A craze for the skirt dance and for skirt dancing swept across the stages and dance floors and into the drawing rooms and schoolrooms of Europe and the United States of America during the 1890s.1 Individual skirt dance performers attracted mass fan bases and international celebrity status. The style became a characteristic of variety theatre programmes and was written into plays, musical comedies, pantomimes, skits and burlesques. Skirt dance lessons, instruction manuals and clothing brought the form into the classroom and the domestic space. Fluctuating ideas concerning embodiment, gender and theatricality were embedded in each diverse, ephemeral performance of the skirt dance at the end of the nineteenth century.
The familiarity of the skirt dance as an entertainment style is illustrated by the notable absence of press descriptions of what the dance involved. Amidst the significant amount of newspaper and journal column space dedicated to commentary and reviews of the style during the 1890s, explanation of what audiences expected to see is scant. When they mentioned the skirt dance, writers and critics assumed that readers would know what they were talking about. The physical movement, the typical musical accompaniment, the experience that characterised a performance of the style formed part of a shared visual language and cultural vocabulary: there was no need to supply these details.
The Skirt Dance drew its name from the accordion pleated, light skirts that were worn by the first performers of the style at the Gaiety Theatre, London during the 1870s. Epitomised by the graceful stepping footwork of Kate Vaughan (Catherine Candelin, ?1852-1903), the movement was accompanied by gentle music and dexterous manipulation of the light skirt. In both its costume and its techniques the skirt dance signalled a deliberate move away from the imagery and conventions of romantic ballet. This shift can be discovered at the core of the responses of many of its fans and its critics. Whilst the relative physical freedom offered by the style was celebrated, the simplicity of its technique and the concealment of the dancer's legs and partial concealment of their foot work by the fabric skirt was frequently interpreted as evidence that the skirt dance was less skilled and rigorous than the ballet.
Understandings of the Skirt Dance were in transition during the 1890s. Definitions of the style were repeatedly modified as it assimilated new popular dances and current fashions. The costume associated with the dance was also updated. The original accordion pleated skirts gave way to designs that used looser, longer, lighter fabrics and became more and more voluminous. Greater emphasis was put on colour as a key part of the style's effects and, following the unprecedented popularity of the American performer Loïe Fuller (1862-1928), the 'balletic vocabulary for the lower body'2 that had been associated with the 'graceful dancing' of Vaughan and her contemporaries incorporated the more complex arm movements of the Serpentine Dance.3 Largely as a result of Fuller's international celebrity, skirt and serpentine dancing became interchangeable terms for audiences, critics and promoters and incorporated a range of movements, styles of skirt and performance locations.4
London's Skirt Dance Industry, 1892-1898
Press listings for skirt and serpentine dancers in London during 1892 and 1893 make it clear that many female performers opted to learn the skirt dance and to use it as a key part of their professional identity and stage output. Two decades aft er the height of Vaughan's popularity, skirt dancing continued to be a staple element of the burlesques and the musical comedies produced by the Gaiety Theatre. The style was also prevalent at other venues. August 1892 saw Jenny Joyce performing her Serpentine Dance at the Alhambra Theatre and in September 1892, the former Gaiety Girl Florence Levey took a contract for solo performances of the Skirt Dance at the London Pavilion; the Grosvenor Club's concert programme in March 1893 featured Miss Florence Bright in a Skirt Dance. In June 1893, Clara Wieland offered her Serpentine Dance aft er a performance of Round the Town at the Empire Theatre of Varieties on Leicester Square to 'persistent' applause and encores.5 Just down the road, at the Oxford Music Hall, Marie Leyton was performing her electrical serpentine dance nightly to similarly appreciative audiences (Plate 7).6 Th roughout 1892 Lottie Collins' had the music-hall hit that would secure her career: the Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay song, accompanied by a dance that combined the skirt dance with its frenetic and erotic Parisian relation, the cancan.
The spectacle offered by large amounts of moving fabric and electrical effects led to the choreography of skirt dances that featured multiple dancers. In December 1892, the advertised highlight of Drury Lane's Christmas pantomime was the 'Grand Hall of a Million Mirrors in the Prince's Palace'. Against walls of mirrors that were divided by 'gilded pillars from which electric lights flashed and sparkled', two skirt dances were staged. First came a concerted-skirt dance, performers were dressed in accordion pleated skirts and performed graceful footwork that was reminiscent of the Gaiety Theatre's brand. This was followed by a 'species of serpentine skirt dance', performed by women in jewel coloured skirts with bands of gold around the hem that caught the light as they moved.7 In this second version, movement, colour and electricity were combined to create a stage spectacle that was not solely connected with the pantomime: in May 1893, the Rainbow Dance first featured on the programme of the Palace Theatre of Varieties on the Strand. Echoing the Drury Lane group skirt dance, the Rainbow Dance was performed by a group of six female dancers and choreographed to 'extremely pretty' lighting effects.8
Across venues, productions, audiences and events the skirt dance was a dominant 1890s entertainment form. By December 1893 it had become an anticipated element of many evenings out, indeed its absence from one annual pantomime was considered to be worthy of note. The Times reviewer for the Parkhurst Theatre's Christmas pantomime, Aladdin in Luck, sardonically recorded that 'it was interesting to notice that there was not a conventional skirt dance in the entire pantomime, which managed to get on very well without one'.9 Yet the style's popularity did not abate. Instead it continued to be transformed, mining other popular styles and adopting their visual motifs and characteristics.
