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Dance as self, culture, and community : the construction of personal and collective meaning and identity in competitive ballroom and salsa dancing


This dissertation uses salsa and competitive ballroom dancing as case studies to explore the role of chosen activities and commitment systems in shaping personal and collective meaning and identity in modern, urbanized society. Embedded in the wider social phenomena of leisure, these dance forms constitute chosen cultural arenas where people often find meaning, identity, and community. Participation is voluntary, and people are not compelled to engage in these activities. Yet these leisure activities have personal significance that both express and generate a sense of self. One of the reasons that ballroom and salsa serve as powerful "sites" of inquiry regarding chosen participations--relative to personal and collective meanings and identities--is their lack of wider social prestige or remuneration; for the same effort and dedication (in both time and money) there are numerous other forms of art and athletics that receive far greater social recognition, status, and monetary compensation. This does not mean that these rewards are never received by or are unimportant to ballroom or salsa dancers. What it does mean, however, is that wider social recognition, status, or monetary compensation cannot suffice to understand the dedication and investment typical of many dancers. As such, these dance forms are particularly rich sites for unpacking the interrelationships of chosen activities and activity systems with personal and collective meanings and identities within the circumstances of modern living. Precisely because "dance reflects powerful social forces," and "largely uncharted" ones (Brinson 1985:212), the data and findings of this dissertation contribute to a number of fields.Beyond these general contributions, however, this dissertation has foregrounded the utility and productivity of focusing on dance as dance. While never separate or explicable save in relation to its sociocultural context, neither can dance be reduced to nothing more than its sociocultural context. Whether as part of a ritual or as a ritualized activity in its own right, dance is more than what it partakes of; it is a specific means of being in the world and, given its cross-cultural scope, deserves careful anthropological attention

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