Immigrants and the Arts

Among the current projects at the Center for Traditional Music and Dance is an exploration of different Colombian dance rhythms. (Photo courtesy of CTMD via City Limits)

Immigrants contribute mightily to the U.S. economy, as rallies across the U.S. sought to demonstrate on May Day. But the various ways in which immigrants from different parts of the globe have woven into the warp and woof of everyday life in the U.S. is not always apparent. Writing in City Limits, Jarrett Murphy observes the many ways in which immigrants and different cultures contribute to the arts – and themselves participate in and benefit from the arts.

Murphy profiles one organization in particular, the Center for Traditional Music and Dance. For 45 years, the organization has featured artists from around the world and sponsored community cultural initiatives. One current initiative focuses on bringing to a Queens neighborhood school, with classes and events, Peruvian arts from the Andes to the coastal regions. Another explores Haitian traditional singing, running and dance, and a third provides kids at a lower Manhattan public school with traditional Chinese instruments and a “Beijing Opera” program. Murphy quotes CTMD’s director, Peter Rushefsky.

“We like to call ourselves the nation’s largest program working across diverse immigrant communities to help them maintain the vitality of diverse performing arts tradition and share them with the general public,” Rushefsky says. “Although it is intensely local work it has a national and sometimes even international ripples.” Some of the artists the center works with are the best in their field in the United States, if not in the entire art form.

The programs are designed to both meet the needs of and reflect the interests of different communities, as well as to promote various traditional arts.

CTMD’s experience …is that art matters broadly to immigrant groups. “People engage in the arts in all sorts of different ways, Rushefsky says. “What we try and do with these projects is create portals to reach all sorts of different folks.” The role of art in any immigrant community depends on the role it played in the home country, as well the extent and timing of the group’s assimilation to U.S. culture, he says.

In some cases, there are unique barriers to an art form’s survival. The music of former Soviet republics in central Asia, for instance, often rely on languages—like, say, classical Tajik—that few emigres, raised to speak Russian, can really understand. “So you’re dealing with a range of folks who come at it from different languages,” Rushefsky says. Add a younger generation raised in the U.S. to the mix, and it gets really complicated. “The kids in the community are now two languages removed from the art form.”

Go to City Limits to read more from the interview with Rushefsky, and to learn what the evisceration of federal funding for the arts could mean for CTMD and other similar organizations.

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