Monthly Archives: September 2010

Aging ritual–Salsa Dancers

At many salsa dance scenes, if it is someone’s birthday, the band will play a version of the “Happy Birthday Song” to the salsa rhythm. If the birthday person is a woman, her male friends will form a ring around her while stepping to the music; other people and friends may or may not form a larger ring around this as well. Then a man will step into the ring one by one to dance with the birthday person, and then passes her off to another dancer in the circle. Sometimes the next man will simply find the right timing and snatch the birthday girl—but all in good fun. If the birthday person is a man, then his female friends will ring around him and do the same thing. Occasionally, if he is an advanced dancer, he will dance with two ladies at once, leading them with one arm each. The birthday person will switch partners until the end of the song, which is usually about 4-6 minutes long.

Jorge has been active in the Los Angeles salsa scene for about 11 years now. He told me that he did not see this happening at all at first, and it was about six years ago when he started seeing this unique custom—“and it spread like nothing!” The first place he saw it happen was at a Los Angeles club called Rodolfo. When asked what he thinks it means, he said it is simply to show that “this is her [the birthday girl’s] night,” and to make sure she is, literally, at the center of attention.

That most certainly seems to be the case—as a dancer, what could be more delightful than to have an entire ring of other dancers waiting just to dance with you? At least for this one song, the birthday person is the queen or king of the dance floor, and can dance with as many people during that song as she or he wants. It is also a chance for the dancer to show off, as almost the entire crowd will be watching and cheering. Beginner or champion, they get to show what they can do, and perhaps try to outdo what they did last year.

I also think it is a way for salsa dancers to celebrate the spontaneity and leadability of salsa. This is a birthday ritual that I have not seen in other dances, such as dancesport or Argentinean tango, for example. Compared to other such dances, to be able to improvise and to lead complete strangers are important skills in salsa, and spontaneity and flexibility are highly valued. Therefore, it really does make sense that such a custom—in which one dancer must be able to quickly adapt to a number of different partners, make smooth changes, spontaneously improvise in case of bad timing—would have developed and been so popular in salsa. It is a way for them to show off to other dancers, and confirm to themselves, their mastery of improvisation.

The flexible nature of salsa which allows for improvisation, also allows for creativity and invention. New moves, new tricks, new combinations are being invented everyday right on the dance floor—salseros and salseras are always experimenting, which is why one will often see one man leading two women at once, or two couple rapidly switching around, and frequently the switch itself can become a complex, fancy move as dancers experiment with different techniques for changing partners. Again, this ritual, then, is a great time to show off these invented skills, as normally on the dance floor there are not multiple dancers to switch around at one’s convenience.

Finally, I think the flexible attitude of the salsa dancers helped spread this ritual so widely in just six years. I was surprised to hear it was so young, because I have seen people do this in New York—even in Korea. Interestingly, each place I’ve seen it does it a bit differently. The New Yorkers that I’ve seen were in a ring as well, but instead of facing the dancers in the circle, they will walk, making a bit of a dizzier scene—the dancers focus a bit more on stylish walks, but seem to care less about a flashy partner switch. In Korea, they will not form a ring, but stand in a line instead. This makes for a much more orderly ritual, because there is rarely the case where two dancers accidentally approach the birthday person at one time. Again, instead of focusing so much on slick changes, the Korean dancers like to show off very fast spins.


In the abandoned outskirts of Osaka, there is a lonely tunnel that leads to a small lake with a small bridge. A forsaken and forgotten area, for years it was a convenient place for depressed Japanese people to end their lives in secrecy, without shame. Legend has it that the souls and spirits of these tormented people still linger there, and that living creatures who venture too close can sense the suffering and rage; they are in danger of turning mad from its misery.

This is a legend that Saltah learned from her Japanese boyfriend during her stay in Osaka, Japan. He and a friend had decided to go see the lake for themselves because of the legend. He said that his car engine suddenly stopped working, that his car started to quake, and that his friend completely panicked. When he got back home, he checked the Internet for news of a minor earthquake, but did not find any. Saltah, of course, wanted to check out the lake for herself. Saltah and her boyfriend went in a car packed with a group of friends. She says she is not easily scared, and rarely panics, but crossing the tunnel, she began to feel a chilly “pushing feeling.” They parked by the lake which was dark because “the trees are really tall—and they cover the sky.” Saltah began to feel “hysterical” as she yelled at her boyfriend not to stop the car; she said she yelled “Let’s go! Let’s go! Let’s just go!”

