USC Digital Folklore Archives / Gestures
Folk Beliefs
Gestures

Show Choir Ritual

AA is an 18 year old high school senior. She is a member of her school’s show choir group, a performance ensemble that incorporates elements of musical theater and choir. She often goes to competitions with her team. Here she describes a pre-show practice for good luck that is deeply significant to her:

“So for show choir- our team is not very good. We’re not known as the high school that wins every competition or has elaborate dance routines or great costumes. A lot of it is because we’re so underfunded. But one thing we are really good at is teamwork.

So, before every show, the whole group will gather backstage, including the choir director and the choreographer. We all get together in a big circle and we hold each other’s hands, and then we pass a squeeze around the group to each person. Basically it symbolizes that everyone is involved, everyone’s talents are appreciated, and we’re all in this together. There’s this great sense of unity, and whatever happens, happens, that’s fine- we’re here for each other.”

I think it started as a way of calming everyone’s nerves before a big competition, but we always make sure to do it for good luck too. We never go onstage without doing this first because otherwise we might not perform as well as we could.”

Do you know who started this, or how long ago?

“I think it’s been around in our school’s show choir for a very long time. I know our choir president has been doing it all four years, and that the previous president- before any of us were even freshmen- did it too. So it’s been around for a while.”

Do you know about any other teams or schools that do this?

“I think it’s just us, at least in show choir. Only people in our show choir, in this group, know about this. When we go to competitions, we notice that each team has their own thing that they do- we notice it too. Like we saw one group put their heads together and go “caw caw!” and flap their arms or something like that- there are some weird ones! They’re all very different. But no matter how weird it may look to us, it’s special to them. It’s comforting. It’s kind of a way to relieve your stage fright and whether or not it actually gives us good luck, it’s good to have some peace of mind when you’re going onstage.”

My thoughts: Pre-show rituals for good luck are often a great way to make a group feel closer to one another- they denote you as an official member of that group. The informant mentions that each team has their own unique ritual that brands them as belonging to a specific school. I think this ritual also ties into the anxieties many high schoolers feel regarding their identities- they are often looking for a group to belong to. Also, the ritual helps to dispell any stage fright the performers might have, so it doesn’t matter as much whether it actually grants good luck or not because it’s a reassuring gesture either way.

Folk Beliefs
Gestures
Holidays

Jump for the New Year

The informant is a freshman at USC. She’s from the Philippines, where she was born and raised. She talks about how her grandmother told her about a New year’s superstition she used to take part in visiting with her grandmother in the Philippines.

Chelsea: “My grandma told me and my cousin when we were young that when the clock strikes 12 on New year, we have to jump our age. And we’d grow taller by, like, an inch or two inches. Because it’s a New year and a new us.”

 

Me: “So in a metaphorical sense, you’re jumping your age by physically jumping?”

 

Chelsea: “Yeah, but physically jumping because we want to grow taller.”

 

Me: “Are there any rules to how many jumps or like..?”

 

Chelsea: “No, it’s like, just jump your age.”

 

Me: “So what’s the purpose of wanting to grow an inch or two?”

 

Chelsea: “I think it’s just a superstition that if you , like, jump, you’ll grow taller.”

The informant didn’t seem to know much about the reason behind growing taller, but  the idea of becoming taller and ‘jumping your age’ seems to be indicative of good connotations, whether for her family, her Filipino culture, or both. I’ve never heard of this superstition before but it seems harmless and helpful in the sense that it creates hope for Chelsea and all her family members who participate in the superstition to grow taller. It also seems like a way her grandmother used to connect with the children.

Customs
Foodways
Gestures
Kinesthetic

Eye Contact Following a Toast in Germany

The informant is a 51-year-old international businessman who has frequently traveled across Europe and Asia to meet with clients for the past 20 years.

Over a relaxed nine holes of golf, I asked the informant if there were any dining customs or etiquette that have stood out to him throughout his travels. He went into detail about proper German etiquette when enjoying a drink with friends, family, or business connections.

“It’s always a great time drinking in Germany, especially for a beer connoisseur like myself. Whenever I’m out to lunch or dinner for a business meeting, we always grab a beer and make a toast before drinking. Usually the toast is just to a successful partnership in the future, or to health and happiness. What you’d expect. One thing that’s really important following this toast is that you look whoever it is you’re drinking with in the eye when you ‘cheers.’ It is considered extremely rude not to. They joke that if you fail to look someone in the eye it means seven years of bad sex, but what it would really result in is whoever you’re with thinking that you’ve been dishonest or are hiding something from them.”

