Ethnographic research of Lithuanian diaspora folk group “Saduto”
‘Expert’ role and family members’ influence on ‘insider’ and ‘outsider’ role
Anthropology helps to understand ‘other sociocultural systems and to understand ourselves better.’ (Keappler, 1999:14) and ethnography as a tool of this discipline enables scholars to collect their data for purposes of scientific inquiry. My ethnographic research focuses on family social status and ‘expert’ perception in the context of Lithuanian folk group “Saduto” community in London. The key study that forms the basis for the theoretical framework of this essay is Maria Koutsouba’s (1999) article “‘Outsider’ in an ‘Inside’ World, or Dance Ethnography at Home” where she analyses her ethnographic research through the ‘insider’ and ‘outsider’ positions. In this essay, I will argue that the ‘expert’ role – teaching activity, group leading and playing with instruments in “Saduto” – made an undeniable influence to the group members by reinforcing the ‘outsider’ role, while my family members’ attendance in the field strengthened the group’s perception of me as an ‘insider’.
Anthropology research field and its analysis is influenced by the researcher’s past experience (Koutsouba, 1999), so in order to clarify my view point, I will give a short introduction to my past experience and training. First of all, I was trained as a professional musician at high school and afterwards I studied ethnomusicology at undergraduate level in Lithuania. As a result of my personal interests and the subject of study, I became deeply immersed into the ‘participatory’ (Nahachewsky, 1995) traditional dance activity in Vilnius folklore community and Traditional Dance Club for nine years. I grew up in a countryside where social dancing that could be characterised as the ‘first existence’ dance (Hoerburger, 1968) happened in almost every village event and family celebration. This contrasts with the urban places where traditional dance clubs cultivate the revived traditional dance culture of the second half of the 20th century that can be described as the ‘second’ and ‘third’ dance existences (Nahachewsky, 2001).
Recent interest in folklore. Last summer, in July 2016, during the Lithuanian traditional dance camp, my previous lecturer ethnochoreologist Dalia Urabanavičienė introduced me to Ligita Mikalauskienė – leader of London Lithuanian folk group “Saduto”. During that time Dalia already knew that I was going to study in London, so she created an opportunity for me to continue my ‘folk’ activity here. This group practices Lithuanian traditional dance as one of its main activities and Ligita was interested in my skills and in particular the ability to play the violin. However, before entering “Saduto”, I already felt weary and tired of ‘folk’ activities and I was only interested in the reasons of people’s emigration from Lithuania, the personal portrait of a typical Lithuanian emigrant. Notwithstanding, from January 2017 I have stated my fieldwork in the folk group “Saduto” and I began to attend their rehearsals weekly.
Methods. When I started my fieldwork in the folk group “Saduto”, I was not yet decided about my methods, which later caused some difficulties that I am going to discuss in the next sections. In general, I decided to do whatever the leader of the group would ask me to. Moreover, I started my participant observation and have written field notes after every encounter with the group members. Weekly video recording and one structured interview with the leader of the group was part of my fieldwork as well.
Folk group “Saduto”
Folk group “Saduto” in Lithuania during the folk festival “Skamba skamba kankliai”
The folk group “Saduto” has existed for twelve years and performs Lithuanian folk songs and traditional dances. Its leader is Mrs. Ligita Malinauskienė, whose husband Mr. Kostas Malinauskas is a manager of the group. All members are predominantly Lithuanian but there are two foreigners: one British and one Ukrainian male. As of today, there are about thirty-five members in this group and they have formal rehearsals every Friday in Eastern London. They also meet informally in smaller groups one to three times a week. The group’s members have lived in the UK from five to fifteen years. Most members are aged between forty and fifty-five years old, while the youngest member is five years old and the oldest participant is seventy-five. The group is mostly maintained by women, and just thirty percent of participants are men. Finally, there are about ten members who have participated in this group throughout its existence; others joined in later years.
Context. I have attended “Saduto” for just two months, but during the time I have participated in 4 different events. In three out of the four events, “Saduto” entertained people with songs and dances and invited people to sing and dance together.
Though Lithuanian community has an active social life, Lithuanian national cultural activities are not widely available and there are just a few opportunities for adults in particular: the folk group “Saduto”, the stylized folk dance group ‘Versmė’, and two adult choirs. Such a small number of activities is disproportionate to the 200,000-large Lithuanian community in London, perhaps because people who take up cultural activities are generally unusual. Moreover, folk dance in particular is not well-developed in London.
