Sharing and its Limits: A Non-Anthropological Perspective on Barcelona Freestyle Dancers
In a previous contribution for Ink Cypher, I wrote about human economies amongst freestyle dancers. My essay was based on some anthropological fieldwork that I undertook during the summer of 2021 in Barcelona for a university module. There, I mainly explored the topics of exchange, giving and sharing, and the centrality of those ideas amongst dancers. I followed academic ideas principally drawn from the concept of gift economies, which were introduced in the social sciences by French sociologist Marcel Mauss at the beginning of the 20th century. For Mauss, exchange - in particular in the form of gifts - is central to the creation of social groups. I took his perspective to explore how the concept of exchange works in order to create a sense of belonging and community amongst the dancers of Barcelona.
This essay will continue to focus on Barcelona dancers and the same community, however it will do so by centring the dancers’ voice. An anthropological perspective can offer many interesting insights, however it can also be limiting. It is often based mainly on the ideas and concepts of white western men from a middle-class (or upper-class) background - which isn’t the best perspective to talk about dances somehow related to Hip Hop culture, a black culture which was developed by less privileged people in the 1970s. Here I want to make dancers talk, without risking or distorting what they have to say alongside their way of looking at and living this culture. In other words what I want to cypher with here is: What do Barcelona dancers have to say about exchange and about its centrality for the creation of a community?
Sharing is Caring
The last section of my previous essay verted around the idea of “sharing is caring”, but this time I want to re-explore this idea, define it and demonstrate its limitations. In order to do that I will use what E, a Barcelona-native dancer who specialises mainly in Hip Hop freestyle, and D, a Peruvian b-boy based in the city, have shared with me when I interviewed them in the summer of 2021. Their voices and ideas will be present throughout.
Why is it said amongst dancers that sharing is caring? How does someone care through sharing? I previously argued that it was through sharing that a community of dancers was created and kept alive in Barcelona. A sense of community, of at least a sort of socio-cultural movement regrouping of people with the same interest, was created by people sharing their knowledge on dance with others, or who shared with one another at trainings, jams and/or battles. In Barcelona, especially in 2021, this sharing was immense and it attracted dancers from all possible styles. Everyone was training together and sharing with each other: b-girls and b-boys, Hip Hop dancers, House dancers, Popping dancers, Electro dancers, Krump dancers, Dancehall and Afro dancers - even contemporary dancers. The atmosphere was almost magical, inspiration was everywhere and there was always an occasion to connect with other people, particularly with people who did something different from what they usually did.
In order to talk better about this, I need to take a step back. I will not consider what the act of sharing generates for and within a community, but what it does for the individual. As individuals, dancers connect with each other through the act of sharing, whether it comes from them or from someone else. Amongst freestyle dancers, this can especially be seen in the cypher, a moment-place where both the acts of sharing and connecting with people are considered to be central and inextricably linked - one with the other. “The cypher is a moment, a place, where you can have a talk with everyone” explained E to me, “Everyone is at the same level there, everyone is equal.” It is because everyone is equal in that space, that everyone is able to share something and dancers can connect with and inspire each other.
Sharing is deeply linked to the idea of inspiration. Dancers - as individuals - find inspiration in order to develop their craft by seeing what other dancers share and what they decide to show of themselves. This can happen in cyphers, during battles and even at trainings. However sharing and training are not the same matter. In order to understand this, let’s look again at cyphers. E explained that although cyphers are often present at trainings amongst Barcelona dancers, “doing a cypher and training is not the same thing.” While in a cypher you share with others and are with them in an equal position, in a training you are with yourself. In other words, training is an individualistic matter, where the dancer is alone with themselves, exploring a concept, trying new steps, drilling and developing a personal style. Indeed for E another difference between a cypher and training is that in the cypher there are moments of rest, moments in which the dancer waits, or better still, moments in which they receive what others share. A training on the other hand is constant. It is just the dancer with themselves and there is often an objective, something that has to be trained for and worked on. “Training is not the same as sharing, when you train you need to be focused, you need concentration.” explained D to me when I asked what he thought about the matter. “It is something that is better to do alone. It is also a question of evolution.”
