Dancing Where the River Meets the Sea: Ambiguous Sensuality and Liminal Cultural Geographies in Goa, India

This dissertation concerns the performance of cultural heritage by female dancers on tour boats in Goa, India, at the Goa Boat Center (GBC). Tourism is the most rapidly growing industry in the former Portuguese enclave of Goa, which continues to attract an increasing number of visitors each year and has recently witnessed an influx of migrants, many of whom end up working in the tourism sector. Although the tourism industry has not yet fully capitalized on cultural tourism, government-affiliated institutions such as the GBC have begun to strategically market Goan traditions as heritage. These efforts have resulted in struggles over both the significance of Goan culture and the status of female performers in this regard. This dissertation reveals how tourism in Goa thus functions as a site for the reconfiguration of narratives on Goa, female sexuality, and womanhood more generally, both on an individual and an institutional level.

​While public discourse in India tends to depict the nation and its people as traditional, Goa is typically presented as a state characterized by a “modern” cultural openness and moral looseness, qualities that are attributed to the long-lasting Portuguese colonial influence (1510-1961). Using discourse analysis, I trace how these ideas are given new currency in popular media such as tourism advertisements and Bollywood films, which I argue help to portray travel to Goa as a rite of passage allowing young domestic tourists to explore their modern selfhood. I also show how these media, which I consider as travel narratives, have helped to engender the idea that women in Goa are sexually promiscuous, an image that strongly contrasts with the notion of female respectability central to Indian traditional modernity. This impression greatly impacts how the female tour boat dancers are perceived by visitors from elsewhere in India and by Goan society. The morally ambiguous status of the tour boat dancers is compounded by the fact that in India, lower-caste female performers have tended to be associated with prostitution.

​While the state-supported tourism industry strongly relies on the image of Goa as a pleasure periphery, the Goan government has also felt compelled to appease citizens who disapprove of this image, for example by imposing restrictions on nightlife, especially amidst an increase in sexual violence. Through ethnography, I examine how the GBC negotiates narratives on Goa and domestic tourists’ expectations in its staging of Goan culture. I argue that the GBC performances aim to strike a careful balance by presenting Goan culture as rooted in a morally guided past, while at the same time reinforcing the image of Goa as a party destination. Finally, I analyze the ways in which the female tour boat dancers navigate this complex web of meaning, as they rely on the traditional nature and heritage status of the GBC shows to emphasize their respectability as performers. I show how the GBC performances and dance clubs the women attend in their free time provide a liminal space in which they can participate in an embodied modernity. This way, I argue, the women use dance to explore gendered subjectivities that challenge patriarchal codes of womanhood.