During the mid to late 1890s the skirt dance found its way into animal acts.10 In 1894 Thomas Edison's Kinetoscope Company released three short films, Wonderful Performing Dog, Skirt Dance Dog and Dancing Dog. These featured Professor Ivan Tschernoff's performing canines, Leo and Lucy, familiar figures for American audiences of the day.11 Early filmmakers frequently sourced variety acts as subject matter for their film shorts: popular acts and styles from the halls and theatres were already a guaranteed draw for contemporary spectators. In 'Skirt Dancing Dog' Lucy added her own contribution to the craze of the mid 1890s, compounding the draw of the animal act and the Skirt Dance 'by being dressed as a danseuse and giving a most clever serpentine dance'.12 It was not just dogs that were trained to work in the style, in 1897, the Alhambra Theatre's audiences were offered the opportunity to watch tamed bears trained to perform the Skirt Dance.13
In addition to animals taught to skirt dance, skirt dancers performed alongside animals, oft en under fairly hair-raising conditions. Plate 8 shows a skirt dancer amidst a group of caged lions. There is more than one recorded instance of this occurring at the end of the nineteenth century. At the Earls Court Exhibition in 1898 Mlle Marguerite danced the Serpentine as lions lay 'quietly around her'.14 Two years later, whilst performing in Paris music halls at the time of the 1900 universal exhibition, the American dancer Maud Madison was approached by a famous lion tamer. His aim was to persuade her to consent to dance in the cage with his lions, to 'create a sensation and be the most talked of woman' in the city. Aft er an initial refusal, Madison agreed to the performance and she danced as the tamer 'whipped up' the lions so that they ran around her moving body and the swirling drapery of her skirts. Between 1892 and 1898 the adaptability and versatility of the skirt dance was demonstrated. The style was suitable as an act for either large or small venues, it could be presented by either a solo dancer or by a group of performers and it leant itself both to a cheap presentation that simply required a performance space, a performer and a suitable costume and to costly and spectacular stage effects.
The 1890s incarnation of the Skirt Dance was a modern performance form, a morphing cultural product inseparably linked to its moment. Its continual updates and its incorporation of other forms were central to its enduring popularity and success. Performers, choreographers and teachers of the style were in constant dialogue with the entertainment industry. Simultaneously they were responding to commodity culture and to new ideas about aesthetics and performance. To a great extent the skirt dance's dominance of 1890s popular entertainment was the result of this intrinsic modernity, and some of its engagements with the technological and social forces that sustained it can be traced in evidence of the industries and products that it created.
As a professional skirt dance performer, suitable fabric was necessary to achieve and maximise the style's visual effects. In response to this demand, manufacturers and importers marketed and supplied new fabric widths, as well as a large range of light silks and voiles.15 In April 1893, the theatrical trade paper The Era carried an advertisement for the theatrical costumier, Miss Fisher. Previously a costume designer and maker based at the Gaiety Theatre, this advertisement presented her as the inventor of the latest 'novelty' for skirt dancing 'the serpentine costume'.16 Whatever the reasons behind her move to a freelance career, there was clearly money to be made in designing serpentine costumes for the many female performers offering the skirt dance who were not working for the Gaiety.
The month aft er Miss Fisher's announcement, an advertisement for 'Electric Light Jewellery' was placed in the Era. In addition to electrical trinkets, the company also produced 'costumes fitted with fairy electric lights for theatricals, music hall artists and serpentine dancers'.17 One report recorded that these widely available accessories were not just designed for public performances; they were also for use in the home. One 1893 press article gives an idea of how they could be used in domestic, amateur performance when it lists recommended 'popular parlour diversions for winter evenings' in 1893 that include the 'Jewel Dance', in which 'little incandescent lights' in a range of colours were worn over the head and as trimming on the 'graceful, flowing robes' that were worn by the amateur dancers.18
Broad social sanction of the skirt dance as an entertainment style and a leisure activity is suggested by a charity evening, staged at the Royalty Theatre, London in April 1892. At the event, the organiser Countess Russell performed a skirt dance. The adoption of the style by and for philanthropy is significant: it signals its acceptance as a gentile form of entertainment with a socio-moral seal of approval. As a result, dance instructors quickly realised the financial potential of teaching the Skirt Dance to amateurs as well as to professional performers. The style's longer costume and gentle movements made the style suitable for young ladies and its simple requirements meant that it could easily be practised and performed in the home. Schools across London offered individual and group lessons in the fashionable form, advertising both to performers and to 'young ladies and children of the nobility'.19 As Elizabeth Garratt, a successful dance teacher, explained in an interview with the Pall Mall Budget following an 'at-home' at which many of her pupils performed:
[the] girls dance aft er a dinner-party as, formerly, they gave a song. You see, the style of dress that is required for these dances is almost identical with the ordinary dinner dress ... the umbrella-shaped skirt of this season is just the right thing for skirt dancing.20
If lessons were not a possibility, then a paper-guide could offer instruction in the style. Routledge's 1893 publication How to Dance offered 'a new guide to the latest fashionable dances', with steps explained simply enough to be followed by the beginner.21 Finally, the sheet music industry responded quickly to the trend. Collections of piano pieces from the 1890s frequently contain skirt dance accompaniments that allowed women to practice and to perform at home.22 By the 1890s the skirt dance blurred distinctions between public and private spaces and bridged professional and amateur performance.