Training: Individuality and Evolution
Some years before 2021 dancers of various styles trained together, sharing not only the same spots but even the same music. However, this has since stopped, and little by little dancers started to disperse, specialise and groups training on only one specific style started to emerge. “It is a question of evolution” said D, “I suppose that people need to focus on their own stuff, especially in order to push it further, to develop it more.”
It is important to specify that when talking about training, both E and D referred to personal trainings as something that a dancer does alone. However the reality is that dancers often do not train by being literally alone with themselves in a room. Dancers go to spots, which are often out in the open air, “en la calle, in the streets of Barcelona”, where they train alongside other people. Training is something that is often done while being in contact with other people, in groups. In those groups it is possible to find dancers that are trying stuff on their own, researching, training, and are thus physically distant from others, but there are also cyphers, people training with other people. In the latter case dancers do a group training, in which all the people involved have agreed to work towards a same goal, in other words, to train the same thing. All the dancers involved in that group training explore and research the same concept, showing and sharing with one another their personal approach to it when it comes their turn to enter the cypher.
Without dwelling further on this idea of training cyphers and group trainings, I want to report what has been said about the importance of personal training. Both E and D insisted on the importance of training alone in order to build and create a personal style, estilo, in order to put their personal imprint, their own essence, into a dance. D mentioned that from a certain perspective, individualistic training is also a way of making a dance style, in his case breaking, evolve. “It is important to maintain the original essence, esencia, of the dance” he explained, “and I do that. But while doing that I also put in it my own signature. I take the dance to my own terrain. I start from the basics, the foundations, but I then I infuse my personality in it.” It is by training something alone, by shaping and working on the foundations that one develops their own style and history. “The essence is important, but it is also important not to close oneself of that idea. If not, where is the evolution?” In other words, to make something evolve, to keep it alive and give it a new meaning while staying consistent with its original nature and essence, it is important to train alone, to not share, at least for a while. Individuality allows evolution.
With that perspective, a strong focus on the act of sharing and on the importance of exchange in freestyle dance, can be limiting and possibly lead to stagnation. Sharing allows for inspiration to flow. Indeed D insisted a lot on the importance of sharing, as it is a window to other worlds and something that allows him to come in contact with different ways of seeing and living dance. However after sharing, after opening and exposing oneself to new possibilities, a moment of introspection, of personal exploration and adaptation has to follow. “The act of sharing and the moments in which sharing takes place allow me to learn more. I then adapt what I learn, what I see, to my own style and my own dance. By doing so I take what I like and I then transform it, making it evolve.” After that moment of personal exploration through training then comes the moment to share again, in order to inspire others in their own personal journeys through dance and in order to find new inspiration. A never ending circle.
Evolution happens in an infinite cycle of sharing with others and then training alone. Especially an evolution that keeps in the centre the original essence of a dance style - breaking for D and hip hop freestyle for E. Keeping that essence is important. The foundations and the basics are important. Both insist on that. Moreover “keep in mind that when talking about dances related to Hip Hop”, reminds E, “you are talking of social dances.” As such sharing is at the core of that essence, and it is explicitly recognised as such.
A Sense of Community?
When I interviewed E and D, I mostly asked them questions about the importance of the concept of exchange amongst freestyle dancers, and of the importance of sharing with others. I did that not only as an anthropologist, but because my own fieldwork and research was shaped by my experiences with freestyle dances. I mostly dwell on house dance and amongst dancers of that style and from my experience, discourses on the importance of exchange and sharing are ever-present. When I learned about anthropological theories of exchange I wanted to see how dance could contribute to them, and with Barcelona being such a dynamic city in which dancers were constantly sharing with one another, I immediately jumped on the opportunity of doing a small project there. My questions were deeply shaped by the idea of sharing with others, however the importance of individuality quickly emerged.
