Friday, January 13, 2012

Virtual Transmission, Visceral Practice: Dance Central and the Cybershala [SEM 2011]

I presented this paper at the joint meeting of the Society for Ethnomusicology and the Congress for Research on Dance in Philadelphia, PA (November 17-20, 2011). The Dance Central section represents my current research project (still in its early stages); the cybershala section is condensed from a longer treatment in my new book, Playing Along.


Virtual Transmission, Visceral Practice: Dance Central and the Cybershala

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Interactive digital media technologies are gradually transforming the face-to-face, body-to-body transmission contexts that have always played a crucial role in music and dance pedagogy. YouTube, blogging platforms, and other online social media forums have given rise to countless virtual communities of practice. Meanwhile, digital game developers are seeking to bridge the gap between virtual and visceral experience by creating new kinds of controllers, motion-sensing devices, and gestural interfaces (e.g., those employed by the Nintendo Wii and Xbox Kinect). Despite the limitations of current technologies, millions of people are turning to online media and digital games in the pursuit of new corporeal skills, experiences, and knowledge.

Today I’m going to present two case studies in techno-mediated transmission. First I’ll address the “cybershala” created by yoga bloggers, a web-based community of practice that sometimes comes into conflict with traditional authority. Then I’ll turn to Dance Central, a videogame that teaches players full-body choreography routines set to popular club music, offering real-time feedback using a motion-sensing camera peripheral. While time limitations will prevent me from doing justice to either case study, I think it’s worth our while to consider how they inform each other. These examples illustrate some new possibilities for the transmission of embodied practice, for converting virtual social connections into visceral common knowledge, and for imagining what it’s like to live in someone else’s body.

Cybershala: The Ashtangisphere Never Sleeps
One day in the summer of 2010 a friend posted a comment on one of my Facebook status updates, asking how my backbends were coming along.

 My friend and I both practice ashtanga yoga, a method codified and popularized in the twentieth century by Sri K. Pattabhi Jois (1915–2009) through his Ashtanga Yoga Institute in Mysore, India. Ashtanga is a “flowing” yoga style, in which most asana (postures) are held for only five breaths; fluid transitions between asana are an integral part of the practice. The simplest explanation of what makes ashtanga distinctive is that practitioners always move through the asana in a particular order, matching their movements to a particular breath pattern. The prescribed sequence of asana is broken down into a structured curriculum: fundamentals, primary series, second series, and so on. Students learn each series through cumulative repetition, with the teacher deciding when a student is ready to add a new asana or begin a new series. In “Mysore-style” classes, the teacher does not instruct the whole group and rarely demonstrates asana. Instead, she or he moves through the room giving physical adjustments and working with students one-on-one as they each proceed through the series. [Hey ashtangis, I know this description is woefully incomplete, but this talk could only be 20 minutes long!]

At the time of our Facebook exchange my friend and I were both partway through learning the second series, 3,000 miles apart and working with different teachers. The ashtanga curriculum offers a structuring framework for online discourse and visceral common knowledge. (Cf. Hamera 2007 on how dance builds "relational infrastructure".) Everyone who practices second series knows exactly what it means when I say that I am working on kapotasana; they have their own sensational knowledge of that asana. If the asana came more easily to them than to me, then they also have a visceral understanding of the differences between our bodies.

I’m not really sure what the Cybershala is but I’ve heard it referred to more and more lately. It seems to be an online community not located at any one site or of a fixed membership. It seems to be made up of blogs, comment threads and forums, corners of Facebook, YouTube, chatrooms, and Skype connections. Anywhere where one’s practice can be posted, discussed, commented on . . .
(Grimmly 2010: part 17)

An overwhelming number of yoga blogs, videos, Facebook updates, Twitter feeds, and other forms of online social media now constitute a “cybershala” of ashtanga yoga practitioners—many who work with teachers regularly, others who are cultivating a practice as “home ashtangis” (cf. Finnegan 1989 on “hidden musicians”). Yoga bloggers face a challenge familiar to ethnomusicologists and dance scholars: how can one communicate kinesthetic, multisensory experiences without bodily presence and a shared sensorium? Home ashtangis have adopted exactly the same tactics that the anthropologist Jaida Kim Samudra advocates for scholars writing about kinesthetic cultures: first, attempting to “linguistically record the minute details of one’s bodily training” even when this is explicitly discouraged in traditional transmission (2008:670); second, being attentive to one’s own internal bodily sensations in order to better comprehend other practitioners’ experiences (674); and finally, creating “somatic narratives,” which comprise both “the series of actions narrated by bodies during limited frames such as practice sessions, performances, or competitions” and “the stories people tell about what happened to and with their bodies during specific events” (674). Yoga bloggers often combine video, still images, and lengthy written accounts to communicate these somatic narratives online.

