Orientalism in Dance

In fifth grade, I distinctly remember learning and performing a dance for our studio’s June recital. Our role was to be Chinese court dancers, in the studio’s ballet-adapted version of Marco Polo. Later, in eighth grade, my friends were asked to preform traditional Burmese and Balinese dances, that Ruth St. Dennis had “discovered”, as a part of a study on the origins of modern dance. My classmates and I loved the dancing and the costumes, but it wasn’t until our high school years that we realized just how strange we felt performing dances that weren’t part of our cultures. We adored learning the new styles, but looking back we acknowledge that we were a group of American kids dancing a style from an area of the world we didn’t know much else about.

Who's St. Denis? What Is She?
Ruth St. Dennis

Dance and its relationship with Orientalism is fascinating. The representation comes in the form of a story to be performed for an audience, leaving many obvious examples of Orientalism intact. Many studios/companies today still don’t quite understand what it means to teach their students about the true nature of the cultures they learn dances from, or how these dances do not accurately depict these cultures.

From modern dancer Ruth St. Dennis’s “discoveries” of traditional dance during her Denishawn School’s 1925 travels to Asia to one of the most famous ballets, Le Corsaire, the examples of Asian culture depicted from an Orientalist view are endless. In particular, Le Corsaire is glaringly obvious. As it is based on a Lord Byron poem, the ballet is a perfect example of Orientalism. According to an article from Dance Magazine,

…[Le Corsaire] is morally repugnant: Centered around the selling and stealing of sex slaves, it basically portrays women as weak, non-human objects, and Muslims as evil or buffoon-like. (Yep, the last stereotypes that need to be reinforced today.)

The ballet only depicts the western idea of the “East”, however, there is obviously much more to the culture there than what is shown through the story. Although today there is much more information available to the people performing the stories, it is important to recognize them as inaccurate.

2 thoughts on “Orientalism in Dance

  1. Olivia K

    I remember dancing in the Chinese Court Dance so well! I too always thought it was a little bit weird that we were dancing and wearing something that we really knew nothing about. I think when I came back and performed in “the Flowering Tree” it really hit me. It just did not feel okay at all that we were dressing up and dancing to someone else’s culture that neither the students (or the staff) really knew much about. Even with the work of Martha Graham and Doris Humphrey, there is some obvious culture appropriation in a few of their pieces. While I have grown to love the intricate technique of Graham, it is becoming harder and harder to appreciate pieces and ballets that exhibit such cultural stereotypes.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you so much, Lucy, from bringing us your own experience and expertise so that we can see how influential the Orientalist mindset actually is. So much of modernism — the Western cultural movement that pushed forward the forms of dance, visual art, architecture, literature, etc, at the start of the 20th Century and supposedly valued breaking free of tradition and celebrating originality (“Make it new!” the poet Ezra Pound famously said) — took inspiration, consciously and unconsciously, from the art of non-Western, often colonized cultures. It’s true in dance, and it’s true, for example, in the ways that painters like Matisse and Picasso appropriated West African sculptural forms (seen often in ceremonial masks) to create their “revolutionary” abstract works.

    I do think, in the future, we can have a culture that blends worldly influences in the spirit of mutual recognition (I’m thinking of the music they are playing in the Marin County refugee camps in the final chapters of Exit West!), but we are a long way from it, if we still have to remind people of this history.


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