I did not ask E and D further questions on individuality. It is something that I observed almost a year later whilst rewatching their interviews, and I wanted to complement my previous contribution with this new insight. In my previous essay I showed how discourses and acts of exchange were considered to be central for the creation of a dance community in Barcelona. However in my conclusion I mentioned that there were some dancers who did not consider that a dance community effectively existed in Barcelona. Both E and D are amongst that latter group of people.
For D there is “a movement related to Hip Hop culture and dances.” For E there is a “dance scene.” For both there is no community, as people do not share a common goal or unite themselves in order to effectively improve the situations and lives of dancers. “There is never an occasion or a space in which people come together in order to raise problems, talk about them and find a solution...” explained E. “There is not a group that is unified in order to fight for a common goal.” Interestingly both E and D had the occasion to travel a lot. Since she was 16, E started to travel to other European countries in order to battle and train. In her travels she experienced other ways of living dance, seeing how in some places dancers come together not only to train but also to create and help other people. They do so by offering free dance classes, creating occasions and spaces where dancers can go and freely be themselves. In Barcelona on the other hand, one of the most used dance spots is a big open space underneath a market. “Why do we never talk about how that space is used? Why for example are we not proposing to clean it together or something like that? Moreover we are not only dancers but amongst us are other people with other interests. D draws, A sings…it would be interesting to come together and create a space in which they and other people can share their other talents and crafts, where people can give them support in order to keep doing that. To be honest I am trying to see how I can concretely create such a space...maybe initially as a small event...”
D on the other hand experienced the dance scene in Peru. “There I was part of this collective of artists, founded by rappers, it was named Bloque Hip Hop. We often came together and organised some protests in order to be able to keep doing what we liked to do.” For both of them the idea of community is linked to the idea of activism. In that vein D also explained how there were some dancers in Barcelona who fought for a more just visibility and economic retribution for their craft. “They fight for dancers and DJs to be paid fairly for works and stuff like that… However there is no group that does that… It is mostly individuals…” Dancers in Barcelona do not share a common goal, do not come together as a group in order to improve their situation. There is not an active shared participation for something, just people training together, enjoying something together. That, for them, cannot really be defined as a community.
Towards an Open-ended Conclusion
I consider this essay as a complement to my previous one - not so much a reply. Academic frameworks and ideas can often distort the reality of what happens, just as much as one’s own positionality as an observer or participant in something. Every framework can bring into the light interesting aspects about something but I wanted to try to bring to the front the experiences and voices of people that are not me. Showing what they have to say, how they see things and demonstrating through them that some ideas that are taken for granted about dancers - such as the importance of sharing - aren’t that so straightforward. In relation to exchange, it seems that it is something very important amongst dancers, but maybe not so much as the development of one’s own style and individuality.
I’m left wanting to ask, what is the place of individuality in social dances? Because if people partaking in those dances - people who also have a penchant for activism - talk so much about it when replying to questions around giving and exchanging, then maybe it is a question worth asking.
Commissioned for Ink Cypher, May 2023
A response to The Economies of Freestyle Dances and the Construction of a Community by Malvina Tessatore
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Malvina is “a project in construction" as she likes to define herself.
This Italian girl still considers herself too young and inexperienced for categories. Nonetheless her life has always been marked by dance, and since the age of 13 she is dwelling on street and club dances, concentrating mainly on house and hip hop.
Living her life between Italy and Spain, she is now completing a BA in Social Anthropology at the London School of Economics and Political Sciences (LSE). The choice to study such a program was given by her passion for documenting - indeed, it is not uncommon to see her with a camera in hand during social gatherings (that is also why there are rare pictures of her, as she prefers to be behind the lenses). Malvina is only 21, something that she often reminds herself of in order to not succumb to the capitalist hustle culture characterising her university. She has written some pieces for the ‘Arts and Culture’ section of Oltremanica, a student-led publication connecting and training aspiring Italian journalists studying in the UK.
She is quite involved in activism and takes part in many initiatives of the Red Square Movement, which is fighting for the demarketisation, decolonisation and democratisation of higher education, among other things. For what concerns dance she is for now exploring, and wishes to go further with it after the completion of her Bachelor.