Whether as a means of creative or artistic expression, social unification, religious ritual, or for the attainment of a transcending experience, dance has been a vital part of nearly every world culture since the prehistoric era of human society. Archeologists have found depictions of dancers on numerous artifacts dating back to at least 8000 BCE (Garfinkel, 2003). In modern times, dance is equally relevant as both an enactment and creator of ‘cultural meaning’ within a larger cultural context through the interaction of mind, body, and environment (Cohen Bull 1997). This concept is supported by Ribeiro and Fonseca’s (2011) definition of dance as an outpouring of purposeful and meaningful movements portrayed through the meeting of body and space. Cohen-Stratyner (2001) would add that there is always a social purpose to social dance, whether it be to promote social organization, unification, societal norms, or alternative social ideas. Tateo (2014) speaks of Tango in terms of a ‘representation of life values,’ while Luckmann (2008) addresses the significant meaning that can be associated with action, since it has been ‘projected by the self,’ and posits that the meaning of ‘social action,’ specifically, is shaped by the interpretations of both the actor and the others involved in the interaction. He argues that the main source of both action and interpretation is from ‘social stocks of knowledge’ that people have subconsciously accumulated from their cultures, rather than personal knowledge that was discovered through ‘autonomous problem solving.’ In light of this, Luckmann proposes that dance is a ‘collective representation’ which may be studied as a metaphor or allegory for insight into the social reality of the larger culture or context within which the dance is situated.

West Coast Swing is one such dance style which places specific emphasis on spontaneous improvisation and creativity through nonverbal communication between partners. This nonverbal communication is referred to as “lead and follow,” where one member of the pair is designated the “leader” and the other, the “follower” (Callahan 2005). Beginning in the mid-nineties with it’s conception, the practitioners of West Coast Swing have grown into a vibrant community of dancers spanning the globe. As renowned anthropologist Robert Redfield asserts, “In all parts of the world, in all of human history, there are and have been little communities” (Redfield 1960). In their many varied shapes and forms, communities are all around us. Over the course of human history the forms of such communities has drastically expanded in variety. Beginning with the band and tribal societies characteristic of the majority of human existence and expanding into transnational networks of modern-day communities in the global information age, small-scale societies have played an integral part in the human experience. According to Redfield, communities are defined by four characteristics: a distinctiveness from other groups, a compact unit of observation, homogeneity among corresponding sex and age positions within the group, and self-sufficiency of the group to provide for all or most of the needs of its members. This paper will further explore the concept of community, drawing from a wide variety of studies on small-scale societies as well as transnational networks, with the aim of illuminating the West Coast Swing community and its place in the modern global social structure.

Specific approaches to studying dance, especially social and vernacular dance, will also be addressed throughout this paper, yet from the outset it is clear that dance is closely tied to the greater cultural context and as such, it can provide a viable means of investigating aspects of the formation, transmission, and change of and within cultures. The focus of this study, West Coast Swing, is a popular social and competitive dance that may be considered one of the most difficult and sophisticated styles of partner dancing. The global community of West Coast Swing dancers is tied together by this common “language” to create a new kind of small-scale society on a global scale.

This is the introduction to the literature review of a Bachelor of Science in Anthropology senior thesis completed by Stacia Wilson at the University of La Verne. Portions of this senior thesis (as well as possible additional content) will be posted every other Thursday as part of the ongoing ‘Academic Perspectives’ series. Subscribe to stay up to date on upcoming posts!

References Cited


Callahan, Jamie L.
2005 ‘Speaking a Secret Language’: West Coast Swing as a Community of Practice of Informal and Incidental Learners. Research in Dance Education 6(1):3-23.


Cohen Bull, Cynthia J.
1997 Sense, Meaning, and Perception in Three Dance Cultures. In Meaning in Motion. Jane
C. Desmond, ed. Pp. 269-287. Durham & London: Duke University Press.


Cohen-Stratyner, Barbara
2001 Social Dance: Contexts and Definitions. Dance Research Journal 33(2, Social and Popular Dance):121-124.


Garfinkel, Yosef
2003 The Earliest Dancing Scenes in the Near East. Near Eastern Archaeology 66(3):84-95.


Luckmann, Thomas
2008 On Social Interaction and the Communicative Construction of Personal Identity, Knowledge and Reality. Organization Studies (01708406) 29(2):277-290.


Redfield, Robert.
1960 The Little Community Peasant Society and Culture. The University of Chicago Press.


Ribeiro, Monica m., and Agar Fonseca
2011 The Empathy and the Structuring Sharing Modes of Movement Sequences in the Improvisation of Contemporary Dance. Research in Dance Education 12(2):71-85.


Tateo, Luca
2014 The Dialogical Dance: Self, Identity Construction, Positioning and Embodiment in Tango Dancers. Integrative Psychological & Behavioral Science 48(3):299-321.

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