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Dancing Modern / Dancing Indian / Dancing …. In America

The myths of cultural ‘purity’

by Priya Srinivasan

Image: La Meri ( Courtesy Ashish Khokar, Trustee, Mohan Khokar Dance Archives)

The National Theatre was crowded to excess last night to witness the genuine Nautch Dancers. The copper colored females came on the stage during the musical burlesque. It was an exceedingly grotesque dance in which they indulged, and is said to be the national dance of their country. Their movements were peculiar, their bodies swaying back and forth and their hands going through numerous gyrations, while they kept time in a number of exceedingly graceful steps. Indeed, the entire dance was graceful and very odd. The novelty of their costume and their graceful manners pleased the vast assemblage. Their reception was indeed flattering.

The passage above reviews a Nautch Dance show in Philadelphia in 1881.[1] Indian dancers who were collectively called Nautch by the British were brought by impresarios such as Daly and PT Barnum (of the circus fame) to the US and Europe in the late nineteenth century, often as oddities and amusements for display in museums, theatres, and World Fairs.[2]

American audiences perceived Nautch dancers in contradictory ways, and so what we read in the passage above demonstrates both desire and loathing. On the one hand the dancers are thought to have “graceful manners,” and on the other, their dancing is “exceedingly grotesque.” This love-hate relationship between Americans and Asians echoed in dance practices is part of the larger phenomenon of Orientalism during the mid- to late nineteenth century; it can be understood as a reflection of something broader as Americans, in defining themselves, were increasingly turning to Asian goods, philosophies, arts, and cultures, even as they selectively denied Asian people, including Indians, the rights of citizenship.[3] It became very clear between 1917, when immigration law barred all Asians from immigrating to the United States, and 1924, when all Asians were deprived of citizenship that, although the US needed Asian labor, philosophies, and culture to create a unique identity for itself, it did not want Asian bodies in the long term. What I suggest in this article is that Asian artistic practices were absorbed by white American dancers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century and subsequently these borrowings were forgotten. Therefore, what we have today is a simplistic division in dance practices between modern and traditional/ethnic as if they are mutually exclusive. I suggest here that we need to look critically and historically at the interactions between dancers and their forms to understand the divisions today.

If we look at Nautch dancers who came from India to the US from 1881 till about 1906, we see that they have not been part of dance histories. Nautch dancers are very important to American dance history particularly in relation to Oriental dancers. The inter-relationships between white American and Indian women occur on many levels. Not only did American women dancers use ideas from Nautch women’s dance forms, they also used Indian philosophies and spirituality to construct new public performance venues for themselves and assert their modernity.

Oriental dancers like Ruth St. Denis, and Maud Allen, to mention a couple, used Indian forms among other Asian techniques to emerge as public performers at the turn of the nineteenth into the twentieth century when American dance (and particularly, modern dance) had not emerged as a category. These women were following a trend that had started in the 1880s whereby other spiritual practices were emerging as an outlet for white women in America. Protestant Christians, particularly women, turned away from a patriarchal, restrictive God to a more benign God thought to be present in Asian spiritual practices like Hinduism, Buddhism and others. Part of this trend was reflected in the development and extreme popularity of movements like Theosophy, Transcendentalism, and occult practices.

Although there were skirt dancers and other kinds of performers in vaudeville, the stigma of prostitution prevented any one of them from emerging as independent figures in their own right. The turn to Eastern spirituality thus enabled white female performers to break with the norms present during the time in attempting to remove the sexual stigma in favor of a spiritual spin. This was not always successful but dancers like St. Denis were able to move between vaudeville, private home cocktail/tea parties of highly respectable women, and the concert stage.

St. Denis was able to successfully market herself as a ‘new’ spiritual and mystical Oriental dancer precisely because of her turn to Indian dance practices. St. Denis admits she went to search for new ideas at Coney Island, an amusement park in New York, where some Nautch dancers were performing in 1905. She also did a great deal of research in various Oriental texts, dabbled in Theosophy, Vedanta, and was trained in Delsarte and Genevieve Stebbins’ techniques of movement. She was excited by what she saw at Coney Island, yet few dance writers of the time or thereafter, have focused in depth on the ‘live’ interaction between St. Denis and the Nautch women.

St. Denis’s spiritual turn and subsequent performances were viewed as novel ideas produced by a creative genius rather than as borrowings from Nautch women’s forms. Racist immigrant policies in America aided by the Asiatic Exclusion League helped St. Denis’s rise to fame by preventing Indians from migrating and often visiting the US. Thus there were few Nautch dancers who could even contest St. Denis’s re-framing of their forms.

