USC Digital Folklore Archives / Kinesthetic
Folk Beliefs
Folk Dance
Folk medicine
Kinesthetic

Gurdjieff’s Movements

Context:

The informant – LF – is a 20-year-old female from the Seattle, Washington. She currently is a sophomore in the USC Thornton School of Music. Her parents are part of a small sect of Islam, Sufism, and often lead meditation retreats that teach the meditation techniques of George Gurdjieff. The following is from a conversation about the meditation retreats hosted by her parents.

Piece:

LF: On the retreats, they go out to an isolated place – like a retreat center. And their daily routine is, they wake up for 6am meditation. So you have to get up and be there before that. After breakfast, there’s practical work. For practical work, they do some sort of physical labor, wherever they are. At the retreat center they’ve stayed at, they’ll re-roof a building, or build a deck, for example. It’s not like charity: the work itself is a meditation; you’re getting in your body, and you’re being really physical.

There’s not a lot of talking. There’s this idea throughout the retreat of staying collected, which is, kind of like, maintaining sensation throughout your body. And it’s kind of like meditating – it’s not super talkative or out of your head. You’re supposed to, like, stay really aware. And my parents actually met at a meditation retreat, and these are traditions that have been passed down from this Turkish dude named Gurdjieff… I don’t know, he just has a lot of these philosophies and shit like that.

But after the practical work, they have these things called the Movements, which are these dances, kind of, but they’re like, derived from the whirling dervishes. It’s from this religion they associate with, Sufism. But it’s more derived from the mystics from, like, the Quran.

Me: So what is the purpose of the Movements?

LF: It’s like a meditation, and they’re really hard to do, so they take a lot of concentration and focus and intention.

Me: Do they know the moves beforehand? Did you grow up knowing them?

LF: No, my mom teaches them. She knows all of them, because she’s been doing this shit for hella long. And I don’t know them – I was always too young to participate in the retreats. But then as I got older, I would play the piano to accompany them.

Me: Do the meditations each serve a particular purpose?

LF: Yeah, they’re kind of like overcoming different physical… It’s all about the struggle. That’s the thing, is they’re enduring the struggle, and the struggle is good. And you breathe through it, and you get through it.

 

Analysis:

Like LF said, it seems that Gurdjieff’s movements and the whirling dervishes, while part of a religious tradition, transcend religion, and are ultimately meditations that allow the participant to reach a transcendent state by persevering through physical and mental struggle while maintaining a meditative mental state. Though the practices are part of the religious tradition of Sufism, the meditations can be used – and are used, evidently, by participants in LF’s parents’ retreats – for anybody wishing to strengthen their mind through meditation.

 

For more information regarding Gurdjieff’s Movements, see George Adam’s (1998) Gurdjieff: Essays and Reflections on the Man and his Teaching, Nova Religio, 2(1), 161-163.

Customs
Earth cycle
Game
Holidays
Kinesthetic
Magic
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Peruvian New Years Tradition: Run the Suitcase Around the Block

AS is a USC game design major who’s family hails from Peru, she enjoys spreadsheets, Dungeons and Dragons, and spreadsheets about Dungeons and Dragons. AS grew up in Texas after her family moved there from Peru.
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AS: My family had a lot of traditions for New Years, I’ve heard a lot of people do this one though

AS: We fill like a like a suitcase of some sort and we run it around the block and that’s supposed to represent like good luck in traveling and like safe travels and all that stuff.

AS: So my mom makes me do it every year cuz you yeah gotta have that good luck

MW: Do you have any particular attachment to this?

AS: I mean I would still do it if I didn’t live in South Central LA and that’s dangerous

AS: I guess it’s it’s it’s kind of just like a superstitious thing to me

AS: Or it’s just like it’s a cute tradition that makes New Year’s feel different than what like normal people celebrate even it doesn’t have like a very deep impact I guess it also fills me with nostalgia for things you did as a kid so you feel like you should do it anyways.
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Analysis:
The symbolism of running around the block mimics the cyclical nature of the calendar year and separates it from the idea of linear time. The suitcase is also filled, meaning that the carrier takes home with them when they travel and provides a direct connection to home and family life. Likewise, the fact that you run around the block and return to the starting point sort of carries the message that no matter where you go you can always return home, this centers the importance of home even in a tradition that’s all about travel. The desire for safety also reveals anxieties about leaving the home. Travel to new places is scary, a journey into the unknown thus the hope for good luck works in combination with the carrying of the known with you and the promise of a safe return to that known space.

Customs
Kinesthetic
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Smashing Plates

Context: My informant – identified as N.D. – and I were on a FaceTime call. She is of Greek and Peruvian decent, and goes to school in Manhattan, New York. While catching up, I decided to ask her whether she maintains her cultural traditions while at school.

