The Economies of Freestyle Dances and the Construction of a Community: an anthropological case study of dance in Barcelona
Whilst reading Iain Bleakley’s The chance encounter as the fifth element of Hip Hop I reflected on my own experiences with other dancers and those magical moments in which we recognise each other and just flow together for a while. It is special, and it is comforting and reassuring to be part of this “extended family” of dancers in which there will always be someone willing to lend a helping hand.
In his piece Iain offered a recollection of stories describing these chance encounters, building an analysis around them. I’d like to add an anthropological perspective onto Iain’s work, mainly centred around the ideas of gift, sharing and care economies. As a Social Anthropology student in her last year of undergraduate studying, I’m writing my dissertation on these themes and how they’re embedded within freestyle dance communities, especially the one in Barcelona, where I did a small ethnography during last summer. This ethnography was funded by my university as a means to offer to students an opportunity to “be in the field” and put into practice the skills learned in the classroom. However for me it was much more than that.
The Dance Scene in Barcelona
Although Italian, Barcelona has always been an important presence in my life. I grew up there, and it is there where I first encountered freestyle and the world of Hip Hop related dances at the age of 13. It is also there, age 15 or 16, where I first thought of doing what I started to do last summer, to look and later tell what was happening amongst dancers. At that time I was not living in Barcelona - wanting to reconnect with my roots and culture, I had just moved back to Italy - nonetheless I often came back as my family still lived there. I returned after 5 years due to Covid. The epidemic started during my first year of university, and, seeing how it developed, I ditched London to spend my second year in Spain, following classes through Zoom. It was during that period that I came to know the dance scene of Barcelona, spending my days between public libraries and freestyle trainings. Before that I was mainly looking at it from afar, too shy and intimidated to step in and introduce myself to the dancers I saw jamming outside in the streets. I felt that I didn’t have the time to get to know them, as when I stayed in Barcelona for a few days they were mostly spent with family and childhood friends.
I was always fascinated by the dance scene of Barcelona. It had something very different from the others that I’d experienced in Milan and London. Those scenes have their own magical and defining characteristics too, but personally I’ve always had a bias for Barcelona because I’ve spent most of my life there. What is then that differentiates the Barcelona freestyle scene from others? La calle. The street.
As I mentioned before, Barcelona dancers are pretty much outside, literally dancing in the street. They train in the street, dance events, jams and battles happen in the street...outdoor public spaces are central in this dance scene, and this is not only because of Covid. My teacher back in Milan once jokingly scolded me, asking me why he had not seen me in a street battle in Barcelona - he had gone there to give a workshop, and found a hip hop battle while walking around the city (an instance of a chance encounter). Moreover, in those days in which I came back during my high school years, I often dragged my friends to spots that I knew were squatted by dancers, just to get a glimpse of them training. La calle is not only a physical space, it is much more than that.
La calle is also an ethos, a general attitude mainly described by the adjectives underground or callejero (“from or of the street”). In their day-to-day life dancers tend to avoid anything comercial (commercial), mainstream or generally institutionalised. Goods and services (which can range from food, clothes and furnitures to photo-shoots, drawings and tattoos) are mainly exchanged between friends and acquaintances, promoting the development of small projects, local business and alternative economies. Talking strictly about dance, this is often seen by an avoidance of the physical space of la academia, the dance school and its institutions. Although many dancers teach and develop their craft in dance schools, they still always insist on the importance of la calle: “Can you really say that you dance Hip Hop if you have never trained outside in la calle? I don’t think so” I often hear dancers say. Nonetheless la calle is not only a way of following Hip Hop traditions and essences, but it’s a space of freedom and experimentation, free from the institutional limitations of la academia - it is the perfect spot for freestyle.
As both a physical and metaphorical space of freedom and experimentation, la calle is a privileged space for encounters...being by its very nature open and exposed, it’s receptive to different and new experiences, ideas and situations. While training in la calle it is not uncommon to meet other dancers from different cities or countries dancing in different styles, recreating chance encounters that could be included in Iain’s piece.
