Disabling the “Tourist Gaze”

Protecting and Projecting Cultural Heritage through Dance

by | Oct 28, 2007

The banrrarra at the villa panamericana in Cojímar, Cuba, east of Havana, performs a Haitian-influenced carnival dance. Men and women dance in highly-colored outfits. The men wear white pants, with a colorful puffy shirt open to the waist. Men and women wear colorful puffy armsleeves.

The banrrarra at the villa panamericana in Cojímar, Cuba, east of Havana, performs a Haitian-influenced carnival dance. Photo by David Garten

We hurried along the slim embankment on the bohemian side of the river as night fell in the city, nervously evaluating our distance from the dimly lit bridge that would carry us to a more cosmopolitan borough. Imagining the theater’s great gilded doors slammed closed before our arrival in the famed sixth district, we struggled to increase our pace, forsaking many sidewalk cafés en route to the night’s festivities but our stiff, new dress shoes were slowing us down. We had been fortunate enough to purchase tickets for the Magyar Nemzeti Balett only hours before the curtain; buying new shoes and changing clothes at the last minute had been my idea. Given the vintage tuxedos and arabesque ballgowns that I expected to find in the audience, I did not want to suffer the embarrassment of my jeans-and-T-shirt ensemble.

At least, this is how I sold the idea.

In truth, the decision to scramble for dress clothes was predicated on my belief that our lackluster outfits would diminish the aura and authenticity of the event. After all, this was grand ballet. This was the state opera house. This was preserved Budapest, 1884—and one simply does not attend informally attired.

I did not remember feeling the same pressure to “dress the part” on my first encounter with the Mexican hat dance thirty miles outside Acapulco, nor could I recall any similar desire before a professional limbo show in Antigua. In those instances, I was perfectly content with my “costume”—whether donning beach garb or even jeans and a T-shirt. Why, then, was I so intent on maintaining the integrity of the audience’s collective fashion as to risk missing the performance entirely?

Privileged tourists (and make no mistake; sprinting across the Danube, unable to hail a taxi, we were very much tourists) tend to regard Euro-American cultures differently from those of developing nations. Even with the utmost intrigue and admiration, tourists typically receive Latin American cultures, traditions, and styles with a more casual, informal attitude. Dance is no exception.

Indeed, as Yvonne Payne Daniel notes in her seminal essay on dance tourism, it took famed anthropologist Joann Kealiinohomoku many years to thoroughly convince her academic community that ballet actually “has much in common with touristic dance performance elsewhere in terms of [1] intentions that frame the ‘exotic other’ in traditional or extravaganza dance style, [2] motivations that conserve and present national or ethnic cultures, and [3] packaging that creates viable, mesmerizing products that generate profits” (Annals of Tourism Research, vol. 23, 1996).

Despite Kealiinohomoku’s attempt to extricate dance from dialectical thinking, however, European and U.S. tourists still tend to revere waltzes and minuets as high culture, while interpreting the “exotic other” and its ethnic costumes as low-culture signals that it is permissible to behave, dress, and even come and go as one pleases.

Anthropologist Matthew Krystal candidly describes this experience at the Festival de Bailes Tradicionales in Totonicapan, Guatemala: “The presence of tourists at the festival alters the performance. The audience, unlike the community, does not understand the story or the rules of etiquette associated with watching; for example, that one does not enter the arena to take a picture or absent-mindedly walk through an ongoing performance,” (Ethnology, vol. 39, 2000). At the ballet, wandering onstage to snap a quick photo for the family album would be unthinkable; yet, when witnessing an equally formal and professional performance of Zapotec religious dances or Guatemalan fiestas commemorating their independence, lax behavior is practically commonplace.

Of course, there are exceptions to every generalization. In Cuba, which Payne Daniel adopts as her paradigm of successful dance tourism specifically because it escapes such marginalization, visitors are encouraged to learn the history and techniques of dances like the rumba or chancleta by attending discussion forums, demonstrations, and participatory workshops called Rumba Saturdays. As Payne Daniel writes, Cuban presentations of their dances “actively engage tourists in genuine Cuban culture as opposed to simply viewing a vivid sense of the ‘authentic’” (Annals of Tourism Research, vol. 23, 1996). Most tourists come to understand Cuban dance through this physical participation and involved dialogue, with garish performances relegated to a few nightclubs.