Sexy Shambling Across the Stage: Women, Popular Dance and Histories of Performance
The skirt dance craze reveals the extent to which dance formed an integral part of widespread understandings of entertainment and performance in the 1890s, for audiences, for performers and for programmers. The briefest browse through contemporary collections of art, entertainment posters, stage chronicles, trade papers, listings, postcards, programmes and reviews reveals a strong interest in dance as an element of theatricality. Dance fed into, and offof, musical comedy, 'legitimate' theatre, operetta, vaudeville entertainment programmes, ballet, pantomime and small-scale experimental performances. As the list of performers working in the style in 1892 and 1893 has suggested, its diverse forms, styles and performers featured as cohesive elements of productions, parts of wider spectacles, music-hall turns, or divertissements offered between the acts of another play, or plays, or on a multi-bill programme.
As a performance historian, rather than someone interested in the study of dance as a distinct performance form, I am interested in the questions raised by how dance worked within a performance culture where it was considered integral. What did dance mean to spectators in the 1890s, when understandings of entertainment incorporated actresses that danced, dancers that acted, actresses that sang, singers that danced and dancers that sung - oft en all in the same performance? Was dance simply read as an inseparable part of a whole performance event, in the same way that choreographed movement and dance have become accepted and key elements of much post-modern performance? Does the skirt dance represent an unusual style because members of the audience may be learning it themselves and practising it in their own domestic space as well as watching it in the performance space? Using the Skirt Dance as a loose framework, the remainder of this article seeks to explore the possibility and the potential of relocating dance in the fabric of late nineteenth-century entertainment culture. It argues that much has been lost in our understanding of this moment in performance history as a result of the marginalisation of dance.
In spite of the inherent connections between late nineteenth-century dance and performance that have been outlined above, there has been a desire to separate dance out from other performance forms at this time in history: a mutual desire from both dance and performance studies which has moulded understandings of performance in this period. Whilst interesting, productive and primarily multidisciplinary work has been undertaken on the dance of the 1890s, literary scholars, art historians, cultural historians, sociologists and dance historians have given more attention than performance scholars to this area of performance history. Recent publications by Toni Bentley, Alexandra Carter, Rhonda Garelick, Susan Glenn, Amy Koritz, Dee Reynolds and Helen Thomas apply cultural historical approaches and sociological methodologies, and have initiated the process of questioning connections between dance, entertainment, ideology and culture. They have stepped into the self-imposed divide between dance studies and performance studies and realised the power and significance of dance and the dancer in late nineteenth-century culture; realisations which impact on understandings of performance and entertainment.23
Where other popular forms have had, or have started to receive, attention from performance historians, there is a palpable reticence to approach dance that predates the early twentieth-century 'moderns', notably Isadora Duncan, Ruth St Denis and the dancers associated with the Ballets Russes.24 These later performers have been 'authorised'; their works admitted to the canon of experimental performance. Yet Duncan and St Denis were both vaudeville performers at the fin de siècle. Duncan embraced the diva culture that was offered by the new role of the mass-marketed stage celebrity. St Denis' dancing was selected by Edison for an early kinetoscope film, a choice that suggests that her popularity with audiences was comparable to that of Leo and Lucy the dancing dogs. The dancers of the Ballets Russes achieved international fame. Their work attracted large audiences, many of whom were there to see the most fashionable touring act in town, as much as to witness the staging of important and influential new choreography. In the separation of 1890s popular dance from the performances classified as 'Modern Dance' what we seem to be dealing with are not clear divides between examples of a 'low' popular culture and those of more 'worthy', or 'culturally valuable' performance. Rather we are encountering a practice of perceived and imposed divisions, where approaches to dance can reveal much about the social and cultural construction of performance histories.
La Danse, Empire Theatre of Varieties, 1896
As the multiple versions of the skirt dance suggest, the meanings of dance were multi-layered and complex in the last decade of the nineteenth century. Audiences were consumers of the skirt dance craze: spectators trained to decode and read the network of signifiers that a dancing body suggested as a part of each performance event. 'La Danse', a new ballet staged at the Empire Theatre of Varieties in late January 1896 offers one closer reading of this. La Danse was created by the successful choreographer and ballet mistress Katti Lanner (1829-1908) and the entertainment entrepreneur Georges Edwardes (1855-1915). Lanner had been based at the Empire since 1887 and was 'well known for her admirable dances'. Her ballets continued to be one of the Empire's biggest draws in the second half of the 1890s. Edwardes was equally well known as the manager of the Gaiety Theatre, aligned with its glamorous actresses and chic speciality, the musical comedy.