From Encounters to Exchange
I’ve tried to reflect this heterogeneity by interviewing more than 20 dancers of different styles during my last two years in Barcelona (where I returned mainly by chance) because of Covid. I entered this community thanks to an encounter with a dancer - who is now amongst my closest friends - who recognised me in a battle from a university dance event in London. Chance encounters are indeed central to the Hip Hop experience, however I want to talk here about what they entail. Exchange.
There are many anthropological theories regarding exchange, and exchange is also central to dance. “While dancing there is a constant exchange of energies between people.” “The cypher is where exchange happens - it’s a conversation.” “Cyphers are really essential in dance, you share with others there...you communicate...and you also learn from others.” These are some of the things that my friends shared with me while interviewing them for my research, which consisted principally of looking at freestyle dancers in Barcelona using the anthropological framework of gift-economies. With this latter term, social scientists refer to economies based principally on reciprocity and gift-exchange, which are also considered to be the basis of social relations and thus something from which potential communities, if not societies, can emerge. The concept was introduced in academia by French sociologist Marcel Mauss, who published in 1925 an essay on The Gift, in which he argued against the idea of the prevalence and naturalness of capitalists systems of market exchange amongst human beings, and presented the cases of indigenous societies in Melanesia and North America whose socioeconomic systems were mainly based on reciprocal gift-exchange. The exchange of gifts, he argued, creates social relations between individuals, or groups of individuals, because of the obligations entailed in it, which he summarised in three verbs: to give, to receive and to reciprocate. Curiously enough, these same three verbs appear quite frequently during conversations on dance, especially in regards to the cypher. But what exactly is exchanged there?
It is not just a question of steps and music. When talking about exchange, dancers refer principally to energies. Dance is communication. The cypher is the place where conversations takes place. Communication is in itself an exchange. In a cypher, people at the sides of it are often invited to “give their energies to the dancers” and when entering it, dancers are expected to keep up the energy of the cypher, to keep the energy left by those who danced previously. But it is also more than a question of energies; the cypher, if not freestyle dance in general, is also a moment/place of extreme vulnerability. Through it freestyle dancers expose themselves. “Movement is more sincere than words”, explained one of my interviewed friends. “If I talk to you, you can tell me that you are fine even if that is not true, while if I see you dance I can tell whether you really are fine or not.” Iain also dedicated a section titled “Transcending Translation” to this topic. “Eyes are windows to the soul, but hips can be doors, knees can form staircases and shoulders can frame its corridors”, he wrote, ending the section by saying that while looking at someone in a cypher, “you can start to build a picture of the sort of person dancing in front of you.”
“Your dance is your true story” was one of the things that my teacher in Milan said. During the interviews and conversations for my research, I also explored this topic - what do we show, as dancers, while dancing - but to be honest I did so quite superficially. I wanted to use the notion of habitus by French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, who argued that human beings unconsciously replicate in their bodies the sociocultural structures of the societies in which they live - this was extremely fascinating in order to think about the idea while freestyling, we show the kind of music we are most used to listening to (to give a quick example). To this idea I wanted to tie in the notion of bodily capital, developed by French anthropologist Loïc Wacquant who built on Bourdieu’s habitus and used it to talk about boxers. I wanted to explore through it the importance of training, seen as the production and reproduction of a bodily capital of steps, rhythms and movements that would then be used in battles. However, I was not really interested in the construction of individual dancers, more on the possibility of dwelling on ideas of sociality, of connections between dancers, in other words on exchange and on how, through it, social relations, if not a community, can sprout and grow.
“Simplemente para compartir”
The cypher is the locus of exchange par excellence in freestyle. The importance of energies, the implicit rules that govern it, the centrality of both respect and reciprocity, its ritualistic and cathartic functions...the economies of dance present in the cypher are fascinating and worthy of further exploration. Exchange does not take place only in cyphers. What about training? Classes? Battles? Maybe it would be better to say that cyphers are the locus of disinterested exchange; it is both a place and moment to which dancers go “simplemente para compartir”, “just to share”, without expecting something in return, nor demonstrate their abilities, nor build their skills and movement vocabulary (although I had some friends who told me that they entered cyphers - primarily training cyphers - mainly to challenge themselves). Generally speaking, the cypher is just a place of sharing with and next to others - it is a collective exchange.
