Dancing Oriental: Performance & Culture in the Early 20th Century

By Aishwarya Ramachandran

Postcolonial theorist Edward Said suggested that defining the West through history requires acknowledging the Orient and the special place it holds in the Western experience.[1] The concept of Orientalism, in particular, has accompanied the notion that “the East is a career,” and thus to be interested in the Orient was to have a passion for depicting Oriental ideas, cultures, and histories.[2] The relationship between the West and the Orient during the early twentieth century was characterized by power and varying degrees of complex hegemony.[3] Under the direct subjugation of colonial rule, the Orient and the Oriental dancer are produced by imperialism and Orientalist perceptions of the East.

American society during the Progressive Era (1890-1920) was characterized by a renaissance in social and theatrical dance, promulgated in part by a growing fascination with “non-European cultures coincided with a rise in such sciences of codification, as ethnography.”[4] Exoticism proved to be a compelling inspiration in both scholarly and artistic endeavors of the time. Slowly changing the social context of dance within the United States, by the early twentieth century, emerging trends in modern dance looked to Hellenic modes, gesture, and the expressive principles of Delsarte’s aesthetic theory.[5] Jane Desmond suggests that if “physical cultures are symptomatic and constitutive of social relations, then examining the history of their appropriation and change across groups can help uncover shifting ideologies attached to bodily discourse.”[6] Thus, the appropriation of Asian dance forms by American modern dancers in the early twentieth century also indicated an ongoing negotiation in the social construction of race, gender, class, and nationality.[7]

A 1906 New York Times article claimed that

the fascination of the Orient is eternal. Women’s clubs that have sipped tea over pretty much everything from Sun worship to Mental Science generally fall back on Eastern lore for things to be enthusiastic about.[8]

Ruth St. Denis (1879-1968), often cited as one of the three “mothers” of modern dance, alongside Loie Fuller and Isadora Duncan, exemplified this era’s fascination with Hinduism, theosophy, and Christian Science.[9] Born in New Jersey, St. Denis was exposed early on to Christian Science and Eastern spiritualism by her progressive mother, but also through the Orientalist performances of leading Delsarte exponent Genevieve Stebbins. Although initially she could only find work in touring vaudeville circuits and road shows, or taking on bit parts in David Belasco melodramas, her ultimate claim to fame lay in choreographing Oriental dances, backed financially by a formidable list of female patrons. One such fin de siècle “custodian of culture” was Mrs. Herbert Saterlee, daughter of J.P. Morgan and Mrs. Otto H. Kahn, who freely lent her words of praise and (far more importantly) her considerable resources to further St. Denis as an authority on modern dance in America.[10] Never having studied Indian dance, St. Denis made use of images of India available to her in books. Her poses were a recollection of Oriental icons and popular images of the late Victorian era, such as the femme fatale.[11] Deborah Jowitt suggests that St. Denis “knew the East in her soul and didn’t vex her nascent choreographic powers with questions of authenticity.”[12] In particular, St. Denis referred to inspiration from nautch dancers she once saw on Coney Island. She borrowed their “Oriental orgasmic” aesthetic for several of her own choreographed dances, including her own version of the nautch.[13] Her pièce de résistance, “Radha,” based on the mythological Hindu figure of the same name, was a piece inspired by Oriental posturing and gauzy costumes. Performed for the first time in 1906, “Radha” brought her fame as both a respected performer and vaudeville novelty.[14]

By the 1930s, Oriental dancing had begun to evolve from its origins as a gauche spectacle imagined by enthusiastic female soloists into a legitimate dance form. Central to this process of re-imagination was modern Indian dancer Uday Shankar (1900-1977), whose celebrity had peaked outside of India during this period. Shankar’s fame was often attributed to his ability to give an “impression of being authentic” without being specific to any of the traditional Indian dance forms.[15]

Born in 1900 to an Indian family with attachments to the princely states of the Maharajas, Shankar was never formally trained in any of the Indian dance forms. His higher education took place at the Royal College of Art in London, where he was mentored by Sir William Rothstein, an eminent art historian known for his ardent support of traditional Indian art and artists.[16] This was also where he was solicited by Russian prima ballerina Anna Pavlova, who sought to add some authenticity to her production of two Indian themed ballets – A Hindu Wedding and Krishna-Radha.[17] In his early days, he often performed mythological pieces based on Hindu religious themes. Due to a lack of formal training, his choreography tended to rely on mental imagery and memorization techniques. By the 1930s, Shankar was riding high on the success of several European tours – including a 1931 premiere at the Théâtre des Champs Elysée and the Paris Colonial Exposition – and was recruited by impresario Sol Hurok in 1932 to tour the United States.[18] Performing alongside his “Company of Hindu Dancers and Musicians,” he received overwhelmingly positive reviews from critics and audiences alike.[19] The pageantry and spectacle of the overall production, coupled with Shankar’s “boneless grace and sinuosity of the serpent” proved a great success, especially for female spectators.