In February 1896, La Danse ran for just under an hour. The ballet's second tableau represented famous dancers from the past and the present who came to life from the paintings hung in Lady Dashaway's salon de danse and performed a medley of dances. These figures included Mlle Marie Sallé (1707-56), Marie Taglioni (1804-84) and Kate Vaughan.25 Sallé and Taglioni were ballerinas. Their stage careers were separated by a century, but they were both known for developing the form. Sallé was acknowledged as an influential exponent of the ballet d'action (a style that prioritised characterisation and narrative). She was also identifi ed as an important figure in the growing recognition of the solo female dancer, at a time when male dancers dominated the form.26 Taglioni embodied the image of the romantic ballerina, she developed the sustained pointe work familiar from romantic ballet and created a delicate and feminine vision of the sheer physical strength demanded of her. Vaughan represented the Gaiety Girls and the skirt dance. Her name continued to be connected with the style in the late 1890s and the large following that her graceful performances attracted remained a topic for discussion and comment.
Aft er performances from Sallé, Taglioni and Vaughan, the conclusion of La Danse saw the newest dancer in town - Mlle de fin de siècle - take centre stage. Aft er the grace of her predecessors, this dance was presented as overtly physical, acrobatic and shocking. At its conclusion she turned 'head over heels at the conclusion of an eccentric pas' provoking great 'horror' from the 'danseuses of the old school'.27 Vaughan was aligned with Sallé and Taglioni and the 1870s skirt dance was already read as a historic style in spite of the continuing celebrity of its performer. Th ree graceful performers were held up against the unfeminine dance style of the present day, exemplified by 'Mlle de fin de siècle'.
La Danse remained on the Empire programme until the late autumn of 1896, suggesting that the audience response was positive. Yet, arguably the medley of dancing styles was a complex piece of performance: it offered a discursive and very contemporary commentary on the status of popular dance at the time. A commentary in which historical examples of individual performers were held up against a final performer named aft er the zeitgeist: Mlle de fin de siècle. The ballet staged cultural and moral judgements about performance that were framed in and through the performing female body on stage. It responded to the Empire's status as the home of the popular ballet, it responded to the approved status and enduring popularity of the skirt dance. Moreover it raised questions about what made certain dance styles popular at particular historical moments, and registered the fluctuating status of dance as a performance form. This is an idea that was reflected in the Era's response to the ballet that claimed that the figures and the styles it staged evoked a time when dance was a 'cult not lightly to be spoken of'.28 The implication here is that, by 1896, dance was spoken lightly of. Mirroring the juxtaposition of Sallé, Taglioni and Vaughan with Mlle de fin de siècle, the review suggests that dance had somehow lost its 'cult' status in the 1890s, that discussions of the form were now too common and too commonplace and that the performances of figures such as Mlle de fin de siècle were instrumental in this shift . The modern female dancer becomes a site of critique; the skirt dancer a site of idealism.
Seated in the Empire Theatre of Varieties opulent auditorium in 1896, La Danse's spectators could not have experienced the same reactions to the ballet and skirt dance as the earlier audiences that watched Sallé, Taglioni and Vaughan. The steps and the choreography may have been perfectly recreated, and the visual imagery associated with the dancers' costumes and appearances may have been convincing, nonetheless, ideas about performance and ideas about women had changed irrevocably. However, much as they may have enjoyed these reconstructions of earlier dance styles, it is fair to assume that Mlle de fin de siècle was also enjoyed: that her frenetic, relatively ungraceful performance was not only a site of critique, but also a site of spectacle. What it lacked was enough of a reflection about contemporary ideas about women for it to achieve socio-moral approval and thus to become a style that women could employ and appropriate as professional performers or amateur followers.
Not only did 1890s spectators continue to demand dance in its various and diverse forms, cases like La Danse indicate that they absorbed and understood dance. Dance as an element of performance incorporated stars, movements, stagings, costumes and narrative. Spectators needed to respond on many levels, to interpret it as an act in and of itself, or as part of a larger performance. William Archer illustrates this in The Theatrical World of 1894 when he discusses Go-Bang!, a musical comedy staged at the Trafalgar Square Theatre. The star of the show was Letty Lind (1862-1923), ex Gaiety Girl and a successful actress celebrated for her skirt dancing. During the play the skirt dance was used by Lind to impersonate two other female performers on stage in London at the time: Katie Seymour and Sylvia Grey. These impersonations 'astonished' Archer as much as they amused' him, for he admitted that 'I had no idea dance could be made the subject of such delicate mimicry'.29
The skirt dance was consumed and interpreted by a diverse body of spectators, audiences capable of decoding sophisticated and complex images. A successful 1890s female performer offering a version of first generation skirt dancer Kate Vaughan on the stage of the Empire Theatre of Varieties presented a compound image, as did the image of Lind imitating her competitors. These complex moments of performance presented images that reflected and refracted the challenges being made to performance and to women by the society that was represented by and embodied in a mutually dependent body of performers and spectators. Accepting this complexity raises important questions concerning the ways in which we have been led to think about dance and the - female - dancer's body.
