Accepted Paper:

'Sakela is our national dance': the enactment of identity-roles in folk dance performances of the Rai in Nepal  


Marion Wettstein (University of Vienna)

Paper short abstract:

Fostered by activist groups, sakela dance has gained increasing importance in the on-going process of the (re)definition of Rai ethnic identity in Nepal. Drawing on this example the paper explores why dance in general seems to be highly effective in installing a sense of ethnic belonging.

Paper long abstract:

In the continuous process of the shaping and re-shaping of Rai ethnic identity in Nepal a specific type of public event has gained increasing importance over the last two decades: The sakela dance. Performed in circles, the dancers are following a dance leader and through gestures and bodily movements imitate agricultural techniques, crafts techniques, and movements of (mythological) animals. Originally this dance was only performed by a handful of skilled ritual dancers in the villages of some of the Rai groups in Eastern Nepal, accompanying the village priest during the offerings for the ubhauli and udhauli rituals celebrated before planting and harvest to reassure prosperity and fertility of the land. Today sakela is danced by thousands of people, in the villages and the cities, at times in large groups and also as secular events such as dance competitions.

This paper examines why sakela dance has become such an important aspect in the (re)definition of ethnic identity among the Rai. It argues that sakela dance has effectively been used by activist groups to install a sense of ethnic belonging. Exploring how dance can, in general, unfold its enormous potential to this end, it suggests that dancing, when linked to the conscious enactment of a specifically defined identity-role on the 'central stage' of a national festival performance, co-integrates this identity into personhood through its inherent potential to sensuously connect body, mind, and emotion.

Panel P28
Public displays of ethnic identity in Nepal