Moving Stories

Kicking It Up: ‘Asi se baila el chotis’ (this is how you dance the chotis)

The past weekend I’ve been immersed in the dance called the schottische/chotis/ shotis/xotis/xote. I’ve been glued to dance videos rather different to the performances of salsa, samba, kizomba, and other Afro-heritage couple dance forms that regularly show up on my Facebook newsfeed. In an effort to deepen my dance research, and understand a bit more about the European side of Afro-European creolisation that resulted in these dances, I’ve been on another path of discovery: the YouTube afterlives of that curious, and, from a contemporary perspective, decidedly non-glamorous– dance form originally christened the ‘schottische’ (from ‘schottisch’, German for ‘Scottish’).

    I.

Despite the name, this dance seems to have had little to do with either Germany or Scotland. It originated in Bohemia (where German was widely spoken in the mid 19th century, as part of the craze for all things ‘folk’ that swept across the Continent during this period. I imagine that Romantic Nationalism (as described by the superb Joep Leerssen, and the romances of Ossian, Walter Scott, and the Highland Fling led to the Schottische’s emergence in the same milieu as those other Central European forms associated with the ‘gaiety‘ of the European folk: the polka and the mazurka— dances that seem the alter ego of the more serious, self-declaredly elegant waltz. Today, the schottische is commonly defined as a partnered country dance; it is also described as a slow polka.

Open any book discussing dancing and balls amongst the sugarcane aristocracy on Plantations from the North through to the South of the Americas, and before long you will come across the ‘contredanse/ contredanza’ (derived from the English ‘country dance’, the ‘polka’, the ‘mazurka’, and, every now and then, ‘the schottische’—the last, in fact, appearing in a bewildering profusion of spellings depending on the linguistic area in question—chotis or shotis in Spanish-speaking South America, xote or xoti in Brazil. This linguistic variegation led me to follow the trail of the dance-with-many-spellings this weekend (I do remain a philologist at heart). The larger question is methodological: books hardly describe what these dances looked like (either then or now)— so how do we start finding out?

This question is particularly pertinent as I work out what is it that gives Brazilian social dances a ‘Brazilian’ flavour, or what is distinctive about these Brazilian couple dances? Whether forro, pagode, zouk or samba de gafieira, there are accents, emphases, and energies which make watching and dancing these Brazilian forms a different experience from dancing salsa; equally, there are affiliations between – say- samba de gafieira and Argentinian tango. Is there a sub-genre of Southern Hemisphere couple dances that encompasses Spanish-speaking Argentina and Portuguese-speaking Brazil—beyond the affiliations between dances of the obviously ‘gaucho’ variety?

The other issue is about whether we can extract information about the way people danced a couple of centuries ago, from the way people dance those same dances today. An on-going concern of mine is how exactly we define and tap into the archives of the body— but at the very least we can concede that there are collective memories that are embedded in bodies, passed down through generations despite transplantation and diaspora, and irrespective of whether not there are written treatises codifying what is being passed down. This pertains to embodied practices from martial arts to yoga to dance and even singing when it involves codified gestures. ‘As a faculty of memory’ says Joseph Roach, ‘the kinaesthetic imagination exists interdependently with other phenomena of social memory.’

    II

So while puzzling over these wider issues, I looked up ‘Schottische’ on YouTube and was quite surprised to find a huge number of possibilities. Who dances this form these days? These are some answers and an attempt at categorisation!

1) In the Anglophone world:

a) People who like to dress up like peasants in the mid-19th century and dance in lurid-coloured rooms.

There seems to be a strong connection between the cultivation of these Central European dances, and people of German-speaking, possible Central European ancestry in North America— as this charming video of a polka competition in Michigan demonstrates. Note the waistcoats!

b) People making videos for the Library of Congress archives in the US of A. It appears that, despite the relationship between schottische and ragtime that the archive acknowledges, this phase in the creolization of transatlantic couple dances in North America is now over. The dances are no longer ‘live’ phenomena, and reconstruction is our only way out.

c) People teaching you a ballroom (watered down) version of the schottische. These videos are usually really boring, and involve studios, mirrors, and very little energy or actual movement. I’ve decided to spare people these videos and move to the next category:

d) As is inevitable— Scottish people who have decided to embrace this dance which was really never theirs, but hey, why ever not! Even the tartan kilt was an invented tradition!

This video of the ‘Highland schottishe’ is danced in a Moscow studio but is full of fun and high kicks. It shows how active the process of (re-)invention of tradition can be. Modernity and tradition are constantly in dialogue with each other, and there is little that can be pinpointed as ‘authentic’ anywhere (a situation which is fine by me!)

2) In Spain:

The afterlife of the schottische is particularly lively and varied here, where it has become caught up in the culture wars between competing regional, identities. I was quite amazed to see the take-up of the xotis—as the dance is called in Catalunya—as well as its more lugubrious and heavy-seeming Madrileño versions. So these are the two ‘Scottish-dancing’ rival camps in Spain:

a) People in Catalunya who dance the ‘xotis’ (a nice coincidence of Catalan and Brazilian Portuguese orthographic choices here!) Watch how things literally kick off at .39!

b) People in Madrid, who dance the ‘chotis’. Going by YouTube comments, they also insist that the Madrileño chotis is better than the Catalan xotis. The signature step of the man pivoting while the woman circles him is one that is used in Cuban son as well, but in a much more dynamic fashion!