In light of the stark contrast between Cuban rumba and the Guatemalan Festival de Bailes Tradicionales, Latin America serves as a compelling arena in which to explore the successes and shortcomings of dance tourism. Without venturing far into broader historical and post-colonial explanations, one may consider the various framing techniques that dictate audience reception, relegating some dances to an exercise in marginality while enabling others to harness the significant economic benefits of tourism without succumbing to cultural distortion.

By and large, success depends on audience participation. While active participation need not entail audience members whirling and gyrating beside dance instructors, it does necessitate a willingness to engage mentally or physically with the performance at a basic level. Question and answer sessions, step-by-step tutorials, or even dressing to the expected code all move toward meeting this threshold. Even the smallest step forward is significant, for the very act of participating in the performance disables the “tourist gaze,” as John Urry terms it—a masculine, colonial legacy that empowers tourists to legitimate or invalidate a dance performance simply by imparting or withholding their viewership. In contrast to spectator tourists, those that participate in the event are forced to abandon one-dimensional, judgmental consideration. As equal participants or audience members seeking answers, tourists are not permitted the lofty, superior stations required to judge.

Culturally, therefore, the stakes are high in permitting a disengaged reception. As cultural anthropologist Susan Reed writes, borrowing from Marta Savigliano’s research on Argentine tango, audience members who wield a passive, disconnected gaze can produce only two outcomes: “One that is empowering, granting local recognition to certain social groups and their practices, the other co-opting and binding, reifying a ‘tasteful’ exotic that served to maintain the (neo)colonized population’s dependent status.” Regardless of the outcome of this trial, whenever gazers remain disengaged from the performance, “The threat of withdrawal of recognition [is] always in their power” (Annual Review of Anthropology, vol. 27, 1998).

In turn, dances that rely too heavily on audience approval are bound to suffer, becoming typified and repetitive commodities that restrict creative freedom in order to meet expectations consistently. Reed cites Richard Schechner as among the first to condemn this touristic approach, arguing that anyone who “establishe[s] ‘normative expectations’ for ‘traditional’ performances perpetuate[s] colonial thinking by valorizing one version of performance as ‘true’ while dismissing others as corrupted” (Drama Review, vol. 34, 1990; Annual Review of Anthropology, vol. 27, 1998). Payne Daniel echoes his sentiment, noting that “With a shift from ‘performance by participants’ to ‘public show for outsiders’ (or routinized performance for tourists), the spontaneity of public involvement and the creativity in communal effort that were seminal to particular dance events are often diminished or transposed” (Annals of Tourism Research, vol. 23, 1996).

The goal, then, for many Latin American dance performances is to engage tourists as Cuba has: to engage them physically in the movement of the dance; to engage them economically in the purchase of local goods commemorating the event; and to absorb them as temporary members of the community, so as to remove them from the role of outside “gazers.”

In other words, dances should be framed so as to persuade tourists to dance, spend and “dress the part,” by which I mean, engage tourists in the cultural presentation as a means of controlling and ensuring its integrity. One way or another, dances must create an aura akin to that of the ballet, without the benefit of gilded stage.

But how?

After all, few dances enjoy the benefit of a fully financed Ministry of Culture to organize lectures, lessons and workshops, which fueled Cuba’s behemoth success of Rumba Saturdays.

