I suppose I first began wondering about the nature of “community” when I left the one of my upbringing. Some of this was natural: I was a young adult, and I’d moved away from home, family, classmates to set my own sail. Some was more fundamental: I left the religion of my childhood. I was raised in a Baha’i home with strong ties to the (then relatively small) Baha’i community locally, regionally, and nationally. It was in that world where I established best-friendships and teenage crushes, where I shared in a common experience of both mundane and spiritual content, and where my intellectual curiosity was encouraged and developed. It was “my community” in ways more profound than the one provided by our residence in Rockville, CT. Growing up in a Baha’i home was a great gift: my decision to leave it behind was profoundly difficult even though I no longer felt a sense of membership in that community. And ever since that decision, I have been looking for a suitable replacement.
I looked in lots of different places for that sense of belonging. In the 1980s I tried to establish myself within the Hartford, CT modern dance scene but ultimately found it competitive and sometimes contentious. In the 90s I looked to wicca, a community in which I could satisfy some of my spiritual longings and through which I met many wonderful like-minded women. Witchcraft almost did it for me but in the end my pragmatism won out (and, oddly, I much preferred the New England witches to the ones I met when I moved to California). Sacred Circle Dance, which I encountered through my pagan connections, seemed promising since it overtly claims to be creating community through revitalized European folk dances. Unfortunately, I discovering that (for me) there was just no there there.
For the purposes of my dissertation, I took up the Japanese martial art, Aikido, in order to focus my scholarly attentions on the subject of community itself: what is it, how is it created and maintained, who can become a member. Aikido provided me with concrete social and physiological practices that lead to a sense of connection between practitioners—in short, a community. The stated goal of aikido is to achieve an energetic (ki) “connection” with each training partner through repeated tactile and kinesthetic experiences. This is coupled with a variety of social activities that bind members together: from dojo upkeep to serving on committees to participation in cyclical rites of passage. These dual “socio-somatic connections” produce a sensuous community of practitioners.* This was rich soil for a dissertation project, and it satisfied my intellectual curiosity about “community” as a socio-cultural phenomenon. But once I was finished writing, I found I had no desire to return to the training mat. I hadn’t found my community yet. Besides, I wanted to—needed to—return to dance.
I began to study bellydance after one of my UCSC anthropology of dance students (Crystal Silmi) demonstrated a modern variant called American Tribal Style Belly Dance. Over the course of the next 8 years, I studied ATS and many other styles of bellydance. Along the way, I cultivated a personal sense of belonging in the Santa Cruz County bellydance community. I work at belonging by attending performances, taking classes and workshops, and socializing at non-dance events like movie nights, crafting parties, or yard sales. This is work that must be maintained. It is a sign of my commitment to the community as well as the means by which I create my belonging. Indeed, our collective work is the very stuff of this community.
Look for my upcoming blog: “A Community of Dancers: Part 2. Why We Need Communities”
* “Aikido Sensibilities: The Sociosomatics of Connection and Its Role in the Constitution of Community at North Bay Aikido in Santa Cruz, California” Renée Rothman, University of California, Santa Cruz, Dec. 2000