In particular, the chotis is still danced in the aristocratic Madrid neighbourhood of Las Vistillas. Here, on the 15th of May, the day of the city’s patron saint Isidore, you may just chance upon a competition like this:

c) Singers such as the charmingly-named Pastora Soler (it’s her pseudonym, though) use the chotis to make quite a statement about Spanish tradition!

d) Other singers use it, equally, to make quite a statement about Catalan tradition! —these seem a tad more ironic. Inter alia, I can’t help noting how much Catalan sounds like Brazilian Portuguese!!!

In case anyone is up to the task of reading Catalan (I can’t, ‘officially’, but I just stumbled through, reading it through all the other Romance languages I know- try it, it’s not too hard!)– here, in this interesting article about the xotis in Catalunya that exhibits the same sense of humour seen in the music video above:

3) In Latin America:

The same thing seems to happen to the schottische as with every other dance style that made the transatlantic and transcontinental journey from Europe to the Americas— what remained indoors, folkloric, or the interest of reconstructionists elsewhere, often enjoys a living, breathing, alfresco existence in Latin America.

a) Mexico: Hundreds of YouTube videos exist of the chotis in Mexico—I particularly like this one, from Santa Clara, where people are just hanging around at a local party and, when the music strikes up a chotis tune, they simply move into the requirements of that dance (see the organic way in which the couple enters the dance floor at .54). Questions such as ‘how do they know it’s a chotis’ and ‘how do they know what to do’ are redundant here; this is a part of community knowledge, of the business of gozadera (collective enjoyment through partying and dance). The feature video for this story is also from Mexico.

b) Brazil: The sounds of the accordion (sanfona) in the previous clip take us to northeast Brazil, the home of the music and dance style forro:

This two-step dance is bouncy and super-fast– xote with the fast forward button pressed. Even as the dance has evolved to what is now called the forro, the connection to the schottische is preserved in the name xote, now applied to the batida or rhythm (which can exist in both purely musical form as well as its kinetic interpretation through dance).

    III.

Several forro songs commemorate the dance’s link to older forms such as the xote and baiano while acknowledging controversies around precise lines of descent: in the song ‘Xote forro baiano’, the lyrics note that when the accordionist starts playing, everyone jumps up and makes for the centre of the floor; what does it matter if its forro or xote or baiano that is being danced? Click on the link beside the lyrics to understand why!

Often songs set to this rhythm are classified as ‘xote’ but the dance they require is the forro. Sometimes, the videos take you away from dance altogether—as seen in this ‘clip da copa’, which illustrates a song from 2013, ‘Xote do Brasil’. Created in anticipation of the World Cup (but clearly well before the results), the clip takes its cue from the lyrics, which celebrate the national colours of Brazil together with a eulogy to its football history, carnival and a range of dance styles (samba no pe, frevo, maracatu, forro), famous singers (Chiquinha Gonzaga) and natural bounty.

What is left out in the lyrics of ‘Xote do Brasil’ is made explicit in the images in the video—this is a vision that the founding father of Brazil’s theory of racial democracy, Gilberto Freyre, would have approved of. In his magnum opus, Casa Grande e senzala (1933), (translated into English as ‘The Masters and the Slaves’) Freyre says that ‘these Big Houses (casas grandes), slave quarters (senzalas), and plantation chapels blend harmoniously with the fields of sugar-cane, the coffee groves, the palm trees, the mangoes, the breadfruit trees; with the hills and plans, the tropical or semi-tropical forest, the rivers and waterfalls; with the horse-teams of the former masters and the oxen that were the companions in labor of the slaves.’ The pastoral mode erases all traces of pain, deracination and labour from this vision of ‘Brasil Brasileiro’ — a Brazil that is imminent, and that is going to be more Brazilian than ever.

Few would agree today with Freyre that ‘so perfect is this fusion that, even though they are now all but lifeless, these old elements, or mere fragments, of the patriarchal regime in Brazil are still the best integrated of any with their environment and, to all appearances, the best adapted to the climate.’ Yet we cannot deny that in Brazil, European and African rhythmic fragments of ‘the patriarchal regime’ have combined and re-combined with fantastic inventiveness. It’s as if those elements of a troubled past, which continue, definitely, in the not-at-all-postracial present, free themselves momentarily in the realm of music and dance. It is possible to see in Brazilian dances like the forro the survival and reinterpretation of elements from ‘white dances’ like the schottische.

Apart from feeding into the forro, the schottische reappears as the xote in the state of Rio Grande do Sul, in the extreme South of Brazil, where it assumes the ‘folkloric’, lets-get-dressed-up form:

It is amazing how this single dance can exist in ‘traditional’ and ‘social’ modes in the same country, but then, this is Brazil, home to every kind of couple dance that exists! So it’s appropriate to end with an example of the samba de gafieira, where this enquiry began, in order to see what of the original schottische entered this dance as it is now enjoyed. Here are two of my favourite dancers, Anderson and Brenda, interpreting ‘Aquarela do Brasil’, the famous samba song that follows Gilberto Freyre in praising (most tautologically) Brazil for being ‘brasileiro’ (Brazil, you are so Brazilian!)

Watch this video on the back of all those you’ve been following so far and tell me if we can’t deduce now where samba de gafieira’s high kicks and syncopated hops come from!

It’s not a paradox that a ‘Scottish’ dance should be used to define what is Brazilian about Brazil. On the one hand, the idea of Brazil’s voracious culture is a staple ingredient of its collective imagination; but on the other, and even more interestingly, is its inclusion of a dance that pretends to be of a nation but is not actually of any. The dance with a false genealogy embedded in its name is readily available for nationalist and regionalist sentiment in different parts of the world. Its transcontinental proliferation undercuts any single claim on it. Pues, asi se baila el chotis: cocking a snook at ‘tradition’, ‘authenticity’, and the anxiety of origins. iVale!

ANANYA JAHANARA KABIR

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