As I watched the videos my friend recommended, my body shifted in my desk chair as though operated by remote control: back straightening, shoulder blades sliding together, legs subtly rotating in hip sockets, toes spreading to grip the floor for a vicarious backbend. I heard myself breathing. I experienced the blogs and videos through my accumulated “sensational knowledge” (Hahn 2007), just as I had learned to reenact my teacher’s physical adjustments while alone on my mat—the virtual hand drawing my hip back, the virtual foot nudging the angle of my own foot on the floor, the virtual arm stopping me from taking my legs past vertical in a headstand. It was very much like the experience of listening to music that I knew how to play.

Watching these videos also gave me the uncomfortable feeling that I might be cheating on my teacher. Ashtanga students are not supposed to start experimenting with advanced asana of their own accord. On the other hand, the structured nature of ashtanga makes it particularly well suited to independent practice, amateur-to-amateur pedagogy, and online discourse among a dispersed community of practitioners. Browsing YouTube videos of ashtanga backbends quickly led me to “grimmly2007,” who had uploaded about 300 videos so that he could embed them in his yoga blog

Grimmly is an ashtanga student without a teacher—an impossible contradiction to many practitioners, but one that is getting more possible all the time. He lives in the United Kingdom and works as a repairer of woodwind instruments. In early 2007, Grimmly’s flat was burgled and seven saxophones were stolen. This incident made him so angry, and then so irritated with his own anger, that he decided to take up some form of meditation. In the course of reading about meditation practices, he learned that “a lot of meditators were also doing yoga,” so he looked for a yoga book at the library and found Tara Fraser’s Total Astanga (Fraser 2006). As an overweight 43-year-old man, he was a bit embarrassed even bringing the book up to the circulation desk. On his blog, he wrote, “Going to a yoga class wasn’t something I even considered. A guy here, outside London, might think about going to a gym to get in shape but not a Yoga class, probably not even an aerobic class” (Grimmly 2010: part 1).

Grimmly began learning the sequence of asana from the book, practicing every morning before work, and soon began to order instructional DVDs and search for YouTube videos to help him develop his practice. He started his yoga blog in the summer of 2008, after about a year and a half of practicing at home alone six days a week. His posts often invoke a growing community of hidden “home ashtangis” like himself:

 The blog was originally intended to document his progress on the “jump-back,” a transition between many asana. Grimmly eventually produced 57 posts on the jump-back, many including slow-motion videos of himself and other practitioners.

As Grimmly developed his home practice, some of his choices posed challenges to ashtanga orthodoxy. For instance, when Grimmly blogged about his decision to begin learning the second series of asana, one commenter told him that he should not be learning any intermediate asana before he could stand up from a backbend: “Then and only then you start to add intermediate to your existing primary. Your teacher would give you each new asana as he saw your progress. . . . Traditionally in India, yoga has been learned from teacher to student, not from a book or video. It’s really not right to decide to give yourself postures” (Sophia, comments posted on Grimmly 2008a). 

When making such claims about traditional practice, ashtanga practitioners often invoke the ultimate authority: “how it’s done in Mysore,” at the Ashtanga Yoga Institute. But in this case another commenter offered evidence that the teaching method in Mysore had changed over time. Ursula, a woman from Germany, reported that at the Mysore shala she had been given the first pose of the intermediate series before she could stand up from a backbend. When another commenter suggested that this experience might have been “an aberration,” Ursula responded by invoking the higher authority of her own bodily experience: “Sorry to write this, but what I see is that people hanker for rules, because there is so much insecurity. . . . Why should I not do these softer back bendings which are good for the back? Only because there are rules, nobody really knows who invented them. . . . I listen to my body.” This discussion continued at length, showing how the print medium and time-delayed norms of comment threads have encouraged the development of cybershala discourse. Discussants can take time to craft their replies and cite their sources, which in this case revealed the fluidity of “official” ashtanga pedagogy in Mysore.