When I asked her what she thought this legend meant, it was clear that she believes every word of it. She told me that the spirits of those that committed suicide there were still there, and were probably more miserable because they could not escape the place. If a living person is exposed to this, she said, “their minds are crazy.” She then went on to remind me that the Japanese make so many of the world’s scariest movies—she seemed to be suggesting that there are many unhappy Japanese. “They were isolated for centuries on an island,” she said, and anyone or anything that is isolated for too long can get a little “crazy.”

I think there are a few things we might be able to deduce from this legend. First of all, it is interesting to note that a popular suicide site is a secluded place. It seems to me that this reveals a bit about Japanese attitudes toward suicide and shame. Often, we hear of people committing suicide in famous places, or people trying to jump in front of crowds—off buildings in large cities, off famous bridges, onto subway tracks. In the US, for example, the most popular place for suicide is the Golden Gate Bridge. One might read this as a desperate cry for attention, or ‘cry for help.’ In Japan, then, we see that this element must be largely missing from suicide motives. Far from a public cry for help, suicide in Osaka seems to be something shameful, something to do in secrecy. This is especially interesting in light of Japan’s historical tradition of seppaku and jigai—seppaku was sometimes performed publicly. However, when for the right reasons, suicide used to be considered courageous and honorable. Now that the public opinion has been largely westernized, suicide has become dishonorable, while the Japanese’ strong dislike of shame stays the same: now that suicide is shameful, it is done covertly, and is not used as an attempt to gain attention.

Another thing interesting to note is that this lake is in a rural, deserted place located near a large city. It seems to me that this may be an indication of the extremely urbanized nature of human life in the modern age. The source of terror and panic is not a hazardous highway, or a crowded city—but an isolated lake that lacks people, that lacks artificial lighting. It is surely a sign of the times that people now find reason to fear a place for lacking modern modifications.

Folk Song/Chant—Childrens


(hold up forefinger and middle finger, palm facing out)

“Number One”

(hold up only forefinger)

“Save the Hippies”

“The world is a round.”

(using forefinger of each hand, draw a square in the air. Two fingers start at the middle top of the square, and the square is drawn symmetrically.)

Kimberly told me that her friend at school taught her this short chant. Her friend learned this from her older brother in 5th grade. They all go to school together on Harding Street, El Selmar. She chants this with her friend during recess or PE classes. They do this especially during PE, because that is when kids from other classes will see it—Kimberly and her friend hope to get this chant to spread in their school.

When asked what this chant means, she just shrugged and said “I don’t know, it’s just for fun.” But then she said it is “a little bit about charity,”—just saying they’d like peace and people should help the hippies. When I asked her what hippies are, she told me that they are “people on the streets” who are homeless and poor.

I chuckled at this answer, and thought immediately that this children’s chant reflects our changed attitudes towards hippies. Hippies were never mainstream, but at one time they were politically cutting edge, they had radical messages of peace and love, and they were some of the first conservationists. Today, however, I notice that the word ‘hippies’ paints a picture of a very different people—and they need to be ‘saved.’ Modern stereotypes of hippies have very little to do with liberal politics, instead hippies are now associated with drug use, unreasonable new age beliefs, and poor tastes in attire. It is no wonder that 4th grader Kimberly thought that “the hippies” were “people on the streets” who need to be “saved.”

Yet interestingly enough, despite Kimberly’s interpretations, I still feel like this chant retains some of the original ideas of hippies—particularly in regards to pacifism and environmentalism. “Peace, number one,” it goes—it sounds like peace should be our number one priority. Then “Save the Hippies” echoes many conservationist mottos, such as “Save the whales,” “save the trees,” or “save our planet.” I think it could be either an urge to save the hippies by supporting their cause to save the earth—or a parody that makes fun of ‘the hippies,’ suggesting that although they try to save the earth, ‘the hippies’ need to be saved themselves. Lastly, the enigmatic last line: “The world is a round,” while the fingers draw a square. Perhaps this is a reminder that everything in our world is connected—like a circle? Perhaps this is saying that in our world, what goes around comes around? Perhaps it means that our world must be round, but something is terribly wrong with it, because the hand movements suggest that it is not at all round? I’ve not a sure guess exactly what this last line means, or if it even has a meaningful implication, being a child’s chant, after all—but my gut feeling says that there is a concern with the environment somewhere in there. This would make sense, because even the kids must have caught on that the present society have recently become obsessed with “being green.”

Folk Metaphor-Korean

“?? ??~” or “????”

“gui-shin ga-chi~” “gui-shin-ee-yah”

“ghost like~” “ghost is”

“~like a ghost” “Is a ghost”

Gisuk has always heard this being said in Korea. It is a very common phrase used when someone is uncannily good at something. I was teaching her some dance technique, and noticed out of the corner of my eye that she was not turning her foot out properly. “Turn out!” I said, and she said “?? ?? ?? ??…!” Which is literally, “You know, like a ghost!” Basically, what she meant was “You can tell so well, like a ghost!”

