Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Out of the Archive: The Dangers of Seeing a Dancer

Fanny Elssler in the shadow dance. N. Currier, 1846. 
I just got back from the Berkshire Conference on the History of Women in Toronto, Canada (fabulous city, fun and stimulating conference) where I presented some of my work on the European dancers who toured America from the late-1820s through the 1840s, particularly the Viennese dancer and star of the Paris Opera, Fanny Elssler. From 1840-1842, Americans crowded theaters in cities throughout the country for the chance to see Elssler’s twirls and kicks. Elssler performed in Romantic ballets like La Sylphide but was also famous for her interpretations of European folk dances. Her tremendously popular La Cachucha dance was based on the Spanish bolero. American critics fixated on whether Elssler’s dancing was immoral spectacle – those diaphanous white skirts revealing her (clad) legs! – or “poetry of motion.” Some have argued that the use of such idealized terms to describe Elssler ("divine Fanny") and her dancing worked to manage the “erotic overload” of the performance.  (See for example Maureen Costonis’ 1990 essay, “The Personification of Desire: Fanny Elssler and American Audiences” in Dance Chronicle.) 

In my work, I’m interested in how these celebrities also intersected and informed struggles over American cultural identity and over the presence of different groups in public space. These struggles were of course connected to changing ideas about gender and battles over public sexuality -- for example see Mr. Southworth Goes to the Theater. Elssler was of great interest to “respectable” middle-class white women, which shocked moral reformers who felt that this was not a respectable spectacle. One of my favorite sources illustrating this is an 1847 didactic novel by Timothy Shay Arthur, The Maiden: A Story for My Countrywomen

The Maiden follows the virtuous Anna Lee and her friend Florence Armitage as they navigate courtship in a world of callow and profligate young men. While Anna’s character and instincts are unimpeachable, Florence is susceptible to the alluring vices of urban life, such as walking out on the street and flirting with young men.  Throughout the novel, Anna is the ideal standard, Florence the cautionary example of how certain behaviors might lead a girl down a one-way path.  Our first sign of Florence’s susceptibility is her account of scheming to go see Fanny Elssler—against the wishes of her parents.  She explains to Anna, “A few of us girls were dying to see her, and we hatched up a plot among ourselves, that we would make some of our gentlemen acquaintances take us to the theater.” And so Florence begs the young Will Archer to take her—a girl did not go to the theater alone—which shocked even Archer, who we later find out is quite the rake.

Anna is appalled by Florence’s scheming and that Florence would be seen with such a “notoriously bad character” as Will Archer. Anna also disapproves of the theater and “stage dancing” in particular. Anna had seen Celeste dance: her parents took her to the theater educate her about its evils and demystify its appeal. She reacted as many of the novel’s sympathetic readers no doubt expected a woman should: “...my cheek burned the whole time.  Could a modest woman expose her person as she did?  No! nor could a modest woman look upon such an exposure without a feeling of deep shame and humiliation.” As part of a didactic lesson to girls about the moral dangers of flirtation, idle amusement, and deceit, the character of Anna Lee insisted that no woman could enjoy stage dancing without sacrificing some “portion” of her “purest and most holy feelings.” However, plenty more women disagreed or simply did not care...

No comments:

Post a Comment