 

Background: While discussing her sister’s upcoming wedding, my informant described a Greek ritual that is often performed at celebrations. It’s the idea of smashing plates to promote fun, good spirits, and positivity. N.D. couldn’t place how or when the tradition began, but mentioned that it was deeply rooted in authentic Greek culture.

 

Main Piece: “Any time we’re at some big party, usually a wedding or an engagement or something like that, there’s always some point where everyone just picks up a plate and starts smashing them onto the floor. It usually happens at the peak of the party, when everyone is dancing and drinking and having fun. It’s supposed to symbolize the idea of good spirit and fun. My parents say it promotes positivity. When I go back to Greece in the summers to visit my family there, you see it everywhere. The restaurants there are very lively and upbeat and play great music. At one point a lot of people will start dancing once they finish eating, and you’ll see the plate smashing there too. I don’t think it has some crazy symbolic meaning to it, but it’s something you’ll always see in Greek culture.”

 

Analysis: The idea of breaking glass, especially in regards to weddings, reminds me of Jewish tradition as well. At Jewish weddings, the groom usually stomps on a glass, to symbolize the loss suffered by the Jewish people throughout history. Though it’s a somber reminder, it represents healing and better fortunes ahead. Broken glass in many cultures emphasizes positivity and happiness, among other things. It’s interesting to see the similarities across cultures for this kind of ritual.

 

Customs
Gestures
Holidays
Humor
Kinesthetic
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Dayenu on Passover

Context: My informant is a 63 year-old man of Persian descent. The piece is a ritual practiced by Persian Jews at traditional Passover seders, which is a generations-old gathering where specific foods are eaten to remind oneself of the hardships faced by Jews in Egypt. Each food symbolizes an aspect of the suffrage, and is consumed after reading stories and prayers from the Haggadah – the text recited at the seder.

 

Background: The morning after I had a Passover seder with my family, I decided to ask my informant about a tradition almost exclusively practiced by Persian Jews. He explained that they had practiced this tradition while still living in Iran, before they moved to Los Angeles after the fall of the Shah. It remains a staple of Passover seders at any Persian Jewish home.

 

Main Piece: “When it’s time in the seder for the green onions, we do Dayenu. This food symbolizes how we remember that the Jews were beaten and whipped as slaves in Egypt. Persian Sephardic Jews have a fun twist on this to make the seder more fun and enjoyable while also remembering these hardships. After reading the piece from the book and saying the prayer over the green onion, everyone starts singing the Dayenu song and runs around hitting each other with the onions. It’s fun and chaos, and it makes such a long traditional seder a little more lively and bearable. I’m not sure how this ritual originated, but only Sephardic Jews do it usually. It mimics what the slaves went through in Egypt but it also brings a fun and enjoyment to the holiday.”

 

Analysis: It’s interesting to see the distinction between practices of different sectors of Jews. While Orthodox and Ashkenazi Jews take a more traditional aspect to the Passover Seder, Sephardic Jews practice this ritual to celebrate the remembrance while also bringing excitement to the tradition. There is debate about where the custom originates, but it’s typically practiced by Sephardic Jews from Iran and Afghanistan.

 

Customs
Folk Beliefs
general
Gestures
Kinesthetic
Protection

Spitting on the Devil

Description

“Whenever you talk about something good happening, like if you mention you’re doing good, you have to spit over your shoulder three times. The Russians believe that’s where the Devil is, so you’re spitting on the Devil real quick, just to make sure that he doesn’t, uh, to make sure that nothing negative happens. Speaking of that, you usually don’t want to talk about anything good happening in the future or anything, you wanna be pessimistic. Or else it means that it won’t happen, if you talk about it a lot.”

Context

I asked the informant about his Russian culture, and he proceeded to tell me a lot about Russian superstitions and things that his family practices. He said that he first encountered this when he was very young, because when he was young he wanted to talk about what he wanted to do when he was older, but his mother would always remind him to spit on his shoulder, as outlined above.

Analysis

This is interesting to me because as someone who grew up without “culture” aka, my family is generations removed from its original culture from wherever in Europe, I never encountered the idea that talking about the future could be bad. I think this says a lot about Russian temperament that a lot of people talk about — I’ve heard that Russians are in a bad mood all the time, etc. I like the idea that something could be ruined by talking about it, as I’ve had good news that is almost true, but didn’t want to share it with people in case it didn’t actually end up happening.

 

Customs
Folk Dance
Musical

Up You Men

Official pep song of the Aleph Zadek Aleph (male Jewish teen youth group). Commonly started by president/board member/event leader drawing out the first word before everyone jumps in and forms a mosh pit.

Lyrics (More shouted than sung): Up you men and sing to AZA

Time will pass and we’ll be on our way

As the years go by there will be

Happiest of memories (Ra ra ra!)

