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Spirited Choreographies: Ritual, Identity, and History-Making in Ewe Performance


Spirited Choreographies: Ritual, Identity, and History-Making in Ewe Performance traces ritual performances and festival events presented by communities of Ewe people residing in coastal regions of Ghana and Togo. While ethnomusicologists have extensively theorized Ewe music, danced ways of knowing remain comparatively neglected. By using dance idioms that performers adapt even in the moment of production, communities seek a degree of cultural, conceptual, and national fluidity. I explore Ewe choreographies thematically: through stylized rituals in the first chapter of the dissertation, narratives of domestic enslavement in the second, pedagogical practices meant to discipline female sexuality in the third, and festival performances idealizing and representing transnational ethnic identities in the final chapter. To theorize indigenous Ewe processes of historical production occurring on both sides of the Ghana-Togo border, I examine Mami Wata, a group of pan-African water spirits who mediate between West African devotees and cultural “others.” During performances for water spirits, devotees comment about trade histories, critique threats to social accord, and translate foreign cultural practices. Additionally, women’s narratives of domestic slavery presented during devotional practices honoring another fierce pantheon of slave spirits, called Mama Tchamba, suggest that Ewe women mirror the non-discursive sharing of memories of enslavement novelized in Paule Marshall’s 1983 “neo-slave narrative” Praisesong for the Widow. Yet, Ewe dances inscribing histories of enslavement move beyond text to serve as coping mechanisms for collective memories founded on obligations to the spirits of enslaved ancestors who return through spirit possession to control the descendants of slave-holding African families. Bridging the gaps between private ritual contexts and public festivals while mired in social tensions between Pentecostal morality and Vodun pedagogies, the elders of the Association Deconu—a Togo-based traditional dance association— train and evaluate Ewe girls as cultural representatives. In both small-scale rituals and larger, state-funded festivals, information flows across borders and ethnic divisions to converge in performances that integrate younger generations and foreigners into histories of Ewe migration and dispersal through culturally specific epistemologies.

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