The concept behind Dancing Maps

Excerpts from an academic article

These excerpts come from an academic article, written by Dr Patricia Noxolo, and to be published in the journal ‘Pocopages’ (see

In recent years, it has become established understanding in cultural geography that bodies do not just move to, from and through pre-existing locations, but that places and spaces are produced through human activity [Massey 2005], including their mobility. In other words, bodies are productive of place and space.  However, despite this, black bodies are often conjured in popular discourse as out of place in the European landscape, their blackness produced always in and by other places, their bodies emptied of the agency to produce European space.  This article asks what moves can be made to establish the productive capacity of black bodies in Europe, and proposes that one such move could be to re-imagine African-Caribbean dance as a form of mapping…

A persistent feature of postcolonial and anti-colonial struggles globally has been indigenous ‘cartographic resistance’ [Turnbull 1998], often in relation to struggles over land [Johnson et al. 2005, Rundstrom 1990, Sparke 1998]. This has fuelled a revalidation of indigenous cartography [Turnbull 2005], much of which has previously been undervalued and under-recognised, not least due to racist attitudes and colonial impulses that have even prevented recognition of the substantial contributions of indigenous informants to the collection of the territorial detail that underpins European cartography [Bassett 1998]. Beyond this however, indigenous cartography has often been literally unrecognised by Europeans, because it can vary enormously in form – for example, although Rundstrom [1990] has noted that Inuit pictorial maps are very accurate by European standards (perhaps linked to cultural practices of imitating the environment in a number of ways, for example using their bodies to imitate the shapes and movements of animals for hunting), others have noted that many indigenous maps are often performative rather than pictorial, enabling ‘way-finding’ and navigation through ‘embodied experience’ [Perkins 2009a: 4]. Indeed, even where Europeans have historically asked indigenous people to produce pictorial maps, it can be the embodied act of imitation that is valued – the paper artefact or drawing produced in the sand is not meant to be of lasting value and is often discarded by its producers [Pandya 1990]…

As well as these multi-modal formal features (circles that emphasise centrality and lines that highlight direction and movement), indigenous African and Caribbean maps are often performative. In common with European maps, indigenous cartographers are highly cognisant of the symbolic or fetishistic importance of maps in relation to earthly power [Propen 2009: 118]: the possession and presence of maps can be in itself a performance of earthly authority [Whitehead 1998]. Beyond this however the cartographer’s presence as performer of the map – often singing or dancing the map into being – gives a very direct connection between the cartographer’s body, skills and knowledge. Through the cartographer as performer, the maps are embodied. Interestingly, European cartography is beginning to rediscover this performative element of cartography through digital mapping techniques [Gartner 2009], the relative democratisation of which has focused attention away from the specialist trained cartographer’s skills in producing an enduring finished product, towards the minute and constantly-renewed interactions between diverse user-producers, adding their own data to produce unpredictable but often ephemeral products (albeit within the confines of the pre-existing architecture provided by cartographic software) [Perkins 2009b].

Finally, the function of maps, the purpose of spatial representation in indigenous Caribbean and African cartography, is often to connect the earthly with the spiritual, to make visible the links that are not evident, and the sine qua non of this is the connection of body with landscape. Maps can of course lend a spiritual weight to earthly authority: for example young people’s initiation into society can involve standing on maps as a symbol of their strong relationship with place [Bassett 1998: 28], whilst map-making can be critically interpreted as part of the role of ‘the priest-shamans in constructing the moral order by manipulating the cosmological order’ [Whitehead 1998: 301]. At the same time the everyday use of maps that are the design of village, house or fabric for example [Whitehead 1998] becomes intrinsic to the patterns of everyday living, which makes maps function as banal tools of orientation, enabling the user to participate through everyday practice in a range of spiritual and physical relationships [Bassett 1998: 26, Woodward, and Lewis 1998a: 540]….

So the cartographic mode of African-Caribbean dance maintains the formal features of indigenous African-Caribbean dance, using circles and lines in its depiction of the historical journeying of black bodies. The shift from the locatedness of many indigenous maps within the relative stability of indigenous settlements to the relative dislocatedness of the dancing black body on stage, throws significatory weight onto the space of the body itself (its materiality and its dynamism) as well as onto the body’s connections with and in space (with the music that fills the space, and with the ground, objects and air that comprise the space). As a form of mapping, African-Caribbean dance can be said to represent the spatial relationships of the black body in its contemporary experience both of dislocation and of reconnection with space….