What Are ‘Adopted Cultural Practices’?

I think it would be useful, before I go any further, to name and describe some of the activities which I would count unequivocally as Adopted Cultural Practices. Of course, there are myriad examples of people ‘borrowing’ music, clothes or food from cultures in which they have not grown up. What I want to address is something rather more specific and a working definition which I have been using is this:

  • Group activities involving music and/or movement
  • Popular in the ‘West’
  • Originating in ‘non-Western’ cultures

Each word is important here. For instance ‘group’. These are practices people generally do together, so this would include samba, but exclude playing the shakuhachi. Also crucial is the word ‘activities’, meaning that people are actively taking part in something rather than passively consuming it. This means it would apply to belly dance, but not to listening to Mongolian throat singing on Spotify. The concept of the ‘West’ is contentious and could be replaced by ‘European and North American’, but more on that later. What this part of the definition points to however, is that we are talking about practices which come from cultures which are distant in several senses from that of the adoptive participants. This is to say that yoga is included but Morris dancing (in England) cannot, since it can be interpreted as people reclaiming an aspect of their own culture rather than someone else’s. Of course, there will be commonalities between forms of cultural adoption which I would include in my definition, and those I would not. For instance, questions of understanding the meaning of an ‘alien’ culture arise whether one is participating or merely spectating. However, I am specifically interested in the former, because it requires a fuller engagement and commitment from the individual, and this is what we tend to find in the group activities I am focusing on. 

To take the definition a little further I will detail some of the usual components of Adopted Cultural Practices. The fact that they are mostly practiced in groups is important because it means that they have a significant social dimension. Participants are often not simply interested in the activity itself, but also in going to a place where they take part in it with others. There are varying levels of interaction at these ‘classes’ but the group dimension is usually present and has a number of important effects, such as counteracting loneliness and forming what has been called an ‘ad hoc community’. That the practice should involve music and/or movement sounds rather imprecise. I have worked for a considerable time as an ethnomusicologist. Ethnomusicology is an academic discipline which attempts to walk a tortured line between studying music and seeing that music as part of a culture. The fact is that music does not exist in isolation, and in most cultures is inseparable from dance, religion, festivals, parties and so on. In other words, music is embedded in other aspects of culture and inextricably bound up with them. Furthermore, music is a form of physical, indeed of bodily expression, and so is dance, or expressive movement. Therefore, I tend to regard any separation of music from movement as arbitrary. We move our bodies to create music, and dancing is moving our bodies. Both are ways of expressing ourselves and communicating. Thus, tai chi usually does not involve music, but it is expressive movement, so I would include it in my definition. Singing songs from other cultures in a community choir does not necessarily involve dancelike gestures, but it is sound produced by movements of the body (lungs, larynx, mouth) so I would include it as well. 

Often Adopted Cultural Practices involve using another language. Thus, invoking the Sanskrit names of yoga postures is common, as is the use of Spanish terms for salsa moves. This emphasises the foreignness of the practice. It is something which reminds us that it comes from another place and another cultural sphere, and for most participants this will be a kind of barrier, but also something which lends a sense of the exotic to the activity. There may be a style of clothing which is preferred or required. This can be traditional, such as the white of capoeira, which recalls the ritual dress of Afro-Brazilian religion, or modern, such as the various tight-fitting yoga clothes. In all cases they serve to mark people out as part of a kind of tribe. 

An important dimension of Adopted Cultural Practices is what we can loosely term spirituality. Sometimes this is foregrounded, such as in certain types of yoga, while in practices such as salsa and belly dance it may be less obvious, but is there in the background nevertheless. This is a key element of the practices I am concerned with and something which clearly differentiates them from other kinds of sport or music-making which have no spiritual or philosophical dimension.

Below is a table which summarises the defining features of Adopted Cultural Practices using some examples.


Group activityMusicMove-mentOriginates inPopular in ‘West’Spiritual/philosophy connectionLanguage used
CapoeiraBrazilCandombléPortuguese
Yoga(✔)IndiameditationSanskrit
Tai Chi
ChinaBuddhismMandarin
SambaBrazilCandombléPortuguese
SalsaCuba etc.SanteríaSpanish
Belly DanceMiddle Eastancient/ female deitiesArabic

There are other practices which can be included and the boundary between what should and should not be considered part of this category is certainly fuzzy. Interesting discussions can be had about whether a particular practice is an Adopted Cultural Practice in the sense proposed here. One group of practices I am myself uncertain about is Eastern martial arts and I intend to go into this more fully in a later post. If anyone has suggestions about practices that could be included, feel free to post a comment.