Sometimes We Are Just Playing

From the Series: Bateson Book Forum: Dust of the Zulu

Photo by Photo by TJ Lemon, 2003. Young Zulu men Bhekiseni Ndlovu (partially obscured), Neli Mbongiseni Dladla and Phumlani Zulu perform ngoma dance on Christmas day in their home village of esiPongweni, KwaZulu-Natal.

For those of us who believe in the power of performing arts to effect political change, heal social wounds, or empower marginalized individuals, Louise Meintjes’s Dust of the Zulu: Ngoma Aesthetics After Apartheid (Duke University Press, 2017) is inspiring and captivating in its depictions of ngoma music, dance, and sociality. With an ambiguity that can provoke or quell violence, commemorate history, or look to the future, ngoma’s significance is continuously negotiated in the dance arena, the studio, the home, and on film. But for all of her work showing ngoma’s representational and creative power, perhaps Meintjes’s most remarkable accomplishment here is to remind us that performance is not all about meaning. “To ngoma dancers, ngoma does not always say something,” she writes, “Sometimes it is just playing” (25).

Of course, as a creative practice with deep history and force in the world, ngoma is more than just playing. An affective sociality that celebrates a culture of anti-colonial warfare recontextualized as artistic labor, it “mediates the relationship between aesthetics (a way of imagining the world) and contemporaneous politics (a way of acting upon it)” (21). Such high-stakes art in early post-apartheid years deserves careful, thick description and discussion, and Meintjes proves apt for the task. Her vibrant writing moves around TJ Lemon’s intimate photography of dancers and spectators in the excitement of their competitive performances, but also occasionally takes us to funerals, weddings, and political rallies, where we witness a warrior aesthetics cultivated through ngoma dance, drumming, and singing. This book conveys an important sense of how body and voice gather power, learn to control anger, and “contain a tension between representing the difficult social worlds from which they arise and contributing to the aggression within those worlds” (126–27).

Having recently begun fieldwork on tasting and crafting taste in Puerto Rico’s craft beer movement, I am particularly interested in the sort of questions Meintjes raises about sense(s) and value(s). How is a specific feeling like anger, or a collective experience of crisis or coloniality, reproduced or challenged through kinesthetic gesture or a pairing of familiar flavors? How do expressive cultures enable participants to embody their histories or their imaginaries of the future? What sort of alternate economies and infrastructures are emerging from experimentation within worlds of performance and craft? The example of compromise within the “hi-fi sociality” of South African recording studios (228–31) producing nostalgic sonic textures or “a sense of distance and . . . wide open space, iconic of the idea of the rural” (256) resonates with Kirstie A. Dorr’s (2018) discussion of performance geography, which reminds us “that sonic production and spatial formation are mutually animating processes” (Dorr 2018, 3). Expanding this approach to consider sensation, performance, and space more broadly, we might attend to the affective and creative work in dancing, brewing, drinking, or studio recording, and how this work converses with senses of locality, nation, (post)colony, or diaspora.

Ethnography can pay close attention within performative spaces and convey a sense of their dynamic relations, exceeding the analytical and theoretical work of our discipline. This is the sort of “tasteful” fieldwork and writing that Paul Stoller (1989) suggests is a way out from the constraints of ethnographic realism. Allowing ourselves to be penetrated by the sounds, smells, emotions, and intensities of the places we visit, Stoller (1989, 156) writes, is linked with a deep respect for those places and the people who inhabit them: “This kind of respect, born of deep immersion in other worlds, demands that nameless informants be portrayed as recognizable individuals who suffer defeats and win victories in their social worlds.” Meintjes’s intimate, respectful portrayals of dance competitions, studio sessions, and life stories bound up in struggle are crafted through multiple shifts in register, especially within the “imagistic bursts” she likens to snapshots and to “rhythm deployed in writing about dancers springing surprises, cutting, turning, holding a pose” (19). More than an evocative contrast to her explanatory or more detailed descriptive passages, these sensational registers exhibit a tasteful play born out of respect and admiration for ngoma dance and performers.

Immersive, tasteful ethnography of play and performance shows us how embodied forms of knowing come to be, how people sense while they make sense of their social worlds. As Kathryn Linn Geurts (2003, 76) shows, the sensorium is defined variably across cultures, and as an active experience of environment, sensing often entails “synesthetic modes of knowing.” Although Meintjes is not theorizing the senses or their organization as such, she vividly relates how ngoma makes use of voice and movement to make shared values at once and cohesively felt, heard, and seen, how “[s]ound melds with kinetics into a single, dense experience” (49). If interpreting creative play helps us to understand the aesthetic-political, it is important to go after a sense of that play as it plays out in bodies, to get caught up in the affects of a site and notice the ways they come to be felt.

Visualizing a ngoma dancer consummating his performance with a skyward kick and a backward fall into the dust, I think about surrender, a sense of dynamically letting go the body, a gift thrown proudly into the familiar force of gravity. But I want to be careful not to ascribe a symbolism to this move, making the same mistake as the white tour guide who explains this as an artistic reenactment of Zulu warriors being gunned down in battle (258). Not only do I risk a wrong or unfair interpretation that reproduces misconceptions about an exotic, apolitical Other. I might also do a disservice to the type of descriptive, tasteful ethnography that Meintjes has so beautifully crafted. If I rush to read the dance as a text, I will miss how the author performs her text as a dance, a lively and playful—at times painful—immersion within a world of sound and movement, an attention to improvisation and ambiguity that does not foreclose the political possibilities of art, but rather calls us into “intimate encounters with difference” (16).


Dorr, Kirstie A. 2018. On Site, In Sound: Performance Geographies in América Latina. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Geurts, Kathryn Linn. 2003. Culture and the Senses: Bodily Ways of Knowing in an African Community. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Stoller, Paul. 1989. The Taste of Ethnographic Things: The Senses in Anthropology. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.