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“if you want to trace yourself back to kings or the pyramids or whatever, that’s nice, but then it’s very important that you turn away from this narcissistic mirror and you begin to look out the window and you begin to realize there are other people out there with different histories, different mythologies, and that your job now is to enter out into the world. Your history, your ideas, is a gift and you’re also in a position where you receive the gift of other peoples’ culture, and that’s the exchange…”
E. Ethlebert Miller in “Black and Universal”

In the quote above, the poet makes a point about the importance of knowing your cultural history while not being so myopic that you close yourself off to other traditions. After seeing a stunning work of contemporary dance by Brazilian choreographer Bruno Beltrão, this idea is percolating inside me.

Beltrão came up as a hip-hop street dancer in Rio in the 1990s, but over time he grew creatively frustrated with the conventions of a genre that celebrates individual virtuosity and has a predictable soundtrack. He formed his all-male dance troupe Grupo de Rua to push the boundaries of what hip-hop street dance could be if it evolved to include other traditions and movement vocabularies.

Bruno Beltrão/Grupo de Rua de Niteroi

Speaking after this weekend’s performance, Beltrão explained that some audiences react negatively to his work because he doesn’t deliver on people’s expectations. He no longer performs, saying that dancing is an intimate act he prefers to do it at home and with people who are dear to him.

All of this has me thinking about the tension between being a follower versus a shaper of a particular tradition. Are some traditions (artistic, religious, cultural) more open to expansion and reinvention? And, if so, what makes them this way? Is it harder to stay open to change if your tradition has been ignored, misunderstood, or devalued? I don’t have easy answers to these questions and wonder what others think?


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1 Comments

I definitely think it is harder to stay open to change if your tradition has been ignored, misunderstood, or devalued. Those forces strengthen a tradition and make its members wary of intruders or thieves. And that push back from inside the tradition, to fortify its boundaries, is very important- traditions that have long been overlooked deserve to be known and experienced in their purity and fullness. Also, it's worth noting that within every tradition be it religious, cultural or artistic, there exists a spectrum of fundamentalists and those who are more open minded and see the tradition in its context, as part of the whole. I think there comes a time when a tradition must eventually loosen its boundaries and become permeable to other traditions if it is to survive, however. With all the exposure and multiculturalism happening now, fundamentalist type traditions will have to fight harder to survive... it's best when the tradition becomes more open and flexible. The Catholic Church has known a few followers who are open to Zen Buddhism for example (John O'Donohue, Thomas Merton) and I think this helps the tradition and reminds us of the integrity at its core...