After a year and a half of home practice, Grimmly finally decided to try attending an ashtanga class at a shala. He went two Sundays in a row and was “blown away” by the physical adjustments he received from the teachers there. But a week later, he explained that he doubted he’d go back: “All the time it’s just been me on my mat, alone in a room early each morning, my practice…Somehow now, after visiting the Shala, it feels a little like I’m practicing for someone else…I feel more distant from my practice, less involved” (Grimmly 2008b). It’s clear from other posts that Grimmly developed his practice using books, famous teachers’ DVDs, YouTube videos, other students’ blogs, and any other media resources he could find. He often writes about insights gleaned from these sources. Nevertheless, the “live” teaching at the shala somehow alienated him from his practice. While he benefited from the physical adjustments he received, he was willing to forego them in order to maintain a sense of agency and responsibility for his own development: practicing for himself instead of a teacher.

Dance Central: Dancing in Someone Else's Body?
At this point I’m going to turn to another form of home practice: the dance repertoire transmitted by Dance Central, a digital game created by Harmonix Music Systems (the company that brought you the Guitar Hero games). Dance Central teaches players to perform choreographed dance routines to popular club music tracks from the last few decades. 

There is no game controller involved; instead, a motion-sensing camera is constantly tracking your body movements and sending data back to the game software. The on-screen dancer is your instructor and model, not your mirror or your puppet. Unlike a conventional game avatar, the on-screen dancer doesn't do what you do. If you miss a particular arm motion, the avatar’s arm will glow red to show you where you are making a mistake, but the avatar won’t actually perform your mistake.

Like the ashtanga cybershala, Dance Central offers people an opportunity to learn a physically challenging and culturally marked repertoire in private. Many people consider dancing to be a potentially humiliating activity. Those who do dance in public are subject to evaluation: in most social-dance genres, there are established norms for moving your body in a manner appropriate to your gender, sexual orientation, age, and sometimes your race or ethnicity. But what if you could learn to dance from a virtual instructor who objectively evaluates and gently corrects the technical accuracy of your moves, but who can't judge you on your coolness, your body shape, or whether your moves "match" your identity traits? Some players experience this possibility as liberating. Others remain uncomfortable, particularly when the game compels them to transgress gender norms. (I’m going to focus on gender and sexuality examples today, since I have such limited time, but there’s a lot to be said about racialized and cross-racial performance, too.) Let’s take a look at some posts on the official Dance Central web forum: 

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After the moderator called attention to the implied use of profanity and requested more “constructive” feedback, xXShadowFrostXx clarified:

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[In case you don't feel like clicking to enlarge, here's the last bit:]

I’m sorry for that I just auto-censured myself lol. What I meant is that every songs should have a male and a female routine because as a guy, I do like by example: doing Just Dance routine because it’s one of my favorite but some moves are a little bit too girly to perform. I think it would be a good idea if both male and female routine could be similar but more suitable for our own gender, you know what I mean?

Here’s an example of a male player performing a dance that includes gender-coded moves. As you can see, he has garnered special praise on the Dance Central web forum for “actually dancing” rather than just going through the motions: 

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In an interview, another player (RiffRaff) told me that in the case of “Lapdance” he thought the Dance Central choreographers had deliberately included both “male” and “female” moves as a kind of sly joke on players: “It’s funny just how quickly the mood changes from like really rough guy moves to like really girly, girly moves….I thought they were kind of like drag-esque almost. It was a little too exaggerated…When I was first trying out the song, I was like, “What is this?” and I just started laughing because I just found it really funny how they snuck that in there….You already bought the track, so what are you going to do?”

