Volume Four, Issue 4

Dancing the Mexican Revolution:
Nellie Campobello's Pride and Appropriation

Lorena Jaramillo

When the Mexican Revolution of the 1920s left the country in need to redefine what it means to be Mexican, famous muralists such as Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera and José Clemente Orozco supported the effort by recreating popular and indigenous art as a form of nationalism (Lear 231). Whereas Kahlo and Rivera achieved cult status and serve now as easily recognized global markers of Mexican art, other artists in their group failed to achieve such acknowledgment. Among these artists is the less-recognized Nellie Campobello, who focused her efforts on the institutionalization of indigenous and folklore dances. Yet, situated in the Mexican Nationalist Movement, Campobello’s work is an important reflection of the ideals of the revolution, such as education, integration and elevation of the lower classes, and provides much insight in the way dance supports national agendas. Admired in Mexico for the creation of the National School of Dance, Campobello’s pedagogy focused on the integration of regional and ceremonial dances. Much less known are her efforts to present mass ballets, in which she brought such educational focus into wide public arenas. Looking closely at the relationship of race and class in Mexico, this essay will explore Campobello’s dance career with a focus on the mass ballets, in order to understand how she danced the ideals of the revolution through an elevation of indigenous dances into concert dance. An important aspect of this investigation is the question of whether her role as a white-passing mestiza is considered an appropriation of indigenous cultures into national dance.

Campobello was born in 1900 and raised in a time of violence, during the Mexican Revolution (Delgado Martinez, 4). The Revolution was a fight for equality of the classes, fair working conditions, and ownership of the land and its resources (Lear 237). The ideology that was shaped during this time was about a nationalism that recuperated the “colors, shapes, bodies, movements, sounds and rhythms” (Tortajada 56) of indigenous cultures. The Mexican Nationalist Movement was born after the revolution. After the combat ended in November of 1920, the population was left with a country that was desperate for a new identity that not only merged social classes but also brought equality to the indigenous population. Elena Poniatowska, an influential journalist of the 1950s, defined this period as a time where “everything had yet to be invented, education, health, art and play, language and liberty” (177). Artists joined the Nationalist movement and eventually even represented it by defending the right of Mexican art to be looked at with the same respect as European art.

Campobello is able to see Anna Pavlova on tour in 1924 and access a dance education at Miss Carroll's Dance School (Cardona 131). After training in classical ballet and completing tours with the “Carroll Girls” (Cardona 128) Campobello gains enough recognition to publish her first novel (She is a writer, too) and start her investigation on the dances of the country.

Accompanied by her sister, Gloria, Campobello travelled around towns in Mexico as part of a government sponsored Cultural Mission to collect regional indigenous choreographies. At the time, the government sponsored several Cultural Missions with the objective of “educating indigenous communities to integrate them into the national community and broadcasting the ideals of the revolution” (Pratt). Her mission was to collect rhythms and steps that defined the diverse indigenous communities across the country so as to incorporate them in a national curriculum of dance (Pratt). During her travels, Campobello takes the time to learn the dances from the people who practiced them, exposing her incredible respect and admiration for traditional indigenous cultures. The Campobello sisters go on to write the book “Indigenous Rhythms of Mexico” in which they document a detailed recollection of both steps and full choreographies.

Campobello went on to incorporate this vocabulary into the academic setting of the National Academy of Dance. In a portrait written of her it is stated how “Nellie dedicates her art to the popular dances, the heel stomps that should be part of academic dancing, to reinforce the identity of the country” (Poniatowska 181). She institutionalized regional dance by creating the school and introducing a dance vocabulary that was to be taught and performed. Each year of study was dedicated to a class titled “Mexican Rhythms” and was accompanied by studies in classical dance (Delgado Martinez, 13). The goal was to create a new form of Mexican ballets and perform them as mass dances, which we will explore later in this essay.

Campobello’s work in the dance field is not only a reflection of “inclusion” of the lower classes, who were indigenous in its majority, but also a reflection of transformation of popular dance into high art. Therefore, the purpose of her dance goes in two directions. The first one, is that by including indigenous rhythms in a national curriculum of education at National School of Dance, she includes indigenous people into a society that had been transformed by colonialism and mestizaje. The second one, is that by preforming it in a theatrical space, it educates the middle and higher classes on regional indigenous dances. In her essay “The Urban Dance of Nellie Campobello”, the author Marie Louise Pratt states how this was a process of “recreation” in which “expressive forms are taken from one context and reinserted in another” (Pratt 4). Campobello takes what she learns from her travels to “transform ritual and popular dance into concert and theatrical dance” (Pratt 4). It is here that the issue of appropriation arises. Nellie takes the dances of cultures to which she does not identify with, but that form part of her heritage as part of the Mestizo community.

The transformation of popular dance into concert dance as a construction of nationalism has also been seen with the Argentinean Tango. Author and anthropologist Marta Savigliano mentions in her book Tango and the Political Economy of Passion how “Tango shapes and mobilizes Argentine-ness and is activated as a national representation as it crosses over lines of identity formation” (Savigliano 18). The author addresses the “appropriation of otherness” in a colonized society, as well as the attempt to domesticate tango as a sign of a decolonizing effort.

