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  • "Splendid Dancing":Filipino "Exceptionalism" in Taxi Dancehalls
  • Lucy Mae San Pablo Burns (bio)

In the 1920s and early 1930s, Filipino men patronized the popular American social institution of the taxi dancehalls, comprising nearly one quarter of the taxi dancehall patrons in major cities such as Detroit and Los Angeles (see Cressey 1932).1 Taxi dancehalls were at the height of their popularity during this period, often serving as a key site of sociality amongst and between immigrants. Women were employed as dancers for hire, and men, predominantly immigrants, were their principal patrons. Filipinos, workers and students alike, came dressed in McIntosh suits,2 eager to spend their hard-earned wages on taxi dancers. Here, Filipino men made rare social contact with women—taxi dancers who were largely white, occasionally Mexican, and very rarely Filipina (see Meckel 1995 for a detailed study of taxi dancers). Filipinos would purchase their dance tickets, choose their favorite girl within a group of taxi dancers, and move to the music of a live band. For ten cents per dance number, slow or fast, Filipino men could choose to dance with the same dancer until their tickets ran out or opt for the pleasures of another. Like a taxi ride, each dance came with a ticketed price and the expectation of a tip, either in the form of a drink, a sandwich, or perhaps even a marriage proposal.

Filipino patrons' dancing skills drew passionate comments from dancers as well as early scholars of American taxi dancehalls. For example, in "Confessions of a Taxi Dancer," Jeanne de La Moreau excitedly declares that "Filipinos as a rule are splendid dancers," noting that one Filipino patron was even nicknamed "God's Gift to the Taxi-Dancers!" (1931, E5). De la Moreau is not alone in her rhapsodic characterizations of the Filipino dancer in the taxi dancehalls as physically "splendid." For many observers, the Filipino male is arguably the best dancer amongst the patrons of taxi dancehalls at the peak of this social institution's popularity. In particular, his exceptional kinesthetic abilities (variously described as "splendid," "spectacular," "fancy") are a source of repeated commentary. He is dazzling in his knowledge of the latest American dance steps of the period (such as the lindy hop, the swing, and the shimmy). The Associated Filipino press reports of Filipinos [End Page 23] at the Hippodrome Dance Palace in Los Angeles further aggrandize the status of the Filipino male dancers, describing them as "fancy dancers in excellent pairs . . . gliding jovially on the floor until the wee hours of the morning" (cited in Maram 2006). "Filipino conduct" in the taxi dancehall is also equally exemplary, as "one which he can point to with pride. He is seldom guilty of sensual dancing, and is much more the pursued than the pursuer in his contacts with taxi dancers" (Cressey 1932, 155).3 So iconic is the Filipino male dancer that American sociologist Paul Cressey goes so far as to say that the Filipino's exceptional dancing skills demonstrate his knowledge of American ways and his "all too rapid" assimilation into American society.4

The discourse of exceptionality framing the perception of the Filipino dancing body draws directly from the production of American empire and its implementation. This representational coupling of exceptionality with the Filipino dancing body coincides with the established metaphorics of United States imperialism. Filipino Studies scholars, most notably Oscar Campomanes, have linked "American exceptionalism" to the denial of U.S. imperialism and to the "historical amnesia" surrounding the U.S. invasion of the Philippines (1997).5 Epifanio San Juan Jr., a leading scholar of the U.S. invasion in the Philippines, offers this critique: "The United States as a political formation is 'exceptional,' according to the Establishment historians, because it did not follow the European path to colonial expansion. The discourse and practice of 'American exceptionalism' as part of Cold War strategy has been criticized acutely . . . as an outgrowth of technocratic modernization and developmentalist thought" (1998, 16). Within the context of U.S. empire in the Philippines, exceptionalism emerges as a hegemonic construct that forgets the calculated pursuit of the Philippines by the United States. Furthermore, it erases the violent implementation of American imperial rule...


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