Social Science Baha

Dancing Who We Are: The Embodiment of Rai Ethnic Identity in Sakela Performance

Marion Wettstein

When I took my first dance steps and initially began to note them down on paper nine years ago, the Sakela dance of the Rai in Eastern Nepal still was a rural phenomenon, closely interwoven with local mythology and ritual. Nowadays it is the urban youth of Kathmandu dancing a new form of the Sakela on the big festival grounds to celebrate Kirat cultural events organised by the Kirat Rai Yayokkha. But not only in urban and diaspora environments the Sakela dance has seen a revival. Also in the villages and in Rai communities that did hardly know or perform it before, Sakela is booming during the major agricultural rituals. In my currently running research project about the dance – which is based at the University of Vienna and affiliated to CNAS at Tribhuvan University – I could observe how in only ten years it has emerged as a key public event in which ethnic identity is negotiated, defined, communicated, embodied, and emotionally expressed. Taking the Sakela as a prime example, the aim of the presentation is to demonstrate how dance is sometimes effectively used by interest groups to install a sense of ethnic belonging. It is argued that by sensuously connecting mind, emotion, and body, it is especially the somatic aspects of dance which predestine it as a powerful means of anchoring ethnic belonging in the individual.