It’s worth noting that players can select among several different male and female avatars for any song in the game. So ShadowFrost could choose to perform songs like “Lapdance” with a male avatar—but he evidently still experiences some moves as uncomfortably “girly”. One player suggested the opposite approach: he told ShadowFrost, “Try dancing with Emilia to those routines; they have become some of my favourites LOL” (Derek555, Dance Central forum reply). This player’s other posts about the avatar Emilia, which focus on the sexy spectacle of her performances, clarify his meaning here: he is suggesting that indulging in the pleasures of heterosexual voyeurism would offer an antidote to the girliness of the choreography, even as ShadowFrost was himself simultaneously performing that choreography. Along the same lines, one female player posts YouTube videos that show not her own dancing, but the performances of her male avatar:

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As the player performs stereotypical female “stripper” moves, she can watch her male avatar perform the same moves against his gender type. Her videos are popular, and the comment threads are full of playful sexual fantasy:
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 There is a peculiar deferral of agency here: the dancing player submits his or her own body to the will of the game choreographers so that the player can in turn fetishize the dancing avatar. 

But this is only one strategy for approaching the gender politics of Dance Central. Another involves “butching up” one’s approach to feminine moves. In an interview for a player’s video blog, one of the game choreographers offered some tips:

[A quick dialogue excerpt:]

Ricardo: We made sure that it was for y’all [male players] too, so y’all could feel like men after you do it! . . . . Focus more on the arms. Like in "Rude Boy," you definitely see this going on: [moves hips] 

MMC: You can’t hide from that.  

Ricardo: Exactly! But what I do is -- and I still get a “Flawless” score! So I’m giving you guys tips on the game. Guys, just really like move more back and use your arms more. That takes away all of the things that may be uncomfortable for you, but being able to really like whip it down, the Kinect still sees that you’re doing the movement and still reads you as a flawless score….So you can focus more on the arms, and be more of a -- bam! -- masculine, dominant effect rather than being real roll-y.

Of course, some players embrace the opportunity to engage in cross-gender performance: either because they enjoy playing with their gender identity, or because they have unassailable confidence in a fixed gender identity and therefore recognize a satisfying technical and artistic challenge in the task of embodying another gender through dance. 

For instance, this player told me, “I have received a few comments referring to my moves being too feminine or the choreo was too feminine for a straight guy to perform but I don't mind them at all. I considered them as compliments. Comments along those lines confirms that I performed the moves correctly.” Meanwhile, information in his YouTube profile and comment threads shores up his heterosexuality and his masculine cred: viewers learn that he has a wife and small child, and that he serves in the Navy.

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I began this section by talking about Dance Central gameplay as a form of home practice, an unprecedented opportunity for totally private dance lessons and performance. So if part of the appeal lies in the privacy factor, why do I keep showing examples of Dance Central gameplay on YouTube? While there are doubtless many players who keep their dancing entirely private, Dance Central has also given rise to virtual communities of practice that look a lot like the ashtanga cybershala. Company-sponsored and fan-produced web forums, Twitter feeds, Facebook groups, blogs, and YouTube videos encourage the production and circulation of game-oriented discourse and performances. Players turn to the web for human advice on the subtleties of tricky moves, and share their excitement about particular routines on Twitter.

Those who post performances to YouTube develop networks of friends and fans, with whom they also share the pleasures of defusing the inevitable “trolls” and “haters” who turn up in any comment thread.

A few concluding remarks

Both the cybershala and Dance Central make it possible for practitioners to learn a physically demanding, minutely codified repertoire without ever interacting with a physically-present teacher. Grimmly and his fellow cybershala practitioners are creating new transmission modalities for ashtanga yoga, from reflective writing to side-by-side slideshows that might reveal hidden traces of corporeal knowledge. Meanwhile, Dance Central players are learning hours of choreography while also working through their ideas about gender identity, public and private performance, and virtual community. These paradigm shifts in yoga and dance transmission might shed light on similar changes in the transmission of performing arts traditions that rely on a lineage of teachers and students, body-to-body pedagogy, and a codified repertoire or fundamental skill set. Dance Central and the cybershala show how professional game designers, home ashtangis, and living-room dancers are all finding ways to use available technology and social media platforms to support the virtual transmission of embodied practice. 

Works cited
 NB: Web materials are directly linked in the main text.

Finnegan, Ruth. 1989. The Hidden Musicians: Music Making in an English Town. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Fraser, Tara. 2006. Total Astanga. London: Duncan Baird. 

Hahn, Tomie. 2007. Sensational Knowledge: Embodying Culture Through Japanese Dance. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press.

