In an effort to understand the American identity and Other identities during the modern era, I have been researching the experiences of two choreographers who are in the modern dance canon against the experiences of Lebanese American immigrants. Here are some of my findings so far. (Note that I have included my entire works cited even though only a few of the sources are used in this post.)
Ellen Graff argues that leftist dance, which existed along side modern dance, created a space for immigrants to perform American identities while maintaining their ethnic roots (Graff 1997, 19-21). Limón and Sokolow both used this space to create create through the lens of their ethnic roots. Both choreographers were creating work that reflected their heritage during the interwar and postwar period. Strikingly, they both have also been accepted into the modern dance canon. Modern dance in the United States was ruled by descendants of Northern European immigrants, such as Martha Graham and Doris Humphrey, whose families have been in the United States for generations (Graff 1997, 19).
Limón, an immigrant from Mexico, and Sokolow, a second generation American Jew with Russian heritage, are both anomalies in the canon. Their presence relied on cross-viewing, as laid out by Susan Manning. Manning defines cross-viewing as a process in which audience members notice that people who are socially distinctive from themselves understand the performance differently (Manning 2004, xvi). Limón, for example, entertained queer cross-viewing audiences, leftist audiences (mainstream modern dance audiences. Leftist (Manning 2004, 76) and queer audience
s also cross-viewed Sokolow’s work (Kosstrin 2017, 170). Therefore, I argue that cross-viewing allowed Limón and Sokolow to maintain their cultural heritage and attract diverse audiences while also pleasing modern dance critics with their universality. If these two choreographers could maintain their identity as Other and still be canonized, could a Lebanese Audience have been at their sides? I argue that although Lebanese immigrants attained whiteness, Lebanese American immigrants were confined to “Oriental” dance because of their disassociation with the political left, and therefore, leftist dance.
Although Lebanese immigrants attained whiteness, they, like many immigrant groups, face discrimination. An article from 1888 in the New York Times, “Masters of Mendicants: Syrian Arabs Infesting the Cities,” exemplifies this prejudice. The author emphasizes their “dark complexion, with bold, black eyes” in order to represent them as non-white. The author then references the “filthy” Syrians immigrants’ “dirty paws”and “dilapidated condition,” speaking of them like animals that have been “allowed to go loose on the country.” The “dirty, ragged, shirtless Arabs” contrast the Swedish Immigrants who were “dressed in their best clothes, with earnest, honest faces.” This article demonstrates Kayal and Kayal’s (1975, 74) claim that Northern European immigrants, whose fellow countrymen had already become established in the United States, were welcomed while Mediterranean and Eastern European immigrants faced prejudice. The height of
anti-Arab sentiment coincided with the height of Lebanese immigration and the beginning of World War I, when immigration dropped significantly (Kayal and Kayal 1975, 74). Simultaneously, a judge ruled Lebanese immigrants ineligible for citizenship in the US, but a judge reversed the ruling, and deemed Lebanese immigrants Caucasian and eligible for citizenship.
Although Lebanese Americans greatly appreciated the freedom that the United States government allowed them, their experience under the Ottoman Empire engrained a distrust of the electoral system and fear of governmental punishment for political activism (Suleiman 1987, 46-50). Furthermore, Suleiman reports that if they were politically active, they were more likely to lean right, so it is not likely that many joined leftist dance (1987, 50).
Archival Los Angeles newspapers only identify Lebanese “Oriental” dancers, and the tone often highlights them as “weird,” and “descriptive of people who rode across desert wastes” (“Oriental Dances Win” 1942). An essay by Andrea Deagon explains that “Oriental” dancers were too morally threatening to be on New York stages, so it is not surprising that a New York Times Article from 1957 states that “even a Lebanese girl whose voice was greatly admired” was runner up in the “West Side Story” audition.
Preliminary findings reveal the oppression of that confined Lebanese dancing bodies to “Oriental” dance, and their political conservatism hindered their involvement in leftist dance. Therefore, the leftist and queer audiences that Limón and Sokolow appealed to for success were not attainable for Lebanese American performers.
Berg, Shelley C. 2005. “Limón’s La Malinche: Negotiating the In-Between.” in Dance Research Journal 37(1): 75-93.