Skirt Dancing: Professional Performance or Clumsy Amateurism?
Dance had been affiliated with women and with constructions of femininity since the heyday of romantic ballet in the early nineteenth-century. These were familiar connections in the performance arenas of the fin de siècle. It was no coincidence that the creative team behind La Danse at the Empire selected Marie Taglioni and Kate Vaughan as representative figures of the form. Restaging these particular performances from the past affirmed the desirable values of grace and gentleness that were associated with perfect Terpsichore. As Reginald St Johnston requested in his 1906 publication A History of Dancing, 'let dancing be but graceful and it will always be a thing of beauty'.30 It is futile not to consider gender ideology in relation to 1890s dance. Images from romantic ballet and the earliest versions of the skirt dance could be easily aligned with the current, dominant gender ideal of the passive woman. Furthermore, the image of the dancer as a professional performer is entwined with ideas about women including the draconian agenda of the National Vigilance Association and the figure of the Fallen Woman.
Undeniably, contemporary and historical attitudes towards popular female dancers elicit many tensions. However, although, as Koritz has noted, 'to recover the history of theatrical dance in our culture is largely to recover a history of women', it does not follow that gender supplies an exclusive reason for dance's absence from performance studies.31 Indeed, to treat it as such results in reductionist histories. Acrobats, clowns, circus performers, mimics and puppeteers were not predominantly women, and (until recently in some cases) critical examination of them has also been missing. Depending on gender as the reason for the absence of popular dance from histories of performance excludes consideration of the reasons for the similar absence of these other forms. That said, in relation to the skirt dance two areas that are clearly associated with gender have had a significant impact on its contemporary treatment and its historicisation. The first of these is evinced in ideas surrounding professionalism and the dancer, whilst the second can be discovered in the complicated network of ideas that enmesh eroticism, corporeality and the dancer.
Recording the fin-de-siècle phenomenon of the skirt dance, the critic and playwright George Bernard Shaw complained:
who has not seen a musical comedy or comic farce interrupted for five minutes, whilst a young woman without muscle or practice enough to stand safely on one foot ... clumsily waves the inevitable petticoats at the public.32
Shaw was not alone in his frustration with the skirt dance, in 1894 a critic for the magazine Pick-me-up bemoaned the fact that current notions of performance allowed 'every second-rate music-hall serio-comic who can flap her ill-fitting skirts against her knees and shamble across the stage' to label the result as dance.33 What both of these dismissals of skirt dance performers centralise is a lack of training or professionalism. Not only are these young women interrupting productions, they are doing it badly - clumsily and with a lack of balance. This focus on the inferior nature of the Skirt Dance as an entertainment form is echoed in 'The Apotheosis of the Music Hall', by Rudolf Dircks, an article published by the journal The Theatre in 1892. Dircks draws attention to a lack of talent that he believes is shared by the majority of music-hall dancers, concluding that because 'the skirt dance necessitates some comprehension of gesture and posture, it is seen only occasionally to advantage on the musichall platform'.34 This approach is not only evident in critiques of dancers who were already performing in the style. In England and America newspapers and magazines were full of gently scathing articles that mocked young women who hoped to take one lesson in the new skirt dancing craze and then 'make it' on the stage.35
The image of the popular performer as amateurish is important, and it is notably strong in relation to dance and the dancer in this period. Its dominance threatens to undermine the counter-representation of the female dancer as an independent and creative performing figure. What is interesting, however, is that in spite of the high profile of this way of thinking, close examination of responses to the Skirt Dance reveal that it could not be sustained. The majority of the same publications that printed opinions on the unskilled nature of the average skirt dancer also highlighted the difficult and competitive nature of the entertainment industry. They lauded successful and skilful performers and applauded developments in the style. Dircks himself admitted that exceptions to his position existed, that occasionally a skilled performer used the style to great effect. Held up against the image of the second-rate skirt dancer shambling across the stage was a widespread - if occasionally begrudging - acknowledgement that 'the operetta or musical comedy has given us some excellent art' in the 'skirt and drapery dancing' of Sylvia Gray, Kate Vaughan, Letty Lind, Topsy Sinden, and 'others of like metier'.36
Many problems and tensions were raised by working in such a popular style. Simultaneously the skirt dance offered a space which could result in the acknowledgement of individual and creative performers and performances. The emergence of celebrities associated with the style ignited serious debate in popular dailies, journals and entertainment publications. Many of these commentaries were devoted to questioning the artistic value of this new and immensely popular form, a process that generally involved comparing and contrasting the skirt dance with other familiar performance styles.37 These ongoing discussions reveal a wide interest in dance as an entertainment form amongst readers and writers. Furthermore, they locate the Skirt Dance as a demanding and skilled performance and reinforce the image of the skilled skirt dance performer. In the words of one writer on the subject:
It looks such an easy thing to do - to catch up a fluted skirt over the shoulders, behind the head, take a few waltz steps and give an occasional kick. You are quite positive you could do it with very little practice. Well, try it. Perhaps you will get a revelation.38
Finding such examples of writing about the skirt dance involves archival research. Shaw's comment is reprinted in a number of easily accessible sources.