The role race plays in Latin American countries such as Mexico and Argentina is different from the one it plays in the United States, where immigration and an internalized colonization create a culture of racism that is still visible and heavily criticized today. In Latin America, colonialism created a new cultural identity through Mestizaje. Mexico’s population was created through the mixing of different ethnicities. The body of a person that is mestizo can look many different ways depending on ancestry, and a mestizo society thus becomes inclusive in the sense it can be formed by the mixing of any ethnicity. However, mestizaje is also discriminatory since it occurs form the oppression of indigenous people (Moreno 391). A society that is constructed in its majority by the mixing of different ethnicities is strengthened through the sense of national belonging. People become Mexican and only Mexican, and the discourse of race is erased from the conversation. The discussion of racism is different when it is situated in a context where the expression of privilege is “not explicit or publicly acknowledged” (Moreno, 387). Racism in Mexico must be talked from a perspective of how class and race intertwine in post colonialist societies.

The system of class privilege in Mexico is created alongside the system of Castas, a social hierarchy of races used before their independence from Spain. It is with this classification that many different identities are born alongside the words to define them. According to the system of Castas, “Mestizo” refers to the mix of Spanish with any Indigenous community, “Mulato” refers to the mix of Spanish with Black/African, and “Criollo” is a European born in the Americas (Native Heritage Project). These categorizations are only a few examples of the extensive hierarchy that defined class through the division of race. Even though the system of Castas was deinstitutionalized after the Independence from Spain in the early nineteenth century, the culture of class and race prevailed in a society that placed white European roots at the top of hierarchy that “promoted the supposed ascent from indigeneity into whiteness” (Moreno 392). A country composed by a majority of a mestiza population continued to attach a greater value in the social and economic hierarchy to the whiter body, but a body that is still Mexican; when whiteness is referred to in this essay, it is important to keep in mind that the discussion is in a context mestizaje and white-passing bodies. A higher class is associated with a whiter body.

Campobello is a product of mestizaje. Even her name is a “mixing” of two cultures. She adopts her stepfather’s last name (an Englishman), Campbell, and turns into Campobello a Hispanicized version of the original. Campobello is described as “the prototype of the classy yet racial ballerina” by critics of the time (Reynoso 183) The description of “classy” referred to her whiteness, while “racial” to her identity as a mestiza who was rescuing her indigenous roots. Growing up in a well-off family, Campobello, a white passing light-eyed Mexican, lived a different reality than the original performers of the dancers that she admires. Campobello’s status as a high-class white Mexican allows her to “take” these dances, and her identity as mestiza allows her to claim them as hers to perform. The big question is to what extent can we critique her choreography as an appropriation of indigenous dance that is developed in a culture that she descends from, but that she doesn’t experience herself.

It is also important to note that in her “collection of dances” she takes the dance of many communities from which she has no heritage, as Mexico is formed by a diverse community of indigenous populations. In her attempt to spread respect and knowledge of indigenous dance, she appropriates a tradition that may not belong to her. Campobello places herself at the center of a narrative of which she is not part of. The appropriation is seen as an action of pride. She represents the appreciation of the indigenous through the “white” eye. A society that comes from a revolution through which the lower classes demand their right to fair work, education, and equality, and in the midst of a nationalistic movement, still appreciates what the white-eye proposes.

Melissa Blanco Borelli addresses a similar issue in the performance of Afro-Cuban dances, stating “The dance, still coded as dark and underclass, gained certain respectability performed by a lighter-skinned body, accentuating the erotics of the mulata body, particularly her hips” (Blanco Borelli 228). This reality, is one that is unfortunately true today, in which an internalized racism places a higher value in a body that looks European-descendant, even in the performance of the indigenous.

However, Blanco Borelli argues on behalf of the “racialized body” of the mulata, in which “empire, nation and race” make the embodiment of cultural identity subjective (Blanco Borelli 6). In her discussion, she mentions how “the mulata, depending on her phenotype, operated in a space between blackness and whiteness” (Blanco Borelli 6). The author recognizes the complications of embodying identity in a mixed body, but ultimately argues that the hip movements in Afro-Caribbean dance allow mulatas to claim their history and the power of their body. Following this argument, Campobello's claiming of Indigenous dance should allow her to reclaim the story of mestizaje as an oppression of indigenous cultures. However, it is due to the unspoken race system in Mexico that Campobello’s heel stomps (as opposed to the mulata’s hip movement) can’t be looked at as a reclaiming of her identity. This is because Campobello’s restaging of indigenous dances on whiter bodies as a symbol of inclusion only empowers white mestizo bodies, who are able to access a formal dance education (beyond mass dances), not darker ones.

The embodiment of indigenous dances in white bodies is one that has been seen repeatedly in dance history. Ruth St. Denis appropriates and exoticizes Eastern cultures. However, Campobello’s excuse goes beyond admiration of non-western dance, as she claims this dances as part of her national identity. She embodies one of the ideals of the revolution, integration of the classes, by turning traditional indigenous dances into something that must be learned and looked at with respect as European dance techniques.

