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La Meri on Traditional and Derivative Ethnic Dance

Her observations have guided dancers for decades.


La Meri, an American dancer born in Louisville Kentucky, was famous in the first half of the 20th century for her ethnic dance concerts. She is best remembered for her Spanish and Bharatanatyam dances, but her ability to go anywhere and learn the dances of the local culture paid her bills for decades. She toured in a slower era, when an engagement to perform in a foreign city might stretch on for weeks, giving her time to immerse herself in the local dance arts during the day while she brought the dances of other countries to the stage at night.

When she settled in NYC after the start of WWII, she started an ethnic dance school with Ruth St Denis, the School of Natya. This became the Ethnologic Dance Center, which functioned as an academy until 1956. The curriculum of the Academy included a four-year Artists Course which included studies of Western and Eastern music and dance, choreography, and production.

During her active years, she was possibly the most experienced and respected ethnic dance artist in the Western world. She experienced the dance as it was performed in the villages and on the stages of the countries of origin. She was also an international dance artist who was aware of the problems involved in bringing folk dances to the stage in ways that would capture the interest of audiences in other cultures.

From an interview with Patricia Taylor in 1987, as published in Habibi magazine:

Although [La Meri's] life was dedicated to the preservation and teaching of ethnic dance, she was adamant in her view that the dances must grow and take new places in the world. She understood the delicate balance between the need to preserve ethnic dance and the need to present it in such a way that Western audiences could enjoy it. In this she was deeply influenced by the Indian dance innovator, Uday Shankar, with whom she studied in Paris in the thirties. Shankar had successfully theatricalized Indian dance, giving it 'speaking glamour' and 'emotional beauty.' ... On the subject of preservation of dances, La Meri rejected mindless orthodoxy as lethal to dance. She drew a distinction between authenticity and tradition: "I think ethnic purists make too many distinctions without an understanding that a traditional routine is one thing, and an authentic routine is something else... All forms of ethnic dance should move forward, sometimes by trial and error. It's not that the creative dances are always right, it's that ethnic dance is not a static art and never has been. I don't care if a dance is from 2000 B.C. It didn't come from a static society, and it has to grow. I resent it bitterly when people say they only want to see the traditional."

She was always intrigued by what she saw as the creative possibilities inherent in ethnic dance, and eventually staged part of Swan Lake in a Hindu dance idiom (an artistic and financial success!) and then choreographed works to music of Bach and Vivaldi, church hymns, and popular American songs, as well as to music composed specifically for her. Some of these works were very popular and others died quietly after their initial presentations. "The moral is that in making a departure, one can sometimes depart so far ahead of the bandwagon that no one knows one is in the parade."

She felt strongly that ethnic dance included elements of movement quality that would enrich modern dance, and after her retirement she became convinced that a whole new school of dance movement could be built on them. What she had in mind we will never know, because her first workshops on these techniques were poorly attended and "I found that the only dancer who could apply these... already had many years of ethnic dance study behind her." La Meri was nearing eighty years old when she began this project and decided that completing it would take years that she did not have left.

Her breakdown of the types of Ethnic dance are insightful for both dancers and for the musicians who play for them. "A king can be judged by the state of the dancing during his reign."

A more complete biography of La Meri has been added to BabaYagaMusic.



The folk, or communal, dance is "a dance to be done; a dance in which the joy lies in the doing; and a part of the joy is the unified purpose that moves a group of persons intent on the same end."

It only exists in the context of the community. When it is performed on a stage, it is no longer a dance to be done, but a dance to be seen, at which point it becomes Art Dance.


This includes temple and theater dances that, growing out of folk tradition, carry with them into their highest forms the ideals of the community that gave them birth. It includes dances for worship (Hindu Natya or Hawaiian meles); stylized theatre dances (Japanese Noh); dances used as social entertainment (certain Muslim dances); communal dances introduced to the theatre (Mexican and flamenco). The motivation for ethnic art dance includes "the desire to educate as well as entertain the spectator. But in transportation to the stage, the original motivation, the primal cause, must not be lost, or the dance will lose its true essence."
The Traditional
This is the folk dance performed on stage with the traditional costume, music, techniques, and form.
  • The Maazin sisters, Egypt's most famous Ghawazee family, performing in the 1960s. The Ghawazee were considered an important part of many social occasions. Although the short clip is from a movie (the Maazin sisters appear at about second 20), their typical engagement ran for hours at a time.
The Authentic
The artist uses the traditional costume, music and techniques but takes some liberties with the form. Bharata Natyam items may be cut from 40 minutes to five. Flamenco dance may be choreographed instead of improvised.
  • Ahwach Tissint, a betrothal dance from Southern Morocco, performed on a stage for tourists.
Creative Neoclassic
The artist may take liberties with costume, music and form. Only techniques remain constant. The artist stays within tradition in style and motivation. La Meri states that Unday Shankar was a creative genius in the Hindu idiom field; La Argentina in the Spanish dance art. "Both of these artists started a trend that has become so strong as to be a school."
  • Ram Gopal, who brought Kathakali to Britain in the early twentieth century (later adding Bharatanatyam and Kathak) created short, dramatic dance items with non-traditional costumes and makeup that would speak to Western audiences. Here is a short video of Ram Gopal in his Lord Shiva dance in 1948. The first part of the clip is pictures: dancing starts at second 57.
  • Unday Shankar's dancing was strongly influenced by both Indian and Western dance. He did study and promote classical Indian dance as it reconsituted itself in the newly independent India, but he wanted to devise a contemporary Indian dance, and many now refer to him as India's first modern dance choreographer.
  • 1931 interview with La Argentina.
Creative Departures
" A very thin line distinguishes the creative neoclassic from the creative departure. Costumes are traditional in line but certain liberties are taken. Techniques are traditional but may be mixed as to school or handled more freely. The music may be completely alien, but the general aura of motivation is kept intact."
Applied Techniques
"Here the traditional techniques are applied to alien themes, music, costume and motivation...Unfortunately many dancers and choreographers think that the creative aspect is the easiest part of ethnic art dance. Nothing could be further from the truth. One must always depart from strength, not weakness. To depart from authenticity, one must know authenticity very deeply. "
  • Clips from Amara's 2011 X-Med concert. Amara has been a champion of quality X-MED (Experimental Middle Eastern Dance) dancing for over a decade.
  • Ruric-Amari and two members of her dance company, Blythe and Annie, perform a hat-and-cane dance choreography by Ruric which incorporates a good deal of Middle-Eastern technique.
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