I have always heard this myself, but when she said this I noticed for the first time how odd it is that we would equate being very good or very skilled at something to being a ghost. That is when I decided this was a valuable piece of Korean folklore.

When I asked her what she thought this meant, she said simply that she thinks we compare a very skilled person to a ghost because it can be mysterious when someone is unusually good at something.

However, most cultures would not associate anything good to a ghost. Yet in Korean, when we say “good like a ghost,” it is generally a compliment and does not even necessarily connote mysteriousness or eeriness of a person’s talent. People might say enthusiastically of a good singer “at singing, she’s a ghost!” of a math prodigy, they might say “he’s a math ghost”—without the slightest hint of negativity or uneasiness. I do not think the term ghost here is at all associated with the scary unknown. I would compare this to the American use of the word ‘wizard’ in the phrases “math wizard” or “computer wizard.” In this context, it ‘wizard’ simply means someone very skilled, with a trace of apprehension of sorcery. It is also an uncommon idea that ghosts are particularly skilled or talented. In western portrayals, anyway, ghosts are rather stiff and unable to think or do much.

I think this may be a vestigial of Korea’s historical shamanistic religions, and traditions of ancestor worship. Actually, many of our most important holidays still retain a great deal of ancestor worship. Because most of the ghosts that historical Koreans would have dealt with in their lives were those of ancestors, it is now no longer so surprising to me that Koreans still have an unusually positive view of ghosts. Historically, we worshiped them, and they were our guardians. No wonder, then, when we see someone who excels, we say “Why you’re like a ghost!” Putting it into historical context, we are basically saying “you are like an ancestor-god!”

Folk Medicine, El Salvador

For a bad cough and a sore throat:

Mix lemon juice and honey;

Roughly three spoons of honey to five spoons of lemon juice

I was suffering from a very painful cough when Jorge suggested I try this remedy. It is something he learned from his mother in El Salvador, and it is used as a quick way to soothe a sore throat, and also to alleviate the coughing itself. According to Jorge, Salvadoreans will use lemons and lemon juice as medicine for all sorts of ailments—“even if you get a dog bite! Even if you have an eye infection—I swear—they’ll put lemon juice in your eyes!” Jorge believes that it works; he does not know why, but from experience he has seen lemon juice to help. He pointed out that lemon juice contains a lot of vitamin C, and also that it stings—which can make it seem like something might be healing, or at least, being sterilized.

I think this brings up an interesting point—that often people do associate mild stinging and bitterness with medicine and health. I’ve even heard “if it stings, it’s working!” I actually decided to try this lemon juice/honey concoction. It was difficult to drink something so extremely sweet and sour, but when it slid down my throat, I could see why it was a convincing remedy. It almost felt hot and fiery going down my sore throat, and reminded me of other folk cures for the cold that involved alcohol or spicy foods, such as rum or ginger tea. I do not know if it had any lasting effects, but while I was drinking it, it did make my throat feel better, and seemed to suppress the urge to cough for some time.

Although I have high doubts of the effect of lemon juice for an eye infection, I do agree that its crisp, stinging citrus-ness, and the idea of vitamin C is probably what makes the lemon such a popular folk ingredient. There seems to be something about the sour, stinging juice that people associate to sterility and purity. People still often use lemon juice to clean surface, and lemon juice is often squeezed onto seafood to compensate the ‘fishy smell.’ Jorge said that some people in his country would even hang a necklace of lemons around the neck for health—it does seem as though there is a belief in purification powers of the lemon.

Honey also seems to be a popular ingredient to battle the cold. Koreans will sometimes drink hot honey-water (simply, honey dissolved in hot water) and another friend recommended I try honey with a bit of vodka. Perhaps people have noticed a kind of strengthening, reviving effect of the high levels of sugar in honey that made it helpful for those weakened with the cold.

First Tooth Party—Armenian

Agra Hadig

Tooth Wheat

First Tooth Party

Agra Hadig is a party that celebrates a baby’s first tooth. Mary had one when she got her first tooth as well. She told me that the “wheat” of “hadig” denotes a special food that is made with boiled wheat, cinnamon, dried cranberries, and roasted walnuts. Another popular feature of this event is when the baby is set on a table and “they just put random things around it, to see what it picks up.” This is their way of predicting the baby’s future, and according to Mary, it works. “I picked up a pen, and I like to write,” said the communication major, “and my sister chose the money, and it came true, because—it’s not that she likes money—but she really likes to save money.” Sometimes, the adults will ritualistically tear the baby’s shirt. This is done so that all the rest of the baby’s teeth will come out easily and without pain.