How does this connect to the chance encounter? Seeing as I am talking of Barcelona I will reply again with la calle. Cyphers, the social situations in which cyphers emerge, often take place in la calle. Battles happen in la calle, along with jams, classes and trainings. Such affairs were reinforced by the pandemic and the closure of dance schools and indoor training spaces. Basically everything took place in la calle during last summer, and while being there, dancing and sharing with each other, it was quite common to be approached by sparkly-eyed non-Barcelona dancers who were just walking around visiting the city and wanted to join our cyphers. Indeed when people organise stuff out in the street they do not do so only for Barcelona dancers, but for “quien quiera venir”, “whoever wants to join”. La calle is a portal to more possibilities of chance encounters, thus also bringing with it more instances of exchange. In the case of Barcelona, it might be said that la calle is the locus of exchange, coming before the cypher at least logically, as many cyphers are done out there. “I prefer to train alone at home, to be honest”, explained a friend to me. “I go dance/train outside mostly when I feel like sharing and exchanging with others.”
When you want to exchange, when you want to share and give, you go out in la calle. Many events, many social situations related to dance are organised outside. What I found interesting is that the people who organise these things, who mostly move in order to bring everyone together, often say they do so in order to give something to the dancers. These social situations are often presented at gifts. “One of the things that caught my attention in Hip Hop culture and dances is that people were just there giving and sharing with each other”, explained my teacher to me - a Peruvian Hip Hop and House dancer whose classes took place outside in la calle. “What I try to do is give what Hip Hop and the people that I met through it have given to me.” He was not only talking of knowledge but primarily of a community and social situations. Indeed he is someone who always tries to create social situations, to “crear comunidad”, create community, or at least to maintain it. Like all of those who get invested in the organisation of events - which he defines as “puntos de encuentro”, social moments of both encounter and exchange - he strongly insists on the importance of giving and sharing. Everything is done in order to give people a space/moment “para compartir”, for sharing and exchanging.
While explaining these things to me, my teacher insisted a lot on the fact that he does not do this in order to gain a sort of status amongst dancers. “I am not doing that to gain visibility or to be like el jefe, the boss, around here.” He creates stuff “para la comunidad” for the community - nothing more and nothing less, he insisted. The important thing was “dar y compartir”, to give and share. And I found that to be true for everyone. In their own ways all of my friends were insisting on the importance of giving or sharing their energies, themselves, through dance. It is through giving and sharing oneself with others that social relations and a feeling of community is built. But what are they getting back? Is it really a one-directional movement of giving to others? I was not asking these questions out of cynicism but for anthropological reasons. In anthropology the idea of the gift is strongly connected to that of reciprocity: a gift must be reciprocated, it is an obligation - when or how will it be reciprocated is unknown but the sure thing is that the giver will get something back from it. Moreover it is this obligation, this expectation of reciprocity, that created social relations, and economic anthropologists often say that to repay one’s debt is to put an end to a relationship with someone. The gift is considered to be “the social lie par excellence” as the expectation of reciprocity, the creation of the debt, is concealed through an act of disinterested generosity.
Nonetheless, as it happens often, theory does not really reflect reality. Although dancers talk of reciprocal exchanges in the case of the cypher for example (“it is a conversation”), usually they mostly insist on the importance of sharing and of giving without expecting something back. They just give. They just share. They don’t do it for themselves but “para la comunidad”, for others. One of my friends spent a lot of time excitingly explaining to me how he loved to share his energy with others. Yes, that is all very cool but what was he getting back? I asked him. He was really surprised at the question. “I never thought about it...I just give...maybe I get their energies back? I don’t know...the sure thing is that I always leave events with a big smile on my face.”