This German custom of looking someone in the eye reveals that in German custom, authenticity and personal connection are important. Toasts usually follow a celebration or accomplishment of some kind, and so eye contact can be seen as a way of solidifying whatever the toast was made to. If one man makes a toast to good health and the other fails to look him in the eye, then the ma who made that toast may begin to wonder whether the other is hoping for him to become ill. The superstition that failing to make eye contact will lead to seven years of bad sex is a playful way of reminding Germans of this custom, or of highlighting its importance to foreigners. I thought that this particular folkway made a lot of sense, given the intimate nature of a toast and taking into account the context in which the informant learned of it. Since the informant is often out to eat with business connections and is working to create a professional relationship, it is important that he look his German clients in the eye to let them know that he is understanding of their culture and that they can trust his word and that he will honor their negotiations.

Gestures

Awkward Tortoise

Awkward tortoise is a hand gesture one does in an uncomfortable social situation.

My informant was a 19 year old college student.


What’s Awkward Tortoise?

GB: Awkward tortoise is something you do with your hands when you’re in an awkward situation. You stack your two hands and wag your two thumbs in opposite directions. I think it’s because if a tortoise were to move its flippers that way, it wouldn’t go anywhere, just in circles, and I guess that’s awkward


 

The Awkward Tortoise hand gesture has also been referred to as “Awkward Turtle”, although the informant was not aware of that. There is also an alternative version in which both thumbs move in the same direction.

general
Gestures

Gesture: “Occhio”

Main Piece: “When Italians want to point out cleverness, they use a gesture rather than words. They take their finger and they pull down on the bottom of their eye, which opens the eye more, and that indicates that this person is clever in the sense that they are sly. There’s another way…I’m not positive…to pull the cheek down to open the eye.”

Background: The informant would often see this gesture when people would try to speak about another person without using words. According to the informant, instead of verbally communicating, a physical gesture is used because it is universal and non-confrontational. This gesture isn’t always used as a compliment, it can be a mark of dissaproval. This gesture is done to another person, communicating this thought of cleverness about the other.

Performance Context: The informant sat across from me at a table outside.

My Thoughts: Using a physical gesture as a medium of foklore is a noteworthy method of communication. Its physical nature, rather than verbal, can be comprehended universally, as the informant noted. The opening of the eye seems to be a watchful, all-knowing way of letting the receiver know his/her slyness is recognized. Although this gesture may not mean the same things in a variation of contexts, the eye is the watcher, the giver of sight and truth. It is also interesting that this mark of cleverness is not always a compliment. Being sly versus being clever is a mark of acceptable versus unacceptable.

For further reference see: http://en.blog.hotelnights.com/italian-gesture-language/ for alternative explanation of the gesture.

general
Gestures
Protection

Gesture: Evil Eye

Main Piece: “In Italy, my experiences of..um…bad things happening to me meant that I watched what people did when they wanted to ward off the evil eye. A common gesture is to make this sign [index and pinky finger are raised with other fingers tucked in. Hand "pokes"or "stabs" the air].”

Background: The informant learned this gesture by watching people perform it. The informant grew up in Rome and it seemed important to the informant because Italians are typically a Catholic/Christian population, so it seemed pagan to her that the devil would be warded off by a hand gesture. The informant sees this gesture as a different way of approaching ill fortune in the absence of religion. She noticed, growing up, that Italians are very expressive with their hands, so this gesture was significant.

Performance Context: The informant sat across from me at a table outside.

My Thoughts: I find it interesting that the informant’s interpretation of this gesture was to “ward off” the evil eye. I’ve heard of the evil eye in a different context (in Israel) and it is used quite differently. In Israel, the evil eye is an object, usually a glass medallion which resembles the eye, hung in a common space (such as a home or a car) to ward off evil. The informant interprets the evil eye as what should be warded off. I find the gesture interesting as well. Its symbol and movement appear threatening, as the fingers point in the opposite direction of the individual with his/her fingers pointing outwards and moving in an abrupt, sudden way. It seems that, for this group, the way to ward off threat is to be threatening themselves. The gesture was something that was picked up by the informant. Rather than an oral medium of passing down folklore, the informant adopted the gesture in a social context of learning.

general
Gestures

Gesture: “Sí T’Ancagliu”

Main Piece: “So, also in Italy, I noticed that when someone feels intense…um…either love or fear or…um…trying to control themselves, they take their index finger, they bend it, and they put it in their mouth and they bite it. It amazed me that they’d hurt themsleves in order to control themselves.”

Background: The informant, who grew up in Italy, would see this most often in the context of her friend group. It was common to perform this gesture when wanting to regulate an emotion. The informant noted that it was important that this gesture was done by the individual, not another person, because this illustrates the indpendence of emotional regulation. When asked why one would bite the index finger, rather than another finger, the informant responded that it might be because the index finger is the most prominent and most used.

Performance Context: The informant sat across from me at a table outside.

