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Are Motor Collective Rituals as Rigid as They Seem? A Test Case of a Zulu Wedding Dance

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Abstract Rituals are common in religion, sports, culture and specific life-stages (childhood, parenthood, etc.), raising the question of why being engaged in such activity, what could be its benefit, and how rigid they are. Here we analyzed 19 episodes of a Zulu Umsindo dance performed by 10 women. This ritual comprised a common act, performed in all dance episodes of all women, personal acts performed consistently by one woman but not by the others, and sporadic acts that varied both among and within women. There were significantly more sporadic than personal acts, and more personal than common acts, with only one common act that was performed in all 19 dance episodes. Personal and sporadic acts comprised about 90% of the dance repertoire, attesting a high flexibility in performance. Despite this high flexibility, the dance attained a seemingly rigid form due to three properties: (i) fixed temporal order that was preserved in all the dance episodes; (ii) a common act that was consistently performed by all women; and (iii) a high rate of repetition of the common act. These properties rendered the ritual its rigid form, along with enabling the dancers to display great flexibility in act repertoire. This analysis sheds new light on the content and structure of collective rituals, implicating on the understanding of how social transmission may occur, and giving potential evidence for the Sperberian view on cultural transmission. Finally, the Zulu dance seems to possess a communicative value in group solidarity without a direct involvement of precautionary systems.


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