Category: Music and Dance

Polish Dance in Southern California

By Maja Trochimczyk. 2007. New York: Columbia University Press. 320 pages. ISBN: 978-0-88033-593-5 (hard cover).


Reviewed by Jenna Makowski, Indiana University

[Review length: 1040 words • Review posted on November 19, 2008]


Maja Trochimczyk’s ethnographic study, Polish Dance in Southern California, presents a well-rounded and nuanced examination of the Polish dance movement in the United States through case studies of three dance ensembles in southern California. Responding to the small list of academic works addressing the Polish dance movement, Trochimczyk’s book functions as a foundational study from which subsequent research may be based. The main goal of the book is to demonstrate the role of folk dance in the lives of Polish-Americans in southern California. The author first focuses broadly on the role of dance ensembles as a means of identity creation for Polish immigrants in America, and then delves further into the functions and goals of individual ensembles, revealing the deep, complex network of negotiation through which Polish-American identity is created and expressed. She uses a framework of comparison and contrast between dance ensembles in Poland and the United States to create a historical context through which the role of the ensembles in America may be understood. Her research methods included open-ended interviews with the founders and directors of the ensembles and surveys among three groups of Polish-Americans in the Los Angeles area. Questions in both cases related directly to the defined goal of the book, drawing out participants’ perspectives and opinions on the role of Polish folk dance in America.

The first half of the book is structured around an examination of the broad role Polish dance ensembles in the United States play in the creation of a Polish-American identity. Chapter 1 outlines the history of Polish immigration to America with a focus on the political and social differences that characterized and distinguished three separate waves of immigration throughout the twentieth century. The negotiations and interactions between these three groups underlie the identity-creation process, part of which involves dance ensembles. The author concludes that, despite the differences between the three generations of immigrants, the dance ensembles serve as a common ground through which Polish-American identity is created and expressed. Chapter 2 focuses on Polish immigration to southern California, the creation of dance ensembles in the region, and their ties to the major fraternal organizations that support them financially. Chapter 3 outlines the presentation of dances as national symbols, moving historically between nationalism at the turn of the century, Soviet nationalism, and the Soviet performance aesthetic in the United States. Her main point is to illustrate how dances presented on American stages were both modeled on Soviet ensembles and re-contextualized as modes of Polish-American expression of identity.

The second half of the book examines in specific detail the process of identity negotiation through dance ensemble presentations in California. Trochimczyk’s central point is that underlying the role dance ensembles take in expressing Polish-American identity are complex networks of meaning negotiated through the differing functions, goals, and approaches of each individual ensemble. Chapter 4 presents a historical outline of three major dance ensembles in California, highlighting their differing approaches to choreography, costuming, notions of authenticity, and functions, which range from education and community building to public displays of culture for both Polish and non-Polish audiences. Chapter 5 reviews specific dances presented by the California ensembles, with a focus on their Polish versions and the changes in form and function that have been applied by the ensembles. Chapter 6 examines in detail the positive and negative consequences of reaffirming Polish identity through dance, with a focus on the interactions between California dance ensembles in the wider discourse on identity creation.

Polish Dance in Southern California is the first major scholarly work to focus specifically on the Polish folk dance movement in the United States. Recognizing this fact, Trochimczyk effectively presents a balanced examination of folk dance in general in both Poland and the United States, and of the more specific roles of individual ensembles in southern California. This balance is reflected in the structure of the chapters, which clearly move between the historical contexts for Polish dance and the specific case studies. The author’s writing style is articulate and lucid; by the end of the book, the reader has a clear idea of the historical movement of dances between Poland and the United States, as well as a sense of the complex role California ensembles take in the creation of Polish-American identity. Chapters 3 and 5, which outline the specific changes in the forms, presentations, and meaning of dances in the United States as compared to their Soviet models, complements research conducted by Anthony Shay (2002, 2006) regarding the ideologies dance ensembles use in the creation of national identities. The study under review presents a crucial contribution to this area of research, focusing on the transformation of Soviet models in America and their acquisition of new meaning and ideals of authenticity.

Trochimczyk’s main method of research--written surveys sent to members of three major Polish populations in Los Angeles--effectively reached a wide audience. The results of survey research are usually limited, however, to those with a predisposed interest in or opinion about the research being conducted. Despite this limitation, Trochimczyk integrates popular opinions regarding the roles of dance ensembles into her research, providing insight into questions regarding nationality, identity, and cultural expressions. These opinions were especially insightful regarding which populations of Polish immigrants consider dancing to be an expression of Polishness and why. The surveys could have been even more effective had some of the ranking and “yes or no” questions been replaced with open-ended questions, allowing participants to more fully explain their perspectives.

Overall, Polish Dance in Southern California presents an essential contribution to research in a range of fields from Polish studies to ethnomusicology and history, presenting a lens through which immigrant culture in America may be examined via a specific case study. By tracing Polish dance ensembles through a century of history and across two continents, Trochimczyk presents an in-depth examination of ensembles and their role in immigrant identity creation. The wider story of American multi-ethnicity is implied through her research, and the book is easily accessible to the scholar, the dancer, and the interested public alike.

References:

Shay, Anthony. 2002. Choreographic Politics: State Folk Dance Companies, Representation and Power. Middleton: Wesleyan University Press.

-----. 2006. Choreographing Identities: Folk Dance, Ethnicity and Festival in the United States. Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Company Inc.

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© Journal of Folklore Research, 2010. Last revised June 21, 2010.