Women in motion


Material Information

Women in motion dance, gesture, and spectacle in film, 1900- 1935
Physical Description:
vii, 215 leaves : ; 29 cm.
Coffman, Elizabeth Ann
Publication Date:


Subjects / Keywords:
English thesis, Ph. D
Dissertations, Academic -- English -- UF
bibliography   ( marcgt )
non-fiction   ( marcgt )


Thesis (Ph. D.)--University of Florida, 1995.
Includes bibliographical references (leaves 204-214).
Statement of Responsibility:
by Elizabetn Ann Coffman.
General Note:
General Note:

Record Information

Source Institution:
University of Florida
Rights Management:
All applicable rights reserved by the source institution and holding location.
Resource Identifier:
aleph - 022057474
oclc - 34467393
System ID:

This item is only available as the following downloads:

Full Text







Copyright 1995


Elizabeth Ann Coffman


I wish to start by thanking a number of people whose

early influence started me down the graduate school path:

Frank Lentricchia, whose courses and counsel at Duke

University encouraged me to try graduate school, for better

or worse; Jane Desmond, whose modern dance and video courses

opened my eyes to the potential of interdisciplinary

thinking; David Paletz, who taught the wonderful "Politics

and the Media," my first film course. At the University of

Florida I have to thank several members of the faculty of the

English Department. Robert Ray and Greg Ulmer both taught me

the value of the avant-garde as a model for writing and

teaching. Dan Cottom, Elizabeth Langland, John Leavey, and

David Leverenz also inspired me in innumerable ways.

Finally, I wish to acknowledge the members of my committee

for all of the help and support they provided me during my

extended tenure as a graduate student. Maureen Turim's

direction always inspired me to push myself further. Her

understanding of the issues informing film studies encouraged

me to keep refining my work, and her patience helped me to

finish it. Caryl Flinn's wonderful teaching and editorial

advice gave initial shape to this project, and her humor kept

me going. Scott Nygren always found insightful connections


within my work and showed me how to teach a video production

course. Mark Reid fortunately remained on the committee long

enough to provide many helpful suggestions. Kim Emery quite

graciously helped me out in my hour of need. The friends of

FemTV helped me to maintain my sanity, especially Aeron

Haynie, Donna Mitchell, and Michelle Glaros. I wish

particularly to thank the Graduate School of the University

of Florida for a Graduate Fellowship, which allowed me to

finish my dissertation. I am also indebted to the English

Department for providing travel funds to do archival work in

New York. To my parents, I owe thanks that I can never fully

return. This dissertation belongs to them in many ways.

Nick and Katie arrived just in time to make it all

meaningful. And finally, to Jeff, who made it all possible.



ACKNOWLEDGMENTS .....................................

ABSTRACT ............................................


1 INTRODUCTION ............ .................. 1



"THE MASS ORNAMENT"........................ 117


6 CONCLUSION ................................... 200

REFERENCES ............................................

BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH. ................................

Abstract of Dissertation Presented to the Graduate School
of the University of Florida in Partial Fulfillment of the
Requirements for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy





Chairperson: Dr. Maureen Turim
Major Department: English

The image of the woman in motion provides a particularly

fluid, spectacular, and conflicted icon for representing

women during the first several decades of this century. From

the avant-garde status of Loie Fuller's "Fire Dance" to

Lillian Gish's modern dance connections, from Louise Brooks's

chorus girl background to the "exotic" fascination of

Josephine Baker, the woman in motion generates

multidisciplinary interest. I have selected the figure of

the woman in motion because she suggests that ambiguous

distinction between actual and virtual gesture, between

moving and dancing, between women and "Woman." My

dissertation considers the signifiers of gesture and dance

from an historicized semiotic perspective. Fuller, Gish,


Brooks, and Baker all demonstrated movement styles that

reflect the influence of modern dance. The gestures and

dances of these four women provide a starting point that I

read against an iconographic "grid" drawn from art movements,

actors' manuals, modern dance, physical culture,

autobiography, cultural theory, and film theory.

The dissertation begins with the scientific appeal of

Loie Fuller's modern dance under electric lights and ends

with the primitivism of Josephine Baker's performance in

Princess Tam Tam. This trajectory suggests a modernism that

moves from an infatuation with the new science and technology

to a rejection of it, from a jingoistic national rhetoric of

the body to a troubled post-colonial identity. Threaded

through this trajectory travel images of the woman in motion,

fluid signifiers of femininity that defined as much as they

were defined by the modern experience. The nature of the

reception of these four women' performances reflects the

contradictory desires involved whenever women in motion

function as icons for modernity. Out of these contradictions

emerge moments of identification that offer the possibility

for a more progressive kind of feminine "syntax," for another

way of speaking feminine difference.


A modern woman, filled with the modern spirit.
she is no virgin, silly and ignorant of her
destiny; she is an experienced but pure woman,
in rapid movement like the spirit of the age,
with fluttering garments and streaming hair,
striding forward. That is our new divine
image: the Modern.1

When Eugen Wolff used these words in 1888 to define "die

Moderne," he initiated the use of the woman in motion as an

icon for the artistic, philosophical, and cultural movements

affiliated with Modernism.2 Wolff's description reflects an

attitude about women, modernity, and motion that can be

traced for several decades throughout Europe and the United

States, in art movements and critical discourse, in painting,

photography, film, and theater. His description helps to

explain the turn-of-the-century popularity of women such as

Isadora Duncan and Loie Fuller, who shocked the public with

their translucent costumes and bare feet, and entranced it

1 Quoted in Malcolm Bradbury and James McFarlane,
Modernism: 1890-1930 (New Jersey: Humanities Press, 1974), 41-
42; Also quoted in David Davidson. "From Virgin to Dynamo:
The 'Amoral Woman' in European Cinema,"Cinema Journal 21,
no.l (Fall 1981), 44.

2 Bradbury and McFarlane cite Wolff as the inventor of
the term "die Moderne," but they do not comment on his use of
a woman as icon for Modernism.

with their movements. The woman that Wolff represents offers

a vision of female spectacle that was inherently ambivalent:

"she is no virgin," and yet she is "pure." She carries with

her the implicit contradictions involved whenever woman

functions as spectacular icon for male consumption. She

remains, on one level, a feminine Muse, the inspiration for

masculine creativity, but lacks herself, the qualities that

define the Romantic and Modern conceptions of artistic

genius.3 On another level, though, this "New Woman" acquired

signifiers of action and confidence that seem distinctly

different from images of Victorian restraint.4 She is

represented in "rapid movement .striding forward," as an

image that invoked the "spirit of the age," and that

associated gestures with both sexuality and technology.

Writers, artists, and scientists proclaimed her figure to be

"modern," not only because of the changing signifiers of

femininity, but also as a result of the transformation of her

movements through the technology of the camera.

I define the term "icon" both in terms of the dictionary

meaning of an image or object of "uncritical devotion," and

in the linguistic sense, defined by Charles Sanders Peirce,

3 Christine Battersby, Gender and Genius: Towards a
Feminist Aesthetic (Bloomington: Indiana University Press,
1989): 35-42.

4 For a history of images of early twentieth century
women see Martha Banta, Images and Ideals in Cultural History
(New York: Columbia University Press, 1987); Lois W. Banner,
American Beauty (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983).

as a sign that bears a strong visual resemblance to what it

represents.5 By using Peirce's sense I locate the woman in

motion firmly within a field of visual representation that

includes painting, photography, and film. But the woman in

motion generated effects far beyond the representation of her

image, effects that are present in the writings from the turn-

of-the-century through 1935, and that identify the woman in

motion as an icon in the more classical sense. The

circulation of the image of woman as sign during this period

reflects the changing status of signs as much as the changing

status of women; both are defining markers of modernism.

The meanings and origins of modernism and its effects

are a hotly debated issue; my thesis brings together two

strains of this debate. The first strain focuses on

modernism as defined through changes in visual culture due to

new technologies originating in the nineteenth century but

developed in the twentieth. The second considers changes in

the meaning of the "modern woman" as she is defined by her

bodily movement. Following Jean Baudrillard, Jonathan Crary

argues that modernity involves the nineteenth century

observer in a different relationship to signs.6 The sign's

5 Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary
(Springfield: Merriam-Webster, Inc., 1985); Charles Sanders
Peirce, Elements of Logic, Vol. II, ed. Charles Hartshorne
and Paul Weiss (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1932).

6 Jonathan Crary, Techniques of the Observer: On Vision
and Modernity in the Nineteenth Century (Cambridge: MIT
Press, 1990).

new-found arbitrariness, its ability to circulate and

exchange, establishes a new field of movement, one in which

the visibility of bodies, products, and transportation is

made possible by the invisibility of other types of movement,

such as the movement of film through a projector or capital

through a market.7 What ties these two strains together is

the fascination with motion itself: the motions or movements

of bodies, money, images. The modern woman fits into this

circulation in a variety of ways. She becomes both object of

exchange and consumer of products. The modern woman's new-

found public visibility at the end of the Victorian era

alters her relationship to spectacle. Suddenly, women were

walking in the street and "steppin' out" on the town.8 They

were joining the work force and attending the cinema in

record numbers. During the years leading up to World War II,

a signifier of modern woman, whether she was a factory

worker, a prostitute, an "American girl," or a dancer, was

that her body was in motion.9

7 The "arbitrary" sign that Crary invokes is taken from
Jean Baudrillard's work in Simulations, trans. Paul Foss (New
York, 1983): 84-85. See Crary, 12.

8 Kathy Peiss, Cheap Amusements: Working Women and
Leisure in Turn-of-the-Century New York (Philadelphia: Temple
University Press, 1986); Lewis A. Erenberg, Steppin' Out: New
York Nightlife and the Transformation of American Culture:
1890-1930 (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1981).

9 For a consideration of the flaneur, or the
streetwalking prostitute, see Mary Ann Doane's work in Femmes
Fatales: Feminism, Film Theory, Psychoanalysis (New York:

It should be no surprise that the figure of the woman in

motion, particularly the dancing woman, comprised an early

and popular subject matter for the technologies of

photography and filmmaking.10 The dancer had already been

studied extensively in modernist painting, particularly in

Edgar Degas's work where his brush stroke technique, defying

the stasis of his materials, suggested the blurry movement of

the dancer.ll Eadweard Muybridge used dancers in his serial

photography motion studies to demonstrate how the dancer's

body moves while holding veils. His cameras framed the

dancer's movement against the modern background of a grid,

dissecting his subject's motion while aestheticizing it.12

Within a few years, Thomas Edison, in one of his early films,

Routledge Press, 1991).

10 See my discussion in Chapter Two of early examples of
women dancing, exercising, and performing acrobatics in
photography and film. See also, Robert C. Allen, Horrible
Prettiness: Burlesque and American Culture (Chapel Hill:
University of North Carolina Press, 1991).

11 Griselda Pollock, Dealing with Degas: Representations
of Women and the Politics of Vision (New York: Universe,

12 Eadweard Muybridge, The Human Figure in Motion New
York: Bonanza Books, 1989; For a discussion of Muybridge's
use of the grid see Maureen Turim, "Designs in Motion: A
Correlation Between Early Serial Photography and the Recent
Avant Garde," Enclitic, VII:2 (Fall 1983): 44-54. See also
Marta Braun's work for connections between modernism and the
work of Degas, Muybridge, and the important motion studies of
Etienne-Jules Marey in Picturing Time: The Work of Etienne-
Jules Marey (1830-1904) (Chicago: University of Chicago
Press, 1992): 264-319.

produced "The Serpentine Dance"(1894 or 1895) in his Black

Maria studio. The moving image could improve on the

photograph by representing the dancer's movements in "real

time," abstracting and fragmenting her body into

kaleidoscopic designs while maintaining an erotic economy of

vision. These new technologies provided the perfect

opportunity for creating a spectacle out of the already

popular figure of the dancing woman.

I have selected the figure of the woman in motion for my

title, rather than the woman dancer, because she suggests

that ambiguous distinction between actual gesture and virtual

gesture, between moving and dancing, between women and

"Woman." I examine a number of representations in film of

women in motion between the years of 1900 and 1935. These

years encompass approximately the period that Malcolm

Bradbury and James McFarlane take to be the most significant

in terms of Modernism, a term that they admit demonstrates

much semantic confusion, but that in general seems to include

qualities of Impressionism, Symbolism, Futurism, and

Expressionism, to name just a few of the significant art and

literary movements.13 Many of the artists during this period

either directly interacted with, or at least felt the impact

of the careers of the four women in my study. These years

also roughly correspond to the period in which, as Hillel

13 Bradbury and McFarlane, 19-57.

Schwartz defines it, a new "kinaesthetic" appeared, a new

awareness of the moving body and its meanings, as seen in

"harmonic gymnastics," modern dance, and film acting styles,

that counters the prevailing narrative about the

fragmentation of the modernist body.14 The period in which

these women lived is also highly significant because of two

other "movements": the women's movement and the first

several decades of film history.

The filmic image of the woman as dancer provides a

particularly fluid, spectacular, and conflicted trope for

representing women during the first several decades of this

century. From the the avant-garde status of Loie Fuller's

"Fire Dance" to Lillian Gish's modern dance connections, from

Louise Brooks's chorus girl background, to the African-

American dance style of Josephine Baker, the woman dancer

generates multidisciplinary interest. Fuller, Gish, Brooks,

and Baker are all dancer/actresses who have numerous

connections to art movements, cinema history, musical

theater, and modern dance. These women exhibited for

numerous critics from the turn-of-the-century through the

1930s one of the more ambigous qualities of modernism--the

movement of a body through the new spaces of the new century.

