The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Shen Yun has a political message. That shouldn’t be a surprise.

Dance has long been a vessel for both implicit and explicit political messaging.

A young man walks past a poster advertising Shen Yun at the New Jersey Center for the Performing Arts in Newark in 2019. During a limited engagement, the center hosted Shen Yun, Falun Gong's highflying, globe-trotting dance troupe, which has been banned from China as a cult. (Kathy Willens/AP)
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A previous version of this article said that American Falun Dafa Associations financially support the Epoch Times. Although there are ties between the Falun Gong religious movement and the Epoch Times, a spokesperson for the Falun Dafa Association of D.C. said that American Falun Dafa Associations do not financially support the right-wing media outlet.

Every winter, billboards and posters for the dance company Shen Yun become ubiquitous. These ads feature a dancer effortlessly arching her back in a perfect split jump, and phrases like: “5,000 years of culture reborn.” This year’s theme is “China before communism.” Shen Yun curates an image of the Tang Dynasty as the ultimate guidepost marking the “Golden Age” of Chinese culture. Although the dance company’s style incorporates ballet and gymnastics, it also claims to perform classical Chinese dance in its purest form.

Many audience members choose to attend Shen Yun’s performances unaware that the dance performance and company make clear political arguments. Shen Yun is a deeply political project, sponsored by American Falun Dafa Associations. These associations subscribe to the Falun Gong religious movement. Some adherents of this movement are affiliated with the Epoch Times, a right-wing media outlet. Indeed, Shen Yun’s artistic productions argue that Chinese communism has destroyed traditional Chinese culture.

Although few of us recognize dance performance as overtly political, using dance for political messaging is nothing new. Indeed, today’s Shen Yun performances echo U.S. cultural diplomacy programs carried out by the State Department during the Cold War, which sought to shape hearts and minds. Officials and cultural diplomacy planners aimed to curate American concert dance tours, such as the 1957 and 1959 tours of José Limón and Jerome Robbins, that appeared detached from overt social and political debates to the common spectator. Although Shen Yun is privately funded, and U.S. dance diplomacy was state-funded, both are built on the idea that dance can transcend language differences and build mutual understanding with audiences through a shared cultural experience. Dance can and has made political, social and cultural arguments — and recognizing this history should make us more attentive audience members.

During the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union both sponsored cultural programs abroad. Both aimed to depict their values and approach to governance as morally superior and effective in their bids to legitimate their global leadership. By 1954, President Dwight D. Eisenhower put in motion the first government support for exporting American performing arts abroad. Eisenhower valued the psychological dimension of power (or “soft power”) and saw its value as an effective response to what the State Department termed the “gigantic propaganda offensive” of the Soviet Union.

Eisenhower worried that people abroad viewed American success as hollow and materialistic — marked by the behemoth of the American car industry, for instance — as opposed to contributing to global cultural, spiritual and intellectual values. But by showcasing cultural works, dance performances could demonstrate that the United States had developed noteworthy and admirable cultural achievements under its social and economic system. Through dance, the United States hoped to persuade foreign audiences to resist communist influence and push their governments to support U.S. foreign policy.

To carry out Eisenhower’s vision for cultural diplomacy, the State Department looked to dance professionals for help. Between 1956 and 1962, the American National Theater and Academy (ANTA) Dance Panel — composed of dance critics, company directors, choreographers and other influential experts in the world of dance — oversaw artistic decision-making. The panel provided dance-specific expertise on which artists or dance companies should be sent abroad. It also helped curate the repertory that these artists would perform and advised where they should perform, based on an analysis of places and cultures that it believed would be receptive to the aesthetics of the specific dance.

Much of 1950s American cultural diplomacy sought to promote an idealized image of American society with little class struggle and great opportunity for social mobility. For the Dance Panel and government tour planners, the José Limón Dance Company’s 1957 European tour was ideal for demonstrating the power of the American Dream.

Limón’s immigrant parents had fled the instability and hardships of the Mexican Revolution (from approximately 1910 to 1920), moving their young son to California in the United States. Later, Limón moved to New York, where he established himself as a talented and influential modern dancer and choreographer. With Limón’s identity in mind, the Dance Panel members decided to fund the Limón Company’s tour, noting that “it is of great propaganda value that a Mexican-born boy has become one of the top dancers in our country,” as one panel member stated. Limón’s story of assimilation and upward mobility through hard work and dance innovation presented powerful evidence that the American melting pot was a positive and effective means of inclusion.

The U.S. government also funded famous Broadway and ballet choreographer Robbins’s company. Ballets: USA presented exciting and unconventional ballets during its 1958 and 1959 European tours. Combining elements of popular culture with ballet, Robbins represented innovative American dance while retaining ballet’s high-culture association. For example, “New York Export: Opus Jazz,” which was the highlight of the 1959 tour, featured 16 “city kids” dressed in colorful sweaters and Keds sneakers. “Opus Jazz” was set to Robert Prince’s jazz composition, and Robbins incorporated forward heel taps, swaying hips, jazzy snaps and clever group work into his ballet. These elements gave “Opus Jazz” a buoyant but suave atmosphere and boldly reimagined ballet for audiences of the 1950s.

By embodying the everyday in his choreography, costuming and storylines, Robbins merged aspects of concert dance and American popular culture. On tour, Ballets: USA also performed “The Concert,” a ballet that satirized concertgoers and ballet dancers in a self-aware presentation of an evening at the ballet. Set to music by Frédéric Chopin, “The Concert” deployed classical ballet technique while incorporating comedy. It featured both a “mad ballerina” so obsessed with the music that she fell asleep hugging the grand piano and a waltz of six women making comedically timed mistakes. Still performed today, “The Concert” depicted the broad spectrum of ballet stereotypes, from the overly serious and assured musician to the delicate dancer who loses herself in the music. The dance panel presented the dynamism of Robbins’s work as a living example of the wide range of works that Americans could produce in a country that claimed to be the home of democracy — and, by extension, the home of artistic freedom and liberty.

The U.S. media covered dance diplomacy as a project to prove American cultural superiority. Following Ballets: USA’s return to the United States in 1959, popular television host Ed Sullivan even proclaimed on his show that the company “conquered the world and did so much good for America.” Following the company’s TV performance of “Opus Jazz,” Sullivan commented that it was better than the Soviet dance company, the Moiseyev Ballet, which had recently visited the United States in April 1958 on a Soviet-sponsored dance diplomacy tour.

While we know from archival records what officials and policymakers intended with these dance tours, we know less about how the general European audience member received them, or whether Sullivan’s assessment — that the American dancers had bested their Soviet rivals — was widely shared. Dance did not bring the Cold War to an end, though cultural diplomacy continued to create opportunities for encounters across the Iron Curtain. This history reminds us that art and politics are often deeply entwined.

Today’s Shen Yun performances are grand, with a large cast of 180 brilliant dancers, spectacular sets and bright colors. Dance can be beautiful while also performing political arguments. They are not mutually exclusive.