It’s finally here—after weeks of waiting, your favorite band is playing in concert tonight! Driving in, parking, passing by all the vendors, and getting to your seats is all a swirl of sights, sounds, smells, and textures. Your view is temporarily blocked and then opens up again amidst the jostling bodies all around. You smell the cologne of someone nearby and smoke on someone else, all as you yell over the opening band’s tunes to steer your friends to the correct seats. You’d set up two of your friends on a blind date for this concert, Jayden and Dakota, and from their grooming to their outfits to their flirtatious banter, both seem invested. The concert lives up to all your expectations! However, based on all the little cues—from leaning in toward each other to sideways glances—it looks like it was an even better night for Jayden and Dakota.
In anthropological terms, a performance can be many things at once. It can be artful, reflexive, and consequential while being both traditional and emergent.1 As a result, each performance is unique because of the specific circumstances in which it occurs, including historical, social, economic, political, and personal contexts. Performers’ physical and emotional states will influence their performances, as will the conditions in which the performance takes place and the audience to whom the performance is delivered. At the same time, every performance is part of a larger tradition, and the creator, performer(s), and audience are all interacting with a given piece of that larger body of tradition. Performance is consequential because its effects last much longer than the period between the rising and falling of a curtain. The reflexive properties of performance “enable participants to understand, criticize, and even change the worlds in which they live.”2 In other words, performances are much more than just self-referential; they are always informed by and about something.
Despite the importance of performance in our social worlds, it was only in the mid-twentieth century that anthropologists embraced performance as a topic worthy of study. Visual arts received serious attention from anthropologists much earlier, in large part because of Western cultural biases toward the visual and because those tangible artifacts lent themselves to cultural categorization and identification. In the 1950s, Milton Singer introduced the idea of cultural performance. Singer noted that cultural consultants involved in his fieldwork on Hinduism often took him to see cultural performances when they wanted to explain a particular aspect of that culture.3 Singer checked his hypotheses about the culture against the formal presentations of it and determined that “these performances could be regarded as the most concrete observable units of Indian culture.”4 He concluded that one could understand the cultural value system of Hinduism by abstracting from repeated observations of the performances. In other words, (1) cultural performances are an ideal unit of study because they reference and encapsulate information about the culture that gave rise to them, and (2) the cultural messages become more accessible with each “sample” of the performances since the researcher can compare the specifics of repeated features of the same “performance.”
Singer’s observation that analyzing performance could be a useful method for understanding broader cultural values was revolutionary at the time. Today, anthropologists are just as likely to study performance itself—how performances become endowed with meaning and social significance, how cultural knowledge is stored inside performers’ bodies.5 Anthropology’s increased openness to treating performance as a worthy area of inquiry reflects a shift from focusing on social structures of society that were presumed to be static to examining the ongoing processes within society that at times maintain the status quo and at other times result in change.6
Cultural Performance vs. Performing Culture
When describing the anthropology of performance, two concepts are often confused: performing culture and cultural performance. Though they sound similar, the difference is significant. Richard Schechner, a performance studies scholar whose work frequently overlaps with anthropology, provides a useful distinction between these terms by distinguishing between analyzing something that is a performance versus analyzing something as a performance.7 A cultural performance is a performance, such as a concert or play. Performing culture is an activity that people engage in through their everyday words and actions, which reflect their enculturation and therefore can be studied as performances regardless of whether the subjects are aware of their cultural significance.
Mexico’s famed ballet folklorico is one example of a cultural performance (see Figure 1). In essence, it is an authoritative version of the culture that has been codified and is presented to audiences who generally are expected to accept the interpretation. Cultural performances typically are readily recognizable. Their importance is highlighted by the fact that they take place at specific times and places, have a clear beginning and end, and involve performers who expect to demonstrate excellence.8
The umbrella of cultural performances includes many events thought of as performances in the West (e.g., concerts, plays, dances) but also includes activities such as prayers and rituals that westerners would classify as religious practices. That some cultures, particularly in the West, make a distinction between a performance and a religious practice fits with a tendency to see some practices as spurious and others as genuine, one of the reasons anthropologists have only recently begun to study performing arts seriously. Singer found that each cultural performance “had a definitely limited time span, or at least a beginning and an end, an organized program of activity, a set of performers, an audience, and a place and occasion of performance.”9 The same is true for religious and secular events. Cultural performances are informed by the norms of one’s community and signal one’s membership in that community.
Cultural performances contribute to preserving the heritage of a group, and in some cases, they have the same effect as an anthropologist writing in the “ethnographic present” by providing an artificially frozen (in time) representation of culture. For example, among people living along the Costa Chica of Mexico, artesa music and the accompanying dance performed atop an overturned trough retains a strong association with the region’s African-descended population.10 The instruments and rhythms used in this music reflect the African, indigenous, and European cultures that gave rise to these blended communities and thus represent a rich, emergent tradition. In recent years, however, the artesa mostly is no longer performed at weddings, as was traditional, and performers are now paid to represent their culture in artificial settings such as documentaries and cultural fairs.
Performing culture refers to lived traditions that emerge with each new performance of cultural norms—popular sayings, dances, music, everyday practices, and rituals—and it takes shape in the space between tradition and individuality. Using our initial example, the concert Jayden and Dakota attended was a cultural performance while their dating behaviors were examples of performing culture. Obviously, no two dates are identical, but within a given social group there are culturally informed codes for appropriate behavior while on a date and for the many other interactions that commonly occur between people.