La Meri: A Life Dedicated to Ethnic Dance
By Patricia Taylor
While working on an independent documentary on belly dance in America with the Dallas filmmaker Jim Murray in 1987, I interviewed Ibrahim Farrah. He suggested that we were overlooking a very important source on the dance who lived right under my nose. San Antonio, a few miles down the road from my hometown of Austin, was the hometown of retired ethnic dance pioneer and star La Meri (pronounced “merry”).
One spring day Mr. Murray, his assistant, and I drove down to a small house in a San Antonio suburb. A tiny, bright-eyed silver-haired woman in a pink shirt and dark slacks met us at the door. Her animation was striking, especially considering her advanced age (89 at the time) and evident emphysema. Over the course of the next two days, she told us the story of her life.
Mr. Murray and I were so enchanted with La Meri that we realized immediately that she was much more than a mere footnote in a belly dance documentary. We recorded nearly sixteen hours of interviews, and she gave us some of her photographs, dance programs and unpublished manuscripts, including autobiographical notes and philosophical writing. Mr. Murray suffered a career-ending stroke in 1988, which ended our plans to get this piece completed as an independent documentary on our own. Nevertheless, we knew that we had captured a priceless piece of ethnic dance history.
La Meri was clear, concise, and eloquent. Analyzing the interview, I realized that she was performing. She had every line by heart, these stories and memories she had written and talked about for decades. She was determined to seize this last chance to be recognized for her long and very distinguished career in ethnic dance. This desire was evident in her writings as well:
As a dancer I had something special…an instinctive anatomical ability to catch and project the body-line and motivation of other peoples. As a choreographer this instinct for (alien) motivations carried over into my creative group work. I also have a good instinct for music, both eastern and western. As a teacher I care more for motivation than technique; thus, I turn out dancers, not technicians. These abilities were recognized by every teacher abroad with whom I studied, and in every country in which I danced…EXCEPT my own. In the United States it was only the top flight artists who were aware of this gift…
I have not seen India since 1937, but I am better known and more respected there than I am in my own country. Scarcely a month goes by that I do not have a letter from some young Indian dancer who never saw me, but has heard of me. But then, of course, India believes in transmigration [of souls]…
I believe I have given more to dance than most…thousands of hours of free lessons to young dancers with either a natural ability, or a true dedication… First to last, I have been dedicated to DANCE, and not to myself as a DANCER.
For thirty years I have plowed through a sea of obstacles…from simple misunderstanding and bitchy remarks to sheer unethical dirty work. But I have been kept afloat by the encouragement and friendship of such figures as (Ruth) St. Denis, (La) Argentinita, (Uday) Shankar, (Ottorino) Respighi, (Fritz) Kreisler, (Mañuel) de Falla, (Ananda) Coomaraswamy, Lin Yu Tang, Pearl Buck, U Po Sein,…and many others. There are few Westerners who have had the incomparable Balasararswati touch her forehead to their feet!1
Born in Louisville, Kentucky, on May 13, 1898, it was a source of “delight” that she was named Russell Meriwether Hughes, Jr., for her father, who died when she was young. Her heritage can be traced back to the first Virginia colonists, when Governor William Meriwether was one of the revolutionaries against King George III. She grew up in San Antonio, where she spent as much time on a horse as possible, even living and working as a cowgirl on a ranch. She also played a cowgirl in some of the quick Westerns which were filmed in the Texas Hill Country in the early days of the movie industry. Like most young girls of her class, she took the requisite lessons in voice, music and dance.2 “I wasn’t dedicated to the dance from the cradle at all. On the contrary.”3 An energetic and talented young woman, she published her poetry and gave declam-atory readings as well as dancing. Although she had an opportunity for a screen career in Hollywood, she preferred to remain in San Antonio throughout her middle twenties, where she was a star in local productions.
By the time she was twenty-one, she and her mother had travelled widely, including trips to New York City and Europe. Over the course of several visits to New York, she auditioned and studied ceaselessly—including music, voice and poetry, in addition to the dance. “It was obvious to anyone that I was simply stage struck. I would have done anything on the stage that they would have given me a job doing. Anything.”4 She decided she needed a stage name. “I [couldn’t] very well be Russell Hughes and try to get a job in the chorus,” she remarked later.5 So she abbreviated Meriwether to “Meri,” auditioning and performing as Meri Hughes.
