A very modern tradition : Costa Rican swing criollo as urban popular folklore

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2014-05

Authors

Griffith, James Brian

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Abstract

Over the past ten years, the Costa Rican dance style known as swing criollo has gone from relative obscurity to acceptance as national heritage. In the 1970s and 1980s, it was considered a dance of the urban working-class chusma, or "riff-raff," because of its associations with the working-class music of cumbia and San José's seedy dance salons. Starting in the early 2000s, however, an active campaign of nationalization and folklorization by dance instructors brought the dance to the status of national patrimony. This was achieved through dance classes, festival performances, the creation of a short video documentary, and the work of the dance company La Cuna del Swing to canonize the dancers and stages of swing criollo. The folklorization of swing criollo at first seems to be a top-down phenomenon that suggests little agency among working-class dancers; they have been personified in the national imaginary as exotic Others, an urban folk from an earlier generation that now exists only to perform and embody that tradition. On further examination, the folklorization of swing criollo represents a new sort of folklore, one that is highly contested and engages in a different discourse of authenticity, some influenced by dancers themselves. Swing criollo as a "modern" and "urban" form has allowed for self-mythmaking among the dancers of the self-proclaimed "old guard" that invented the style. It also legitimizes the dance style in its popular form, as opposed to older projections of folklore that that place tradition in opposition to modernity. I examine discourses surrounding the nationalization of swing criollo as well as the negotiations of spaces of culture through which swing's legitimization unfolded. I conclude by suggesting that ethnomusicologists should continue to theorize folklore's changing nature as it is contested and re-defined to include popular, urban, and modern cultural expressions.

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