Bullet Lowrey, Helen. 1921. “The Old World in New York.” New York Times, April 3.
Cohen, Aaron. 1982. “Anna Sokolow is ‘Now.’” New York Times, April 25.
Deagon, Andrea. 2007. “Almée or Salomé?: Hybrid Dances of the East, 1890–1930”. Congress on Research in Dance Conference Proceedings. 39 (S1): 36-46.
Graff, Ellen. 1997. Stepping Left: Dance and Politics in New York City, 1928-1942. Durham: Duke University Press.
Harrington Delaney, Patty. 2008. “José Limón’s La Malinche.” in José Limón and La Malinche, edited by Patricia Seed, 35-49. Austin: University of Texas Press.
Hoogland, Eric J. 1987. “Introduction.” In Crossing the Waters: Arabic Speaking Immigrants to the United States Before 1940, 1-14. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press.
Kayal, Philip M. and Joseph M. Kayal. 1975. The Syrian-Lebanese in American: A Study in Religion and Assimilation. Boston: Twayne Publishers.
Khalaf, Samir. 1987. “The Background and Causes of Lebanese/Syrian Immigration to the United States before World War I.” in Crossing the Waters: Arabic Speaking Immigrants to the United States Before 1940, edited by Eric J. Hooglund, 17-35. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press.
Kosstrin, Hannah, 2017. Honest Bodies: Revolutionary Modernism in the Dances of Anna Sokolow. New York: Oxford University Press.
Kowal, Rebekah J. 2010. How To Do Things with Dance. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press.
Limón, José. 1949. La Malinche. Filmed 1997. Directed by Patty Harrington Delaney. Fort Worth: Circle R Media. DVD.
“Lovely Oriental Dancer.” 1919. Los Angeles Daily Times, February 11.
Manning, Susan. 2004. Modern Dance Negro Dance: Race in Motion. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Martin, John. 1949. “Limon and Troupe Dance New Work: First Offering of ‘La Malinche’ is Main Event of Delightful Program at Ziegfeld.” New York Times, April 2.
“Masters of Mendicants: Syrian Arabs Infesting the Cities.” 1888. New York Times, February 21.
Moreno, James. 2017. “Brown in Black and White: José Limón Dances The Emperor Jones.” in The Oxford Handbook of Dance and Politics, Edited by Rebekah J. Kowal, Gerald Seigmund, and Randy Martin. 459-475. New York: Oxford University Press.
Morris, Gay. 2006. A Game For Dancers. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press.
Morse Jones, Isabel. 1938. “Violinist and Dancer in Recitals.” Los Angeles Times, February 9.
Moses, John G. 2001. The Lebanses in America. rev. ed. Utica: T.C. Peters Printing Company, Inc.
Orfalea, Gregory. 2006. The Arab Americans: A History. Northhampton: Olive Branch Press.
“Oriental Dances Win.” 1942. Los Angeles Times, January 13.
Pallock, Barbara and Charles Humphrey Woodford. 1993. Dance is a Moment: A Portrait of José Limón in Words and Pictures. Pennington: Princeton Book Company.
“Profiles.” 1933. The Syrian World, June 23.
Said, Edward W. 1978. Orientalism. New York: Random House, Inc.
Schumach, Murray. 1957. “Talent Dragnes: Casting for ‘West Side Story’ Causes Unusual Number of Headaches.” New York Times. September 22.
Sokolow, Anna. 1961. Dreams. Filmed 1977. Directed by Roger Englander. Aviva Films Ltd. Creative Arts TV, 2007. http://search.alexanderstreet.com/view/work/bibliographic_entity%7Cvideo_work%7C394454
Stevens, Marjorie, Katie Schinabeck, and Claire Kempa. 2017. “Syrians in New York: Mapping Movement, 1900-1930.” Khayrallah Center for Lebanese Diaspora Studies. Accessed October 20.
Suleiman, Michael. 1987. “Early Arab Americans: The Search for Identity.” in Crossing the Waters: Arabic Speaking Immigrants to the United States before 1940, 37-54. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press.
“The Syrian Colony of New York and Its Characteristics.” 1902. New York Times, May 25.