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Let’s Dance

As many have observed, violence is embodied within the American State and its people. This week has seen it manifested in the usual futile and tragic ways: one incident, however, was distinguished by the fact that one of its targets was deemed of sufficient value to the State to be afforded two bodyguards who summarily dispatched the shooter. In a State born of violence each act of brutality against a fellow being is a horrifying reaffirmation of its bloody foundational principles and is itself a political act –irrespective of the perpetrators particular party affiliation, ideology, religion, color or sexual identity.

Our response to this pathology might reasonably be resistance – a turning away from all forms of violence and the righteous embodiment of peace. Resistance, as it is now popularly understood in the public realm, however, has come to be more narrowly defined as opposition to the president and the political party on whose support he relies and it is this warped vision that may even have played a part in the Congressional Baseball Practice shooting.  This conception of resistance has also been more reasonably manifested in several large rallies, in the wearing of emblematic headgear and in the tribal devotion to late-show hosts who nightly eviscerate the president and his allies to comedic effect. To date, these peaceful public and private acts, while perhaps personally therapeutic, have had no discernible impact on their intended target. As symbols of defiance, by any historical measure, they fall woefully short.

In 1917, by contrast, the playing of jazz was considered by the State to represent an existential threat and the U.S. Navy was dispatched to close down the font from which such revolutionary music flowed – Storyville in New Orleans. By the miracle of unintended consequences this act initiated a great diaspora of the displaced musicians to northern states and guaranteed that jazz would become a truly national rather than a regional art form.

Last weekend, at the Ojai Music Festival, this most American of musical traditions was reinvested with its revolutionary intent, its posture of defiance and its subtext of resistance. Vijay Ayer, the acclaimed American Jazz pianist, Harvard professor and MacArthur fellow, who served as music director for the event, sees in his music the power to become “a fully corporeal mode of sustained antagonism: a hexis, a position, a way of being, an aesthetically precise way of embodying alterity”. In other words: resistance-as-music.

Certainly, on the Festival’s closing night, his sextet’s propulsive set of infinitely braided melodies structured within complex rhythmic armatures shell-shocked the mostly white, mostly highly privileged audience, more attuned to the festival’s usual offerings of twentieth century classical and mildly avant garde music, that had popped as much as $125 for the ninety minute assault of alterity. But Ayer’s intent is clear: it is to send his audience home with an “embodied memory….that you will carry back with you” and which “represents our very future in a time of fierce urgency and precarity”. (71st.Ojai Musical Festival Program, 2017)

In 1890, almost five hundred drunken troops of the U.S. Seventh Cavalry under the command of Colonel James Forsyth armed with rifles and several rapid-fire Hotchkiss cannons massacred more than 250 Indians at Wounded Knee in South Dakota because members of their tribe had been dancing. Most of the victims were women and children. This is what resistance looks like: simple acts of music and dance that so inflame the practitioners’ oppressors that they respond by egregious acts of vandalism and murder. Publicly expressed elemental gestures that speak to purity and grace, rhythm and melody are, it seems, a monumental affront to our government, its military and its corporate allies who daily stir an impoverishing stew of corruption. Partisan marches, oppositional satire and even perhaps the odd Counterpunch essay are ground up in that stew and pointed to as an example of its inclusivist piquancy. By contrast, blandishments of embodied kinesis and complex rhythms and melodies scare the living daylights out of our tormentors. In profoundly felt music and dance they sense a cosmic truth descending upon their reign of petty tyranny.

Certainly the Indian dancers who practiced the Ghost Dance towards the end of the nineteenth century were all too effective in projecting resistance by entirely non-violent and mostly non-verbal ways. The dedication to their sacral act was such that the dances might last non-stop for as long as six days and the circle of dancers grow to a circumference of over five miles. At the same time, their Paiute Indian prophet known as Wovoka (a.k.a. Jack Wilson) clearly enunciated the demands they were making of the Great Spirit.

As Louis S. Warren suggests in God’s Red Sun: The Ghost Dance Religion and the Making of Modern America, 2017, the Paiute had, by the end of the nineteenth century, bought into the idea of progress and were willing to accept that the metaphorical river of money had supplanted the real Nevada rivers which had once been a vital part of their subsistence livelihood but whose waters had been serially siphoned off to irrigate white farmers’ monocultures. Their hunting and gathering ranges had also been decimated and, of course, the Paiute had been subject to the usual onslaughts of disease and Indian-killing that had always characterized the frontier.

While they accepted their reality the Paiute still yearned for a prelapsarian past and it is this that their prophet promised – a return most immediately to the winter rains that watered their Great Basin desert lands and had vanished with the onset of the great drought in 1888; and more conjecturally of a time before the coming of the white-man. Their gatherings under Wovoka’s leadership “featured no drum or other instruments, only the beating of thousands of feet upon the valley floor”.  From the turning circle their voices rose chanting hymns which invoked weather spirits and celebrated other natural phenomena. The solidarity and new found spiritual focus of these Nevadan Native Americans was of some slight concern to those who had taken their land; that the Indian complaint was couched in a messianic religion that bore little relation to Christianity they found profoundly troubling.

In was but a short time before the Ghost Dance Religion spread east to the Lakota and Oglala peoples of the Northern Plains, and it was here that it reached its apotheosis. Gone was some of the more conciliatory language that suggested that Indians should happily cooperate with whites in the conquest of their lands in return for limited bathing privileges in the river of money: in its place was the Ghost Dance vest which magically protected the wearer from bullets; a guarantee of a return of all their fallen comrades, and a return too, of the thundering herds of buffalo which once roamed the Plains and had been mercilessly reduced by the pathological killing spree of white hunters – who shot at them with joyful abandon (and .50 caliber rifles) from the new transcontinental railway, the owners of which organized special ‘hunting by rail’ excursions and which a led to the great animal’s almost total extinction.

But still in place was the joyful massed circle dancing, which differed little from the Sun Dances the tribes had organized in times past, but which now addressed not the enduring cycle of death and regeneration but the present imperative of survival amidst a colonizing civilization which threatened their extermination. This survival was framed in terms of a return to the old ways, of resistance to the new and a magical re-emergence of their traditional means of subsistence. Yet the outward manifestation of the Plains Indian’ entreaties to the Great Spirit remained a simple circle dance and the spirits of ecstasy and revelation which it invoked.

Over the past few decades, we have drastically lost ground to the American Dream of middle class prosperity and of a future where all socio-economic classes can ascend the ladder of material comfort, health and education, which was all too briefly glimpsed in the 1950’s; and having lost faith in a pluralistic society capable of embracing all colors, creeds and sexual orientations (long promised but never realized) where is our Wovoka to lead us forward (or back) to the world we so urgently desire?

We may never be able to precisely define that world: but we do know it is present when we embody spirit – when we are deeply moved by music and dance, feel a genuine resistance to all the falsity welling within us and outside of us; and believe, finally, that all good things are possible.

So: Let’s Dance!……but please be ready to run for cover.

More articles by:

John Davis is an architect living in southern California. He blogs at Urban Wildland

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