The figure of the amateur skirt dancer was closely associated with images of femininity in the 1890s. In many ways, this was an inevitable connection. Not only were the performers of the form women, dance was associated with women and women were a recurrent visual motif of the contemporary entertainment industry. This makes it simple to conclude that gender was the only force being played out in the image, but this was not the case. The division between performance deemed culturally 'worthy' or 'unworthy' is also embedded in the dismissive evocation of the amateur skirt dancer. Canonical approaches to scripted stage performance have had a significant impact on how non-scripted performances have been historicised and understood. It is not solely the case that moments of performance connected wiThextant texts have been prioritised; simultaneously the adoption and the reprinting of the authorised figures that have been associated with the accepted and canonised theatre of a given period have influenced the way that the history of performance has been written and read. Thus Shaw, who knew very little about dance, becomes spokesperson for the values and value of a particular dance style. Arguably the absence of many professional skirt dancers from performance history is due to how the history of performance has been written, a result of its processes, its inclusions and its exclusions.
Eroticism, Corporeality and the 1890s Skirt Dancer
Dance is an embodied act. Whether a specific performance is skilled or unskilled, it demands a discussion of the body. In the context of the gender ideology of the late nineteenth century, this has problematised dance for some critics. Many concerns about female bodies have been mapped on to dance from this time, most notably those concerning the voyeurism of the gaze and how stage performers consciously or unconsciously colluded with current gender ideology. These concerns are well founded. However, what performance is not an embodied act? It seems that these concerns do not emerge to the same degree in relation to studies of actresses. Work on Elizabeth Robins, for example, can discuss the physicality of the performer without tensions and anxiety related to corporeality infringing on enlightening ideas and argument.39 Yet, there is no reason why they should not. Aft er all, the actress was also an onstage female body; a corporeal presence that was subject to the same spectatorial modes as the dancer, oft en in the same performance spaces.
Perhaps this can be explained in part by the other clear areas of research and inquiry that can be focused on in relation to the actress? The most obvious and, in many cases, the most recoverable of these are the lines. The words an actress spoke can enable an evasion of engaging with the fact that the woman performing the part was still a body on stage, particularly in those instances when a performer selected parts that questioned ideas about and images of women. There is no comparable element in the embodied, non-scripted work of the dancer: her movement could be read at the time in many different ways, as now we can read her body in many different ways. However, to assume an automatic correlation between embodiment and dominant gender ideology in this non-scripted popular act is surely just another way of objectifying the active female performing body? It leaves no room for the aware and controlled female performance that records prove occurred; no room for the fact that many of the ideals embedded in gender constructs at the time were in direct conflict with what many female performers were actually doing on the stage.
Writing about dance from the 1890s makes it very clear that dance was a complicated form that engaged with and mirrored contemporary ideas about women, femininity and performance. In the words of one critic, 1890s spectators were 'well aware that dancing may be immoral and graceful and artistic all at the same time'.40 The element of the immoral haunts representations, documentation and historicisation of the popular dancer through the figure of the Fallen Woman. In an article concerned with the attempts of the National Vigilance Association in Britain to cleanse society of fallen women during the 1890s, Lucy Bland has noted that to 'say that a woman had fallen' in the late Victorian period 'implied that she had lost her modesty and become quite "other"'.41 Driven by dancers' associations with the stage and their roles as spectacles that were available to the public, it seems that the origins of much of the anxiety about dealing with the embodiment, dance and performance can be traced back to this alignment between individual performers and an image of femininity.
The NVA had a direct impact on London's entertainment industry. 1896's La Danse followed two years aft er the Empire Theatre of Varieties' annual licence renewal application had been challenged by Mrs Laura Ormiston Chant, a NVA campaigner who complained of indecency on the venue's stage and disorderliness in its auditorium. The Empire did get its licence, but only subject to the conditions that the management agreed to cease the sale of alcohol and to remove the theatre's promenade.42 The case attracted a significant amount of press and public comment, much of which questioned and interrogated the image of the Fallen Woman that was aligned with the dancers and the prostitutes that were at the core of Ormiston Chant's complaints. The events of 1894 reflect and develop the idea that audiences understood dance to incorporate many ideas, 'graceful, immoral and artistic'. They understood it as a whole; a form that did not need to be separated out into its composite elements. The image of the dancer as Fallen Woman factored as one of these many elements and it was an image that was in flux as a result of current debates concerning women and entertainment.
In the aft ermath of the LCC refusal of the Empire's licence, in December 1895, Reynolds's Newspaper printed a gently enquiring, and slightly humorous, letter from a reader, Gracchus. The piece welcomes the annual return of the pantomime ballet-girl to the stage, and questions how she exists in between her annual winter engagements:
It has been asserted that, under these circumstances, she oft en betakes herself to questionable life, using the stage next season as an advertising medium to help her on in the vocation that she has chosen. If so, is she therefore a "fallen woman"? Not necessarily, it would appear, for she has such a wonderful knack of rising again that she sometimes aft erwards marries into the peerage.43
Here the dancer refutes social and cultural categories. Rather self-consciously, the writer of the letter allows her/himself to be tied into knots by the shift ing terminology and ideas that surrounded the female professional dancer. In this context, the questions of corporeality and the Fallen Woman must be raised, but research into the diversity of performers, performances, spectators, venues and responses locate them as productive sites for further investigation and discussion, rather than sites of necessary anxiety and evasion.
