From Cansinos Bros. to Rita Hayworth

Kiko Mora, professor of Communications at the University of Alicante, Spain, will present a talk on SPANISH DANCE, RACE, AND NATION IN THE US: FROM THE CANSINO BROTHERS TO RITA HAYWORTH.

See eventbrite link.

In January 1913, Sevillian dancers Elisa and Eduardo Cansino arrived in New York to perform for socialite and cultural maven Marion Stuyvesant-Fish. Soon the Cansinos were being featured in vaudeville shows and musical comedies all over the country. Their rapid rise, along with the outbreak of World War I, led the rest of the Cansino brothers (José, Paco, Ángel, Antonio and Rafael) to cross the Atlantic in search of their own portions of fame and fortune. By 1920, all the Cansino siblings had settled in Manhattan and would spend their entire lives in the USA. Among the best-known Spanish dancers here for at least the first half of the twentieth century, the Cansinos had an outsized impact on the US imagination.

In this lecture professor Mora traces the professional careers of the Cansino family as dancers, teachers and Hollywood choreographers from the perspective of race and national identity. The Cansinos gained the spotlight just as the US was emerging as a superpower on the global stage. How did the Cansinos perform the contradictory images of Spain as both conquistador­—the first American superpower—and “Moorish”/“Gypsy”? They played up Spain’s kinship with the US as both White and European while simultaneously conjuring Spain’s darkly exotic Otherness. At this pivotal moment in the rise of the imperial US, such oscillating images of Spain fed a US fantasy of racial purity, signaling both kinship with (White) Europe and (racialized) superiority in the wake of successful conquest. In this telling, the US had successfully expunged its Native, African, and Spanish American cultural inheritance by folding it into an emerging modernity. By contrast, Spain’s Whiteness was shadowed by miscegenation and haunted by the fall of its once-great empire. What famed jazz artist Jelly Roll Morton called “the Spanish tinge” thus designated an inferior and alien off-whiteness. Spanish dance, as a metonym of Spain, treaded the narrow edge between White European dances and Black Afro-American dances, a liminal position that the Cansinos had to negotiate throughout their careers.

Despite the Cansinos’ efforts to whitewash their dancing by claiming origins in “Old Spain” (in the anti-modern sense of the term), the truth was that many of their acts had a decidedly modern, Afro-American aspect. Flamenco (and the Cansinos) tapped into the vibrant rhythms of popular dance by drawing from up-to-date Afro-Cuban dance, but simultaneously sought to legitimate these dances as “national” by evoking Spain’s indigenous “primitivism.” Thus, the Cansinos’ choice of repertoire situated Spanish dance on a borderline in two related ways. First, they tuned in to the fashionable rhythms of the day in order to make their act commercially successful, but without conceding their pedigree of Spanish tradition and refined technique. Secondly, the subtitles of their dances (e.g., “The Dance of Grace”), evoked the classical antiquity of Roman “Hispania,” so attractive to artists and audiences of US modern dance.

            White for Blacks, Black for Whites, Latino for Anglos, European for Latin-Americans, the Cansinos’ dilemmas would finally be resolved in the figure of Margarita del Carmen Cansino, the world-famous actress and dancer known as Rita Hayworth.