Expectations. For my first encounter with “Saduto”, I expected to find a folk group with unique singing and dancing aesthetics (compared with their counterparts in Lithuania), hyper-nationalized social and cultural atmosphere, and a sense of guilt about one’s status as emigrants. To my surprise, I have found a relaxed and easy-going atmosphere: a hall filled with lively chatter, songs, and dances, celebrations with food and beverages, and toasts. Moreover, their singing and dancing aesthetics were almost identical to Lithuanian folk groups’, because the group leader collaborates closely with Lithuanian folklore experts and leaders, and absorbs folklore aesthetics promoted by them:
‘I make effort to ensure that they go to the Lithuanian Song Celebrations. I say, watch the performances, observe how people behave, their costumes, so that you gain as much experience as possible and understand what is folklore. […] They especially disliked head covers [scarfs and caps] but they got used to them during the ten years. Many years of explaining were needed. […] I watch videos, I have a lot of material, books. And because I know Loreta [famous Lithuanian ethnomusicologist] and Audrone [traditional dance expert] so they help me too. […] So in this way, bit by bit, I accumulate it myself.’ (Ligita, 2017)
Relationships. Even though I was highly immersed in the folklore community in Lithuania (I participated in five folk ensembles and led one for two years), during my fieldwork in the folk group “Saduto” I was surprised at the intensity of their interpersonal connection. They celebrate birthday parties, calendar festivities and almost all group members participate. Most of them have become genuinely good friends, some share the house together; three couples even found their spouses here and got married to a member of the group. Almost every time:
‘If there is no activity, people immediately start to converse. Kostas said that they come here to socialise with each other and to be in their community’ (Fieldwork diary: 27th February 2017).
Food and beverages are important elements in “Saduto” social life. Every time they meet, they drink alcohol and eat snacks and home-baked goods together. During birthday parties (which are plentiful) they usually have a table full with food and drinks. It is a really important part in their daily life as well. Group members gladly share their goods with each other and they do not spare their time and money.
On the one hand, “Saduto” has a thick layer of traditions and their inner social life is intense and intimate, however, on the other hand, they accepted me with kindness and I felt very welcome there, even though my occupation as a researcher was unusual for this community.
Two roles: teacher and ethnographer
During my fieldwork, I had various roles: primarily that of ethnographer, but also musician, dance teacher, actor and substitute leader. Although all of these roles are interrelated, I will analyse two of them here: ethnographer and teacher.
As a teacher I challenged this group’s values and made some alterations, and as an ethnographer I observed this impact. However, my choreographic impact as a teacher was not significant, because I taught only what the leader, Ligita, asked and those dance stylistics that she preferred. One the one hand, teaching makes an undeniable influence to the community; on the other hand, according to the theory of post-positivism, ‘there is no one stable and overriding interpretation’ of the situation (Buckland, 1999a:197), and ethnographer always influences the environment.
Maria Koutsouba in her article (1999) analyses long-term ethnographical practice ‘at home’ through the lens of ‘insider’ and ‘outsider’. She notes that social relationships are unpredictable and even ‘at home’ ethnographer can be perceived as an ‘outsider’. Even though the conceptions of being ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ are difficult to measure and rely very much on researcher’s emotional sensitivity, this concept can be used as a useful reference point for setting the different levels of social acceptance. Moreover, ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ lens enable me to review critically my fieldwork though the historical chronology (see table below).
|Teacher / ‘expert’||Ethnographer (chronological order)|
|teaching||no teaching||alone||parents||alone again||husband|
My research purpose was to understand and discern the values of “Saduto”; however, as I mentioned before, I was not sure about my methods. Initially, I underestimated my influence to the group and I thought that teaching would be the best way to provoke unusual behaviour that would reveal their values. So, I asked the group leader Ligita about the possibility to teach. Ligita knew me before as ethnomusicologist, good singer, dancer and musician, so she considered me as competent enough to teach; I was allowed to start teaching dance since my first rehearsal. Moreover, during my first rehearsal, she introduced me as a person who is going to teach new traditional dances and at the same time undertake research on this group, and who is a potential future professor of Lithuanian folk dance. This introduction and my actions as dance teacher has complicated my relationships with group members and I was perceived as an ‘outsider’. However, I tried to join the group as much as I could – I played the violin, sang folk songs and danced with others.