Hamera, Judith. 2007. Dancing Communities: Performance, Difference, and Connection in the Global City. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Samudra, Jaida Kim. 2008. "Memory in Our Body: Thick Participation and the Translation of Kinesthetic Experience." American Ethnologist 35(4):665-681.

POSTSCRIPT, January 2012
Just as I was finally getting around to reformatting this conference paper for the blog, Gamasutra published an article on gender and self-expression in Dance Central, featuring an interview with Dance Central project director Matt Boch. Clearly these issues aren't new to the folks at Harmonix.


Grimmly said...

Just came across this by accident, had forgotten about our discussion) checked the date and it turns out to be just a couple of days ago (Indeed, the cybershala never sleeps). have posted the Cybershala section on my blog with links to the rest of the article.

be interesting to see what the rest of the cybershala thinks and how the comments go.

thanks Kiri.

Claudia said...

Fantastic article! I follow Grimmly since forever he is a tremendous inspiration in the blogsphere! :-)

Kiri said...

Hi Grimmly,

Wow, that was fast -- I didn't even get the chance to send you the link! As you know, the much longer version is in that book chapter I sent you in the spring in draft form. I just received finished copies of the book this week (the official publication date is next month) and will be sending off your copy in the next few days. Thanks again for your support of the project -- I know that it some ways it freezes you at a particular point in the past (e.g., since that time you've studied with some teachers, etc.). But the beauty of working on this sort of subject is that readers can just go to your blog and see for themselves how your experience and thinking have changed over time.



Kiri said...

Thanks Claudia, much appreciated! Yes, Grimmly is an amazing exemplar of the power of amateur-to-amateur teaching and learning.

Grimmly said...

Hi Kiri, I know, couldn't believe you only posted this a couple of days ago, fell on it quite by chance.

Thank you again for taking the Cybershala and especially home practice seriously. A little frozen in time? I guess, I did end up doing the course as you say but still practice at home.

Oh and I just published a book online (kindle version coming next week I think ) which takes much of what I learned from practicing at home, writing on the blog and getting feedback from the ashtanga cybershala and carrying that over to the Vinyasa krama cybershala which is still in it's infancy and with less resources, that's kid of interesting.

Interesting too that many of the same disputes still continue although the Gruji book undermined a lot of the dogma.

Working in music retail and all the talk at work on developing our website and it's content I was thinking today how good it would be to try and develop and encourage the 'collective learning' amongst our customers. I don't know, you buy a sax and get access to a saxophone twitter account or blog and can post and comment on the struggles of learning your instrument. MY boss is happy because he gets content and traffic, I'm happy because i'm encouraging kids and adults to play/practice and look after their instrument ( I taught myself sax...never had a teacher : ).

Can't wait to read the book and not just the cybershala chapter. Love and amused that you managed to bring your ashtanga practice into your academic 'day job'.

Kiri said...

Grimmly, you were faster than you realize -- you commented within about 12 hours of the post! Amazing.

Those are great ideas about connecting your music customers to web-based learning communities. I think you will definitely find some other chapters of the book interesting in this regard (one whole chapter is about guitar- and drum-lesson websites, and the one with the cybershala also includes case studies on amateur-to-amateur conga and piano lessons on YouTube).

Kiri said...

p.s. Unfortunately my ashtanga practice and my 'day job' are a bit too intimately connected at the moment -- I'm recovering from a slow-developed hamstring strain that makes it very unpleasant to sit at my computer! Just getting back into regular practice after about 2 months of physical therapy.

Grimmly said...

Will let you know if i manage to persuade my boss to let me explore it, think they might.

Sorry to hear about the hamstring, painful and irritating as it takes for ever to heal up. See this is where vinyasa krama comes in handy can substitute some other asana for the ones that are painful so it still feels like a full practice.
Talking of practice, M. just called to say she's coming home late so I can squeeze one in.

maya9 said...

Another home ashtangi chiming in here. Very interesting article! I have thought many times that my entire practice (two years in now) could not exist without the cybershala, as I have no teacher within 100 miles or more. The internet revolutionizes everything it touches (for good or ill, haha) and yoga is no exception. Thanks for the thoughtful piece supporting the efforts of those of us learning the practice in this very new way.

A Step Above said...

Wow- it's so cool to see research being done on things that dancers previously learned by intuition.