Monday, August 24, 2009
Friday, August 21, 2009
After Walter Cronkite died, a Time Magazine online poll voted “fake newsman” and comic Jon Stewart as the new Most Trusted Newscaster in America. A few weeks ago on Bill Maher’s Real Time guest Anna Deaveare Smith referred to Maher as a “clown.” I’m fairly certain she meant that in a sociological sense. I believe this because, although most people know her as a film and television actress, she is also an award winning political playwright. Seems to me she would know about such things as sacred clowning. “Clowns” in the social sciences are understood to be more than entertainers: they are important, sometimes even sacred, social critics. Our modern clowns—among them Jon Stewart, Bill Maher, and Stephen Colbert—are the American version of sacred clowns.
Sacred, or ritual, clowns have been documented in many cultures, most notably in American Pueblo societies (Hopi, Zuni, Tewa, et al). They are known in other cultures as tricksters, jesters and fools. Their purpose is to subvert cultural norms. Their tools are satire, parody, and ridicule.
Clowns are given social license to provoke. The fool stands slightly askew of the mainstream, taking a critical perspective. Their comic antics and satirical commentary are both entertainments and methods for controlling social behavior. They expose the flaws and the made-up-ness of cultural rules, creating in the witness a temporary state of uncertainty. From this liminal state, we reflect upon our personal and collective behavior. The role of Pueblo clowns is to “preserve the moral integrity of the community” (“White Face, Dark Heart”) by demonstrating the chaos that will ensue without those moral guidelines. The often offensive behavior of the clown arouses strong emotions of outrage, surprise, or shock. The laughter that ensues is a cathartic response driven by fear of that moral chaos.
LORD OF MISRULE
When Bill Maher announces his “New Rules” at the end of an episode, he is contending with small(ish) social practices or large political events which cast a sharp light on the current ambiguities of our social rules. Maher rubs our collective noses in our fears about the current free-floating social order by inventing his own counter rules. Some point out the ridiculousness of the new status quo: “New Rule: If you're stuck on a plane that's not moving for more than five hours, you get to punch a baby.” (Episode airing Aug. 14, 2009) Some are bitter attacks on the political practices of right-wing radicals: “New Rule: Never underestimate the ability of a tiny fringe group of losers to ruin everything.” (Episode airing July 31, 2009)
CHAOS VS ORDER
Stephen Colbert acts as a “heyoka,” the Sioux clown who does everything backwards. Watch the old movie Little Big Man for an excellent portrayal of this traditional figure: he washes with sand and rinses with water; says hello when he means good-bye and no when he means yes. In the context of his nightly program, “Stephen Colbert” is a comedic contrarian; a false-faced persona reflecting right-wing absurdities as in a circus mirror. He impersonates extreme conservative pundits by assuming implacable and narrow religious positions, rudely shouting over his guest speakers, and surrounding himself with hyper-patriotic images. His “entrance” after he announces the evening’s guest (who would normally be the ones to enter the stage waving to the audience) is an overtly contrarian device.
All joking relies on collective knowledge of the socio-cultural rules; it isn’t funny if we don’t understand which social rule the joke is overturning. With our world—our society, culture, politics, and economy—in turmoil, with separate truths competing for control of our national agenda, it makes sense that we rely on our comics to help us sort out reality. We trust Jon Stewart because he is a clown, because he makes the turmoil palatable by helping us laugh at it. We are painfully unsure of our future as a nation and a people. Stewart’s humor helps to “preserve the moral integrity of the community.” He reminds us that we do still have a collective reality, even though we may be hanging on to it by a thread.
Culture is not a concrete or stable thing; it is a symbolic universe created by our own actions and words. Clowns remind us of what and who we are, and how tenuous that is, how easily order dissolves into disorder. They specialize in walking the wire between order and chaos, a dangerous balancing act. They make us laugh, and think, and reassess what we want from our nation. That’s why nearly every night, when I watch The Daily Show, I inevitably shout at some point “Thank you, Jon Stewart,” thank you for reminding me that I’m not crazy…they are.
Wednesday, August 19, 2009
For several years now, friends and acquaintances of mine have asked that I create a dance class that can accommodate women with limited dancing abilities and relatively senior bodies. As I have struggled with increasingly ridged joints myself, I sympathized. I have had to drop out of a number of bellydance classes because it simply hurt too much to do the work. I know, I know…modify. But there is only so much modification you can do before you are doing an entirely different routine than the one the teacher is presenting. I wholeheartedly appreciate the core-strengthening value of a rigorous syllabus, and 20 years ago I’d have been all over that. But I have different needs now, and so do many of my friends. So, here it is, ladies: Bellydance For the Rest of Us.
We will learn the fundamentals of bellydance: shimmies, hip lifts and drops, choo choos, Arabics, Egyptians, and various other basic movements. While a certain amount of drilling (repetitions of specific techniques) is necessary, I hope this to be a stress-free practice. My main intention is simply to get women moving together in time. That alone is powerful enough to engender confidence and collective joy.
I think often of this description (fanciful or otherwise) of women dancing:
“Speaking only from personal experience, during lunch hours in the gym, we girls danced with each other in the middle of the basketball court, while the boys careened and vied around us. Girls were taught to dance by other girls, boys learned to dance from us...Is it possible to dance our way back into community, culture, and civilization, while the boys careen and view around us? Only time will tell, but dance we must—circling—doing a figure 8 through a maze of contradictions, dodging confrontation, tugging the hands of faltering sisters, the group rhythm transporting us round. Just that is our most practical, political strategy—for our greatest, tested strength is our collective spirit.”
This is a completely untested course. I have not taught it before; I don’t know how it will differ from other bellydance classes; I don’t know where it might lead. But dance we must, circling our hips, undulating our bellies, shaking our shoulders. And yes, we can dance our way back into community…this is my central goal for this class: to increase the community of women dancing together.
Beginning AUGUST 25, 2009 @
4135 Portola Dr (@ 41st)
$40.00 per 4-week session
beginning SEPTEMBER 10, 2009 @
13333 Middleton Avenue
Thursdays 10:30-11:30 am
$40.00 per 4-week session
PS: look for me at Cypress Raks on Sunday. I'm performing to some Cuban Timba music at about 7:15
* Grace Shinell "Women's Collective Spirit: Exemplified and Envisioned" in The Politics of Women's Spirituality. Charlene Spretnak, ed. Garden City, NY: Anchor Press: 1982