Returning to anthropological theory, there is a difference between giving and sharing. The latter concept is used to refer to exchanges in which no reciprocity is expected. However my friends do not study anthropology. When they talk of giving they mostly consider it through the framework of the “pure gift”, the generous donation that entails no obligation. Dancers do not differentiate between giving and sharing: those are the same thing. No matter how is it framed, when something is done for the community, for others, nothing should be expected back. Nonetheless, “you have to be careful...”, I was warned by a friend. “Many times those people who say they do stuff for the community expect something back. They always insist on the importance of compartir but in reality if they didn’t gain something out of it they wouldn’t be doing anything.” What my friend was talking about here is visibility and status. Anthropologically this recalls the idea of the potlatch, which is a form of gift-giving in which instances of extreme generosity are done in order to gain a higher status within society, a little bit like those people who offer drinks to everyone at pubs. For my friend, many times those dancers who say they organise events “para la comunidad” do so mainly for visibility. My teacher is one of those dancers, however he insists that he does not organise to get visibility, or at least explicitly expecting to get something back. Nonetheless I am not interested in exploring who is right here, whether my teacher or my friend, nor do I care about their motives. Both offered me their perspective on these topics and moreover intentions often do not materialise in social life; although my teacher might not expect it and certainly does not like to talk about it, he does get more visibility and a sort of higher ‘status’ amongst dancers because of what he does. The fact that reciprocity is not expected does not mean that some form of reciprocity won’t happen.
Sharing Is Caring - “crear comunidad”
Something back is expected! Although not explicitly. Everyone, from my teacher and other event organisers to people who search for a place to train, dance and challenge themselves, enter this whole mentality of compartir in order to search for a community, or at least people with whom to train and build some sort of connection. Sharing and giving are central in the creation of social relations between dancers, nonetheless there are some implicit rules within this whole dynamic of exchange.
My teacher said “You cannot share your knowledge with everyone” after he saw me explaining some steps that I learned at a workshop to a friend who really wanted to go but couldn’t because of work. He was not talking about that occasion but in general. “I do not want to sound hypocritical here, but you have to valorar, give value to what you have and share it with people that you know will nurture it too.” We enter here the realm of value, not monetary value but something that goes beyond simple economic discourses concerning money, goods and services. In anthropology there is a tendency to think of everything concerning the social and cultural worlds of human beings as subjected and created through exchange. But not everything can be exchanged, there are some inalienable possessions that are often jealously kept by their owners, as they are believed to enclose in themselves an important part of the identity of the owners, their essence. And this cannot be shared with anybody, it has to be respected, nurtured, protected. There is an implicit belief that you have to be worthy of entering the dynamics of exchange in dance - in other words, you have to show that you will respect the culture and its essence, la esencia. If people feel that you don’t deserve it, you won’t be included in the social dynamics of dancers. At the beginning of the summer we were joined during a training by a guy who seemed to show no respect for what was happening there, he did not know how to stay in a cypher, dancing at its borders while someone else was in the middle and he kept doing that although someone explained to him how they worked. He was dancing like Les Twins and did not consider his lack of personal style, originality and sincerity (in freestyle it is believed that one shows themselves for who they are) a problem. Everyone (me included) was very embarrassed, and we excluded him from the jams that are usually done after trainings.
I don’t think that these latter episodes should be considered hypocritical, although they happened within a sociocultural background in which the acts of sharing and giving are highly valued, and seen at the centre of it, logically speaking, you give what you value, but in order to give value to something you should also keep it, protect it, treasure it. There is a paradox here as something that is valued should be both given/shared and kept. In anthropology Maurice Godelier saw these instances of giving-for-keeping and keeping-for-giving as central to the maintenance and care of social groups of people, if not of societies. Whether it can certainly be said that social relations are created through exchange - which in dance allow to share with others a common sociocultural identity/essence - such relations and what they entail should be protected and taken care of through the opposite of exchange, by not-giving, not-sharing, by keeping. We care through sharing, but we also care through keeping.
I do not want to sound elitist here, I just want to talk about this as it’s something that does happen but is not really talked about, mainly because these are uncomfortable topics, although they shouldn’t be. All the dynamics that I describe here are part of the construction and maintenance of the sociocultural realities to which dancers are a part. All of them are involved in the creation of a community. Everything is done in order to “crear comunidad”. The episodes of exclusion are relatively few compared to the acts of giving and sharing that form the day-to-day life of dancers. In the more than two years that I spent in Barcelona, the two episodes that I recounted here are the only ones on which I could explicitly see instances of keeping. Nonetheless, these are instances of caring. Caring for what though? For the culture, la esencia, that thing that is at the core of what we do as dancers and that unites us all with each other...and while caring for it we also take care of one another.
