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Cold War dance diplomacy

Why did the US State Department sponsor international dance tours during the Cold War? An official government narrative was sanctioned and framed by the US State Department and its partner organization, the United States Information Agency (USIA—and USIS abroad). However, the tours countered that narrative.

The State Department fed the notion that modern dance was quintessentially “American,” even as the tours themselves offered evidence of modern dance roots and influence from across the globe—notably German modern dance traditions and the importance of African diasporic arts movements to modern dance. While the USIA foreground the role of white male leaders, dancers such as Alvin Ailey explicitly countered this depiction. in his work Revelations, black Americans performed their struggle and their celebrations in dance works. The tours also accentuated the relationship among African anti-colonial movements and African American civil rights protests. Martha Graham had a pre-eminent role in touring for the State Department, who discussed how she was not “too sexy for export” but was rather just sexy enough.

But dance-in-diplomacy is not restricted to the Cold War era. The US State Department has begun funding tours again in the wake of the post 9/11. This return to cultural diplomacy more recently undertook a “collaborative turn,” foregrounding Americans and non-Americans working together, rather than only funding performances by American companies. The following slideshow depicts the contradictions in these narratives of dancers as diplomats.

Headline Image: Ballet. Dancer. CC0 via Pixabay