Particularly adept at pleasing non-Indian audiences, Shankar’s education in Indian culture was through English and European mentors who had “largely shaped his identity by Orientalist sources and their articulation of Indian traditions.”[20] When he eventually returned to India in the late 1930s to introduce his “Shankar” style of dance, intending to bring together Indian-inspired poses with Western techniques of choreography, he was criticized for “breaching the canons of Indian classical dance” by playing to his advantage as a foreigner.[21] One is inclined to recognize the Indian subcontinent, then on the brink of political sovereignty, as having no real interest in experimentation with transnational dance techniques or fusion choreography.

David Grazian proposes that authenticity, “while connoting objective appraisal at the surface, is essentially a social construct with moral overtones that are imagined or crafted in some way.”[22]  Joan Erdman credits Shankar’s bona fide status in the minds of European and American audiences to his features, dress, and ability to convey a unique “Indianness” through poses and gestures.[23] Like St. Denis, he was successful in putting together spectacular performances that pandered to American presuppositions of Oriental spirituality and transcendental moral purpose.[24] However, as a relatively untrained dancer and outsider within the Indian performance circuit, he also garnered criticism from Indian critics and audiences for his lack of formal dance education. Despite the many critiques of both Shankar and St. Denis, their spectacular success was due to their ability and desire to advance a novel form of entertainment and forge a renaissance in modern dance culture.

Aishwarya Ramachandran is a current MA student in the Department of Kinesiology at the University of British Columbia. Her research focuses on South Asian physical culture and politics during the 19th and 20th centuries, with a special interest in dance, yoga, and physical education. You can reach her at aishwaryaramachandran1995@gmail.com.


[1] Edward Said, Orientalism (New York: Pantheon Books, 1978), 1.

[2] Ibid, 5.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Jane Desmond, “Dancing out the Difference: Cultural Imperialism and Ruth St. Denis’s ‘Radha’ of 1906,” Signs 17, no. 1 (1991), 35.

[5] Ibid. The American Delsarte movement was based on the teachings of French music and drama teacher Francois Delsarte (1811-71). Seeking to analyze and classify human expression, he developed a technical training system based on “an elaborate and mystical science of aesthetics deriving from his personal interpretation of the Christian Trinity.”

[6] Jane Desmond, “Embodying Difference: Issues in Dance and Cultural Studies,” Cultural Critique, no. 26 (1993), 36.

[7] Ibid, 39.

[8] Linda J. Tomko, Dancing Class: Gender, Ethnicity and Social Divides in American Dance, 1890-1920 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999), 53.

[9] Desmond, “Dancing,” 30.

[10] Tomko, Dancing Class, 51-54.

[11] Desmond, “Dancing,” 32.

[12] Deborah Jowitt, Time and the Dancing Image (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1998), 131.

[13] John F. Kasson, Amusing the Million: Coney Island at the Turn of the Century (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1978). Nautch and nach are crude Indian translations of the word “dance.”

[14] Desmond, “Dancing,” 31.

[15] Larraine Nicholas, Dancing in Utopia: Dartington Hall and its Dancers (Hampshire: Dance Books Ltd, 2007), 123.

[16] Ruth K. Abrahams, “The Life and Art of Uday Shankar” (PhD diss. New York University, 1985), 35, ProQuest (303396600).

[17] Ibid, 38.

[18] Ibid, 124.

[19] Ibid, 130-132.

[20] Nilanjana Bhattacharjya, “A Productive Distance from the Nation: Uday Shankar and the defining of Indian Modern Dance,” South Asian History and Culture 2, no.4 (2011), 483.

[21] Prarthana Purkayastha, Indian Modern Dance, Feminism and Transnationalism (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), 54.

[22] David Grazian, “Demystifying Authenticity in the Sociology of Culture,” in Laura Grindstaff, Ming-cheng Lo, eds., Handbook of Cultural Sociology (New York: Routledge, 2010), 191-192.

[23] Joan Erdman, “Who remembers Uday Shankar?,” accessed December 7, 2017, https://mm-gold.azureedge.net/new_site/mukto-mona/Articles/jaffor/uday_shanka2.html.

[24] Tomko, Dancing Class, 68.

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