Commenting upon her early, somewhat fractured career, La Meri said later, “What I lacked was focus.”6 Despite this lack, she gained experience in vaudeville, motion-picture houses, nightclubs, and later, productions. She acted, sang, and played violin, but it was her dancing which eventually gained her feature billing. After a booking with a group of singers and dancers touring the West Indies, she decided to prepare a one-woman show for a concert career. These early programs were divided between ballet, modern and ethnic. She continued to audition in New York in 1925, but found it difficult to get work. At one point she told her mother that she thought they probably should go back to San Antonio. But her Scottish mother forbade her to give up: “You don’t quit when you’re losing; you quit when you’re winning!”7
The turning point in her career came in December, 1925, when she auditioned for “an old-fashioned impresario,” Guido Carreras. This silver-haired, monocled gentleman had managed the careers of Nijinsky and Pavlova, as well as other famous clients. Her audition included playing the violin and singing the waiting song from Madama Butterfly (“Modest!” she sniffed, in recollection sixty years later). He had the young San Antonian perform her Spanish dance for an expert dancer. Despite the fact that she was performing the wrong steps to the wrong music, the expert said she “had something,” so Mr. Carreras took her on. “He was just one of those strange guys who liked to pick up raw talent and see what they could do with it.”8 It was he who made La Meri a dancer.
The pattern for the next decade was set in 1928 when Mr. Carreras booked her for a South American tour in which they played seventy-seven concerts in six countries, and which lasted for over a year. In those days of cheap steamship and rail travel, artists toured throughout the world with elaborate stage sets and costumes. “We played the wide places in the road, honestly!” she recalled. Her method was to perform her repertoire while studying local dance with the best native practitioners she could find. Before she left, she would perform the local dances before a native audience, “…to see if I had gotten it right.” If the dance was accepted by the local audience, La Meri added it to her immense repertoire, “concertizing as we went.”9
Throughout the twenties and thirties, La Meri was an international star, studying and performing on four continents. In addition to the “wide places in the road” mentioned above, she played numerous large and famous venues, including the Savoy and Duke of York’s Theaters in London, the Champs-Elysees and Oeuver Theaters in Paris, the Josefstadt and Groose Konzert Sal in Vienna, the Rheinhardt Theater in Berlin, as well as the National Theaters of twelve countries in Central and South America. She says that she had “the greatest triumph ever accorded a soloist in Australasia (Australia, Tasmania and New Zealand.)”11 Although originally booked there for only thirty performances, the tour kept being extended until she had done over one hundred and thirty concerts. As she later wrote:
These were the best of all the years, from a ship’s deck watching the sun come up over an exotic harbor, a string of hotels, a string of theaters, sometimes elegant, sometimes primitive, a string of ocean-liners and coastwise cargo boats…Peacocks in the hotel garden in Solo…the wisdom and patience of my teachers…the Golden Temple of Japan…the stark plains of India…the climbing Chinese quarter of Hong Kong…the blinding beauty of dance forms I had never seen before… sparrows nesting behind Queen Victoria’s portrait in Hyderabad…Ram Gopal, incredibly, incredibly young, at the station in Bangalore…and everywhere among audiences the instinctive artistic understanding of my alien dance art.
In Australasia the incredible popular successes…race horses…sweets and hat-styles named “La Meri”; and police to handle the crowds when my pianist married…just like in the movies. The beautiful Maori people with whom I stayed while my half-broken tendon mended…
A thousand memories: a million beautiful details: two years weaving a tapestry that Marco Polo might have envied.”12
La Meri married Mr. Carreras in 1937. She made her home in Europe for three years, first in Paris and then Italy. Her international touring career ended with World War II. Her Italian home-studio overlooking the Mediterranean at Capo Luciano was seized by the Fascists. With it went her books, records, costumes and personal belongings. Since she could no longer tour internationally while the world was at war, she returned to New York, planning to continue her touring career in America. Wartime rationing of gasoline and tires put an end to that idea. It was a grievous time for her personally as well. Her beloved brother-in-law, Colonel David Newcomer, was killed in the war, and she and Mr. Carreras ended their marriage in 1944 “with a good deal of drama and nervous tension.”13 At forty-six years old, La Meri found herself beginning a new career and a new life.