Stand and then

We’ll sing this song again

All you loyal men

Sing the praises of our order

Sing up you men of AZA

(Once it reaches this part the song usually winds down with everyone matching a “heartbeat” rhythm pattern on their chest.)

 

The song is a shortcut for whatever peer leader is running a given meeting or event to bring up the energy in the group and get them to pay attention in one fell swoop. The lyrics themselves serve to hype up the group and its individual members in a way that’s somewhat jingoist. No official origin is known, but the full lyrics are included in the official AZA handbooks which speaks to its deep history and significance to the folk group. The organization’s origins (also detailed in the handbook) as a very pro-American group which contributed to the nation’s WWII war effort probably explains the jingoist vibe of the piece. Little details such as the second verse present in the handbook being absent in favor of the heartbeat rhythm (explained to me once with “Every Aleph’s heart beats the same way.”) as well as the mosh pit aspect (the handbook doesn’t comment on dances for the song) indicates that the song is still a living, breathing folk tradition that defies standardization and continues to evolve in use.

Game
Gestures
Kinesthetic

“Black and White” Chinese Children’s Game

[The subject is MW. Her words are bolded, mine are not.]

Context: MW is my grandmother, who was born in Shanghai and then lived in Hong Kong later on in her youth. She moved to San Francisco as a young adult and has lived in the Bay Area for the last six decades. She is a native Mandarin speaker, but is also fluent in English. I sat down with her and asked her to talk about some stories from her childhood. Before this, she had mentioned a “black and white” game that she played with the other kids, and I asked her to return to that subject and explain it to me.

ME: You mentioned a “black and white” game earlier that you play with your palm.

MW: Yeah, yeah.

ME: Could you explain to me what that is?

MW: Nothing. Oh this? [Holds out hand, palm facing up] Just, we play…

ME: How do you play it?

MW: So we say… and then it’s like, [holds hand behind back, then moves to hold it out in front of her, palm facing up]. You play, it’s the game, right? And then we play game like everybody go, [holds hand behind her back] and only you [holds out hand, palm facing up] is white, is good. Right?

It’s like, we always go like this [holds hand behind back], and then sometimes I go like this [holds hand out, palm up]. Right? That means… I won.

ME: Could you explain why that means you won?

MW: It’s like, we play, who will do okay? If the game, if you throw the ball. Who will be the first one to do it. So we don’t let them know [moves hand back behind her back], and ‘one, two, THREE!’[brings hand back out, palm facing up], right? And with three people, then it’s like we all white, and then this one, this [turns hand over so that palm is facing down], is black.

ME: So ‘white’ is your palm facing up and ‘black’ is your palm facing down?

MW: Yeah.

ME: So how many people do you play it with?

MW: You play it about three people.

ME: If everyone has their palm like this [I have my palm facing down], what does that mean?

MW: Then it’s nothing. But if it’s ‘one, two, three’ and one is out [puts out palm facing up], then he won.

ME: Then why can’t you do this [palm facing up] every time to win?

MW: Because one can start, and then the other ones can follow you, I don’t know. So it’s everybody, like this [palm facing up], then that’s fine, but it should be [flips palm, facing down].

Thoughts: This game stood out to me when MW first mentioned it in passing because I had never heard of a hand game like this, and she called it “Black and White,” which was interesting because the two opposing colors seem to appear a lot in folklore. From what I gathered by my grandma’s description/demonstration, three children play the game and they start with their hands behind their backs. Then, on the count of three, they all put out their hand with it either facing palm up (white), or palm down (black). This part I am the most unsure of, but I think that the goal of the game is to be the only person of the three to have the “white” hand or the “black” hand. Thus, neither “black” or “white” is better, instead, the winner would be the person who chooses how they place their hand uniquely. This is surprising to me, because typically in children’s stories with the colors black and white, one signifies good and the other evil, but in this game they are only meant to signify opposites.

Folk medicine
Foodways
Holidays
Kinesthetic
Material
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Nepali Winter Holiday Food

Background

Informant: S.S. - a current Senior in college in Indiana, originally from Nepal.

Context

S.S. entire family still resides in Nepal and he always felt very connected to his heritage through food and by cooking the traditional meals from his home country. The collector has personally enjoyed S.S. meals and has observed the performance of Nepali culture and heritage while cooking with S.S. When prompted about special holiday meals or dishes in Nepal, the informant shared this which I have transcribed below:

Main Piece

“So we eat something called Kwati which is like a soup/stew. And it’s made out of 9 different beans- black eyed peas, cow peas, black lentils, chickpeas, adzuki, fava beans, soybeans, Mung dal, green peas. They’re all soaked before and cooked for an hour and a half along with garlic and ginger paste. We usually add momos to the soup too which are Nepali dumplings. And you can eat this anytime, especially in winter because of its high protein value and health benefits but during the holiday of Gun Punhi (Goon Poon-he) we make it and it’s a delicacy too. We add a tempering oil to it after it’s done cooking, which is basically heated oil or ghee and you quickly fry ajwain (carom seeds) and pour the mix into the kwati. So in my family and Newari culture, when the soul is served, before eating we have to look at/for our reflection in the soup and then only we can begin to eat it. This is like a ritual significance to show that eating this cleanses your soul and also rids your body of negative energy but it’s also very healthy so a way to tackle the winter.