The woman in motion appears throughout the first several

14 Hillel Schwartz, "Torque: The New Kinaesthetic of the
Twentieth Century," Incorporations, ed. Jonathan Crary and
Sanford Kwinter, vol.6 (New York: Zone, 1992): 71-127.

decades of this century in writings and films, on theater

stages and posters. She is a figure who, like many other

performers, embodies those seemingly contradictory impulses

that lie at the heart of the spectacle of woman: the

collocation of attraction/repulsion, object/subject,

being/performing. Through the four women in my study, I

focus on the implications of the dancing woman as both

spectacular icon and iconic spectacle within the historical

context of the first several decades of cinematic


In the four chapters that follow, I consider dance in

film to be more than what occurs within a traditional "dance

number." In general, I use the term "gesture" to designate a

movement of the body that is not intended as performance;

likewise, I use the term "dance" to suggest performative

movement that can be identified as belonging to a particular

dance style. However, I also consider how gesture is coded

in ways that suggest the performative or how the movement of

a dancer/character within a film further blurs the

distinction between moving and dancing. Even when women are

not presented as "dancers" within a text, they are framed in

ways that suggest the performative.15 A woman walking down

15 See Gaylyn Studlar's article "Douglas Fairbanks: Thief
of the Ballets Russes" for a discussion of "dance-like"
movement that shares visual similarities to the Ballet
Russes. Bodies of the Text: Dance as Theory, Literature as
Dance, ed. Ellen W. Goellner and Jacqueline Shea Murphy (New
Jersey: Rutgers Univesity Press, 1995): 107-124.

the aisle of a train in a film is often not merely walking.

At what point do her gestures become something more highly

coded than an effort to get from point A to point B? How do

her movements blur the line between walking and dancing? Is

she something more than a spectacle or a representation of

masculine desire?

Theorizing Dancing

Dance as a signifying practice has traditionally been

ignored and frequently denigrated by philosophers,

aestheticians, and film theorists. Within the past several

years, however, dance studies has emerged as an important

area of cultural and interdisciplinary studies.16 The

recently published Bodies of the Text: Dance as Theory,

Literature as Dance includes essays that consider dance on

stage, in literature, film, and theory. These essays provide

ample evidence for the imaginative possibilities of writing

about dance, as well as an explanation for why dance has not

been taken seriously sooner, as it is difficult to pin down a

16 See the following articles in Bodies of the Text:
Dance as Theory, Literature as Dance, ed. Ellen W. Goellner
and Jacqueline Shea Murphy (New Brunswick,NJ: Rutgers
University Press, 1995): Jacques Derrida and Christie V.
McDonald, "Choreographies," 141-156; Felicia McCarren,
"St6phane Mallarm6, Loie Fuller, and the Theater of
Femininity," 217-230; Mark Franko, "Mimique," 205-216. See
also Choreographing History, ed. Susan Foster (Bloomington:
Indiana University Press, forthcoming 1995); Felicia
McCarren, "The 'Symptomatic Act' Circa 1900: Hysteria,
Hypnosis, Electricity, Dance," Critical Inquiry 21, no. 4,
748-776; Carol J.Clover, "Dancin' in the Rain," Critical
Inquiry 21, no. 4, 722-747.

field that crosses so many disciplinary lines. Another

obvious reason for the erasure of dance stems from the fact

that, as an artform, twentieth century dance is one of the

few fields that is dominated by women who participate as both

choreographers and performers. Certain dance traditions,

such as ballet and Hollywood musicals, maintained a

patriarchal and racist division of labor, in which the

choreographers were almost always white males and the

performers female and/or "ethnic" others.17 But since the

turn of the century and the introduction of modern dance,

female and a few non-white choreographers have flourished on

stage and in film. Partially as a result of these changes in

status, feminist criticism, particularly feminist film

criticism, has contributed a great deal to theorizing the

body, and recently even more attention has been given to


17 The Balanchine tradition is typical of this male
choreographer/female dancer split. Of course, there are a
number of important exceptions, such as Nijinsky, Fred
Astaire, and Gene Kelly, who should not be overlooked. For a
discussion of how Hollywood dancers such as Astaire and Kelly
appropriated African-American dance vernacular, see Carol
Clover's "Dancin' in the Rain." See also Chris Savage-King,
"Classical Muscle," Women's Review, No.2 (1985): 28-29; Roger
Copeland, "Towards a Sexual Politics of Contemporary Dance,"
Contact Quarterly, 7:3/4 (1982): 45-50.

18 Elizabeth Dempster, "Women Writing the Body: Let's
Watch a Little How She Dances," Grafts: Feminist Cultural
Criticism, ed. Susan Sheridan (New York: Verso Press, 1988):
35-54; Lucy Fischer, "Shall We Dance?" in Shot/Countershot:
Film Tradition and Women's Cinema (Princeton: Princeton
University Press, 1986); Susan Leigh Foster, Reading Dancing:
Bodies and Subjects in Contemporary American Dance (Berkeley:

Francis Sparshott claims that dance has been trivialized

within the field of philosophy because of the ephemeral

nature of the choreographic sign.19 The nonverbal status of

the dance sign accounts for the difficulty of notating dance.

Even music has a standard notation form, although its status

also suffers because its forms of expression are primarily

nonverbal.20 Sparshott admits that dance carries the taint of

the historically eroticized body of the dancer. Curiously,

he denies the fact that dance is excluded from the status of

the "fine arts," because it is considered a "female art." He

admits, however, that

there are contexts when one thinks of a female
dancer in a short white skirt. That is, one
identifies artistic dance with nineteenth-century
ballet and with dance forms derived from that, and
then personifies that form as a 'ballerina.' One
might then think of dance as being at once feminine
and fleshly in a derogatory way (because the short
tutu functions at least in part to satisfy the
voyeurs in the audience) and, hence, as

University of California Press, 1986); Andrew Goodwin,
Dancing in the Distraction Factory: Music, Television, and
Popular Culture (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press,
1992); Judith Lynne Hanna, Dance, Sex, Gender: Signs of
Identity, Dominance, Defiance, and Desire (Chicago:
University of Chicago Press, 1988).

19 Francis Sparshott, Off the Ground: First Steps to a
Philosophical Consideration of the Dance, (Princeton:
Princeton University Press, 1988): 3-33.

20 See Caryl Flinn, Strains of Utopia: Gender, Nostalgia,
and Hollywood Film Music (Princeton: University of Princeton
Press, 1992); Susan McClary, Feminine Endings: Music, Gender,
and Sexuality. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press,

artistically trivial, because that stereotyped
image of the girl under a spotlight at the focus of
the opera glasses is kitsch.21

Sparshott examines more than just the Western tradition of

dance, so his conclusions about the relative equality of male

and female dancers is more pertinent to non-Western cultural

practices. Nevertheless, he claims that "dances for women

are no more common than dances for men and dances for both

sexes together." I tend to disagree; dance's denigration has

everything to do with gender.

In philosophical thought and popular criticism, dance is

most often discussed in one of two ways: first, dance is

considered at the level of form and the dancer is judged by

the competency of her technique; or, second, dance is

interpreted through the generalized emotional states it seems

to represent. As Susanne Langer has demonstrated, out of all

art forms, dance in particular has critics that conflate

"imagined feeling" with "real emotional conditions."22

Dancers, choreographers and critics all seem to repeat the

same mistake, confusing "actual" gestures with performative

ones by assuming a transparency of emotion from dancer to

expressed movement. A similar point of contention exists in

21 Sparshott, 13.

22 Susanne K. Langer, "Virtual Powers" in What is Dance?
Readings in Theory and Criticism, ed. Roger Copeland and
Marshall Cohen (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983): 31.

discussions about acting style.23 Is the actor really

experiencing the emotion she portrays? Or is she performing,

miming, or parodying emotion? Langer emphasizes that what

distinguishes dance as an "art," what gives dance its

"power," is that movement is self-consciously illusory. When

critics do not recognize the difference between being and

performing, she concludes, they set up a situation where

dance is first praised, but then later condemned because of

its close association with emotional expression. The

inability to separate from emotions is one quality that

Andreas Huyssen identifies with the denigration of mass

culture and its associations with the feminine.24 According

to Huyssen, the proponents of modernism attempt to separate

themselves from mass culture and the feminine by maintaining

a critical distance. Dance's apparent proximity to the

expression of emotion accounts in part for both its

"feminine" status and its exclusion from discussions about


In order to consider gesture and dance in film from an

historical, semiotic perspective, I will return to some

early, but important articles in film studies, particularly

23 See James Naremore, Acting in the Cinema (Berkeley:
University of California Press, 1988).

24 Andreas Huyssen, "Mass Culture as Woman: Modernism's
Other," Studies in Entertainment: Critical Approaches to Mass
Culture, ed. Tania Modeleski (Bloomington: Indiana University
Press, 1986): 188-207.

Roland Barthes's work in Image Music Text.25 Barthes

theorizes in "The Photographic Message" and "The Rhetoric of

the Image" that, from the moment of perception, the meaning

of an image is already "verbalized." An image of a body,

then, is not fully perceived until the word "body" is brought

into the mind of the viewer or, to use Peirce's term, into

the mind of the interpretant.26 Immediately upon perception

this body might, through what Barthes defines as "cognitive

connotation," be recognized through details, such as

leotards, tights, and bodily designs, as a "dancer." The

rhetoric of an image, for Barthes, depends on the codes that

define how individual elements of the photograph are brought

together, as in his example of the Panzani advertisement in

which tomatoes, onions, mushrooms, and the label "Panzani"

connote the signified "Italianicity."27 Depending on an

interpretant's knowledge and history of how various signs

connotes certain dance styles, an image of a dancer could

then be identified as "ballet dancer," "modern dancer" or

"vaudeville dancer." The work of both Barthes and Peirce

also implies that interpretations will vary, depending on the

25 Roland Barthes, Image Music Text, trans. Stephen Heath
(New York: Noonday Press, 1977).

26 Peirce, Collected Papers, vols. 1-8 (Cambridge, Mass:
Harvard University Press, 1931-1958), vol. 5, paragraph no.

27 Barthes, 33.

historical, cultural, sexual, and racial experience of the


In recent years semiotics has started to think through

the implications of the nonverbal status of gesture and dance

as they function within various texts, although less often

with reference to the question of sexual difference. Peter

Brooks, for example, in The Melodramatic Imagination provides

a helpful analysis of gesture in melodrama, which easily

applies to dance as well. In the chapter "The Text of

Muteness," Brooks writes that the "excess" created by the

ambiguous relation of the gestural sign to its signified is

marked "by a kind of fault or gap in the code, the space that

marks its inadequacies to convey a full freight of emotional

meaning. In the silence of this gap, the language of

presence and immediacy, the primal language is born anew."29

By taking the example of "muteness" in melodrama (moments of

emotional excess that can only be described in terms of

gesture, facial expression, or the "ineffable"), Brooks hopes

to clear a space for understanding the nonverbal sign.

28 For other work that begins from Peirce and then
delineates a sexually specific reader see Teresa De
Lauretis's Alice Doesn't: Feminism, Semiotics, Cinema
(Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984); For a revision
of De Lauretis's model that includes the racially different
reader, see Mark A. Reid's Redefining Black Film (Berkeley:
University of California Press, 1993).

29 Peter Brooks, The Melodramatic Imagination: Balzac,
Henry James, Melodrama, and the Mode of Excess (New York:
Columbia University Press, 1985): 67.

However, he idealizes the "ineffability" of gesture by

concluding that it refers to a more primal, immediate, and

unified means of emotional communication that can never be

recovered. Muteness, gesture, emotionalism, primitivism, and

immediacy are all qualities that are also associated with the

"feminine." To assume that gesture (and consequently dance)

cannot "speak" is to reposition dance in the marginalized

space of feminine silence.

But how specifically does the viewer of gesture and

dance in film, recognize what they are seeing and place it

within their own or another historical context? When Brooks

discusses the "gestural sign" of the melodramatic text, he

refers to the work of A.J. Greimas on the semiotics of

gesture. Greimas's work involves an examination of "the

relation between a sequence of gestural figures, taken as the

signifier, and the gestural project, considered as the

signified."30 Greimas's "gestural project" appears to be a

more specific way of mapping the signifieds of gesture,

because it allows for intertextual connections. Another

writer who refers to both Brooks and Greimas in a reading of

gesture is Roberta Pearson in her important recent book,

Eloquent Gestures.31 Pearson also uses Greimas to set up an

30 Brooks, 70.

31 Roberta Pearson, Eloquent Gestures: The
Transformation of Performance Style in the Griffith Biograph
Films. Pearson compares the changes in gestural style in
Griffith films between 1908 and 1913 with exercises developed

intertextual reading strategy for interpreting gestural

differences in the melodramatic film texts of D.W. Griffith.

Pearson does not elaborate on the specifics of Greimas's

gestural project, even though she quite skillfully carries

out the type of reading model which he proposes. I wish to

fill in a few of the gaps about how this reading model for

gesture and dance might work.

