning ritual. The morning ritual is whatever you go through each morning to get yourself ready and out the door. The actions you go through to get dressed, eat breakfast, and whatever else have been established over time because they produce results. The result being you are able to get out of bed and get wherever it is you have to go. Rituals are either specific or cyclical. A specific ritual is developed to address a one-time, or unique situation. A tribe may discover that a stream commonly used for fishing has suddenly run out of fish. In this instance a ritual could be created to ask the higher powers to return the fish to the stream. A cyclical ritual is repeated at the same time each season, year, or day. Your morning ritual is carried out every weekday morning, but could be different on the weekend. Harvest rituals are always performed during harvest time. Our own holiday rituals happen during the specific holidays. Among different cultures the rituals can vary widely. But even though people worked out their own cultural rituals, there are a number of broad categories that encompass all the variations. We can group the rituals into categories by looking at the content and the purpose of the wide variety of rituals performed by humans globally and throughout history. Fertility Rituals:
The most basic concern of early man was fertility. Without food or new offspring the tribe would perish. This makes the cycle of the seasons, the weather, and the fertility of the soil, animals, and humans’ very crucial factors. It’s important to keep in mind that fertility was not exclusive to human fertility. Rather, plants and animals had to also produce and renew in order to provide for the humans.
The most important efforts of the community are going to go toward fertility rituals. The goal being to influence the higher powers to provide a good harvest, insure an abundance of animal births, and produce new babies within the tribe. There were undoubtedly many anxieties wrapped up with fertility because it is the sustenance of the tribe. The tribe has to have food in order to survive, and a lot can happen in the time between planting the crop and harvesting it. If the tribe looses its crops and/or animals they all face starvation, malnutrition, and even death. Through the performance of dance rituals the humans are able to placate their fears, and these rituals allow them to feel they are in contact with a higher power who can influence the development of crops, the health and well being of the herd animals, and the tribes ability to produce new members.
Initiation Rituals: These rituals focus on human development at the various life stages. An initiation ritual is concerned with life events such as boys and girls as they reach puberty, weddings, or boys becoming warriors. Sometimes these rituals are
referred to as lifespan rituals because they focus on events occurring within a human’s life. Social Rituals: In many ways a social ritual can be thought of as a little bit lighter than the other various dance rituals. A social ritual simply promotes community through integration, entertainment, and celebration. A social ritual may not be quite as developed as a fertility or initiation ritual, and may happen more spontaneously. A group may gather to dance together after a long day of daily chores. Although this activity is not shrouded in exacting ritual, there are many ritual aspects still at play. A ritual is a traditional cluster of actions. Therefore the gathering of the people in a particular spot in the village after a hard days work constitutes these actions. No, these are not magical, revered, sacred actions, but they are still a traditional cluster of actions and can therefore be considered ritual. Hunting and Animal Rituals: In some ways these rituals are similar to that of fertility because they are concerned with animals that provide food. However, a fertility ritual centers on the fertility of animals and their ability to reproduce. A hunting ritual is focused on hunting and catching animals to feed the tribe. An animal ritual is about calling on an animal spirit to aid a human. In tribal cultures humans had a great respect for the animals. They recognized them as a great resource in providing not only food, but also skins for shelter and clothing, bones for tools, and organs and tissues for various items like strong ties and water pouches. Whenever they took the life of an animal they were careful to show respect to the life form they just ended in order to maintain their own.
Humans also recognized the power of the animals. Sometimes they were interested in harnessing this power for their own. If a tribe was preparing for battle they may call upon the spirit of a large predator to imbue them with its strength as well as protect them during The&Hopi&of&North&Eastern&Arizona&perform&the&Eagle&Dance.&
battle. They may also do an animal dance as a hunting charm wherein the dancer attempts to win power over the animal he is imitating. Some hunting and animal dances may focus on the tools used rather than the animal. If a fisherman has crafted a new net he would perform a dance ritual to ensure the new net catches many fish. A similar dance ritual could be performed on any number of hunting tools, whether they are arrows, spears, or clubs. Healing and Funeral Rituals: This example may be the easiest to spot in modern times. Every culture across the globe since the dawn of man has had some sort of ritual for handling their dead. Whether it is burial, cremation, floating the body on a raft, or having a huge celebration all societies have funeral rituals, and early man was no exception. A funeral ritual helps those left behind cope with their loss. It also focuses on helping the dead transition to the afterlife. There are many, many varying beliefs on what happens to someone when they die, but regardless of the belief all cultures build some ritual around funerals and the journey of the dead. In a time before medical science a healing ritual was one of the main forms of medicine. When someone got sick or injured early man had some knowledge of healing herbs and plants, but for the most part they were dependent on ritual and the communication with a higher power as a means to heal their sick and injured. Really this is not far gone in modern America. Anyone who has had a seriously ill or injured family member has felt a loss of control. Even