Dancing with Knives: American Cold War Ideology in the Dances of West Side Story


  • Daniel Belgrad
  • Ying Zhu




Dance studies, affect, militarism, Jerome Robbins, choreography, ideology


In cultural studies today, there is emerging an interpretive revolution “from below” – that is, a radical reassessment of the politics of cultural forms, based on a recovery of the embodied and affective subject as the center of meaning-making. Making sense of dance performances is therefore methodologically important because of their particular ability to offer insight into these two aspects of subjectivity. As an artifact of Cold War American culture, Jerome Robbins’ choreography in the film West Side Story (1961) enforces an ideological distinction between legitimate and illegitimate forms of violence, through its portrayals of “cool” affect as a necessary disposition, and organized violence as a necessary evil. Our close analysis of the dances “Rumble” and “Cool” offers new insights into the affective “map” that provided the ideological foundation for American political theorists and policy makers in formulating their Cold War attitudes.


Adler, Les, and Thomas Paterson. “Red Fascism: The Merger of Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia in the American Image of Totalitarianism, 1930’s-1950’s.” American Historical Review 75.4 (1970): 1046–64.

Altieri, Charles. The Particulars of Rapture: An Aesthetics of the Affects. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2003.

Behm, Jessica. “Bodies of War: The Embodiment of Force in Theaters of War.” PhD dissertation, Dance History and Theory, UC Riverside, 2014.

Belgrad, Daniel. “Square Ring.” Intellectual History Newsletter 23 (2001): 24–34.

Belgrad, Daniel. The Culture of Spontaneity. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998.

Boring, Edwin et al. Psychology for the Fighting Man. Washington: Infantry Journal, Penguin Books, 1943.

Burton, Richard F. A Complete System of Bayonet Exercise. London: William Clowes and Sons, 1853. Accessed November 27, 2015. http://burtoniana.org/books/1853-A%20Complete%20System%20of%20Bayonet%20Exercise/burton-1853-bayonet.pdf.

Campbell, James D. The Army Isn’t All Work: Physical Culture and the Evolution of the British Army, 1860–1920. Burlington: Ashgate, 2012.

Cohen, R. Robert. “Factors in Adjustment to Army Life: A Plan for Preventive Psychiatry by Mass Psychotherapy,” War Medicine 5 (February 1944): 83–94.

Cuordileone, Kyle. Manhood and American Political Culture in the Cold War. New York: Routledge, 2005.

Deane, John R. The Strange Alliance: The Story of Our Efforts at Wartime Co-operation with Russia. New York: Viking Press, 1947.

DefensiveCarry.com. “How Helpful is Being Angry when in a Fight?” Last modified November 23, 2011. http://www.defensivecarry.com/forum/carry-defensive-scenarios/131675-how-helpful-being-angry-when-fight.html.

Desmond, Jane. “Embodying Difference: Issues in Dance and Cultural Studies.” Cultural Critique 26 (1993–1994): 33–63.

Divine, Robert A. Blowing on the Wind: The Nuclear Test Ban Debate. New York: Oxford UP, 1978.

Dodds, Sherril. Dancing on the Canon: Embodiments of Value in Popular Dance. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.

Erikson, Erik. “Wholeness and Totality – A Psychiatric Contribution.” In Totalitarianism, edited by Carl J. Friedrich, 156–71. New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1954.

Foster, Susan Leigh. Reading Dancing: Bodies and Subjects in Contemporary American Dance. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986.

Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of a Prison. Translated by Alan Sheridan. New York: Vintage Books, 1995.

Franko, Mark. Dance as Text: Ideologies of the Baroque Body. Cambridge: University Press, 1993.

Fromm, Erich. Sane Society. New York: Henry Holt and Co., 1955.

Herman, Ellen. The Romance of American Psychology: Political Culture in the Age of Experts. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996.

Gere, David. How to Make Dances in an Epidemic: Tracking Choreography in the Age of AIDS. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2004.

Gottschild, Brenda Dixon. Digging the Africanist Presence in American Performance. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1996.

Hine, Thomas. Populuxe. New York: Knopf, 1986.

Jameson, Fredric. The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1982.

Kennedy, John F. “Address on the Cuban Crisis October 22, 1962.” Modern History Sourcebook: Fordham University. Accessed July 4, 1998. https://legacy.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/1962kennedy-cuba.html.

Lears, Jackson T. J. “The Concept of Cultural Hegemony.” American Historical Review 90.3 (1985): 568–93.

Lehman, Ernest. West Side Story: Screenplay. Beverly Hills: MGM Home Entertainment, 2003.

Manning, Susan. Ecstasy and the Demon: Feminism and Nationalism in the Dances of Mary Wigman. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993.

McCormack, Derek. Refrains for Moving Bodies: Experience and Experiment in Affective Spaces. Durham: Duke University Press, 2014.

McNeill, William H. Keeping Together in Time: Dance and Drill in Human History. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997.

Mills, C. Wright. Power, Politics, and People. New York: Oxford University Press, 1963.

Needham, Maureen. “Louis XIV and the Académie Royale de Danse, 1661: A Commentary and Translation.” Dance Chronicle 20.2 (1997): 173–90.

Negrón-Muntaner, Frances. “Feeling Pretty: West Side Story and Puerto Rican Identity Discourses.” Social Text 18.2 (2000): 83–106.

Peirce, Charles. The Essential Peirce. Volume 2. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998.

Rogin, Michael. Ronald Reagan: The Movie, and Other Episodes in Political Demonology. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.

Rosenthal, Joel. Righteous Realists: Political Realism, Responsible Power, and American Culture in the Nuclear Age. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1991.

Sandoval-Sanchez, Alberto. José Can You See: Latinos On and Off Broadway. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1993.

Schelling, Thomas. Arms and Influence. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1966.

Schogol, Jeff. “Has the Army Eliminated Bayonet Training?” Stars and Stripes. Accessed November 27, 2015. http://www.stripes.com/blogs/the-rumor-doctor/the-rumor-doctor-1.104348/has-the-army-eliminated-bayonet-training-1.137356.

Spivak, Gayatri. “Can the Subaltern Speak?” In Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, edited by Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg, 271–313. Basingstoke: Macmillan Education, 1988.

Suri, Jeremi. Henry Kissinger and the American Century. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007.

TheFirearmBlog.com. “Bayonet History and Drill, Circa 1861.” Last modified April 16, 2015. http://www.thefirearmblog.com/blog/2015/04/16/bayonet-history-and-drill-circa-1861/.

Tomkins, Silvan. Exploring Affect: The Selected Writings of Silvan S. Tomkins, edited by E. Virginia Demos. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

United States Army. Combatives: Field Manual No. 3-25.150. Washington, DC: Department of the Army, 2002. Accessed November 27, 2015. http://sill-www.army.mil/428thfa/FM%203-25.150%20(Combatives).pdf.

West Side Story. DVD. Directed by Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise. 1961; Beverly Hills, CA: MGM Home Entertainment, 1998.

Williams, Raymond. The Long Revolution. New York: Columbia University Press, 1961.

Winkler, Allan. Life Under a Cloud: American Anxiety about the Atom. Urbana-Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1993.

YouTube. “The Cupid Shuffle – Army Edition.” Last modified March 1, 2011. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lbDHvt1jEYo.

YouTube. “Just Dance Remake US Troops style Lady Gaga.” Last modified October 3, 2009. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o2DJCX4kcAY.