In "Figurative Semiotics and the Semiotics of the

Plastic Arts," Greimas outlines a possible analytic approach

to the plastic arts, specifically painting. He begins by

establishing that in order for viewers to read a painting,

they inevitably apply a "reading grid" to the object:

It is this grid through which we read which causes
the world to signify for us and it does so by
allowing us to identify figures as objects, to
classify them and link them together, to interpret
movements as processes which are attributable or
not attributable to subjects, and so on. This grid
is of a semantic nature, not visual, auditive, or
olfactory. It serves as a "code" for recognition
which makes the world intelligible and manageable.
Now we see that it is the projection of this
reading grid--a sort of "signified" of the world--
onto a painted canvas that allows us to recognize
the spectacle it is supposed to represent.32

The code through which we identify figures or, in this case,

gestures or dance movements, results from our experience in

by the followers of physical culturalist, Francois Delsarte.
(I will discuss this model and my problems with it in Chapter

32 A.J. Greimas, "Figurative Semiotics and the Semiotics
of the Plastic Arts", New Literary History 20:3 (Spring
1989), 632.

the world. The "'signified' of the world," then, will depend

to some degree on our historical context as much as on our

own particular interaction within that context. Greimas

acknowledges that his reading grid is related to Barthes's

concept of "iconicity" in the "Rhetoric of the Image."33 The

important difference is Greimas's addition of the grid to

theorize how signifiers are brought together in a type of

cognitive architecture.

Here, then, we have a starting point for reading gesture

as semantic coding. The reader of gestural signs perceives

and cognitively organizes gestures through a grid that

provides culturally and historically specific referents. For

example, the movements of Loie Fuller's body and costume in

her film Fire Dance (1906) relates (both in terms of

iconicity and semantic coding) to photographs of Fuller skirt

dancing, the swirling designs of her Art Nouveau

representations, and the Futurist texts that document a

fascination with Fuller, electricity, and disappearing

bodies. By the same token, we could extend the idea of the

reading grid to include the many photographic and filmic

examples of dancers other than Fuller who were also veiled in

translucent material and moved in iconically similar ways, as

well as reviews and interpretations about the filmic

33 Greimas, 635; See also Roland Barthes, "The Rhetoric
of the Image," Image Music Text, trans. Stephen Heath (New
York: Noonday Press, 1977).

representation of the dancer. Greimas's reading grid allows

for both depth and ambiguity in interpreting gesture. Each

individual reader could construct an entirely different

reading grid. My project is to try and construct or, in some

ways, to reconstruct a reading grid that includes information

about dance, gesture, and women in motion from the period

between 1900 and 1935.

Another approach from film studies that in many ways

follows an interpretive strategy similar to Greimas's is star

studies. The best of these studies considers the

relationship between stars and a sexually and racially

specific and historicized spectator.34 Christine Gledhill

describes the interdisciplinary challenge of the star text in

ways that resonate with Greimas's reading strategy of

interpreting the "signified of the world":

A product of mass culture, but retaining
theatrical concerns with acting, performance and
art; an industrial marketing device, but a
signifying element in films; a social sign,
carrying cultural meanings and ideological values,
which expresses the intimacies of individual
personality, inviting desire and identification; an
emblem of national celebrity, founded on the body,
fashion and personal style; a product of capitalism
and the ideology of individualism, yet a site of
contest by marginalised groups; a figure consumed
for his or her personal life, who competes for

34 See Richard Dyer, Stars (London: BFI, 1979);
Christine Gledhill, ed., Stardom: Industry of Desire (New
York: Routledge Press, 1991); Shari Roberts, Seeing Stars:
Feminine Spectacle, Female Spectators, and World War II
Hollywood Musicals (Dissertation: University of Chicago,

allegiance with statesmen and politicians.35

Gledhill's description parallels in certain ways the

historicized semiotic approach that I take from Greimas's

notion of the "gestural project" and "reading grid." She

mentions many issues that are also raised through the four

"stars" upon which this project focuses, Loie Fuller, Lillian

Gish, Louise Brooks, and Josephine Baker. For each I apply a

reading grid that considers the gestural as a social sign

that draws its iconography from art movements, actors'

manuals, modern dance culture, autobiography, photography and

film, and cultural theory. My study, similar to many "star

studies," considers the importance of the interpellated and

sexually differentiated spectator as reader of these signs.36

Before I further outline my chapters, I will briefly

describe the various ways that film studies has analyzed the

signifier of the woman in motion, particularly the figure of

the woman dancer. Brooks's argument about the emotional

excess of gestural signs replicates many earlier discussions

from film criticism. Robin Woods, for example, in "Art and

Ideology: Notes on Silk Stockings," discusses "the film's

supreme expression of vitality through physical movement"

without ever mentioning the politics of sexual difference in

the film. His conclusions, while thoughtful, demonstrate an

35 Gledhill, xiii.

36 I do not discuss in much detail a racially different
spectator until Chapter Five's analysis of Josephine Baker.

uncritical and somewhat nostalgic approach to the figure of

woman as dancer that reflects the tendency to read the

signified of dance as excessive, feminized emotion.37 Marcia

Butzel acknowledges another difficulty with Woods's reading

of Silk Stockings in that, similar to many other analyses of

dance numbers, his analysis rests[] on an untenable

paradox: the dance sequence's definition (as a massive

rhetorical figure) depends on its separability from the

narrative; yet its significance depends on the way it

develops the narrative."38

In order to explain this paradox, other critics have

attempted to theorize more specifically how the excessive

nature of movement and dance functions in relation to the

narrative. Moments of excess could indeed be the one means

for escaping the dominant ideology of the Hollywood

narrative. Jean-Francois Lyotard in "Acinema" has argued

that cinematic movement generally functions within a

narrative economy that orients all movement in relation to a

system of value and exchange. However, he does concede that

certain types of movement, in particular, moments of

"immobility and excessive movement" work in avant-garde films

37 Robin Wood, "Art and Ideology: Notes on Silk
Stockings," Film Comment 11:3 (May-June 1975): 65.

38 Marcia Butzel, Movement as Cinematic Narration: The
Concept of Practice and Choreography in Film, Diss. Univ. of
Iowa, 1985, (Ann Arbor, MI: UMI, 8518810, 1985): 200.

to disrupt the economy of the Hollywood narrative.39 Tom

Gunning also formulates a thesis about the disruptive

potential of the "exhibitionism" of early cinema, which

includes dance performance, and compares the confrontational

and excessive quality of early cinema to similar qualities

advocated by certain avant-garde filmmakers.40 Describing the

dancing or gestural signifier as "excessive" or

"exhibitionist," however, still does not establish how dance

signifies, or how and in what ways these signifiers are

perceived and interpreted.

Richard Dyer's article, "Entertainment and Utopia,"

offers an interpretation of dance in film that allows for

both sexual difference and historical specificity. Dyer

questions the emotionalism associated with moments of excess

and spectacle in the Hollywood musical. He argues that one

might interpret a dance scene by the utopianismm [sic]

contained in the feeling it embodies--feelings which

correspond to the 'oomph,' 'pow,' 'bezazz' qualities of the

dance performance."41 Following Barthes, Dyer feels that it

39 Jean-Francois Lyotard, "Acinema," in Narrative,
Apparatus, Ideology, ed. Philip Rosen (New York: Columbia
University Press, 1986): 349-359.

40 Tom Gunning, "The Cinema of Attraction: Early Film,
Its Spectator and the Avant-Garde," Wide Angle 8: 3-4 (1986):

41 Richard Dyer, "Entertainment and Utopia," in Movies
and Methods, Vol.II, ed. Bill Nichols (Berkeley: University
of California Press, 1985): 220-232.

is important to investigate the codes of these emotions just

as we investigate emotional signs. This would mean placing

these codes within the "complex of meanings in the

socio-cultural situation in which they are produced." By

recognizing the importance of context in relation to the

codes of emotion (if we accept that emotion can be coded) and

by extension, the codes of dance or gesture, we can begin to

critique those theories of excess, such as Brooks', that rely

on mystifying notions of "primal communication." What should

not be forgotten with Brooks is the connection of excess (and

the emotional responses to it), to certain theories of

nostalgia and utopianism. As Dyer points out, nostalgia and

utopia are historically specific phenomena. With Dyer, then,

we see the beginnings of a theory of nonverbal signs (such as

dance or music) that includes a consideration of the

histories that embody expressions of emotion. A chorus line

of women on stage gains significance not only because of its

own symmetrical logic and relationship to the narrative, but

also because of its relationship to the historical contexts

of burlesque and vaudeville and to fantasies of utopian


If dance and gesture as excessive signs possess the

potential to disrupt the narrative, then why has dance not

been considered more seriously for its radical potential?

The obvious answer to this question involves the relationship

of dance to female spectacle. Feminist film criticism has

handled the question of spectacle and its relation to the

female body in a number of compelling and sometimes

contradictory ways. One of the earliest and most influential

theories is Laura Mulvey's "Visual Pleasure and Narrative

Cinema."42 Mulvey, using a psychoanalytic framework, contends

that the role of the female body operates primarily as

spectacle in order to fetishistically reveal/conceal the

female's lack. Significantly, Mulvey uses the Ziegfeld

showgirl as one example of how the female body functions to

interrupt the narrative but never to participate actively as

a subject within it. The visual pleasure that the spectacle

of woman initiates is seen by Mulvey to be completely

subsumed within a phallocratic economy and consequently anti-

feminist. Mulvey states that this type of visual pleasure

must be destroyed in order to represent women's desires as

something other than the object of fetishistic voyeurism.

Her argument, however, leaves little room for theorizing the

female body on film as visually pleasurable.

Many other feminist film critics have taken up the

problem of the opposition between essentialist and anti-

essentialist theories of the female body in film.43

42 Laura Mulvey, "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,"
in Feminism and Film Theory (New York: Routledge Press,
1988): 69-79.

43 See Re-Vision: Essays in Feminist Film Criticism, ed.
Mary Ann Doane, Patricia Mellencamp, Linda Williams
(Frederick, MD: University Publications of America, 1984);
Feminism and Film Theory, ed. Constance Penley (New York:

Essentialist arguments tend to seek out "positive"

representations of "woman" without necessarily thinking

through the masculinist implications built into the apparatus

itself. These arguments run the risk of naturalizing

"femininity" and thereby repeating the same patterns as the

patriarchal domination of sexual difference. Anti-

essentialist arguments such as Mulvey's, while providing an

insightful description of "woman" in relation to narrative

and the apparatus, seem totalizing in their very negativity,

leaving no possibility for a positive or autonomous

representation of "femininity" or "woman."

A number of feminists have already begun to think

through the essentialist/anti-essentialist debate by

reexamining some psychoanalytic tenets that do not take into

account the difference of the female body. Mary Ann Doane in

"Woman's Stake: Filming the Female Body" argues that in

order to "move beyond the opposition between essentialism and

anti-essentialism" we must take "the necessary risk" and

"construct a feminine specificity (not essence)" in relation

to language. The "stake" that Doane describes relates to the

"syntax which constitutes the female body as a term."44 The

Routledge Press, 1988).

44 Mary Ann Doane, "Woman's Stake: Filming the Female
Body," in Feminism and Film Theory, ed. Constance Penley (New
York: Routledge Press, 1988), 226. See also in the same
collection, Joan Copjec's "India Song/Son nom de Venise dans
Calcutta Desert: The Compulsion to Repeat": 229-243. Copjec
and Doane both refer to the sexually specific metaphors used

writings of Luce Irigaray also unravel a notion of gendered

"syntax," both in how she deconstructs the metaphors of

femininity in philosophy and psychoanalysis, and in the very

structure of her sentences.45 Irigaray refers to dance as an

example of how the "feminine" speaks with a different


Several important articles in film studies consider more

specifically the role of the dancer in film, most often in

the Hollywood musical. Lucy Fischer's "Shall We Dance?"

analyzes the role of Busby Berkeley's choreography in the

construction of the chorus dancer in Hollywood film. She

points to Berkeley's work in Dames (1934) as indicative of

Hollywood's dependence on certain "types," such as the

"blonde bombshell" or the "femme fatale." She argues that

"these are not 'career' specifications, as are the masculine

labels of 'gangster' or 'cowboy,' but rather categories of

in the process of anaclisis as a weak link in the apparatus
(cinematic and psychoanalytic) that "leans" on the metaphoric
construct of the body.

45 Luce Irigaray, Speculum of the Other Woman, trans.
Gillian C. Gill (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985);
This Sex Which Is Not One, trans. Catherine Porter with
Carolyn Burke (Ithaca: Cornell University Press,).

46 In her article "The gesture in psychoanalysis,"
Irigaray suggests that women enter language differently from
men. For example, "If they are too overcome by mourning,
they do not enter language at all they make their entry
by producing a space, a track, a river, a dance, a rhythm, a
song," 133. Luce Irigaray, "The gesture in psychoanalysis,"
Between Feminism and Psychoanalysis,ed. Teresa Brennan (New
York: Routledge Press, 1984).

sexual proclivity and physical demeanor."47 Signifiers,

including gestural ones, function within the codes of certain

stereotypes about woman as spectacle and certainly relate to

my understanding of the iconic nature of the woman in motion.

Even more specifically than Fischer, Maureen Turim notices in

"Gentlemen Consume Blondes" how Marilyn Monroe and Jane

Russell "maneuver their bodies in a perfectly matched and

coordinated assault" in the dance numbers of Gentlemen Prefer

Blondes (Howard Hawks, 1953). Turim argues for a reading

that reflects the contradictory nature of spectacle. She

points out that while Monroe and Russell are obviously

objectified, they also exhibit a competency and "cleverness"

that "provides the ambiguity which is essential to the

ambiance of the sophisticated tease." In a later "Addendum"

Turim suggests that dance movements need to be investigated

according to some "very abstract psycho-perceptual concepts

about the appeal of symmetry, rhyming and patterning within a

visual field" along with "historical analysis" about

relationships between women, particularly lesbian and "pseudo-

lesbian" ones.48

My approach to the dancer as spectacle in film will

start from these insights about the "ambiguity" of spectacle

47 Fischer, 137.

48 Maureen Turim, "Gentlemen Consume Blondes," Movies and
Methods, Vol. II, ed. Bill Nichols, (Berkeley: University of
California Press, 1985): 369-378.

and the potentially disruptive syntax of the dancing female

body that remains sexually and historically specific without

being "essentially" female. I do not mean to suggest that

the figure of the woman in motion is always disruptive.