Folk group “Saduto” members love to dance and they identify dance as one of the main interests in the group activity. They mainly perform couple dances: the waltz in three beats rhythm or the polka type in two beats rhythm, and complex quadrilles dances. According to Andriy Nahachewsky (1995) ethnochoreological dance classification, “Saduto” dance activity, in general, is more ‘participatory’ than ‘presentational’ dance, however, the group combines both activity types. When I came to the rehearsal for the first time, I was surprised by their good dancing skills:
‘Today they learned a new dance and I was surprised that they danced so well – they got the gist of the dance steps and figures and sequences so fast. All of them dance well and vivaciously.’ (Fieldwork diary: 27th of February, 2017).
I later learned that Ligita had taught the group to dance and she has been doing it for twelve years now. This indicates that she is an experienced dance teacher and I am not surprised that the dancers understood and listened to her very well during rehearsal. However, in recent years, a particular old polka dance style has become popular among folk groups in Lithuania, and Ligita asked me to teach such old polka in particular:
‘We did not dance the old polka, we danced more simply without that manner. I am learning myself, and so I do not know if I do well myself. I am looking for ways how to teach more plainly. We are all learning together. […] The ensemble is very willing to learn. They know that it is beautiful, but that you have to do it and it is work. It is probably for the second year that we are having trouble with it. There are many ensembles that are doing it [old polka] very well and we do not want to leave behind.’ (Ligita, 2017)
My teachings of ‘old polka’, one occasion of substitute leading and playing the violin gave them the reason to call me an ‘expert’. Koutsouba (1999) in her article analyses the ethical perplexities of an ‘expert’ in the ethnographical field when the researcher is to some extent and ‘insider’ or ‘at home’. In general, in the case of “Saduto”, where most people consider themselves as amateurs, the ‘expert’ status has created distance between me and other group members. Notwithstanding this, people have responded to my presence differently depending on their roles:
Musicians have accepted me amiably and the ‘expert’ status did not make me an ‘outsider’ among them, but a fellow partner. It might have happened so because the instrumental group is very small and the musician’s occupation is rare amongst the group members, so musicians do not feel any competition. However, the potential competitiveness of group members (see below) prompt me to question if their friendliness would remain if played the same instrument as they do.
Good dancers and singers were not as amiable as musicians, and at the beginning they accepted me as an ‘outsider’, especially when I taught dance and singing. For example, one very good dancer, the only one ‘heir’ (Bakka, 1999) of ‘old polka’ in this group, refused to participate in my ‘old polka’ workshops. At the beginning he just observed the workshops, but later he started correcting some dancers’ postures, feet positions and other elements. Another example, during my first concert where everyone including me had to wear a traditional costume, an older singer gave me a bitter remark about the absence of the head cover. She added that I am not different and I need to wear it.
Good dancers and singers might have been tense in my presence as a teacher because they were afraid of my critique, or because they did not know me and my methods. Age could also be an important determinant for being an ‘outsider’ or ‘insider’: almost all members are older than me by more than fifteen years, and my young age could make it more difficult to establish a personal connection with me. Moreover, they might have been unable to consider me as a competent folk dance teacher due to my young age, because years of experience was strongly associated with my perceived competence as a teacher.
Other group members: when I did not act as an ’expert’ – teaching, leading, playing – the group members were more willing to engage with me and made more jokes with me. Although several group members clearly felt competitive in my presence, this was not present when I was no longer in the roles of ‘expert’: teaching, leading or playing the instrument. In general, competition was not strong in “Saduto”, compared to similar folk groups in Lithuania, as they are more used to enjoy their time and relationships.
In terms of being ‘outside’ and ‘inside’ of “Saduto” as an ethnographer, the important factor is my family. Relatives in the fieldwork is not a new matter in anthropology. Anthropologists are used to doing long-term participant observations far away from their home, and family often travels together with the scholar and help him or her with data collection and recording. Though family members’ – spouse’s and children’s – involvement in the fieldwork is common practice, it is rarer with the scholar’s parents. Nevertheless, family institution is an important topic in the feminist ethnography research (Balsamo, 1991) and ‘conflicts of interest and emotion between the ethnographer as authentic, related person (i.e. participant), and as exploiting researcher (i.e. observer) are also an inescapable feature of ethnographic method.’ (Stacey, 1988:23).
