Interruptions by Inevitable Petticoats: Skirt Dancing and the Historiographical Problem of Late Nineteenth-Century Dance

Article excerpt

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. …

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