Particularly within the historical parameters of early

twentieth century performance, the figure of the dancing

woman functions as spectacle in both positive and negative

ways. From the very beginnings of film the body of the dancer

was a part of a male-oriented scopophilic economy. But I

also see moments during this period (1900-1935) when dance is

represented as a kind of visual pleasure that is initiated,

performed, and received by women. It is linked to other

cultural movements, such as the suffrage and the physical

culture movements. Unfortunately, Mulvey's assessment of the

woman as spectacle seems to hold true for much of early

cinematic representation. Part of the project for feminist

film criticism, however, has been to recover those seemingly

marginal moments that history erased in order to reaffirm the

sense that the consumption of these images was never a

monolithic or simple process.

The four women in motion that I chose to analyze all

have some background in dance training, all appeared in film,

and all were Americans as famous in Europe as in their own

country. Their filmic appearances span the years of 1906 to

1935, a period that is significant for a number of reasons.

First, these years cover primarily silent film; all of the

films I examine, except for Josephine Baker's Princess Tam

Tam (1935), are silent and depend heavily on non-verbal forms

of communication. During this same period, the suffrage

movement experienced its greatest success in gaining the vote

for women, and, by the mid-twenties, had already begun a

period of decline.49 Women, no matter how they felt about

feminist culture, became more "public" during this time than

ever before. They joined the work force, women's clubs, and

gymnasiums. The Flapper replaced the more wholesome American

Girl type and was instantly commodified by Hollywood and the

popular press.50 The figure of the woman became one of the

organizing archetypes for both modernist and avant-garde art

circles.51 And as the forces that resulted in World War II

exerted more pressure, all of the previously mentioned areas

49 See William Chafe's The American Woman: Her Changing
Social, Economic, and Political Roles, 1920-1970 (New York:
Oxford University Press, 1972): 7-30.

50 See Banta's Imaging American Women and Sumiko Higashi,
Virgins, Vamps and Flappers: The American Silent Movie
Heroine (Montreal: Eden Press Women's Publications, 1978).

51 For a discussion of the distinction between modernist
and avant-garde art and the historical split between them
that occurred during the 1920s see my discussion in Chapter
Two. See also the "Introduction" to Modernity and Mass
Culture, ed. James Naremore and Patrick Brantlinger
(Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991): 1-23; Peter
Burger, Theory of the Avant-Garde (Minneapolis: University of
Minnesota Press, 1984); Andreas Huyssen, After the Great
Divide (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986).

became tinged with questions of nationalism and racism.52

These various histories will weave in and out of my analysis

of the woman in motion.

In the second chapter, "Telling Motions: Loie Fuller and

the 'interpenetration' of art and science," I read Fuller's

1906 film Fire Dance through a reading grid that crosses many

disciplinary boundaries. The grid I construct includes

images and ideas from figures such as the photographer,

Eadweard Muybridge, the Futurist, Filippo Tommasso Marinetti,

physical culturalist, Francois Delsarte, dancers and dance

critics, such as Rudolf Laban and John Martin, and cultural

theorists, such as Walter Benjamin. Their observations span

the years from the turn of the century to the mid-thirties,

and their perspectives on movement and modernism provide an

important backdrop for my entire thesis. In every area I

investigate in this chapter, I uncover an early modernist

belief that motions could "tell" or reveal knowledge about

the body. I question how this "telling" is often figured as

the result of what Delsarte described as the

"interpenetration" of art and science. The writers in this

study metaphorically transform the "artistic" into the

"feminine," the "scientific" into the "masculine," and their

52 See T.J. Jackson Lear's discussion of how fear of
physical superiority of the immigrant population during the
teens resulted in formation of WASP-only workout clubs. No
Place of Grace: Antimodernism and the Transformation of
American Culture, 1880-1920 (New York: Pantheon Books, 1981).

reproductive offspring into the icon of Modernity--a girl-

child who fuses in her filmic motion sexuality and

technology. Loie Fuller's Fire Dance provides the filter for

my reading grid that focuses on the conflicted representation

of the woman dancer.

Chapter Three, "Expressionistic Gestures: Lillian Gish

and the Impact of Modern Dance in The Wind," investigates the

semiotics of filmic gesture and dance in Victor Seastrom's

The Wind (1928). I challenge the prevailing historical view

of film acting that projects an overly linear development

from the "histrionic" or "melodramatic" style of early cinema

to the more "realist" style of classical Hollywood.53 I argue

for a use of the term expressionistic gesture to describe a

gestural style that is neither simply histrionic nor realist

and is marked by its similarity to modern dance techniques.

Numerous actresses, Gish among them, studied modern dance as

a part of their training for film acting. Expressionistic

gesture appears in certain American and German films of the

twenties. I also suggest a link between expressionism,

modern dance and the physical culture movement during the

twenties, a connection which provides a reading grid for

Gish's performance in The Wind.

"Expressionistic Gestures" also pursues the links

between physical culture and nationalism during this period.

53 I take this terminology from Pearson's Eloquent
Gestures. See Chapter Two.


Numerous modern dancers invoked rhetoric in both writings and

choice of dance theme that signified "American." Character

choices portraying Native Americans, Shakers, and pioneer

women were as popular in modern dance as they were in film.

In The Wind Gish portrays a pioneer woman trying to make it

on the edge of a threatening desert landscape. Her body is

tossed back and forth across the screen by the ever present

but never visible force of the wind. The film establishes a

metaphor for the intersection of technology, the American

frontier, and the woman's body that attempts to negotiate

this uncomfortable crossing. This intersection materializes

in the expressionistic and dance-like quality of Gish's

bodily movement.

Chapter Four is entitled "The American Chorus Girl in

Weimar Germany: Louise Brooks, Pandora's Box, and Kracauer's

'The Mass Ornament.'" It considers the chorus girl as

embodied by Louise Brooks in George W. Pabst's Pandora's Box

(1928) and as theorized by Siegfried Kracauer in "The Mass

Ornament" (1927). Both Brooks's persona and Kracauer's use

of the Tiller Girls bring the figure of the American into the

Weimar context.54 This chapter questions the implications of

these trans-cultural texts that frequently connect the

54 Kracauer mistakenly describes the Tiller Girls as
American. They started in Britain and travelled around the
world forming schools of 'high-kickers'. See Derek and Julia
Parker's The Natural History of the Chorus Girl (New York:
Bobbs-Merrill, 1975).


iconicity of American culture to the patterns and designs of

the American chorus girl. Brooks's background as modern

dancer, Ziegfeld girl, and Flapper provide a provocative

reading grid for Pandora's Box. Her performance in the film

also challenges a completely negative reading of chorus girl

as spectacle. In "The Mass Ornament" Kracauer suggests that

the chorus line demonstrates a radical demythologizing

potential because of its iconographic resemblance to the

design and movements of the factory line. In this chapter I

argue that Pabst's framing of Brooks's movements exemplify in

another form the radical potential of the American chorus


In Chapter 5, "Uncanny Performances in Colonial

Narratives: Josephine Baker in Princess Tam Tam," I look at

a performer who shares much in common with Loie Fuller. Like

Fuller, Baker is another American performer who achieved her

fame first as a dancer in Paris and subsequently became the

toast of the Parisian art and entertainment worlds. Baker's

star persona was frequently associated with her racial

difference, but this "difference" undergoes a transformation

that subsumes her "Americanicity" to her "Africanicity."55

The mise-en-scene of both her stage performances and her

performance in Princess Tam Tam (Edmond T. Greville, 1935)

55 I refer here to Barthes's notion of the iconicity of
the image, specifically his use of the term "Italianicity" as
signified in the filmic image in "Rhetoric of the Image".

often associates her dancing with French "colonial" settings,

such as Tunisia. Following the theoretical work of Frantz

Fanon, Homi K. Bhabha, and bell hooks, this chapter

investigates the inherent instability of the ethnic

stereotype in colonial narratives as realized in the

performance of Baker in Princess Tam Tam. Using Freud's

description of the unheimlich, I argue that Baker's dancing

sets off a signifying chain that unsettles the white colonial

gaze, reminding the colonist that he is, in fact, disembodied

and not-at-home.

I turn now to this consideration of the woman in motion

within various historical texts between the turn-of-the-

century and World War II. The spectacular nature of this

figure's performances reflect the contradictory desires

involved in representing the woman in motion as an icon for

the modern age. From these contradictions moments of

identification emerge that offer the possibility for a more

progressive kind of feminine "syntax," for another way of

speaking feminine difference.


I explain to myself the great success of
Loie Fuller by the feeling she gives visions
of the infinite. She is not a woman of
flesh and bone and brown hair. She is an
apparition equal to those ideal creatures that
one perceives, restless, seductive and unreal
in the paintings of Mantegna. One's
eyes follow Loie Fuller who undulates and turns
like a dervish, as a child follows from afar the
slow flight of the dragonfly, whose iridescent
wings have exactly the changing reflections of
the robe of the American.1

One must go beyond muscular possibilities and aim
in the dance for that ideal multiplied body of the
motor that we have so long dreamed of. One must
imitate the movements of machines with gestures;
pay assiduous court to steering wheels, ordinary
wheels, pistons, thereby preparing the fusion of
man with the machine, to achieve the metallicity
of the Futurist dance.2

In 1917 Filippo Tommaso Marinetti wrote in the

"Manifesto of the Futurist Dance" that "we Futurists prefer

Loie Fuller and the 'cakewalk' of the Negroes" because of

1 M. Rastignac review, "Courriere de Paris," in
L'Illustration (Jan. 30, 1893). As quoted in Margaret Haile
Harris, Loie Fuller: Magician of Light, Exhibition at the
Virginia Museum, March 12-April 22 1979 (Richmond,VA: The
Virginia Museum, 1979), 26.

2 F.T. Marinetti, Marinetti: Selected Writings, ed.
R.W. Flint, trans. R.W. Flint and Arthur Coppotelli (New
York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1971), 138.

their "utilization of electric light and mechanisms."3 While

the aesthetics of either Loie Fuller or the "cakewalk" may

seem a surprising favorite of the Futurists, Fuller's

popularity with both Art Nouveau and Futurism indicates the

fluid nature of her representation. Fuller transcended

national lines as easily as art movements, travelling from

the United States to Europe, encountering the most respected

artists and thinkers of the turn-of-the-century. With "500

yards" of silky dress swirling around her body with the aid

of bamboo poles, Fuller created a public sensation by using

colored electric lights to silhouette her body. She

performed "with her troupe of ladies and corps of electrical

engineers" dances such as "The Firmament, The Fire, The Great

White Lily" on the same program with "her newest scientific

creation, Radium Dance."4

The transformation of the woman's body into flowers,

butterflies, and dragonflies, particularly Fuller's body, was

a favorite subject for the Art Nouveau movement of the turn-

of-the-century. According to Martin Battersby, Fuller

"personified what artists felt about Woman as an abstraction--

3 Marinetti, 138.

4 New York Public Library Dance Collection, Lincoln
Center. Program notes for Fuller performance in Keil,

a vague, tantalising, ethereal vison."5 From a different

perspective, but with similar conclusions, Marinetti's

description of Fuller's choreography transformed her into the

"ideal multiplied body" of the Futurist dance, the

incarnation of "metallicity," and a vision of motion wherein

the body disappears.6 How does Fuller encompass both

movements, the first that was so oriented towards the

consumption of the female image embodied in lamps, jewelry,

and furniture, and the second that depicted the female body

through metaphors of machinery and invisibility? The answer

lies in what both movements appropriated from Fuller's

figure: the unusual way in which her bodily motion expressed

a modern femininity.

Fuller's many transformations reveal the complexity of

representations of women in motion during the period between

1890 and 1920 as well as the wide-ranging nature of early

modernism. A Fuller program combining a butterfly dance with

a dance about radium could only make aesthetic sense within

the performance context of the first several decades of this

century. What, then, do the many interpretations of Fuller's

5 Martin Battersby, The World of Art Nouveau (New York:
Funk and Wagnalls, 1968): 164-165.

6 See Marjorie Perloff, The Futurist Moment: Avant-
Garde,Avant Guerre, and the Language of Rupture (Chicago:
University of Chicago Press, 1986). Perloff considers
Futurism as an international movement and includes French and
British artists along with the Italians and Russians during
the period before World War I. See also Michael Kirby,
Futurist Performance (New York: Dutton, 1971).

performance style during this period suggest specifically

about the woman in motion and particularly about the codes of

modern femininity? Is she, as Rastignac describes, "not a

woman of flesh and bone" but an "apparition?" Does her use

of electricity and mirrors embody the "metallicity of the

Futurist dance?" Or is she, as in the words of St4phane

Mallarm6, "the performer who illustrates many spinning themes

from which extends a distant fading warp .. ?"7

Loie Fuller's short film, Fire Dance (1906) offers an

unusual performance, which involved the disappearance of the

female body rather than the more typical vaudeville code of

striptease dancing. Did her disappearance actually reveal

something else about early Twentieth Century visual culture?