Thoughts

From my relationship with the informant, I have learned that food is incredibly important in Nepali culture and that Nepalese people feel very connected to the idea of the clarity and pureness of their soul through the food that they create and consume. Much of the food made in Nepali requires a deep understanding of the rituals of cooking, meaning that each step in the making of the dish is specific and has a purpose. For example, the washing of rice multiple times prior to boiling it, from S.S. telling, serves a dual purpose. One is obviously the practical need to wash the rise of dirt before preparing it, but also the idea that cleaning the rice is important for the body and how the body receives it. Often, there are very specific steps and timing involved in the preparation of the meal, adding things at certain times and this requires a very intricate knowledge of the culture and the meaning behind each step from a spiritual understanding.

Customs
Gestures
Kinesthetic

Shaka Hand Signs

Main Piece

Shortly after the informant’s winter recess ended and her spring semester began, she made several remarks on how Hawaiian habits with regard to traffic and pedestrian behavior were different and even more relaxed than Californian relations on the road.

Informant: “In Hawaii, most people do not wave at the cars like I remember you doing after they let you cross.”

Collector: “Why is that?”

Informant: “It would seem very unusual to them. Most people do the Shaka sign to thank the drive and to send them on a good path.”

Collector: “Does that come from surf culture?”

Informant: “No, it’s from Hawaiian culture. It’s supposed to let others know Aloha Spirit, and lets people know a sense of gratitude.”

Analysis

Hand signals hold a unique identity in any region where they are popular. It is interesting to see how in some cultures that hand signals can have opposite meanings, which can sometimes be offensive. The Shaka seems to defy that commonality, though, and seems to be a peaceful and relaxed expression wherever a person is. The motion seems to have a much more important impact in Hawaii, though, and seems to express a lot in everyday use.

Customs
Foodways
Gestation, birth, and infancy
Gestures
Humor
Kinesthetic
Life cycle
Material
Musical
Rituals, festivals, holidays

South American Birthday Ritual

Background

Informant: A.G.  22 years old current senior in undergrad at USC, third generation from Honduras/Mexico

Location: Los Angeles, CA

Context

A.G. grew up in an Mexican and Honduran household, and has participated in and experienced this birthday tradition since he was a child. This tradition represents an important, but often unspoken facet of his culture, one that can be viewed and participated in as both heritage and tradition. I have transcribed his explanation below:

Main Piece

“So every time it’s somebody’s birthday, you have to sing ‘Happy Birthday to you, Happy Birthday to you, Happy Birthday to Anthony, Happy Birthday to you. Ya queremos pastel!’ which means, ‘we want cake now!’ Then, right after you blow out the candles, everyone chants, ‘que lo muerda, que lo muerda,‘ which means, ‘bite the cake’ and when they go in for a bite, you grab the back of the person’s head and slam their face into the cake. After that, we start to cut pieces off the cake where the face did not touch and give a slice to everyone. In Honduras, it’s pretty much the same tradition but instead we say ‘feliz cumplanos’ which is just happy birthday in Spanish.

Thoughts

A.G. remarked after describing the tradition that it often makes him smile because it’s always done at a time of celebration, The celebration of one’s birthday and of coming of age is an important part of his culture and therefore this small tradition has a bigger importance in his cultural identity. He recalled learning the song as a child, celebrating his aunt Reina’s birthday, and how there were differences between the song when he was celebrating a birthday on the Honduran side of his family, or on the Mexican side. He specified that this tradition is not specific to children in the family, even though it can be more fun, but that the tradition is practiced with adults as well because it has such a cultural significance. He himself has experienced this tradition first hand for many of his birthdays, and sometimes the most fun part was picking out the cake, knowing that it would be used in this tradition later. It seems he views this tradition and the memories that stem from it with great fondness.

 

I found it particular interesting the small variations between the Mexican and Honduran version of the song. Linguistically, while much of South America speaks Spanish, there are small but significant variations in the words used or the common expressions. It reminded me of how certain regions in America will infuse different elements into their versions of Happy Birthday, that help differentiate it from other places. This brings to mind the idea of different folk groups and the multiplicity that they may express when performing tradition. There is no one way to perform this birthday ritual, but each has it’s own cultural value to the groups that claim specific heritages.

 

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