Theses Doctoral

Dancing with the Revolution: Cuban Dance, State, and Nation, 1930-1990

Schwall, Elizabeth Bowlsby

Against the backdrop of the 1933 and 1959 Cuban Revolutions, dance became highly politicized as performers interacted with the state and expressed ideas choreographically about race, gender, and social change. Starting in the 1930s, citizens invested in ballet as a means for cultural progress. In the 1940s and 1950s, a growing cadre of ballet professionals and their supporters advocated for the government to subsidize the form. Simultaneously, carnival, cabaret, and concert dancers sparked widespread discussion about nation and racial formation, specifically the place of blackness and whiteness in Cuba. As a result, performers and patrons established the political valence of dance as means for reflecting on larger questions about self and society.
After 1959, dancers adapted to the regime change while pursuing longstanding projects. Ballet dancers performed aggressive choreography in fatigues, along with traditional ballets from Europe and Russia, as part of their revolutionary repertoire. Dance teachers built upon previous pedagogical efforts and contributed to new social engineering projects to “improve” Cuban youth. In parallel, modern and folkloric dancers choreographically critiqued patriarchy and race relations in a supposedly post-racial society. These performances developed a Cuban way of dancing and watching dance, the latter characterized as engaged and talkative. Dancers and publics built a vibrant establishment that eventually transcended national borders with Cubans dancing and teaching abroad in the 1970s and 1980s. Meanwhile, dancers contributed to the growing tourist industry and pushed for institutional changes at home in the late 1980s. In 1990, Cuba entered a crisis that destabilized the relationship between dance and politics that had developed over the previous six decades.
During this period, different dance forms including cabaret, carnival, ballet, modern dance, and folkloric dance received various levels of public and state support. I argue that there were important continuities in dance hierarchies with ballet holding the greatest cultural and political capital starting in the 1930s. I also contend that dancers of different genres employed similar tactics to navigate sociopolitical shifts and expressive parameters across the decades. They consistently shaped dance institutions and asserted the value of their work to revolution and nationhood. This social and cultural history of Cuban dance sheds light on the reach and limitations of state power in Cuba as numerous constituencies engaged with the revolution, maneuvering for agency within a limited public sphere.

Geographic Areas


  • thumnail for Schwall_columbia_0054D_13227.pdf Schwall_columbia_0054D_13227.pdf application/pdf 33.4 MB Download File

More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Piccato, Pablo A.
Garafola, Lynn
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
April 27, 2016