Iain wrote that “Hip Hop is all about a DIY ethos”, and that recalls the callejero ethos of Barcelona. Dancers take care of each other and of what they have, “chipping in and helping each other out” whenever they can (I am paraphrasing Iain here). “Dancer discounts” are really common to get tattoos, drawings, clothes, and drinks at bars. Moreover I want to point out that my research was made possible primarily because of this ethos, because of those 20 friends that were willing to sit with me for an interview and later on to talk about the conclusions that I was (and still am) progressively reaching, and those many more dancers and friends that allowed me to ask my random questions “for anthropological purposes” whenever I heard or saw something interesting. “Sharing is caring”. Indeed it is through exchange and whatever this entails that we take care of each other and of what we have, as both dancers and people.
Moving towards a conclusion: what about community? “Community” is amongst the words that are mostly heard from dancers in Barcelona. Social relations and sociocultural movements such as Hip Hop are indeed created through exchange/sharing, but what about a community? Many things are explicitly said to be done “para la comunidad”, for the community, or in order to “crear comunidad”, create a community. But does this community exist? What is a community?
On this issue opinions and perspectives are extremely varied. What I will say is that yes, there is a community, at least a dance community consisting of people who train and dance together, and organise events in order to give spaces to dancers so that they can express themselves and connect with others, growing together. Personally I feel that dancers in Barcelona are part of a very cool dance community, but not so much of a human community. For me it lacks lato umano, humanness and warmth, something I experienced in Italy, and I found my Italian friends in Barcelona also feel similarly. There is certainly an artistic exchange amongst dancers, but we feel that it lacks a sort of deeper exchange, a more emotional one. Although we are dancers, we are also and primarily people, or at least that is the “Italian way of seeing things”, if we want to call it so. Although while dancing we make ourselves vulnerable to others, we feel that after that there is no concrete explicit exchange concerning what everyone is living in their lives. Latin American dancers too generally feel that there is not a community amongst dancers in Barcelona. “More than a community I feel that there is a Hip Hop movement; there are people who do stuff related to Hip Hop”, I was told by a Peruvian bboy who then proceeded to quickly describe how in his native country dancers are often involved in activism, something that does not really happen in Barcelona. A friend from Argentina explained to me that in Latin American countries such involvement and participation in local politics is essential for the survival of a Hip Hop dance scene. In Barcelona, on the other hand, although there are occasional clashes with the police (it is la calle), this need to get politically active is not really felt. It is not only dancers that experienced a community somewhere else that feel Barcelona is lacking, many friends complained to me, saying that dancers need to be to be more united, more active and involved. “We only dance together, there is no real active participation”, said a friend, revealing that she wished to create situations for dancers to meet in order to talk and find solutions to effectively improve the Barcelona dance scene, making it more open and more inclusive. “Being unified is the ethos that never failed us, so whatever the future brings, let our interconnectedness be at the front and centre”, wrote Iain at the end of his piece. I agree, but I want to add that helping each other out is not enough. An active and conscious participation is also required. Whether there is a community in Barcelona or not, there is something, there is a dance scene, and people work everyday in order to maintain it and make it evolve, grow and go somewhere. Whatever is there is continuously produced by people coming together, by people exchanging with one another, no matter the effective reciprocity of these exchanges. All dancers in Barcelona, me included, are responsible for this production, maintenance and development - whether we are aware of it or not, we all produce the scene in which we participate, so why not become conscious of this and effectively look and talk about what happens? This is my contribution.
Marcel Mauss, The Gift: Forms and Functions of Exchange in Archaic Societies (1925)
Maurice Godelier, The Enigma of the Gift (1996)
David Graeber, Debt: The First 5000 Years (2011) - particularly Chapter 5: A Brief Treatise on the Moral Grounds of Economic Relations
Roger Sansi, Art, Anthropology and the Gift (2015) - particularly Chapter 5: Participation and the Gift
Thomas Widlok, Anthropology and the Economy of Sharing (2017) - particularly Chapter 1: This is not a Gift
David Graeber, All Economies are ultimately Human Economies (2021/2015)
Commissioned for Ink Cypher, May 2022
A response to The chance encounter as the fifth element of Hip Hop by Iain Bleakley
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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.