Why Salsa Rather Than Sport or Church?

In my previous post I described some of the benefits of participating in Adopted Cultural Practices (yoga, samba, salsa etc.), such as acting together with a group of people and feeling connected to them as a result. This is something that is widely accepted as important for health and wellbeing, and recreates for us a sense of some of the most primordial types of human community, such as the extended family, the tribe, the clan or the village. It is no surprise then that many people in post-industrial, individualistic societies, gravitate towards activities that offer this kind of embodied community. The obvious problem with this argument, however, is that there are plenty of group activities, well established in Europe and North America, which also bring people together outside work. Examples would be sports, music groups, all manner of clubs and societies, and most compellingly: churches. Why do people not simply join these rather than adopting a strange practice which is not historically part of the culture in which they are living?

It is important to acknowledge that these more traditional Western practices, groups and institutions remain popular and important for many people. Even though ACPs have become almost mainstream, these more familiar phenomena (I will call them TCPs; for traditional cultural practices) are very much part of our societies. Despite the fact that many writers and researchers have documented the increasing secularisation and fragmentation of modern life, there are still plenty of choirs, football games and bowling clubs to join. The turning away from organised religion, a signal feature of modernity, is certainly not a universal trend, since churchgoing remains central to many lives, particularly in large parts of what is widely considered the most advanced of modern nations; the USA. If these traditional pursuits exist and remain popular, why are people drawn to alternatives from other cultures? I am going to suggest that the very rootedness and familiarity of our traditional practices can be off-putting due to a) negative associations b) over-familiarity and c) implicit or explicit values with which we are not comfortable. I will address each of these in turn, taking churchgoing and playing football as examples.

a) If one was forced to go to church as a child and did not enjoy it or see the point, one would obviously later tend to avoid this in adult life. One might, however, still seek out an experience of community, but in a form which does not remind one of having to sit in a pew listening to a preacher. Equally, if one was always the last to be picked for the break time football game at school, and then rarely got passed the ball, one might find another kind of physical activity, such as capoeira where everyone has their turn, more appealing. The adopted cultural practices, although they have been widespread in Europe and the US for at least a generation, are still less likely to carry entrenched negative connotations than better known activities.

b) Over-familiarity is the result of simply too much experience of a particular kind, resulting in a kind of boredom. Spending many hours singing hymns and listening to sermons, or playing football, for want of anything better to do is enough to make some people thirst for something fresh, something different. Clearly this depends on one’s perception of those activities. There are personality types which tend to seek out new experiences, and others which prefer predictability. Of course, one can make new discoveries and have novel experiences within a known context. Thus, living life as a churchgoing Christian will reveal that religion in a variety of ways over the years. Playing soccer with one’s own children can bring a new perspective and a different kind of enjoyment to the game. But for others there will be an overwhelming sense of ennui, nausea even, and a desire for something novel. The attraction of ACPs can be that they are new and different, and that they carry few if any associations. Stereotypes that do exist (such as divorcees dancing salsa) may be positive or negative, but they probably do not run very deep, because one’s experience of these practices is not so extensive. This lack of familiarity itself is refreshing, because it reveals the adopted practice as an unconstrained space, where new possibilities can be imagined, and new adventures anticipated.

c) Particular values associated with a familiar practice can also drive people to look elsewhere for communal activities. Playing football for fun a couple of times a week is an innocuous activity that I have myself enjoyed. But if we think about the place and traditions of football in the UK, it is clear that this is a domain which is predominantly male and highly competitive. It is associated with supporting certain teams, with men watching television and drinking beer. With fouling, shouting, gangs of men chanting and sometimes fighting. Certainly, all of this creates community cohesion of a sort, and much enjoyment for millions. but it is equally alienating for others. For myself it is unattractive because even as a kid I was more interested in music than sport and I was never good at ball games. As an adult, what I still don’t like about football is its aesthetic, or its lack of an aesthetic dimension (that I can relate to). I also prefer mixed social groups to homogeneous ones, so anything that involves spending a lot of time with a bunch of men my own age fills me with horror. That is not to say that there is no way to see positive values in football. Working as a team, being loyal to a cause, enjoying a common interest with a group of friends, delighting in the skill of the best players, expressing the emotions around victory or disappointment and revelling in the drama of competition; all these are powerful and deeply human. Nevertheless, for me, and for many others, the values and expressions that football represents on the whole are ones which repel rather than attract. In the example of churchgoing the values promoted are more obvious. Adherence to an explicit belief system, including belief in a particular deity, the repression of certain desires and inclinations, and a generally socially conservative outlook would tend to be part of this. Church promotes a mostly non-negotiable interrelated set of values that make far-reaching demands of the faithful, not just during attendance, but the rest of the time as well. Adopted cultural practices also propose values to the participant, but these are rather less explicit and more diffuse. Furthermore, they do not necessarily need to be carried into everyday life. The values involved offer alternatives to those of TCPs. They are less prescriptive and less proscriptive, they can be more easily adapted and refashioned to suit the individual, and they can be adopted to whatever extent is preferable without resulting in undue social pressure. What is more, the values of adopted practices can be constructed in the imagination to be whatever is helpful and exciting to the participants.

Adopted cultural practices can be more attractive to many people than communal activities deeply rooted in the cultures of the West. For those in search of something different, something less clearly culturally defined, which does not carry a great deal of questionable baggage in terms of the social positioning and required identity of the participants, ACPs provide modes of group expression which offer alternative types of engagement.