The way she borrows this movement allows us to look at dance anthropology and to “understand cultural values and the deep structure of the society” (Kaeppler 117). Dance ethnography, however, criticizes “the use of Western dance theory for the analysis of non-western dance” (Kaeppler 121), but since Campobello is taking indigenous forms of movement and inserting them in a western concept, we can still look at her work in such way.

As mentioned previously, the reformation of the educational system played a big role in the ideals of the Mexican Revolution (Ramos, 29). Campobello herself is quoted for saying, “to love the people is to teach them the alphabet, to orient them towards things of beauty (...) it is to teach them what are their rights and how to make those rights be granted and respected” (qtd in Reynoso 187). In the 1920s the government implemented several campaigns to eradicate illiteracy. The objective for artists was to bring art to public spaces and make it accessible for the population. These factors impulse the muralist movement, with artists such as Jose Clemente Orozco and Diego Rivera in which the art is situated in the walls of public buildings and are available for the population to see. In dance, Campobello focused on mass ballets and thus, is able to institutionalize them, but also popularize them.

Image 1. Photography by Luis Santamaria,
pictured in Tortajada 43.

Mass dance is a performance that include both professional and amateur dancers and erases the line between performer and audience, merging into a collective experience. Mass dances have appeared in several countries across the globe, “the aim of these mass spectacles was to unite a crowd (…) behind a particular political, social position or idea” (Warden). Mass ballets become “embodiments of socialist political ideology” (Reynoso 244).

Campobello’s most famous choreography, titled “Ballet 30-30” (pictured in Image 1) is a mass ballet that was created to be performed in the national stadium and had as an objective to educate the audience and promote the ideals of the revolution (Pratt). The original installation of Ballet 30-30 (in some texts it is referred to as Proletarian Symbolic Ballet 30-30) was premiered in 1937 on the Anniversary of the Mexican Revolution and featured over 3,000 participants (Delgado Martinez, 12). The choreography presented the victory of the revolution through its three sections of “revolution, sow and liberation”. The three sections show a clear beginning, middle and end, with Sow (middle) showcasing traditional dances that she had collected in her travels, and Liberation (end) showing the “unification of workers, peasants, and soldiers” (Reynoso 191). The choreography was simple but expressive as an attempt to get non-dancers to understand it. The piece left behind any type of classical ballet vocabulary and instead focused on heavy arm movements as a representation of power and the collectivity of the bodies as a representation of industrialization. By integrating different working classes in the audience, Campobello literally choreographs the revolution. Representing the coming together of class and race, Ballet 30-30 is a symbol for the democratization of dance.

The mass dances that Campobello performs are seen in other nationalist movements around the world. After World War II, East Germany choreographers are also recognized for taking folk movement vocabulary to “create a socialist national identification distinct from the West” (Giersdorf, 4). Although Mexico has never been a socialist state, the post-revolutionary government promoted socialist ideals with a new constitution that ensured free primary education, as well as the expropriation of petroleum, electricity and communication companies.

Similar to Campobello’s “Ballet 30-30” in which she brings people together as a symbol of the Mexican revolution, the mass dance events in Leipzig, Germany, had a purpose in which “bringing people together in such a large scale, (...) corporeally generated a sense of national identity” (Giersdorf 4). The history of mass folk dance as an educational tool of national identification across two countries that are so geographically and culturally separated is simple evidence of how people turn back to their roots after moments of crisis, with East Germany being World War II and Mexico, the Revolution of 1910.

In conclusion, this study of Nellie Campobello’s dance centers around her embodiment of the main ideals of the revolution, education and integration and is a key representation of the Mexican Nationalist Movement. She institutionalizes indigenous dances by collecting the vocabulary and implementing it in the National School of Dance as part of national dance curriculum, elevating them to the same level of dance techniques that originate from Europe. and popularizes them through her mass ballets.

The nationalist tendencies that arise in the post-revolutionary Mexico, lead Campobello to collect dances from indigenous cultures and reclaim it as part of her mestiza heritage. Although she benefits from a class status that allows whiter bodies to validate indigenous art, her appropriation of this dances comes from an action of pride in the search for “the true” Mexican identity. Furthermore, her work is not only about her fascination with indigenous art but about the integration of a marginalized culture in the country. The work she does to write about these dances and incorporate them into the Mexican dance vocabulary allows us to be able to see, dance and learn them today. Her work incorporates non-western dance into a western context and allows all social classes to be able to appreciate it; it is this integration of the classes through the education of dance that makes Campobello’s dance a choreographed representation of the revolution.


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Lorena Jaramillo: "I am a NYC based movement artist. I was born and raised in Mexico City, and later immigrated to the United States to earn my degree in Dance from Marymount Manhattan College. I believe dance is an embodied, revolutionary practice of joy and healing; I use movement and writing as a way to process the complicated relationships of culture, history, and generational traumas."

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