In New York, she turned to the task of building an American audience for ethnic dance, a task to which she devoted the rest of her life. Teaching was thrust upon her by Ruth St. Denis, who insisted she and La Meri open a school. “The last thing I wanted to do was teach, the very last thing. But this was Ruth St. Denis, and I have yet to see the person who can say ‘No’ to Ruth St. Denis!”14 Together they founded the School of Natya in 1941, which was devoted to Indian dance. Of her, Miss St. Denis said,
Whenever I get to thinking of the fine creative, scholarly work which La Meri is doing in her Center in New York City, and when I reflect how really few creative artists’ teachers there are in America who add definitely to our sum of true culture, I want to rebuild the government so that she can have real support to carry on her work. That’s the way I feel about La Meri and her international labor for beauty.15
After Miss St. Denis returned to California, La Meri founded her own ethnic dance company and school, the Ethnologic Dance Center, which included other dances from her large repertoire, as well as Indian dance. From 1947 to 1956, she ran the Center, which included in its curriculum both physical and academic courses. The Center was located in the studio occupied by Ruth St. Denis (it was originally built for Isadora Duncan), and served as the headquarters of La Meri’s Exotic Ballet Company. La Meri directed the Ethnic Dance Theater for several years, staging over two hundred performances featuring young ethnic dance artists in both short dances and full-length dance-dramas. She and her company toured by automobile throughout the United States, at one point risking death while crossing the Rocky Mountains in a snowstorm.
During this New York period, La Meri toured and lectured extensively. She was the author of five important books and numerous articles in encyclopedias, reference books and magazines on ethnic dance. She produced records from her extensive library of ethnic music, and made instructional films in Spanish dancing.
Nineteen fifty-seven was a sad year, full of endings: she closed the Ethnologic Dance Center, and buried her dear dog, Topsy, her constant companion for seventeen years. Even after the closing of her company, her schedule was filled with teaching and performances in Texas, the Caribbean, Boston, and Virginia. “In short, I kept busy but did not accomplish much.”16 In 1960, worn out by the lack of an audience for ethnic dance, frustrated by the difficulty of putting on concerts, and tired of the infighting in the ethnic dance world, La Meri left New York for Cape Cod with her sister, Lillian Newcomer. As for dance, she thought, “To heck with it!” She intended to continue her writing and raise champion show dogs.
Her vision of a peaceful and literary retirement was short-lived. Her move to Cape Cod had not interrupted her teaching schedule at Ted Shawn’s Jacob’s Pillow Dance Theater in the summers and in workshops throughout the country. In 1965 her sister died. Lillian Newcomer had been an accomplished Spanish dancer, and one of the graduates of La Meri’s Ethnologic Dance Center’s full program. Before her death, Mrs. Newcomer had planned a Spanish program. La Meri decided to put on the show as a tribute to her sister. “Well, that did it. All I had to do was put on one show and I’m hooked again….I love to put on a show, more than anything else. I think that is the most fun of anything. And the harder it is, the more fun I have.”17
Beginning with free lessons given to the women of the local Comedy Club, she gradually began her third career. She formed a company, Ethnic Dance Arts, Inc., and began to present summer festivals of ethnic dance. In the years since her retirement, her former students, many of whom were stars in their own right, continued to study with her privately on the Cape. Beginning with her former students, La Meri brought the best performers in a wide variety of ethnic dance to the Cape, including Nala Najan, Matteo, Mariano Parra, Ritha Devi, and Ibrahim Farrah and his Near East Dance Company, among many others. Out of nothing, she created an educated audience and a venue for ethnic dance that lasted for ten years.
However, by 1980, La Meri again found herself at the end of a phase in her life. A trusted employee of Ethnic Dance Arts, Inc., had stolen a large sum of money in 1975, and the enterprise had begun to die. Her students left, retired, or had families. She realized that her dreams of creating a year-round, financially successful ethnic dance center on the Cape would never be realized.
But La Meri did not end her days pining on a windswept beach or poring over her scrapbooks by a fire. Instead, she decided to go back to San Antonio. “I decided one day I just had to see a field of bluebonnets again if that was the end of me… I was homesick and that was it.”18 She telephoned her best friend, Olivia Baldessarelli, who still lived in San Antonio, begging her to find out when the bluebonnets were blooming that year. La Meri returned to see the spring bluebonnets and never left. San Antonio welcomed and lionized her during her remaining years. She served as a senior editor and writer for Arabesque. On January 7, 1988 she died a peaceful death of kidney failure, surrounded by her scrapbooks, memorabilia, and her beloved dogs, with her friend and former dance partner, Bill Adams, at her side.19
Although La Meri’s long career resulted in generations of educated ethnic dancers and audiences throughout the world, her efforts were not matched by the recognition she deserved in the U.S. This was somewhat rectified during the last two decades of her life. In 1972, she was awarded the prestigious Capezio Award for her contributions to dance in America. She was the subject of a sixteen-page article in Dance Magazine, and a cover article in Arabesque Magazine. By the late seventies, she was established as an historical figure in ethnic dance, albeit a somewhat underrated one.