Skirt Dancing, Skirt Dancers and Late Nineteenth-Century Performance: Some Concluding Ideas
Dance as a performance form and as an integral part of the theatricality of the late nineteenth century remains in a problematic position within the historiography of performance. However, the questions that are raised by its difficult location are productive. Beginning to ask questions about why this was - and for the most part remains - the case recurrently provokes ideas surrounding popular performance, non-scripted performance, women and embodiment. Ideas that highlight not only the ways in which the late nineteenth century documented itself and its popular entertainment but also how the period has been historicised and understood.
The majority of the women who performed the skirt dance on the 1890s stage acted, sung and danced. They were diverse in their backgrounds, their training, their skill and the venues where they performed. They ranged from chorus girls and solo performers at the Gaiety Theatre, to ballet girls at the Alhambra Theatre and the Empire to actresses who were required to learn the style for a particular role. Many of them were successful professional performers who were familiar to audiences as personalities: stars of the theatre. Some choreographed their own work, whilst others danced in productions at large venues like the Gaiety, the Alhambra, or the Empire within large groups of choreographed dancers.
It is simply illogical to suggest that these audiences switched their modes of spectatorship completely according to the particular act, style or performer that was offered to them. To suggest that the moment a dance began, the spectator's reading of the same body on the same stage switched entirely is unsustainable. Whilst different venues undoubtedly encouraged or solicited different ways of looking from their spectators; whilst the skirt dancer as part of a play, as a musichall turn, as a curtain raiser, as a feature of a larger ballet, or as a concluding act of the evening would necessarily be interpreted in different ways, the style was presented in too many different contexts and by too many different performers to suggest that it provoked its own specific mode of spectatorship: a mode of spectatorship that was automatically switched on when the dancer - as opposed to the actress a moment before - began to move. In the 1890s skirt dancers were not interruptions of an evening's entertainment, they were integral elements of it. To read their dances as distinct from the performance - to attempt to separate them out - is to misunderstand the performance.
Many 1890s skirt dancers remain anonymous images: attractive parts of the visual iconography of the fin-de-siècle entertainment industry. In the case of some performers, including Loïe Fuller, research has begun. Other whose names may be familiar, including Lottie Collins, Sylvia Grey, Ida Heath, Letty Lind, Maud Madison, Mlle Marguerite, Topsy Sinden, Mimi St Cyr and Louise Weber, still need to be retrieved from sentimental autobiography, or indeed from total obscurity. Their performances as skirt dancers of the 1890s supply us with acts of cultural production without which our mapping of the socio-cultural terrain will remain incomplete.
1 I have written further on this in Female Performance Practice on the fin-de-siècle Popular Stages of London and Paris: Experiment and Advertisement (Manchester University Press, 2007).
2 Alexandra Carter, Dance and Dancers in the Victorian and Edwardian Music Hall Ballet (Aldershot and Burlington, 2005), p. 30.
3 Pall Mall Gazette, April 28 1889, 6.
4 See F. C. Nott, Stage and Fancy Dancing (Cincinnati: J. M. Wright, 1896), a dance instruction manual covering several popular styles. Dance 12 is a Skirt Dance, where separate instructions for arm movements accompany each movement of the feet.
5 Era, June 3 1893, 14.
6 Era, June 3 1893, 14.
7 Era, December 27 1892, 9.
8 Era, May 20 1893, 16.
9 The Times, December 25 1893, 6.
10 'Maud Madison Papers, 1884-1945', New York Public Library, Performing Arts Division, Jerome Robbins Dance Collection.
11 For a full record see Charles Musser, Edison: Motion Pictures, 1890-1900, an Annotated Filmography (Smithsonian, 1997), 142.
12 'Danced the Serpentine: a fin-de-siècle canine before the Kinetograph', Newark Daily Advertiser, October 18 , 1894, 3. Cited in Musser, Edison, pp. 142-3.
13 The Times, February 28, 1897, 5.
14 The Times, September 2 1898, 8.
15 As one publication reported 'certain importing houses are bringing over the most transparent of silken stuffs for the draperies employed in the serpentine dances'. Unidentified press clipping, Maud Madison Scrapbooks, 'Maud Madison Papers, 1884-1945', New York Public Library, Performing Arts Division, Jerome Robbins Dance Collection.
16 Era, April 15 1893, 14.
17 Era, May 6 1893, 15.
18 The Press, November 12 1893. Press clipping, Maud Madison Scrapbooks.
19 The Times, May 24 1892, 2. The advert is for Madame Stanton-Taylor's South Kensington based classes for deportment.
20 Anon., 'The Dancing of the Day: An "At Home" at Miss E. Garratt's', Pall Mall Budget, April 14, 1892, 535. In the interview Garratt also comments on the influence of the theatre on popular entertainment forms: 'You know there was some step-dancing in the Guards' theatricals. Well, it pleased so much that last year aft er the performances people began to do a little step dancing in private. And now it is all the rage.'