My Thoughts: It seems, to me, that this gesture is one of autonomy and control. The informant notes that the index finger is a significant component of this gesture since it is the most commonly used finger. The biting of this important, useful finger indicates a sort of punishing and masochistic approach to emotion. I wonder if this gesture is a means of inhibiting the emotion, rather than regulation. Oftentimes, it is culturally unacceptable to show emotion, so this gesture may be a reflection of the stigma of emotional expression.

Foodways
general
Gestures

Gesture: “Delicious”

Main Piece: “So, when an Italian loves something he or she’s eating, they…um…express satisfaction by taking their index finger [laughs] and putting it at their cheek and going like this [motions twisting of index finger on cheek and puckering lips]. And that’s supposed to show how much they think what they’re eating is delicious.”

Background: The informant noticed this gesture among family and friends eating a meal. She enjoys this gesture because it’s so unfamiliar in comparison to an American gesture of satisfaction. Instead of rubbing our bellies or smacking our lips, the informant notes, “it is mistifying why we would point to our cheeks, but also makes sense since we eat with our mouths.” This gesture is recognized as a huge compliment to whoever made the meal and is also a way of connecting with the other members of the table eating the meal.

Performance Context: The informant sat across from me at a table outside.

My Thoughts: I am somewhat familiar with the importance and value of cooking and sharing a meal in Italy; preparing the dishe(s), inviting the guests, and sharing the meal are all important components of the gathering. The informant’s comparison of an American gesture of satisfaction versus an Italian’s, touches upon the subtlty of Italian expression. Rather than a loud (perhaps rude) smacking of the lips or shameless rubbing of the stomach, the Italian gesture is more subdued. The complimentary aspect of the gesture places value on the meal and the company one shares the meal with. The gesture was informally inherited by the informant in a social context. Although she only uses it when surrounded by people who understand it or use it themselves, she remembers it as a significant piece of folklore.

Childhood
Folk speech
Gestures
Musical

Handgame: Miss Suzy

Main Piece: (sung) “Miss Suzy had a baby/ she named him Tiny Tim/ she put him in the bathtub/ to see if he could swim/ he drank up all the water/ he ate up all the soap/ he tried to eat the bathtub/ but it wouldn’t go down his throat (giggles)/ miss Suzy called the doctor/ miss Suzy called the nurse/ miss Suzy called the lady/ with the alligator purse….uhhhh…..oh yeah ok….measles said the doctor/ mumps said the nurse… haha that’s terrible… pizza said the lady/ with the alligator purse.”

Background: The informant initially learned this handgame on the playground in elementary school from her friends. The piece would be performed on the playground during recess or occasionally in the hallway. The informant finds the piece entertaining and humorous. She remembers learning the song and finding it all so random, making little sense. This piece is sung while playing a handgame, a repetitive motion between partners clapping their hands together. The informant says this is usually performed between two young girls. She says it was a popular song among the group of girls she atteneded elementary school with. The game would become more advanced as it would speed up and test who could keep up.

Performance Context: I sat across the informant in my living room as she told me the piece.

My Thoughts: This handgame seems to be utilized as a way of defining in-group versus out-group members (i.e. as the game advances, less and less participants are included). The rhyme itself, as the informant contends, does not completely make sense. Its lyrics are a bit morbid, but is sung in a child-like tune, and is best known in the context of an elementary school playground. The informant alludes to the ways in which childhood folklore can be somewhat explicit, exploring themes of adulthood (i.e. morbidity, illness, death). Although the lyrics of the handgame are somehwat grave, the informant was an innocent receiver and teller and enjoyed participating in the folklore.

Gestures
Old age

The Traditional Kenyan Greeting

“When you greet someone who you consider reputable or older than you, you greet them by shaking their hands with both of your hands. You keep on holding on until they acknowledge you and say thank you. Usually, you do it with people you don’t talk to every day, like the parents of your friends.”

In Kenya, it is traditional to shake another’s hands with both of your own hands when greeting an elder or a person of high status. Because the other person is meant to have the control, it is they who decide how long the handshake should last. You are only supposed to let go after you have been acknowledged.

The informant, Alastair Odhiambo, is a 19-year-old international student who was born and raised in Nairobi, Kenya. Alistair and his family have deep roots in the country, so he is confident that he knows a great deal about Kenyan folklore. Although Alastair does not remember who taught him how to properly shake an elder’s hand, he does know that he picked it up after observing how other Kenyan children interacted with their superiors. He claims that Kenya has long valued respecting elders, so this tradition is only a reflection of that belief.

It is always interesting to see how ancient values and beliefs are still maintained in today’s modern culture. Even though it may not seem like much, the way young Kenyans shake the hands of their elders says a lot about the country and what they believe in. It reveals that all elders and people of high status must be treated with honor and respect. The fact that Alastair was able to learn this common practice simply by observing others tells us that it is popular and that it is used quite often.

 

 

 

 

 

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