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Radical History Review 84 (2002) 77-107

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Dance of the Revolutionaries, Dance of the Folk

Katherine Borland


In the wake of the 1979 Sandinista revolution, Nicaragua experienced an artistic explosion. The Sandinista government, dedicated to dismantling the country's rigid class system that had reserved the rights to artistic recognition for a privileged few, celebrated and cultivated the creative potential of ordinary people. While much of this cultural activity represented new, revolutionary forms of expression, the government also supported an incipient folklore revival. 1 Folk dance displays, which prominently featured the indigenous-identified baile de la marimba (marimba dance), proved an accessible vehicle for uniting the various regions of the country in a shared national identity and for demonstrating the nation's unique character to the world.

Within this revival, however, tensions quickly developed. Regionally based performers resisted the representations of "the people's culture" that a Managua-based group of culture workers produced. For instance, the city of Masaya, which lies about thirty miles southeast of Managua, had long enjoyed a reputation as the cradle of Nicaraguan folklore, due largely to the presence of a historically identified indigenous community at its southern edge called Monimbó. Since at least the nineteenth century, Monimbó had constituted a center for crafts and festival arts. Despite the democratization of cultural practices affected by the Sandinista government, Monimbó and Masaya residents viewed the development of folk ballets as a form of cultural appropriation. [End Page 77]

Monimboseños' distinctive cultural identity did not preclude their identification with the nation, yet it provided them with a critical perspective from which to challenge the authenticity of a national model under construction. Regarding themselves as the originators of performance forms that had become the foundation for the Nicaraguan folk dance revival, monimboseños recognized a sociospatial division that prevented them from participating on an equal footing in the representation of their cultural heritage in extraneighborhood, nontraditional spheres.

More broadly,individual artists from Monimbó (as well as from other small towns in the Masaya region) recognized that the national cultural agencies promoting the people's art offered only limited opportunities for the "folk" to creatively fashion their own cultural expressions and project them on the national scene. 2 Instead, mostly middle-class, educated, culture workers, promoters, and performers constructed an idealized vision of the folk aesthetic, which was then relayed back to the popular classes through televised performances and training workshops.

In this essay, I will examine the conflicting claims for authority over el baile de la marimba that arose in the context of the 1980s folk dance revival. These claims [End Page 78] underscore the way in which aesthetic judgments contribute to the reproduction of unequal social relations by giving dominant sectors the power to define the terms of the cultural debate. 3 In his examination of the "aesthetic-anthropological object systems" of the West, James Clifford has argued that "the relations of power whereby one portion of humanity can select, value, and collect the pure products of others need to be criticized and transformed." 4 Socialist experiments in our hemisphere resist the dominance of Western capital, yet they can very often mask their own inequalities through a rhetoric of people's empowerment. Ironically, that rhetoric may produce its own challenges, as ordinary people feel empowered to assert their right to represent themselves.

Studies of the "uses of folklore" have generally focused on the efforts of a middle-class intelligentsia to identify, select, and remodel a cultural heritage based on the folklore of usually marginalized sectors of their society. These revivalists typically use folklore to claim political autonomy, to resist foreign incursions, or to argue for equal footing among the civilized nations. 5 In Latin America, intellectuals, artists, and politicians have turned to folklore specifically to combat U.S. cultural imperialism. In these instances, attention to indigenous cultures and practices is a common political move. 6 Clearly, state identification with the folk and tradition occurs both in totalitarian regimes that favor the conservative aspects of folk cultures and in progressive movements that tend to favor...


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pp. 77-107
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Archived 2004
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