The breadth and depth of La Meri’s knowledge of various dance forms was astounding. In addition to her childhood grounding in ballet, she studied modern dance with Michio Ito and Spanish dance with several well-known dancers, in New York City. In the course of her travels she studied the dances of South and Latin America, North Africa, Spain, Malaysia, India, Japan, China, Australia, New Zealand, and other countries. In her promotional brochures, she listed dances from twenty-two countries in her repertoire. La Meri’s repertoire was so immense that she was featured in Ripley’s “Believe It or Not!” Indian dance was her greatest love, followed by Spanish dances.
La Meri not only had a passion for learning dances from a wide range of cultures all around the globe, she also strove to the highest level of excellence in specific dance forms, especially Indian and Spanish. An authoritative dance critic in Madrid wrote, “La Meri’s Spanish dancing is as good as the best of any Spanish dancer; she has nothing to learn from any of them.”20 A Calcutta critic wrote:
One must accept the theory of reincarnation in order to explain this perfect reproduction of our traditional dances by a Westerner. Perhaps the spirit of Radha, or of the Goddess, Lakshmi, lives in La Meri; otherwise whence comes the facility, the grace and dignity with which she performs Bharata Natyam. Very few of even our most expert dancers can equal her execution of the dances of India.21
La Meri’s study of Near Eastern dance was an outgrowth of her study with Spanish Gypsies in Seville. When she asked about the meaning of the gestures of Spanish dance, the Gypsies said they were rooted in North African dance. La Meri travelled from Paris to Fez, Morocco, in 1929 to study the Arabic gesture dances. Her teacher was Fatma, formerly chief dancer to the Sultan. In Paris she studied Oriental dance with Arab dancers. She was told that the dance form was designed as an aid in childbirth. She referred to it as “danse du ventre” (dance of the belly or stomach),
…because actually in its pure form it’s the belly that’s working. It’s not the hip sockets. Now you can get away with doing a sort of a kind of a belly dance in a night club and get away with it because you don’t have any critics there to snap at you and if you look pretty that’s just fine. But what ninety percent of the dancers use is Hawaiian hip movement, which is moving the pelvic bones from one side to the other. The belly dancer moves the belly, not the bone structure.22
Although her 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.”23 In her association with Ruth St. Denis, she encountered a master of Indian dance (acknowledged as such in India), who actually knew “nothing of the techniques of Indian dance.”24
In Middle Eastern dance circles today, the question of authenticity is being widely discussed. It is a topic to which La Meri gave a great deal of thought. It is self-evident from her career that she viewed identity politics—the idea of ownership of dances based on the ethnicity of the dancer—as worse than nonsense. She felt strongly that it is “not necessary to have originated from a certain country to correctly perform the dances of that country.” A critic had panned her students’ performances “for all the wrong reasons”:
Her objection was that an American has no right to do the dances of other countries…. If you believe this, you negate the fact that this is an art form. If it is an art form, it can be learned, though not by everybody. Let’s admit that it does take talent. These dances have a technique as definite as anything in the world. If you don’t have technique, you can’t do them. So you study, and if you study it, there’s no reason in the world you can’t dance it.25
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.”26
In the later career of Shankar, La Meri believed his creativity had been blighted by stultifying classicism.27 She herself was famed for her adaptations of Indian dance idiom in classical ballet choreographies. Her “Swan Lake,” which combined Marius Petipa’s classic choreography with bharata natyam dance vocabulary and costume, was the most popular item in her company’s repertoire.28 She used Indian movement to interpret J.S. Bach’s music in Bach Bharata, and Rimsky-Korsakov’s music in Scheherazade. In her major works after 1940, she created choreographies to a wide range of music, including the Indian composer Shirali, Debussy, Vivaldi (using Indian idiom), El Amor Brujo by Manuel de Falla, along with traditional music from Hawaii, India, and the Basque region of Spain.