21 The Saturday Review, January 14 1893, 55.
22 For examples of this, see the catalogue of the Sheet Music Consortium, hosted by University College Los Angeles and the British Library's collection of sheet music.
23 That said, examples of feminist dance criticism were included in the 1995 edition of the Routledge Reader in Gender and Performance. However, this selection focuses on 'modern' dance and the legacy of early twentieth-century performers. These publications include: Helen Thomas, The Body, Dance and Cultural Theory (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 1993); Amy Koritz, Gendering Bodies/Performing Art: Dance and Literature in early twentieth-century British Culture (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995), chapter one; Dee Reynolds, 'The Dancer as Woman: Loïe Fuller and Stéphane Mallarmé', in Richard Hobbs, ed., Impressions of French Modernity (Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 1998); Rhonda K. Garelick, Rising Star: Dandyism, Gender and Performance in the fin de siècle (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998); Carter, Dance and Dancers in the Victorian and Edwardian Music Hall Ballet (cited above), Susan Glenn, Female Spectacle: The Theatrical Roots of Modern Feminism (Cambridge, MA; London: Harvard University Press, 2000), Toni Bentley, Sisters of Salome (New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2002).
24 Modern dance has received a good deal of attention within the discipline of dance studies. Much of this work is preoccupied with anecdote and description, although some is interesting and theoretically challenging. See: Jane C Desmond, ed., Meaning in Motion: New Cultural Studies of Dance (Durham; London: Duke University, 1997); Ellen W. Goellner and Jacqueline Shea Murphy, eds., Bodies of the Text: Dance as Theory, Literature as Dance (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University, 1995); Janet Wolff, 'Dance Criticism: Feminism, Theory and Choreography', in The Routledge Reader in Gender and Performance (London: Routledge, 1995), 241-6; Sally Banes, Dancing Women: Female Bodies on Stage (London: Routledge, 1998). Modern Dance has also been accepted into performance. Interestingly the Twentieth Century Performance Reader (published in a second edition in 2002) contains writings on postmodern dance and choreographic history, as well as writings by Pina Bausch, Merce Cunningham, Isadora Duncan and Mary Wigman.
25 See Carter, Dance and Dancers in the Victorian and Edwardian Music Hall Ballet, pp. 21, 154, 160.
26 See Anonymous, The Dance: Historic Illustrations of Dancing from 3300BC to 1911AD, by an Antiquary (London: John Bale, 1911), p. 24, Patricia Linton, 'History of Ballet Series, part III: Ballet d'Action', Dancing Times, March 2004, 102-4 and Reginald St Johnston, A History of Dancing (London: Simpkin, Marshall, Hamilton, Kent, 1906), p. 12100
27 Era, February 1 1896, 18
28 Era, February 1 1896, 18.
29 William Archer, The Theatrical World of 1894 (London: Walter Scott, 1895), p. 85.
30 St. Johnston, A History of Dancing, p. 12.
31 Amy Koritz, 'Moving Violations: Dance in the London Music Hall, 1890-1910', Theatre Journal, 1990, 419-31 (420).
32 George Bernard Shaw, cited in David Price, Cancan! (London: Cygnus Arts, 1998), p. 61.
33 Pick-Me-Up, October 20 1894, 45-6.
34 Rudolf Dircks, 'The Apotheosis of the Music Hall'. The Theatre, November 1892, 193-7 (197).
35 The Maud Madison scrapbooks include many articles and clippings that adopt this approach.
36 Anonymous, The Dance: Historic Illustrations of Dancing from 3300BC to 1911AD, by an Antiquary (London: John Bale, 1911), p. 25.
37 In 1891 The Theatre published a series of articles and letters. Philip Hayman wrote an article entitled, 'The Magic of Dancing is Sorcery Sweet', The Theatre, May 1, 1891, (237-39), which compares the performances of ballerinas and Gaiety skirt dancers and claims that skirt dancing is the new ballet. Another Gaiety Girl, Sylvia Grey, also published an article in the journal, 'Dancing', The Theatre, January 1, 1893, 34-7. For further discussion of this see Catherine Hindson, Chapter Th ree Female Performance Practice on the fin-de-siècle Popular Stages of London and Paris: Experiment and Advertisement.
38 Unidentified press clipping, Maud Madison Scrapbooks.
39 Particularly Joanna Townsend-Robinson in 'Expressing the Unspoken: Hysterical Performance as Radical Theatre', Women's Studies 32:5 (2005), 533-57.
40 Unidentified press clipping, Maud Madison Scrapbooks.
41 Lucy Bland, '"Purifying" the Public World: feminist vigilantes in late Victorian England', Women's History Review 1:3 (1992), 397-412 (407).
42 See Joseph Donohue, Fantasies of Empire: The Empire Theatre of Varieties and the Licensing Controversy of 1894 (Iowa City, Iowa University Press, 2005) and Bland, '"Purifying" the Public World: feminist vigilantes in late Victorian England'.
43 Gracchus, 'The Ballet Girl', (letter to the editor) Reynolds's Newspaper, December 8 1895, 5.…