By using the film as a type of filter, I constructed a grid

of information that provides answers, but also new questions

about the culture that created the piece. The "information"

I selected consists of both images and textual comment and

emanates from a variety of sources. First, I examine closely

the belief held by critics of film and dance that the

application of film to the moving body (frequently female)

reveals a knowledge about the body (and the gender) that

could not previously be seen. Most of these critics were

7 Felicia McCarren, "St4phane Mallarm4, Loie Fuller, and
the Theater of Femininity," Bodies of the Text: Dance as
Theory, Literature as Dance, ed. Ellen W. Goellner an
Jacqueline Shea Murphy (New Jersey: Rutgers University Press,
1995): 217-230.


writing in the thirties at the end of the silent film period,

at a time when criticism from a variety of disciplines

explored the affinities between film and bodily movement.

Many of these writers, such as Walter Benjamin and Rudolf

Laban, published before the complete takeover of sound film

and thus concentrated particularly on the relationships

between the body, movement, and the camera. These critics

were not writing out of a cultural and historical void. From

the turn-of-the-century through the Thirties, women

participated in leisure activities and the work force in very

visible ways. Also during this period, the physical culture

and modern dance movements made their biggest impressions

both on the public and on representations of bodies exerting

force and expressing emotion.

A number of recent works helped to define the parameters

of this reading grid by considering the relationship between

emerging technologies, the woman's body, and modernism. In

"The Cinema of Attractions" Tom Gunning explores the

exhibitionist quality of early cinema and its connections to

both vaudeville and the avant-garde.8 Miriam Hansen discusses

in Babel and Babylon how the spectacle of early cinema, which

frequently involved the spectacle of a woman in motion

(dancers, acrobats, pornographic performers), provided an

excess of visual distractions, a defining marker of early

8 Tom Gunning, "The Cinema of Attractions," Wide Angle
8.3-4 (1986): 63-70.

modernist spectatorship.9 In "'when the direction of the

force acting on the body is changed; The Moving Image,'" Mary

Ann Doane considers the body of the prostitute in relation to

early technologies of movement, such as the train and the

cinema, and how these new technologies altered the spatial

and economic deployment of the woman's body.10 Griselda

Pollock also considers artistic representations of the

flaneur and the dancer in the public sphere in "Modernity and

the spaces of femininity."11 All of these writers draw

somewhat different conclusions about the relationship between

spectacle and new forms of knowledge about the body in the

midst of the "modern" condition; most necessarily comment on

the complicated interrelationship between vision, bodies, and

codes of femininity.12

Other recent books review historical materials that

document the important shift that occurred around the turn-of-

the-century in the representation of women and their new

9 Miriam Hansen, Babel and Babylon: Spectatorship in
American Silent Film (Cambridge: Harvard Univesity Press,

10 Mary Ann Doane, "'. when the direction of the
forct acting on the body is changed:' the Moving Image" Wide
Angle 7.1-2 (1985): 42-58.

11 Griselda Pollock, Vision and Difference: Femininity,
Feminism and the Histories of Art (New York: Routledge,

12 See Jonathan Crary's Techniques of the Observer: On
Vision and Modernity in the Nineteenth Century (Cambridge:
MIT Press, 1990).

participation in work and leisure activities. Martha Banta

covers the iconography of women in literature, photography,

and popular journals up to 1910 and tracks the transformation

of the Victorian ideal into a number of modern "types," which

include images of women in motion.13 Kathy Peiss charts the

increasing participation of working class white women in

dance hall culture and at movie theaters throughout New York

City.14 Both books cite numerous examples of women in motion:

women dancing, women walking, women working in ways that

signified how modernity was transforming representations of


An important part of my reading grid includes a brief

history of physical culture and its obsession with measuring

bodies in motion, along with a consideration of early film's

reflection of physical culture. The physical culture

movement helps to explain why the technologies of photography

and film were early on perceived as a quasi-legitimate means

of enacting the "interpenetration" of art and science,

particularly through the body of woman. This

representational enactment served as an ambiguous catalyst

13 Martha Banta, Imaging American Women: Idea and Ideals
in Cultural History (New York: Columbia University Press,

14 Kathy Peiss, Cheap Amusements: Working Women and
Leisure in Turn-of-the-Century New York (Philadelphia: Temple
University Press, 1986). See also Lewis A. Erenberg,
Steppin' Out: New York Nightlife and the Transformation of
American Culture: 1890-1930 (Westport,CT: Greenwood Press,

for "scientific" studies of the body, for pornography, for

art, and for more popular documentation of women swimming,

dancing, and exercising.

Finally, the reading grid pursues Fuller's own career

and her relationship to the Art Nouveau and Futurist

movements. Artists from both movements appreciated Fuller's

modernism and appropriated her figure in ways that reflect

their interest in both her aesthetic and scientific

connotations. All of these ideas seemed necessary to

construct my reading grid for Fuller's film Fire Dance(1906).

While the idea of a grid may sound rigid, its structure

allows me to work through material in ways that I hope are as

fluid and as compelling as my subject matter. I do not wish

to suggest that this grid is a complete one. Nor would I

deny that other information could change my interpretation of

Fire Dance. The application of a reading grid does more than

simply provide "background" to my text; it acts as a filter

or lens and necessarily alters what goes through it. My

reading of Fire Dance and Loie Fuller is thus a wholly

motivated one that focuses on the nature of her femininity,

the quality of her movement, and a culture's reaction to


The various descriptions of Fuller's work by Rastignac,

Marinetti, and Mallarmn together indicate a crisis of codes

defining the parameters of femininity during the early part

of this century. Alice Jardine has defined gynesis as the

"process" of "the putting into discourse of 'woman,'" a

process which Jardine argues is "intrinsic to the condition

of modernity." Representations of Fuller's image fit

accordingly into this "process" which first appropriates the

feminine and her "historical connotations" and then

introduces her into the new forms and technologies of

modernism.15 The appropriation of the image of woman as a

representative of modernism should therefore be treated

carefully. Masculine creativity has historically

appropriated feminine qualities as a primary source of

inspiration.16 Jardine's conception of gynesis, though, also

carries with it the potential for a radical reappraisal of

the feminine in the modern context. Fuller's performances, I

believe, demonstrate the double-edged nature of a woman's

attempts to redefine feminine movement through early modern


Mallarme's writings on dance provide an exceptional

appropriation of Fuller's work, one that suggests the more

radical potential of gynesis. Felicia McCarren's work on

Mallarm6's "Crayonne au theatre" explores the "theater of

femininity" that Mallarme elusively weaves between the dancer

and the poet/spectator in his "sketches" on the ballet and

15 Alice A. Jardine, Gynesis: Configurations of Woman and
Modernity (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985), 25.

16 See Christine Battersby, Gender and Genius: Towards a
Feminist Aesthetic (Bloomington: Indiana University Press,

other performers.17 For McCarren, Mallarm6's writing suggests

that Fuller's "dance allows to be seen not emptiness or lack,

but the 'nothing' which Mallarm4 locates at the heart of

theater" and, consequently, of femininity.'s By suggesting

that Fuller's type of feminine performance obliterates

sexuality while maintaining sexual difference, Mallarm6

abstracts the feminine without essentializing it. Fuller's

dancing, then, stages something other than what

psychoanalytic film theory might describe as the spectacle of

woman's lack.19 Her performance embodies a nothingness that,

for Mallarm6, composes the "ideal" theater, a feminine

theater, a theater of movement.

Fuller's theater of movement is best understood within

the context of turn-of-the-century attitudes towards the arts

and sciences. In this chapter I explore the belief that Loie

Fuller's dance performances embodied the intersection, or, in

the words of the Nineteenth Century movement theorist

Francois Delsarte, the "interpenetration" of the arts and

sciences, and, by extension, the "interpenetration" of both

17 McCarren, 217-227. See also Mark Franko, "Mimique,"
Bodies of the Text: Dance as Theory, Literature as Dance (New
Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1995): 205-216.

s1 McCarren, 227.

19 See Laura Mulvey's argument and subsequent revisions
of "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema," Feminism and Film
Theory (New York: Routledge Press, 1988): 69-79.

feminine and masculine codes of performance.20 As Jonathan

Crary argues in Techniques of the Observer, "rather than

stressing the separation between art and science in the

nineteenth century, it is important to see how they were both

part of a single interlocking field of knowledge and

practice."21 Crary's "field," I believe, extends to include

"knowledge" about sexual difference represented in new

technologies of vision. Fuller, for example, promoted dance

pieces, such as her "Radium Dance," by enhancing the very

modern-sounding title with her innovative use of electronic

stage lighting.22 Fuller's use of colored electric lights on

her own body aestheticized the scientific novelty of

electricity and associated her figure with modernism. In

1906 she employed another new technology when she starred in

the hand-tinted film of her "Fire Dance."

20 See Genevieve Stebbins, Delsarte's System of
Expression (New York: Dance Horizons, 1977); Marion Lowell,
Harmonic Gymnastics and Pantomimic Expression (Boston, 1894);
Ted Shawn, Every Little Movement: A Book About Francois
Delsarte (New York: Dance Horizons, 1910).

21 Jonathan Crary, Techniques of the Observer: On Vision
and Modernity in the Nineteenth Century (Cambridge: MIT
Press, 1990), 9.

22 Her patented lighting inventions preceded the
experiments of the Futurist Appia by several years. See
video with Sally Sommer and Michael Kirby, "Visual Urge:
Scenic Innovations," in Eye on Dance Series, No. 220 (April
10, 1987), New York Public Library Dance Collection, Lincoln

Fuller's attraction to the "scientific," and its

connotations of masculinity helped to modernize and

legitimize Fuller's status as an artist. But most writers on

Fuller, such as Mallarme, discussed her in terms of her

"femininity," describing her particular femininity as both

"new" and "modern." Definitions of modernism before World

War I stretched far enough to include simultaneously the arts

and sciences, and, by connotation, the "feminine" and

"masculine" principles. Andreas Huyssen has argued that one

of the defining tropes of modernism was a distancing effect

that invoked a separation from mass culture, a separation

that also broke down along gender distinctions: the modern

artist as masculine inventor/creator, the consumer as

feminine mass culture.23 Fuller, however, crosses over these

lines and, in so doing, forces a different understanding of

the relationship between modernism and the woman in motion.

Her performances were praised as art and denigrated as mass

culture; likewise, she was praised as artist, scientist,

inventor, and "American." Malcolm Bradbury and James

McFarlane have argued, using the same metaphoric "coupling"

as Delsarte, that the Modern resulted from "the

interpenetration, the reconciliation, the coalescence, the

fusion. of reason and unreason, intellect and emotion,

23 Andreas Huyssen, "Mass Culture as Woman: Modernism's
Other," Studies in Entertainment: Critical Approaches to Mass
Culture, ed. Tania Modeleski (Bloomington: Indiana University
Press, 1986): 188-208.

subjective and objective."24 These binarisms seem more

explicitly "modern" when the distinctions between them are

blurred; when, for example, a figure such as Loie Fuller

moves her silky costume in a pattern that makes the

differentiation of either her aesthetics or her sex seem a

difficult and indefinite task.

Fuller's dancing woman provides a compelling and anxious

spectacle for the modern spectator. The intricacies of her

movements subsume (but do not fully erase) the question of

her sexuality. As Martha Banta has suggested about Fuller

and other dancers at the turn-of-the-century, "Female

celebrities did not call upon sexuality for effective self-

display. Rather they enhanced their popularity by being

shapes in motion."25 Banta's quote illustrates how motion

itself was as fascinating to the public as overt erotic

display. Fuller's body in motion signified action and

competency as much as a type of artistic spectacle. For the

turn-of-the-century public, Fuller's control over her stage

and her career signified that she qualified as a "modern

woman." But the images of her bodily movement generated the

equally modern anxiety of the dissolution of categories.

This "anxiety" is not simply the result of the spectacle of

the body in motion, but is particularly a modern anxiety

24 Bradbury and McFarlane, 48.

25 Banta, Imaging American Women, 624.

which results from the "technologizing" or "mechanical

reproduction" of the woman's body in motion.

"Tellina Motions" through Technology

Dancing School" is a 1905 photograph by Gertrude

Kasebier that depicts an older woman and three younger girls

in a circle. The woman is instructing the girls in how to

dance. By their postures and the ghostly white traces

surrounding their swinging skirts, it seems as if they have

been captured by the camera while moving. Usually such

ghostly traces attest to the inevitable movement of the

photographic subject due to the length of the exposure time,

but here Kasebier explores aesthetically the possibility of

movement. The white skirts blend with the traces of motion,

while both imprint a frozen temporality. The past remains

present in the movement of the skirts.

At the same time as the appearance of the Kasebier

photograph, a film entitled "School Girl Gymnastics"

(American Mutoscope and Biograph, 1904) is produced. In this

short film, a teacher instructs a group of dancing students

to build a pyramid. They attempt to build a pyramid that

collapses after completion, leaving the girls in disarray on

the floor.26

26 Kemp R. Niver, Motion Pictures from the Library of
Congress Paper Print Collection: 1894-1912, ed. Bebe
Bergsten, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967),

Both the Biograph film and the Kasebier photograph

suggest a link between the representation of still movement

and the representation of filmic movement. The former

carries only the traces of past gestures; the latter, the

illusion of movement in the present. These early images of

the female body in motion in both photography and film carry

their own particular cultural currency. "Dancing School" and

"School Girl Gymnastics" are more than just two early

examples of the representation of motion. The two texts

offer a starting point for understanding how the figure of

Loie Fuller operated differently from these more typical

examples. In both the photograph and the film a woman

teaches young girls how to move. In the photograph the

girls' skirts swirl up around their ankles as they form a

circle around their teacher. In the film the collapse of the

pyramid provides a revealing moment in which sexual

difference is exposed. The images are at once private and

public, intimate and voyeuristic. "Dancing School" and

"School Girl Gymnastics" demonstrate the contradiction that

is frequently at the heart of physical culture's

representation of the woman in motion--a private pleasure

reproduced for public consumption.