The Zapotec danza de la pluma in Teotitlán del Valle, for example, represents only a small Mexican community with extremely limited public funds, rather than a coordinated national dance. Nevertheless, the Zapotec festival has managed to engage tourists and their dollars by integrating visitors into the event itself. Anthropologist Jeffrey Cohen describes his experience at the celebration in Oaxaca, where he witnessed the Zapotec convert outsiders to momentary members of the community, first through free shots of fiery local mezcal, which everyone imbibes at once, then through the more complicated technique of burlesque. “It is not uncommon to watch a Cara Negra [dancer] burlesque both tourist and [native] danzante during the celebration,” writes Cohen. “They move back and forth between dancers and audience, making fun of everyone. Breaking the ritual frame momentarily dissipates the threat of the outsider by incorporating him or her into the event…mediat[ing] the dialectic relationship of local and non-local communities.” It is a subtle but successful technique, especially in drawing tourist dollars. As Cohen concludes, “By taking the initiative and opening their celebration, the Zapotec create a symbolic debt that is not easily repaid,” though expensive local weavings are offered for sale as one viable type of compensation (Anthropological Quarterly, Vol. 66, 1993).

Still, other dances have not been as successful balancing internal cultural pressure with tourist engagement. In the Bolivian migrant community of Villa Pagador, fiesta dances are aimed primarily at reviving the village’s traditions, while secondary visitors are left unattended on the sidelines. The community is extremely “segregated as performers/audience,” writes anthropologist Daniel Goldstein, and tourists remain entirely uninvolved—a vantage point that enables outsiders to withhold their participatory dollars in favor of a comfortably judgmental role. As Goldstein notes, however, locals do not ignore tourists intentionally. In fact, most value tourists’ attendance at the fiesta as an essential part of their village’s economic improvement: they simply do not have a plan in place for engagement. Instead, locals tend to conceive of tourism as a panacea, like Don Eleutorio, founder of the village’s main dance troupe, who prognosticates, “When tourism can come to the barrio, tourists from other countries, let’s say, then there will be a shortage of lodgings, a hotel, all that, and one of these days for sure, someone is going to create a lodging, a [multi-story] building and the tourists will stay there” (Ethnology, Vol. 37, 1998).

Thus, though Villa Pagador’s dancers acknowledge the importance of tourism, they do not see themselves as its necessary ambassadors. Consequently, Eleutorio’s message is imbued more with hope than pragmatism; having failed to involve tourists in the dance, and having failed to create any sense of indebtedness, they have also failed to capture tourist dollars for the betterment of their community. For now, small numbers of tourists have been satisfied to witness the village’s revived traditional dances briefly before moving on; soon, however, they may withdraw their gazes of recognition—and money—entirely (Ethnology, Vol. 37, 1998).

The various successes and failures in Cuba, Teotitlán del Valle, and Villa Pagador remind us that tourist involvement is important only inasmuch as it promotes both the sustainable inflow of tourist dollars and an environment that preserves cultural heritage by mediating tourist expectations. It is a delicate balance that, when handled correctly, works to create an interesting experience for the tourist as much as it does to support local tradition. After all, Krystal concludes, “[Dancers] are motivated by their desire to see their traditions survive and their community prosper. Tourism is simply a tool to serve those ends and an opportunity to reverse cultural exploitation” (Ethnology, vol. 39, 2000).

But that opportunity is far from a fait accompli and requires that principles of active engagement be consciously manufactured into the presentation of traditional dances. For their part, dance promoters must create a framework for physical, conversational or emotional involvement to make it incumbent upon the tourist to respect the cultural coherence of the dance experience—a pressure I knew all too well as I ran through the narrow streets of Budapest, but regrettably failed to recognize elsewhere.

It is not easy to achieve such mutual dialogue when tourists are accustomed to unilateral exhibition, but active engagement can successfully extricate Latin American dance from the stilted, infertile grounds of “the exotic other.” Given the breadth of dances and local traditions in Latin America, there can be no formula for weaving tourists into performances, but a dance’s ability to generate tourism income without necessitating a permanently typified performance is dependent on it.

Fall 2007Volume VII, Number 1

Jared Pruzan is the author of Contemporary Realism: The Seavest Collection, which catalogues a private collection of contemporary art. His past research has explored the intersections of literature and travel, most notably, travel narratives as perpetual palimpsests. He is currently coordinator of the Cultural Agents Initiative at Harvard University, but he is likely to be found (or found missing) at the mercy of his ansia de ver el mundo. He may be contacted at Jared.Pruzan@aya.yale.edu and will happily correspond as soon as he finds the nearest internet café.

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