I believe this tradition may have occurred because the historical Armenians might have been wary of enthusiastically celebrating and embracing a new baby until it was somewhat certain that it was healthy and will survive reasonably long. I believe this, because Agra Hadig seems to so closely resemble other traditions of other cultures in which they also delay the celebration of a baby’s life until after a certain point. Koreans hold a huge celebration for a baby’s 100th day—it was thought that if a baby could make it past 100 days, it has a good chance of living on. I’ve also heard of Eastern European peoples who set that date on a baby’s 40th day. The Armenians, then, seem to have thought that the growth of the first tooth is a sign of health.

The ritual of discerning the baby’s disposition by watching it choose from a number of symbolic objects is also done in the Korean 100th day celebration. I would say that this is a show of hope and enthusiasm for the baby’s long life lying ahead. ‘Now that we know this baby is healthy,’ they seem to be thinking, ‘let us speculate a bit about its future!’

About its reliability as a divination method—it seems to work upon the assumption that people’s lifelong personality and dispositions are inherent and static from birth. It also seems to suggest that humans have an almost instinctual, perhaps unconscious understanding of the meaning of the symbolic objects. That a born writer can somehow sense the significance of a pen the day he is born—or the day his tooth is born. There is also a hint of determinism, that idea that the destiny of a person is already somewhat determined before they realize it. I do not know much about Armenian thought, but I must say I would not be surprised if they had some belief in these things—destiny and static personality.

Another thought I must add. I wonder if conditioning does not play some part in this. According to my mother, I, too picked a pen, and my brother picked money. Though she is not blatantly superstitious, she does not seem to altogether dismiss belief either. I often would hear her say, “and you see? You’ll be an intellectual, but you can’t save a dollar—not like your brother. He is too impatient to study, but he hoards every penny.” Well, quite frankly, I’m pretty sure I’ve heard her say something like this to us much before we were old enough to actually reveal a scholarly disposition versus a financial flair. I also have to wonder if I had picked the money, and my brother, the pen, would not my mother be saying instead, “and you see? You love to spend your money—but your brother is always impatient to learn more!”

I would wager to guess that constant reinforcement and conditioning by the parent with specific expectations plays no small role in the occasional (and dubious) accuracy of this particular version of the personality test.

Annotation: Dresser, N. (1999). Multicultural Celerations: Today’s Rules of Ettiquette for Life’s Special Occasions. University of Virginia: Three Rivers Press, pg. 55

Protective Eye Amulet-Armenian

Wearing an ‘eye’ as a means of protection against harm, jealousy, and ill-will

Protective Eye Amulet

Right after baptism, some Armenian babies are clothed in all white, with a blue eye pinned to their clothes. Adults will wear it as well, as it is supposed to act as a protective “mirror” that reflects curses and evil back at its source and away from its wearer. According to Mary, the powers of the eye will be greatest if it is a gift from someone else—“that’s much more effective than if you just get one for yourself” she said. Mary showed me her eye, which she always pins to her bra. I was not able to get a picture of it, but it looked very similar to the one in this photograph (Mary spoke of the eye only in terms of pins or brooches, however, and did not mention necklaces). Mary’s brilliant blue eye was set in a golden plate. She said hers was very strong because it was a gift from her mother. She told me that because there is no one who cares more for one’s welfare than one’s mother, an eye from one’s mother is the strongest kind. Mary learned of this from her mother and her grandmother, but told me that many Armenians believe this. She also added that it was not at all a matter of religion.

When I heard of this, saw the gorgeous pin, and watched my friend explain to me the power of her pin with unwavering conviction, I was intrigued—it was not only until much later when I did some research that I found out just how widespread and thoroughly studied a tradition this was, known as the evil eye. Mary, however, did not mention to me that she believed in any people who could cast the evil eye (a belief that seems to resemble the Azande’s ideas of magic)—instead, she seemed to believe that her eye was meant to ward off general negative energy and evil influences. She used the word devil a lot, but said “it doesn’t have to mean the real devil, but just, you know, evil.”

It was also an interesting detail that she believed that the effectiveness of the amulet increases depending on who gave it to her, and on the degree of sincerity with which it was given. To me, this is a very interesting, almost modern, twist on this ancient superstition. It is almost implies an “it is the thought that counts” attitude. It is an idea that suggests that the power lies not so much within the eye-resembling object itself, but within the love of a mother or sincere friend. This, to me, suggests influence by contemporary metaphysical thinking.


Elworthy, F. T. (2004). The Evil Eye: The Classic Account of an Ancient Superstition. Courier

Dover Publications.

Dundes, A. (1981). The Evil Eye: A Folklore Casebook. Garland Pub.