La Meri deplored the distorted image of ethnic dance in the public mind. She attributed the tawdry image of Oriental dance and hula to the introduction of these dances on the vaudeville, and later burlesque stages. She felt that in Spanish dance, the subtleties and nuances of individual stylists and dances have been lost, as dancers imitated the volcanic, “wildly extroverted” style of the young Carmen Amaya.29 She decried “…this mania for factual robot-reflection on immediate styles, or modes.”
In two decades it has been forgotten that flamenco dance is primarily a reflection of the mood and personality of the protagonist. Since Carmen Amaya brought her inimitable style to this art, all other expressions have been rejected. This is the stultification of the art. It is shocking to hear certain students talk of certain movements being “old fashioned”… Granados and Albeniz lie buried under the dust of pounded taconeo and violently kicked batas.30
The result, she argues, is that,
The young dancers of today can only ape…they cannot create a mood, nor find the scope and level of their own personalities…Although all art is based on knowledge, it cannot move forward by going back!31
La Meri insisted that ethnic dance remain a living, rather than an “archeological,” exercise in the expression of human emotion. She argued that creating new works within the idiom is a “higher art form” than the preservation of the traditional forms.32 In a life dedicated to the integrity of the world’s ethnic dances, she balanced purity of physical technique with creative vision buttressed by intellectual clarity.
1 La Meri, from her unpublished autobiographical notes (hereinafter “Autobiography”), pg. 20. (Capitals in the original)
2 La Meri, interview with Patricia Taylor, February 1987, p. 2. Hereinafter “La Meri, interview.”
4 Op. cit., pg. 5.
5 Op. cit., pg. 2.
6 Op. cit., pg. 1.
7 Op. cit., pg. 6.
8 Op. Cit., pg. 6-7.
9 Op. Cit., pg. 11-12.
10 “La Meri” promotional brochure, distributed by La Meri and the Ethnologic Dance Center, pg. 11.
11 Op. Cit., pgs. 1, 5.
12 La Meri, autobiography, pg. 6.
13 Op. Cit., pg. 8.
14 Op. Cit., p. 32-38. For more information, see Patricia Taylor, “American Archetypes of Ethnic Dance: La Meri and Miss Ruth St. Denis,” in Proceedings of the International Conference on Middle Eastern Dance, May 19, 1997.
15 Ruth St. Denis, quoted in “La Meri,” promotional brochure, pg. 8.
16 La Meri, autobiography, pg. 10.
17 La Meri, interview, pg. 113-119.
18 Op.cit., pg. 119-122.
19 Pat Taylor, personal interview with Mariano Parra, August, 1996.
20 “La Meri,” promotional brochure, pg. 5.
22 La Meri, interview, pg. 25.
23 La Meri, “Uday Shankar,” Arabesque, Vol. X, No. 2, pg. 12-13.
24 La Meri, interview, pgs. 13, 33.
25 Adam Lahm, “Grand lady of Ethnic Dance: La Meri (Part II),” Arabesque Magazine, Vol. IV, no. 5, January-February, 1979, pg. 8.
27 La Meri, “Uday Shankar,” pg. 12.
28 La Meri, interview, pg. 36ff.
29 Adam Lahm, “La Meri: Grand Lady of Ethnic Dance,” (Part I), Arabesque Magazine. Vol. IV, no. 4, Nov.-Dec, 1978; pg. 13.
30 La Meri, “Uday Shankar”, pg. 20.
31 Lahm, Part I , pg. 14.
32 La Meri, “Uday Shankar, pg. 20-21.
33 La Meri, autobiography, pgs.19ff.
Patricia Taylor is a full-time college instructor at Southwest Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas. She teaches a multi-disciplinary, mulit-cultural survey class of the appreciation and history of all the arts, including dance. She has taught Middle Eastern dance at the University of Texas and in Berlin. Ms. Taylor has been a professional painter and draughtsman, receiving awards in national and regional exhibitions.
Ms. Taylor and her partner, Jim Murray, have video and audio recordings of nearly sixteen hours of interviews with La Meri. La Meri also gave them a collection of her photographs, dance programs, and unpublished manuscripts, including autobiographical notes and philosophical writing. They also have transcripts of the interviews, background research, and a working script for a documentary. They are looking for serious and/or experienced dance documentarians who would be interested in investing in and completing the La Meri project. www.pattaylorfineart.net
Originally published in Habibi Magazine, Vol. 16, No. 3, Fall 1997, Santa Barbara, CA. Copyright Shareen El Safy, 1997.