Walter Benjamin in "The Work of Art in the Age of

Mechanical Reproduction"(1936) describes how the techniques

of mechanical reproduction reveal a new kind of knowledge

about the body.27 For Benjamin the camera allows the viewer

to analyze the particulars of "a person's posture during the

fractional second of a stride," a kind of information

previously unavailable to human perception. One of the

tropes of modernism, as Johanna Drucker describes, is the

scientific revision of techniques that inevitably reorganize

a sense of visual space.28 The spaces of the public sphere,

the painter's canvas, or the photographer's or filmmaker's

frame all reflect these changes. Benjamin goes on to wonder,

. of a screened behavior item which is neatly brought

out in a certain situation, like a muscle of a body, it is

difficult to say which is more fascinating, its artistic

value or its value for science."29 Benjamin's insight into

the modern phenomenon of first framing within a visual space

and then filming the body in motion echoes Eadweard

Muybridge's 1888 work in The Human Figure in Motion that

examines in photographic serial form bodies walking, running,

dancing, and performing various physical exercises.

Benjamin's essay, written forty years after Muybridge's

study, suggests that Muybridge's own stated desire to achieve

27 Walter Benjamin. Illuminations, trans. Harry Zohn
(New York: Schocken Books, 1968), 237.

28 Johanna Drucker, Theorizing Modernism: Visual Art and
the Critical Tradition (New York: Columbia University Press,
1994), 41.

29 Benjamin, 236.

a "scientific" study of the body in motion was not just idle

fancy, but represented a more general desire to understand

the ways in which the body in motion intersects with late

nineteenth and early twentieth century technologies.30 The

choice of metaphors here is important, as the rhetoric of the

physical culture movement during these same forty years, as

well as the work of Loie Fuller, trace the results of the

modernist intersection or "interpenetration" of the body and

technology on and through bodies of sexual difference.

Early uses of photography and film reinforce Benjamin's

claims in "The Work of Art" that these new technologies

destroyed the "aura" of the art work by fueling the desire of

the masses to "get hold of an object at very close range by

way of its likeness."31 Science and art are metaphorically

coupled through the cinematic apparatus and the desire to

"get hold of an object." Benjamin mentions in even more

specific metaphoric terms the "tendency" of film "to promote

30 Muybridge ascribed the value of his photographic work
to their being "seriates of phases, demonstrating the various
changes which take place in the disposition of the limbs and
body during the evolution of some act of motion from its
inception to its completion" The Human Figure in Motion (New
York: Bonanza Books, 1989),7; Marta Braun disputes
Muybridge's scientific claims in her study Picturing Time:The
Work of Etienne-Jules Marey, (1830-1904) (Chicago: University
of Chicago Press, 1992. In contrast to Marey's photographic
and filmic work of bodies in motion, Braun argues that
Muybridge was more showman than scientist.

31 Benjamin, 223.

the mutual penetration of art and science."32 To see a

woman's body at "close range" or in "slow motion" the viewer

needs the justification of either science or art to

legitimize the gaze. A masculinizedd" technology

investigates the "feminine" arts, slows down the image,

freezes it, studies it. But is something new born of this

"mutual penetration?"

Benjamin paraphrases the belief of Muybridge and other

early writers, when he says that, "evidently a different

nature opens itself to the camera than opens to the naked eye-

-if only because an unconsciously penetrated space is

substituted for a space consciously explored by man."33 The

"unconsciously penetrated space" which reveals a "different

nature," is quite often in early film the figure of a dancing

female. Many early films also showed women twirling their

skirts around them. One of the first Edison films was titled

Serpentine Dance (1894), also known under Annabelle-the-

Dancer, and was performed by an imitator of Loie Fuller,

Annabelle Whitford Moore. Edison, as Fuller would later do,

hand-colored this version to imitate light on costume.34 This

32 Benjamin, 236.

33 Benjamin, 236-7.

34 Harris, 31; According to Terry Ramsye, Fuller was
offered the chance to make a film with Edison, but sent her
sister instead who made a film under the name of La Loie in
1896. The first film with Moore is well-documented and was
widely shown. I have not found any other evidence of

film is one of the earliest examples of a woman dancing in

front of the camera. Hundreds more were to follow over the

next twenty years. An entire genre of films about "physical

culturalists" and "vaudevillians" featured gymnasts,

acrobats, and chorus girls. What goes unstated in Benjamin

is that the "different nature" revealed in these particular

films is, in fact, the nature of difference. The spectacle

of the woman dancing in a space "penetrated" by the

masculinist technology of the camera reveals her sexual


The Library of Congress Paper Print Collection from 1894

to 1912 lists well over a hundred "Vaudeville Acts" that

include some form of dance, acrobatics, or vaudeville

comedy.35 Within this list there are twenty-five acts that

describe "Physical Culturalists" with titles such as "The

Physical Culture Girl" (Edison, 1903) and "Latina, Physical

Culture Poses, Nos. 1-3" (American Mutoscope and Biograph Co,

1905). What were the historical parameters of the physical

culture phenomenon? How did they affect the apparent desire

to reproduce both scientific and aesthetic appropriations of

the feminine form in motion?

Ramsaye's 1896 film with Fuller's sister. Terry Ramsaye, A
Million and One Nights: A History of the Motion Picture
Through 1925 (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1926), 253.

35 Niver, 359.

The beginning of the physical culture movement in this

country is credited to a group of German immigrants, known as

the Turnvereins, who came to the United States in the 1820s.36

The Turnvereins, or Turners as they came to be called,

advocated developing the body in order to increase a sense of

national pride. Much has been written on early cinema's

ideological efforts to instill recent immigrants with a sense

of being an "American."37 The physical culture movement

demonstrated similar goals, but besides including immigrants,

physical culture became an important ideological practice for

New England WASPs as well.38 By World War I, there were

40,000 Turners--men, women, and children to whom lessons in

gymnastics were as important as lessons in patriotism.

Besides instilling patriotic feelings in the public, the

physical culture movement demonstrated a corresponding

obsession with anthropometry--the measuring of the body.

Dr.Dudley Sargent, the designer of one of the first sets of

weight machines, displayed, to much publicity at the 1893

36 Paula Welch and Harold Lerch, History of American
Physical Education and Sport,(Springfield,IL: C.C. Thomas,
1981), 103.

37 Noel Burch, Life to those Shadows, trans. Ben Brewster
(Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990); Miriam
Hansen, Babel and Babylon: Spectatorship in American Silent
Film (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1991).

38 See T.J.Jackson Lear, No Place of Grace: Antimodernism
and the Transformation of American Culture, 1880-1920 (New
York: Pantheon Books, 1981).

World's Fair in Chicago, a chart of the "Physical Proportions

of the Typical Man." The chart was designed "to furnish the

youth of both sexes with a laudable incentive to systematic

and judicious physical training by showing them, at a glance,

their relation in size, strength, symmetry, and development

to the normal standard."39 Rarely, however, were the

techniques of measurement deployed equally amongst "both

sexes." Dr.Clelia Mosher found that anthropometric data for

women was inadequate as was the machinery used to measure

them. In 1915 she invented the schematograph which measured

women's posture through a camera that used a rotoscoping

effect to create a silhouette of the female body.40 Both

Sargent and Mosher demonstrate the fascination that science

held for measuring sexual difference through images produced

by modern technology.

The physical culture movement was obsessed with sexual

difference in other ways as well. By 1915 there were over

65,000 women signed up for YWCA gym classes and 32,000 for

swim lessons.41 Theorists such as Sargent, however, still

insisted on the physical and mental inferiority of the female

body. Sargent suggested that when women participated in

39 Welch, 119.

40 Welch, 121.

41 Betty Spears, History of Sport and Physical Education
in the United States (Dubuque,Iowa: Wm. C. Brown, 1988), 208.

sports, they "either inherited or acquired masculine

characteristics." The YMCA and the YWCA both taught courses

in anatomy, physiology, and anthropometry that reinforced

gender distinctions. Participation in sports for men would

emphasize competition, leadership, team play, while coaches

for women's teams would applaud "playing one's best, gaining

a sense of honor, learning self sacrifice for the sake of the

team, and developing a democratic spirit."42 Physical culture

initially attempted to maintain rigid distinctions between

masculine and feminine codes of bodily movement, but the

distinctions would gradually begin to disintegrate as more

and more women began to participate in physical and political


The body and its movements increasingly became not only

an object to be measured and studied, a mass to be exercised

and shaped, but also an instrument to express the self. A

more aesthetic, although no less regimented aspect of the

physical culture movement began with the importation into the

United States of Francois Delsarte's theories in 1869.

Delsarte assigned spiritual functions to bodily functions.

He divided the body into zones of three with each third

representing an emotional or spiritual state. According to

Delsarte, from harnessing the "powers" of body and spirit,

"results the intimate fusion of art and science, which,

42 Spears, 208.

though each one is born of a different source, nevertheless

ally, interpenetrate and reciprocally prove each other" [my

emphasis].43 The Delsartean "interpenetration" of art and

science through the movement of the body initiates a theme

which echoes throughout writers on physical culture, dance,

and film: through the "penetration"--of art and science, of

feminine and masculine--a modern knowledge about the body


Delsartean "attitudes" were performed in all sorts of

public and private spaces: in salons and schools, club

meetings and churches, men and women expressed emotions,

imitated mythological characters, and practiced rhythmic

excercises with their performing bodies. But the physical

culture movement consumed more than just the leisure time of

Americans. From the New York stage to the factory floor,

emphasis was placed on watching, measuring, and enjoying the

image of the body in motion. For example, Martha Banta has

studied the ideology of time management developed by

Frederick Winslow Taylor in the 1890s as another way that the

movements of the body were scrutinized and "managed."44

Taylor's ideas became important not only in the factory and

43 Stebbins, 67.

44 Martha Banta, Taylored Lives: Narrative Productions
in the Age of Taylor, Veblen, and Ford. (Chicago: University
of Chicago Press, 1993), 376 ft.32; See also Dolores Hayden,
The Grand Domestic Revolution: A History of Feminist Designs
for American Homes, Neighborhoods, and Cities (Cambridge,
Mass: 1981).

office spaces of America, but also in the domestic space of

the home. "Women's work" and the movements that the female

body made within her domestic space became the object of this

new "scientific" gaze, which analyzed female gestures for

"efficiency." As Helen Campbell explains in her 1893 book

The Easiest Way in Housekeeping and Cooking, the work

expected of "the typesetter, the cabinet-maker, or carpenter"

and their "ability to make each motion tell[my emphasis],"

became the equal expectation of the woman in the kitchen.45

The discourse about the body at the turn-of-the-century is

dominated by this idea of witnessing--a type of voyeurism

that was not so secret, that expected to see, know, and

consequently shape the multiple meanings behind the language

of male and female bodies.

What other evidence is there in these early years of the

twentieth century that writers, scientists, or artists

believed that motions could tell? And what kind of

information did they believe that these movements revealed?

Benjamin suggests in "The Work of Art" that film could

provide us with an opportunity to discover "hidden details of

familiar objects" and that slow motion techniques could

"reveal entirely new structural formations of the subject."

Although Benjamin's "subject" is not overtly gendered female

(even though he makes reference to a filmic space that is

45 Quoted in Banta, Taylored Lives, 233.

"unconsciously penetrated"), other writers during this same

period, when discussing movement or dance, tend to talk about

either a feminized subject or the subject of femininity.

Rudolf Laban (1897-1958) was a German movement and dance

theorist who worked throughout Europe in the twenties and

thirties and had many followers, primarily women, in the

United States. Laban often used photographic and filmic

metaphors to discuss how movement expressed meaning. He

argued that the mind perceived movement with a "snapshot-like

perception" which created the illusion of a "standstill" from

the "unceasing stream of movement. "46 His writings share much

with Benjamin's argument that slow motion film techniques

reveal knowledge or meaning, but Laban goes a step further in

defining a preference for the kind of subject who most easily

"reveals" knowledge through movement:

The differing inner attitudes of individual
personalities provide the different planes
on which the snapshots can be projected.
To begin with the most integrated attitude,
we can state that children and the primitive
man have both a natural gift for bodily
movement and a natural love for it. In later
periods of individual or racial life, man
becomes cautious, suspicious, and sometimes even
hostile to movement.47

The body becomes a "plane" or a screen onto which "snapshots"

of movement are projected. The "individual personalities"

46 Rudolf von Laban, The Mastery of Movement. (London:
Macdonald and Evans, 1960), 3.

47 Laban, 5-6.

combined with these projections create the meaning of both

person and movement. Laban reveals a bias for the

"primitive" personality which is innocent of "civilized"

behaviors. The "feminized" or "primitive" other is most

fully able to reveal a cinematic truth about themselves

through movement.