St. Denis’s work was viewed as new and innovative because of her use of bright costumes, lighting, and music, while the Nautch women’s forms were seen as old and repetitive. St. Denis established a dance school together with Ted Shawn which produced a whole generation of Oriental dancers, some of whom went on to become primary figures in the development of American modern dance. For instance Doris Humphrey and Martha Graham both trained in Oriental dance techniques from Denishawn school and left St. Denis in the late 1920s to create their own ‘new’ dances because they found her forms to be old and repetitive. Later they reconciled with her when she was conferred the title of “key founder of modern dance” by writers and critics.

Few have focused on this fundamental connection between American modern, Oriental, and Nautch dance forms. Many have dismissed the connections as trivial. Humphrey and Graham have been taken at their word when they claimed to be making ‘new’ forms, rather than questioned about the bodily connections and physical training they had undertaken in Oriental dance techniques.

Modern dancers are not alone in maintaining their polar opposition to traditional dance forms. Indians themselves have maintained the divide between modern and traditional/ethnic dance. For example, Indians have contributed to the process of creating and sustaining the binary of modernity – tradition on the bodies of their women as a reaction to colonialism.

Several dance scholars have argued that the reconstitution of bharatanatyam in the twentieth century as a traditional form and the masking its invention is a result of Indians wanting to cling to the idea of ‘pure’ culture.[4] That is, Indians want to believe that colonization never happened and that their culture was unpolluted by western ideas and thought. By not acknowledging the inventions of women such as Rukmini Devi who transformed and brought the temple-court form, sadir, to the theatre as bharatanatyam, Indians can continue to believe their forms are ‘ancient’, ‘traditional’, and ‘pure’. Also, Indian dance history does not acknowledge the importance of American and European Oriental dancers in India in the 1920s and 1930s, a presence, which contributed to the revival of the ‘classical’ forms of India.[5] This continues as Indians have migrated to western countries where they wish to preserve their ‘authentic’ Indianness and guard it against the pressures of assimilation. Bharatanatyam practitioners continue masking their own inventions as ‘tradition’ in their new environments, which is complemented by Modern dancers who mask their appropriations of Asian dance forms as ‘new’ inventions.

To conclude, when we think about the labels we give the dance forms we perform, we can ask what meanings these labels produce for the dancers who use them. Foremost, economic and political considerations must be taken into account as to why these labels have such power even today. Perhaps due to the budgetary constraints created by funding bodies dancers use particular labels of ‘modern’ and ‘tradition’ to gain leverage for themselves.

Identity politics also play into this scenario and who gets to be ‘authentically’ modern or traditional can be both powerful and encumbering: we become powerful by naming and thereby understanding ourselves; we are encumbered when we cannot break outside the boundaries of our labels. Dancers are astute about the labels they use but a critical look at history and the interconnections between so called modern and traditional dance forms thought to be mutually exclusive can offer insights that challenge simplistic definitions and can rupture the myth of ‘pure’ dance culture and identity.


[1] Philadelphia Times, 1 February 1881 cited in Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 13 February 1881, 1.
[2] One of the earliest photographic records of Nautch dancers is from the New York Clipper. See illustration: “The Nautch Dancers” from New York Clipper, 22 January 1881, 345. The dancers are Oomdah, Boorie, and Sahebjan. For further details see Priya Srinivasan’s (2003) PhD dissertation “Performing Indian Dance in America: Interrogating Modernity, Tradition and the Myth of Cultural Purity.” Northwestern University, Department of Performance Studies.
[3] Asians in America have mainly been viewed as Chinese or Japanese and not Indian. It is only recently that Indians have claimed their Asian status. This is different to the UK where Asian refers to Indians and Pakistanis.
[4] See Avanthi Meduri’s (1996) dissertation from New York University titled “Nation, Woman Represented - The Sutured History of the Devadasi and her Dance: 1856- 1960.” for further details.
[5] See Uttara Coorlawala’s (1992) article from Dance Chronicle “Ruth St. Denis and India’s dance renaissance.”

Priya Srinivasan is Assistant Professor of Dance at the University of California, Riverside. Her current work focuses on Indian dance in America. She trained professionally in bharatanatyam in Australia and is an experimental dance choreographer.

This article first appeared in the Autumn 2003 issue of "Pulse", a magazine specialising in South-East Asian dance. For more information about "Pulse", please contact the publishers at:

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