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La Meri

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John Lindquist, from Houghton Library


Described as “the indisputed queen of ethnic dance” by dance writer Walter Sorrell, La Meri was instrumental in expanding Americans’ awareness of world dance. A dancer, choreographer, teacher, and writer, La Meri was particularly known as an authority on the traditional classical dance of India and Spain. Born Russell Meriwether Hughes in 1898 in Louisville, Kyshe studied Spanish and Mexican dance as a child in San Antonio, then Hawaiian dance in Hawaii, and modern dance with Michio Ito in New York. Beginning to dance professionally in the 1920s, in the 1930s she toured with renowned Indian classical dancer Ram Gopal, and in 1944 choreographed a version of Swan Lake using the vocabulary of bharata natyam. In 1940 she established the School of Natya with Ruth St. Denis; absorbed in 1945 into the Ethnologic Dance Center and the Ethnologic Dance Theater, the school was an important training ground for ethnic dance until it closed in 1956. La Meri published many articles and books, including Spanish Dancing (1948), considered a definitive text on the subject, and taught for many years at Jacob’s Pillow. Touring the world, she learned many native dance forms that she performed and taught in the United States, introducing audiences to a rich array of dance traditions. 

Pictured right: La Meri in her Swan Lake, 1951. In this 1944 work, she incorporated classical Indian dance forms including Bharatanatyam and Kathakali into the story, structure, and music of the ballet Swan Lake, demonstrating the structural strengths and narrative power of these Indian forms. (Photo by John Lindquist, from the Lindquist Collection, Houghton Library, Harvard University) 

John Lindquist, from Houghton Library




Pictured left: La Meri teaching flamenco. “Her classes on ‘ethnic dance’ introduced the excitement of comparing unfamiliar stylistic details of different dance forms, but the movements were introduced within an anatomical structure,” writes Uttara Asha Coorlawala, who took classes with La Meri. “She categorized basic positions and movements of various parts of the body, first in isolation, and later in combinations for the entire body.” (Photo by John Lindquist, from the Lindquist Collection, Houghton Library, Harvard University)

As a performer, La Meri was “elegant and exact,” writes Uttara Asha Coorlawala, and she was “a close observer of movement traits, for it was said that her stage personality would morph each time she performed a dance from a different geo-cultural area.” She learned dances, such as the Southeast Asian form, on her travels around the world.