Rudolf Arnheim, writing at the same time as Laban and

Benjamin (and from whom Benjamin received some of his ideas

about slow motion), discusses in his 1934 essay "Motion" the

"dance-like quality" of early silent films.48 He also uses

feminized subjects, in this case a mother and child, as

examples of how different kinds of knowledge about self are

revealed through cinematic movement:

Motion not only serves to inform the audience
of the events that make up the story. It is also
highly expressive. When we watch a mother putting
her child to bed we not only understand what is
going on but also learn from the calm or hasty,
smooth or fumbling, energetic or weak, sure or
hesitant gestures of the mother what kind of person
she is, how she feels at the particular moment, and
what her relationship is to her child. The
contrast between the irrational struggling of the
infant and the controlled behaviour of the mother
may produce a counterpoint of visual motion, which
determines the expression of the scene at least as
effectively as do the more static factors of how
mother and child look and in what kind of setting
the action takes place [emphasis mine].49

48 Rudolf Arnheim, Film as Art. (Berkeley: University of
California Press, 1957), 152.

49 Arnheim, 150-151.

Arnheim's ideas here are interesting not only because they

reflect the idea that movement reveals knowledge about the

subject, but also because of the kind of knowledge he says is

being revealed. Arnheim's example is also remarkable because

of its similarity to Jacques Lacan's image of the child

before the mirror in "The mirror stage as formative of the

function of the I," an essay which has been used to great

effect by film theory to talk about cinematic identification.

In one passage Lacan describes the "motor incapacity" and

"turbulent movements" of the child before the mirror in

relation to the idealized image that the child sees in the

mirror.50o Arnheim's quote also uses the image of the

"irrational struggling of the infant" to talk about how

knowledge is revealed through a type of "screening," but in

this case it is knowledge about the mother. Her handling of

her child and the comparison between their two different

styles of movement reveal "what kind of person she is," or,

more specifically, what kind of mother she is. Arnheim's

description of what happens between mother and child on film

supports what Benjamin suggests in "Work of Art": that

bodily movement on film can reveal what we cannot see with

our own eyes, and that "the camera introduces us to

50 Jacques Lacan, "The mirror stage as formative of the
function of the I," in Ecrits, trans. Alan Sheridan (New
York: W.W. Norton, 1977), 2.

unconscious optics as does psychoanalysis to unconscious


Early film occasionally revealed some of the

psychological dynamics underlying the spectacle of the

woman's body in motion. The following description of "Model

Posing Before Mirror" (American Mutoscope and Biograph, 1903)

suggests the ambivalent feelings that a woman might have

about the deliberate voyeurism involved when she dances:

The first scene shows a set with a large full-
length mirror at a one-quarter angle from the
camera position. The first action is of a buxom
woman dressed in a full, white leotard approaching
the mirror. During the remainder of the film, the
woman continually looks at her reflection in the
mirror. It is difficult to decide whether she is
viewing herself with alarm or approbation. Her
pirouette and gestures are limited.52

This description is interesting for a number of reasons.

First, it includes a mirror which is angled in such a way as

to reveal the woman's gaze at her movements, but not the

camera's gaze at her. Second, the reviewer notes not a look

of private pleasure on the woman's face, but an ambiguous

expression, which ranges from fear to dislike. She is not a

skilled dancer, which may account for some of her anxiety,

but perhaps not all of it. This short film encompasses the

theme that I have identified in writings on film and dance:

that a woman's bodily movements reveal a kind of knowledge

51 Benjamin, 237.

52 Niver, 68.

about herself, a process that can induce anxiety as much as

pleasure in both performer and spectator. "Model Posing

Before Mirror" is unusual because of the inclusion of the

mirror that directs the dancers' gaze at herself; however,

this film reveals a symptom that most films in this genre try

to conceal, the contradictory pleasure/anxiety that lies at

the foundation of being an object of spectacle. As we shall

see, Fuller also employs mirrors in her performances, but

with a very different effect: she multiplies her image in a

way that disperses the spectator's gaze and causes her actual

body to disappear into a maze of virtual movement.

Besides focusing on how the woman in motion revealed

knowledge about herself, both dance and film theorists

imagined the effects that these movements would have on the

spectator. These effects tend to break down into two types

of reactions which are different, but not necessarily

mutually exclusive. The first spectator reaction involves a

physical identification with the bodily movement on the

screen. Toe-tapping to music or tensing muscles while

watching a performance falls into this category. The second

reaction reinforces the already voyeuristic tendencies of the

cinema and emphasizes the scientia sexualis of physical

culture and early film movement.53 In this case the spectator

53 See Linda Williams's discussion of Michel Foucault's
understanding of scientia sexualis in Muybridge's work in
Hard Core: Power, Pleasure, and the 'Frenzy of the Visible'
(Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990).

remains immobile, a watcher who is curious but not a


The well-known dance critic, John Martin, writing in

1939 illustrates the first type of spectator reaction to

dance. He is not talking necessarily about dance on film,

but his ideas are reminiscent of other film theorists.

Martin developed an idea which he called "inner mimicry" to

try and explain the physical reaction of watching dance on

stage. As he explains:

Since we respond muscularly to the strains in
architectural masses and the attitude of rocks,
it is plain to be seen that we will respond even
more vigorously to the action of a body exactly
like our own. We shall cease to be spectators and
become participants in the movement that is
presented to us, and though to all outward
appearances we shall be sitting quietly in our
chairs, we shall nevertheless be dancing
synthetically with all our musculature.54

Martin's ideas sound similar to Benjamin's conception of the

"tactility" of experiencing architecture in "Work of Art,"

but they also are reminiscent of Lacan's mirror stage of

identification wherein the subject desires the same bodily

control it sees reflected in the mirror.55 In another vein,

Sergei Eisenstein suggested taping dynamite to the bottom of

54 John J. Martin, Introduction to the Dance (New York:
W.W. Norton, 1939), 53.

55 Jacques Lacan, "The Mirror Stage as Formative of the
Function of the I," Ecrits, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York:
W.W. Norton & Co., 1977); See Michael Taussig's Mimesis and
Alterity: A Particular History of the Senses (New York:
Routledge, 1993) for a discussion of Benjamin's ideas about
tactility and the modern condition.

his film viewer's chairs in order to elicit a bodily response

from them, to jolt them physically into revolutionary

thoughts and actions.56 I am not trying to argue that the

film spectator has some kind of physiological response to

movement on film, (even if we do) but rather to point out the

currency of these ideas at the end of the silent era. More

than one writer believed that filmed movement, by combining

the art of the dancer with the technology of the camera,

contained the ability to elicit viscerally a physical

response from the spectator.

The other type of spectator reaction to the movement of

the female or feminized subject on film is perhaps the

easiest to explain because it is the most acknowledged--the

pleasure/anxiety of the cinematic voyeur. Siegfried

Kracauer, writing somewhat later than the other theorists I

have examined, describes this spectatorial experience most

succinctly when he discusses Roger Tilton's documentary Jazz


Records of dancing sometimes amount to an intrusion
into the dancer's intimate privacy. His self-
forgetting rapture may show in queer gestures and
distorted facial expressions which are not intended
to be watched, save by those who cannot watch them
because they themselves participate in the dancing.
Looking at such secret displays is like spying; you
feel ashamed for entering a forbidden realm where
things are going on which must be experienced, not
witnessed. However, the supreme virtue of the

56 Tom Gunning, "The Cinema of Attractions: Early Film,
Its Spectator and the Avant-Garde," Wide Angle 8:3-4 (1986):

camera consists precisely in acting the voyeur [my

Kracauer's comparison of witnessing dance on film to entering

a "forbidden realm" does not specify an overtly feminized

subject (whether male or female, "white" or "ethnic"),

however, the metaphoric allusions of a "forbidden realm,"

like Freud's "dark continent" of female subjectivity,

reverberate with allusions to otherness. The spectatorial

experience of witnessing dance, then, encompasses many

possibilities: the secret pleasures/anxieties of the voyeur,

"scientific" curiosity, aesthetic enjoyment, a physiological

recognition. One reaction that is not mentioned frequently,

except by dance critics, is the pleasure of identifying with

a kind of bodily inhibition or competency which was

previously denied. After the turn-of-the-century, women such

as Isadora Duncan and Loie Fuller performed publicly in ways

that were dramatically different from the classical ballet

dancer or the vaudevillian skirt dancer. These women danced

alone, demonstrating choreographic control of their material

and communicating with their bodies in ways that effectively

heralded a modern age of performance for women.

57 Siegfried Kracauer, Theory of Film: The Redemption of
Physical Reality (London: Oxford University Press, 1960), 43.
For a more extensive analysis of Kracauer's work on dancers,
particularly his article on "The Mass Ornament," see Chapter

Loie Fuller

The magic that Loie Fuller creates, with instinct,
with exaggeration, the contraction of skirt or
wing, instituting a place. The enchantress creates
the ambience, draws it out of herself and goes into
it, in the palpitating silence of crepe de chine.58

When Loie Fuller enveloped her entire body with yards of

undulating silk and manipulated her image with mirrors and

colored lights, she practised simultaneously the

disappearance and reappearance of her feminine body. Folies

Berg6re posters of Fuller depicted her in transparent, breast-

revealing material, but the scandalous nature of her costumes

seemed insignificant to reviewers when contrasted with the

spectacular movements of light, color, material, and body.

Mallarm6 described Fuller's silky costume as if it were a

second skin, playing, as Felicia McCarren notes in her

translation, off the similarities in sound between

"soi"(herself) and "soie"(silk). The movement of the

material was inseparable from the movement of her body,

providing for Mallarm6's poet/spectator a pure presence that

illustrated in bodily form what poetry could only point


Loie Fuller's film Fire Dance represents a continuation

of Mallarm4's dream-like merging of materials. She was

involved in the organizational aspects of the film, and

58 Mallarme, "Crayonne au theatre," quoted in McCarren
(her translation), 225.

demanded the hand-tinting of individual frames to achieve the

illusion of colored lights on silk. The result is a brief

piece, not much longer than a minute, which shows Fuller in

her famous costume transformed from a butterfly into a

whirling dervish, and finally disappearing into a

kaleidoscope of colored material. Early hand-tinting does

not appear to be a part of the film's mise-en-scene; like the

frameless animation of Stan Brakhage's avant-garde piece, Dog

Star Man, tinting seems to add magically a separate layer.

The coloring appears deliberately faked and reminds the

viewer of the materiality of the film itself. In Fire Dance

Fuller approached the film as she approached her body, as a

form that she would fill with movement and color.

Art Nouveau and Symbolist sensibilities seem to impact

Fuller at an early age. Fuller began her dancing career in

vaudeville in the 1880s and started to perform "skirt"

dancing, where women manipulated their skirts in different

patterns, in 1890 after working with Kate Vaughan and the

Gaiety Players in London.59 In 1892 Fuller developed out of

skirt dancing her "Serpentine Dance" for a play in New York

in which she portrayed a young girl hypnotized by a Dr.Quack.

Fuller describes in her autobiography published in 1913 that

her movements were choreographed to express an hypnotic

59 Harris, 16. The skirt dance was apparently invented
for Vaughn by Jean d'Autan, the ballet master of the Gaiety


trance; they involved primarily her moving silky cloth around

her body in circular and "S"-shaped patterns as she danced

across the stage. For one performance, however, she placed

colored glass in front of the projector and directed it at

her costume.60 "Serpentine Dance" became an immediate

sensation, an example of modern femininity in living color

and was soon documented on film.

Fuller's instincts for a compelling performance

developed quickly. She was neither young nor particularly

graceful when she first started her elaborate skirt dancing,

but she soon realized that she did not need to be. Since

Fuller was not a trained dancer, she shifted from moving

around the stage to remaining more stationary and allowing

the material of her costume to move around her. She

increased the amount of material and simplified not only her

vertical movement, but also her stage and costume designs.

Fuller's patented skirt costume was made of three triangular

pieces of material, long in the back and short in the front.

Into the arms of the skirt, which began at her neck and went

down to the floor, were stitched two long "wands" of bamboo

or aluminum which would enable her to swirl her skirt with

60 Loie Fuller, Fifteen Years of a Dancer's Life, with
Some Account of Her Distinguished Friends (New York: Dance
Horizons, 1978); See also Felicia McCarren's excellent
analysis of the Fuller's relationship to hypnosis, hysteria,
and electricity in "The 'Symptomatic Act' Circa 1900:
Hysteria, Hypnosis, Electricity, Dance," Critical Inquiry
vol. 21: 4 (Summer 1995): 748-774.

greater control around her. She could throw her costume of

gossamer silk ten to twelve feet in the air above her head.

Besides performing her own choreography, Fuller also

patented complex stage designs. One design used a

combination of mirrors and lights to give the illusion of

many dancers on stage. She draped the stage in black velvet

and used electric lights and color filters to suggest form.

While the rest of the theater was dark, Fuller would switch

the lights according to the color and mood she wanted to

make. This kind of artistic experimentation with stage

lighting had not been done before. Not until Appia's

innovative designs with the Futurists in 1896 would any other

artist add significantly to innovation in electric lighting

and stage design.61 In 1899 Fuller patented in Germany an

addition to her "hall of mirrors" stage design. She included

a sheet of glass at the front of the stage and a mirror at

the back. According to the patent, "the effect is almost as

though the audience itself were in a cell that had walls

consisting of non-transparent mirrors."62 But perhaps her

most effective patented design was the one she used in her

"Fire Dance," which involved a false floor with glass holes

in it to reveal colored lights under the stage. The lights

would illuminate the dancer as she moved across the stage.

