When ‘Identity Experts’ Shared ‘Exotic Cultures’ of the World
The author, a doctoral student in history, wrote this article while serving as a researcher at the UC Davis Humanities Institute.
In Edward Ross Dickinson’s upcoming book, Dancing in the Blood: Modern Dance and European Culture on the Eve of the First World War, the development of the modern dance form serves as a new lens into the formation of ethnic identity, femininity and the rise of mass culture.
In a recent talk held on campus and sponsored by the UC Davis history department, Dickinson described the role of modern dancers as a new kind of “identity expert” in the early 20th century, when identity expertise was a crowded field.
Ethnographers, race scientists, historians, ethnomusicologists, psychoanalysts — they all claimed special insight into the true nature of people. Modern dancers’ claim to identity expertise was their artistic sensitivity to the "soul" of a people, which they could synthesize and express to an audience through their art.
Modern dancers believed they could do this because they had stripped down all of the nonessential elements of dance, leaving only “the body in motion in space,” and that pure dance form could easily assimilate any “ethnic dance” and present that people’s essence to enraptured audiences.
For his March 2 talk, Dickinson focused on three examples from his book: Tórtola Valencia in Peru, Ruth St. Denis in India and Martha Graham in the United States.
Capturing the emotional essence of art
Modern dance arose in the early years of the 20th century as a new performance style, which contrasted itself from “academic” dance forms, particularly ballet. Criticized as too mechanical and focused on technical mastery, traditional dance, these new artists claimed, could not capture the emotional essence of art. Only by stripping down (sometimes literally) dance, modern dancers expressed emotional truths that sensationalized, and scandalized, audiences.
Modern dance helped to create a new culture of marketable celebrity, with the dancers themselves as the products. Appearing in advertisements, dancing in department stores, these artists became independent businesswomen, adding to their artistic prestige as the subject of intense cultural and political debate about the place of women in the early 20th century.
A particular focus of their art, and the subject of Dickinson’s book, was a genre of dance that employed “exotic” cultures. Dancers like Valencia, an Englishwoman by birth, transformed themselves into characters from across history and around the world. She performed as an Ancient Greek dancer, as a Cambodian, Indian, Spanish, Arabian, Egyptian, Hebrew and an Incan.
These performances were not mere fraud, as Dickinson explained — even though dancers like Valencia pretended to be from these different cultures, few people were fooled — but an artistic attempt to “perform their truest self by pretending to be someone else.” These dancers sought their own individual essence by exploring the essences of other cultures.
“It’s all very weird,” Dickinson said, but it worked because these dances expressed what was then a widespread assumption that the character of a person or a culture was carried in their blood. Ethnicity was believed to be fundamental to explaining both individual and group behaviors. A dancer might be passionate because of her Italian father, or musical because of her Austrian mother. While we may look back at these assumptions as stereotypes, modern dancers and their audiences fully believed in the explanatory power of ethnicity, and that a pure art form could do no better than to discover those individual and ethnic essences.
‘Authentic’ boost to anti-colonial argument
The real test of these beliefs was after the outbreak of the First World War, when the market for dance dried up in Europe. So, these dancers exported themselves outside Europe. We might assume this was the moment when the charade came to an end. Surely an audience of Indians would see right through St. Denis’ so-called Indian dances. Likewise, Peruvian audiences must have seen right through Valencia’s attempts to “channel the spirit of an ancient Inca princess to revive Inca dances.”
But, paradoxically, these audiences adored the dances, because, Dickinson argues, they saw these dances as making a case that their local culture was just as artistically complex and admirable as the colonial European cultures forced on them through colonization. It didn’t matter that the dances were “real” or “authentic”; what mattered was that they captured the spirit (or soul?) of their homelands. The success of these dances, in no small part, was their arrival to the rest of the world during a period of anti-colonial sentiment. The dances became part of the anti-colonial argument that Euro-American culture did not hold a monopoly on artistic and cultural value.
These paradoxes and creative misunderstandings, Dickinson concluded, were essential elements that helped create the modern world. The reality or authenticity of a person or performance sometimes mattered less than what they claimed to represent.