The following chronology of the family-related fieldwork events, which also illustrate shifting stages of my ‘insider’ and ‘outsider’ roles:
- During the first several rehearsals, I was an ‘outsider’ because I was not involved in the group’s chatter and vivaciousness, and just a few members talked with me.
- On the day of the fifth rehearsal, my parents have been visiting me in London and I took them to the rehearsal with me. During that evening my parents managed to have a talk with almost every group member, danced and had a drink with others.
- After their visit, many people began to talk with me and even invited me to one private party with the group members, and they started to communicate with me through social media. Several new men have started to dance with me.
- Finally, my husband started to attend the group during my eighth rehearsal, because members knew him personally before (he hosted them during their trip to Oxford) and they actively invited him to join. When my husband joined the group, some people stopped talking to me; in particular, men, while remaining kind, they were no longer so affable as before.
In general, my parents’ visit made a greater effect on my and the group’s relationship by breaking the barriers and strengthening my status as an ‘insider’ than my husband’s later entry to the group.
What were the barriers which my parents destroyed or reduced: an ‘expert’ inviolability, unfamiliarity? One reason could be that my mother has very good social skills and most other women liked her, and as a result of her cordiality, they found it easier to like me as well:
‘I think that my parents visit destroyed the barrier between us, because they [group members] got to know me in a new way. Maybe my parents themselves, by being simple and honest, convinced them [group members] that I am similar. (Fieldwork diary: 17th of February, 2017)
Another explanation is that my parents created the first connection, and then the group members inherited a common theme to talk about with me. When my parents left, many new people started talking to me, and each time the first question was related to my parents. In this way, my parents’ visit has significantly strengthened my position as an ‘insider’ ethnographer.
Another point of discussion is why this relationship changed in the opposite direction when my husband entered the group activity. Men quite likely stopped being so affable because of the respect to my husband and because they did not want to make my husband jealous. But it is unclear why everyone else stopped chatting with me, too. It might be because I gave a lot of attention to my husband, and the actual amount of contact time with others was reduced; or because they felt unfamiliar with my husband and did not want to talk with an unfamiliar person, with whom I was present.
To sum up, I cannot answer most of these questions, because much of a person’s perception lies in his deeper layers of consciousness that I cannot directly see, while the person himself may not want to say or even identify it to an unfamiliar person. Those being observed may need more confidence in me in order to reveal some personal information and only further participatory observation can build trust and help to answer these questions.
Maria Koutsouba’s (1999) suggests that the ‘expert’ role and being ‘outsider’ and ‘insider’ in the known context both challenge the methods and ethics of ethnographer. My research has confirmed this statement because my ‘expert’ role (teaching activity, group leading and playing with instruments) created the distance even though for me as an ethnographer it was important to reduce it. This reduction was reached with the help of my parents; this suggests that wider family members are important, but anthropologists do not discuss it enough. Moreover, this research violated my initial expectations and stereotypes, and has revealed different reality about the life of Lithuanian emigrants. Finally, this research has fulfilled an important purpose – for the researcher to get to know herself better.
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Ligita, M. (2017) Interviewed by Akvile, R. 14th January.
London Lithuanian folk group “SADUTO” website. Available at: http://www.saduto.co.uk/en (Accessed: 13/01/17).
 Both British and Ukrainian people in the group understand Lithuanian; however, they sometimes need some explanations in English and Russian.
 The leader and the group strongly promoted and appreciated my violin paying skills and several times they have said, including in social media, that they enjoy my the sound of violin and it enriches the overall sound of the group a lot.
 Although, old polka is still being performed among elderly people in Lithuania as the ‘first existence’ (Nahachewsky 2001), however, urban folk groups often do not have old dancers to learn from and the ‘old polka’ and they copy the dance style from videos and often their style do not match the ‘original’ stylistics.
 There are three musicians: one man and two women. Musician distribution in group is one to ten.
 My husband has played the tabor for a few rehearsals and an event, partially replacing the previous tabor player, who expressed some explicit dissatisfaction with that.