Flower Drum Song is often upheld as a significant milestone in the representation of Asian Americans in Hollywood films. However, in our discussions of the film, one aspect was largely overlooked; the fact that it is a movie musical. I believe that this is important because in a musical, the songs and dance play just as important roles as the plot and the characters. As a result, I will be asking, in what ways does the dancing in Flower Drum Song reproduce or challenge the hegemonic representation of “Asian American”? I am going to argue that even though Flower Drum Song depicts Asian bodies moving in a way that was previously not allowed, it is still restricted in the hegemonic structure. This is important because it continues to promote assimilation over hybridity and reinforces the hegemonic categorization of “high culture”.
To begin with, as a musical Flower Drum Song was abundant in musical numbers and I will be focusing on the songs with more featured dancing. “Fan Tan Fannie” is our introduction to Linda Low and we see her surrounded by other girls scurrying around the stage waving fans with one hand and their other hand on their hips. Linda strides confidently across the stage and moves in a way that accents her hips. The two big company dance numbers in the film are “Chop Suey” and “Grant Avenue”. In “Chop Suey” the dancers perform a sort of evolution of American dance; starting with the cha-cha to a square dance to a cake walk and then the waltz followed by the Charleston and ending with a Fosse inspired jazz sequence. “Grant Avenue” is another big full cast number which takes place on the streets of Chinatown in the context of a Chinese New Year parade. It is in the form of classic musical theatre dance with no culturally Chinese dance forms. Another form that the choreographer predominantly uses is ballet, which we see first in “The Other Generation” and we see Wang Ta’s “Americanized” brother dressed in a baseball outfit dancing a jazz ballet piece, reminiscent of Jerome Robbins, with his two friends. Another song in which we see the predominance of ballet is in “Love, Look Away“. It starts off seemingly like a pas de deux and a waltz between Helen and Wang Ta but quickly turns into Helen being surrounded by masked figures and being passed on from one masked figure to the next, in sequential ballet lifts.
Although many of these dances are distinct in the plot and character being explored, they fall into the same trend of Western styled dance and for a film about Asian Americans, it is largely missing Asian cultural dance. The most glaring absence is in “Grant Avenue”, which is supposedly about the celebration of Chinese New Year. However, the number was in American musical theater form and did not feature any elements from traditional Chinese dance. Although the parade referenced Chinese Lion Dance, the dance itself was not featured in any part of the number. This same issue is also apparent in “Chop Suey”, where there are no elements of Asian cultural dance. Although it was clever of the choreographer to use this as a chance to showcase Madame Liang’s new American citizenship through the performance of American dance history, the song is ultimately about the Asian American identify. “Fan Tan Fannie” is possibly the only number that involves an element of Asian dance in the use of fans, however the fans were not used in traditional Chinese dance style but rather more as props. The predominance of Western dance forms is not just evident in the use of musical theatre dance but also in the use of ballet. Although the use of ballet in “The Other Generation” was to further demonstrate the cultural gap between the two generations, there was less of a reason to use ballet in “Love, Look Away”.
This is not to say that Asian bodies are only allowed to perform “Asian” dances, as cultural essentialism would argue, but rather that the film uses Western dance forms to represent Asian culture. While it is great that we are seeing Asian bodies move in a way that was not previously represented in the media, this perpetuates Western dance as the established high aesthetic culture and other dance forms as “cultural forms”. The issue of class also intersects, as ballet is an institutionalized dance form that cannot be learned on the streets and represents a class status. Furthermore, the performance of ballet in “Love, Look Away” intersects with issues of gender and sexuality by exemplifying masculinity through physical dominance over women and upholding heteronormative standards.
While the representation of Asian American bodies dancing is already a step towards resistance, it is only a liberalist step, as it does not attempt to overthrow the hegemonic social structure. By only using Western dance forms, the film is perpetuating the notion of assimilation as being the desired outcome when forming the “Asian American” identity. It continues to reinforce the idea of the “Forever Foreigner” and that belonging is rooted in “Americanness”. The dance represented in Flower Drum Song also has an impact on political economy as we see choreographers/dancers of Western dance forms being hired over choreographers/dancers of Asian dance forms. If Flower Drum Song wanted to take a radical stand, it would have used Asian American hybridity in dance as a way overthrow the cultural hierarchy.