61 See Sally Sommer's comments in Visual Urge: Scenic

62 Harris, 19.

Fuller also included a "pedestal of light" in the center of

the stage. The pedestal was made of glass and topped with a

glass plaque so that the dancer "will appear to be

mysteriously suspended in air."63 Fuller would paint abstract

designs on the glass slides that illuminated her, and later

she painted phosphorous onto her costumes.

Fire Dance begins with a paper butterfly flapping its

wings and then dissolves to a shot of Loie Fuller in the same

position, moving her arms of silk in a way that imitates the

motion of the butterfly. The material of her dress undulates

while different tinted colors flash off and on. In Fuller's

stage performance of the "Fire Dance," the lighting would

start with what appeared to be a bluish flame at the bottom

of her dress. As the lights changed colors and moved higher,

Fuller would move to the rhythm of the music, most often

Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries. Her head and arms were

draped with veils, and at a certain point in the dance, only

her eyes would show through the fabric. The effect of her

costume swirling in flame-colored lighting gave some critics

the feeling of "something satanic and demonic, but of a

gentle satanism, of a poetic and suggestive demonality which

63 As reported by Sommer in Visual Urge: Scenic
Innovations. Sommer also suggests that Fuller's death from
cancer at a relatively early age may have been due to her
exposure to phosphorous.

sets one on the starry and luminous path of hashishien

dreams ."64

The dramatic lighting effect is not as obvious in the

film. Neither is the sophisticated stage set. Instead,

Fuller used editing to create the illusion of continuous

movement which begins with the transformation from butterfly

into woman. In the most dramatic scene of the film, Fuller

turns in a circle while her dress bobs around her like a wavy

hula skirt. The material from the arms of the dress starts

to move higher into the air until it covers her head and

renders her entire body invisible. All we see is a moving

swath of material suspended in the air--a visual metaphor for

consumption by fire. Editing extends the period of time

during which we see this "trick." Then suddenly the body

disappears. The overall effect of Fire Dance is more akin to

a Mlies magic show than to a physical culture act or a

vaudeville chorus. The emphasis in this film is on the

costume, its movement, and the editing that creates the

illusion of a swirling cloth that remains suspended for an

unnatural period of time. Other early dance films tend to

emphasize ethnic or sexual difference. Fuller's body in

motion tells the story of her difference. Fire Dance shrouds

its mystery in the materials of its making, which include

cloth as much as celluloid.

64 Harris, 22.

Two moments stand out in Fuller's biography as

representative of the way in which her contemporaries

appropriated her figure and associated it with their own

movements. The first is the 1900 Paris 1'Exposition

Universelle, remembered primarily for its foregrounding of

the Art Nouveau movement of which Loie Fuller is often

considered to be the "living embodiment."65 The 1900

Exposition had an entire theatre donated to Fuller's company.

The Loie Fuller Theatre had a complicated facade, a

sculptured curtain, which appeared to be rippling. On top of

the theatre was a life-sized sculpture of Fuller whose wave-

like costume dissolved into the facade. Inside, Fuller

performed her "Danses Lumineuses" to packed houses, and she

featured dancers from Japan, such as Sada Yacco. Art Nouveau

was particularly obsessed with all things feminine: long

flowing hair and robes; feminine objects that might appear in

the bedroom or boudoir. Art Nouveau generated as many

decorative lamps as it did paintings and chief among those

figures represented was Fuller. Jules Cheret made posters of

her. Raoul Larche made bronzes with electric lights out of

her figure. Whistler, William Nicholson, and Hippolyte Lucas

painted her. Rodin drew sketches of her and Pierre Roche

sculpted her.

65 Martin Battersby, Art Nouveau (Feltham: Hamlyn, 1969),

But it was not just Fuller's theatre at the exposition

that represented a female in flowing motion, all of Paris was

populated by images of women in motion. On the ceiling of

Siegfried Bing's L'Art Nouveau gallery was painted "a circle

of eight dancing figures of girls, their long flowing skirts

forming swirling arabesques of movement."66 Georges de Feure

designed posters of Loie Fuller which were all over the city.

According to Martin Battersby, De Feure "seems to have

regarded women as decorative objects in themselves, rarely

depicting them in contemporary costume but always dressed, if

dressed at all, in decoratively arranged draperies or in a

version of the costume of a romantic and unspecified period

of history."67 The female figures, objectified as they were

in statues, lamps, pins and chairs represented a kind of

dispersed national spirit. They were typically represented

as forms and transformations that reinforced heroic

victimization or martyrdom, such as in Fuller's "Fire Dance"

performed with its Wagnerian accompaniment. As Rastignac

says of Fuller, she is "restless, seductive, and unreal", a

"dragonfly. whose iridescent wings have exactly the

changing reflections of the robe of the American." The

simulated or real movement of Fuller's costume came to

represent a nation and a history in flux, on the verge of

66 Battersby, 51.

67 Battersby, 56.

change and a new century. In Rastignac's quote, which is so

representative of Art Nouveau ideology, Fuller is transformed

from seductive woman to insect and then into the national

signifier of the "changing" American. But Fuller just as

easily represented the "spirit" of France, Italy or Germany.

Besides being associated with national ideologies,

Fuller came to embody the idea for the "new theatre" (which

often fed back into nationalism). Mallarm4, as mentioned

earlier, described Fuller as an "enchantress" and "the

personification of his dream of the ideal theater--without

scenery, without words, where space and time had no

importance, where reality would not intrude between the idea

and the audience."68 Fuller herself claimed an overwhelming

belief in the power of her movement to express a new kind of

meaning both on stage and in film. "Since motion and not

language is truthful," Fuller asserted, "we have accordingly

perverted our powers of comprehension."69 Other Symbolists,

such as Yeats, Manet, and Whistler also found her image in

motion to personify "truth." Debora Silverman argues in Art

Nouveau in Fin-de-Siccle France that Fuller's "Serpentine

Dance" was "linked to the form and meaning of psychologie

nouvelle," a movement that "offered the public a new kind of

psychological theater, replacing Charcot's spectacle of

68 Harris, 29.

69 Fuller, 72.

female hysteria with a feminine aesthetic vision embodying

unconscious forces."70 Fuller's interest in form, color, and

internal psyches revealed, from a turn-of-the-century

perspective, "truths" about the modern body as it made its

way through the spaces of cities, factories, parks and was

documented by photography and film. Silverman's transition

from Charcot to Fuller exemplifies an Art Nouveau and,

consequently a modernist sensibility, the blurring of

scientific and aesthetic interests through the body of the


Perhaps the most unusual invocation of Fuller's figure

occurs in another "modern" art movement, the work of F.T.

Marinetti and the Futurists. Futurism, according to Andrew

Hewitt, is connected intimately to Art Nouveau and the

Symbolists.71 Even though Marinetti claimed to despise the

organic underpinnings of Art Nouveau in favor of the

inventions of man, he nevertheless needed the movement in

order to react against it. Fuller demonstrates how the two

movements actually shared a number of things in common. In

his "Manifesto of the Futurist Dance," Marinetti appears to

70 Debora L. Silverman, Art Nouveau in Fin-de-Siecle
France: Politics, Psychology, and Style (Berkeley: University
of California Press, 1989),299-300.

71 Andrew Hewitt, Fascist Modernism: Aesthetics,
Politics, and the Avant-Garde (Stanford: Stanford University
Press, 1993), 107. See also Perloff, The Futurist Moment:
Avant-Garde, Avant Guerre, and the Language of Rupture and
Michael Kirby, Futurist Performance.

have been attracted to Fuller because of her use of

electricity, but I suggest that he was also attracted to the

disappearance of Fuller's body inside cloth. Marinetti's

ideal theater, much like Mallarme's, was a stage without

bodies or a stage which showed only the "multiplied body of

the motor." The humanity, and by inference, the sexuality of

the body "disappeared" by becoming metal, machine, and

electricity. Fuller's use of mirrors multiplied her body,

her costume made that body disappear, and she used

electricity to illuminate herself, but one may wonder how

Fuller's butterfly imagery could possibly "achieve the

metallicity of the Futurist dance."

The Futurist appropriation of Fuller is an attempt by a

masculinist, anti-humanist, and eventually nationalist

aesthetic to reintegrate a feminine aesthetic (in more

general terms, the aesthetic of otherness--women, lower

classes, ethnic exotics, children). Art Nouveau, using quite

different aesthetics, also appropriated the woman's body in

motion to suggest an heroic modernism that was also

affiliated with growing European nationalism. Trying to

"tell" what the motions of a woman might mean at the turn-of-

the-century became a rallying cry for the scientifically and

aesthetically curious. Fuller's aesthetic, however, resists

being defined as either feminine or masculine. She was at

once an object of spectacle, a subject for the new technology

of film, a representative for numerous artistic and


nationalistic ideologies, and a woman in charge of her own

artistic taste and career. She was and is a heavily charged

image of the "Modern" woman at the turn of the century: a

lyrical body in motion, disappearing only to reappear in

another place.


The emotional projection of the dancer is an
extremely delicate matter, since the acting element
of the dance art is not its dominant feature. It
cannot be simply an abbreviated realism or it falls
[short] of being either dancing or acting; nor can
it be a wholly stylized concept without becoming
lifeless and cold. It must be complete, compressed,
refined, eloquent, but unobtrusive.1

In the nineteenth century actors were taught
balance and movement by dancing masters, so that a
good deal of silent film behavior--with its air of
grace and refinement, its flexibility and
sentimental lyricism--seems vaguely related to
classical ballet; thus Gish has an erect posture
and a quality of delicacy mixed with strength that
might have been learned in a dancing class. 2

Lillian Gish said once that she thought Dorothy

Scarborough's novel would make a perfect movie because "It

was pure motion."3 Victor Seastrom's The Wind (1928) is also

a perfect movie with which to develop a theory for reading

gestural style in silent film because of the lack of much

1 New York Times,30 September 1928, xi, 1.

2 James Naremore, Acting in the Cinema(Berkeley:
University of California Press, 1988), 50.

3 Lillian Gish interview for American Movie Classics,
preceding the airing of The Wind.

symbolic direction (there are very few intertitles) and the

specific nature of Gish's own performance style.

The film opens with Lillian Gish's character, Letty

Mason, travelling on a train through a deserted Western

landscape. Shots of Letty on the train are intercut with

shots of the train in motion through the landscape. These

shots of the landscape soon include indexical proof of the

wind that whips up the desert sand, and deposits it in

Letty's lap through the train window. Other shots within the

interior of the train include glance/glance reverses between

Letty and the male antagonist, Wirt Roddy. In a rather short

period of time, Gish manages to portray a range of emotions

that include nervousness, flirtatiousness, and fear with only

slight adjustments of her face and body.

The Wind's opening scene provides a metaphor that

connects technology (the train and the camera), the Western

frontier (the desert and the wind), and the woman's body

(that attempts to negotiate these uncomfortable crossings).

This important opening sequence establishes a relationship

between Letty and the types of movement that act on her--the

train that carries her, the wind that covers her, and the man

who tries to seduce her. Wirt Roddy, who later rapes Letty

and is then killed by her, says about the wind in this

opening scene: "Day in, day out--whistlin' and howlin'--

makes folks go crazy--especially women!" In this scene, one

of the few where Gish reacts directly to language, Letty

responds to Roddy's comments by making her eyes grow large

and glazed, her lips part slightly in a typically

melodramatic stare, shot in close-up. This look of fear

appears on her face frequently throughout the film as she

reacts to the forces that move her. Equally as expressive as

her face, however, is Gish's bodily movement, which responds

to the force of the wind with a frenetic dance-like quality

that sweeps Letty across the frame and back. Significantly,

the quality of Gish's movements begins to change as Letty

takes a more active role in her environment.

Because generalizing about film acting is such a

slippery task, I wish to remain as textually and historically

specific as possible. In other words, I am not assuming that

the gestural style which I identify in The Wind appears in

other Gish performances. However, it is my hope that other

critics will corroborate the existence of the specific

gestural phenomena that I find in The Wind in other texts of

the period.

How does bodily gesture signify in film? Trying to

theorize how gesture communicates meaning has long been a

difficult contradiction for philosophers and semioticians.

Since the early days of film, but especially by the 1920s,

directors, actors, and physical culturalists published books

on acting for the cinema. Recently, film theory has begun to

acknowledge the impact of these early writings and manuals on

changes in gestural styles in the cinema. However, most

theories of gesture and acting have tended to view film

acting in a rather linear fashion, projecting a fairly

straight development from nineteenth century theatrical

melodrama towards the more subtle or "realist" approach that

cinematic framing seems to demand.

The most notable recent contribution to this argument is

Roberta Pearson's Eloquent Gestures. In this work Pearson

considers how cinematic acting in Biograph films shifted

between the years 1908-1913 from the more "melodramatic"

theatrical style, which she names the "histrionic code," to a

"realist" style which she links to the realist movement in

American literature and drama, and which she calls the "code

of verisimilitude."4 My discussion necessarily appropriates

some of Pearson's useful vocabulary as a starting point for

my own investigation of Gish's gestural style in The Wind,

for, even though the time periods are distinctly different,

Pearson is one of the few writers who provides a structural

reading model for gesture that allows for historical

analysis. She also considers the importance of the physical

culture movement and Delsartean practices to the development

of a "lexicon" of the gestural style that she finds typical

of the histrionic code of acting. I will, however, add a

different historical dimension to Pearson's work by

4 Roberta E. Pearson, Eloquent Gestures: The
Transformation of Performance Style in the Griffith Biograph
Films (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992), 18-

considering the modern dance movement and the impact of

expressionism on acting styles in the late twenties. The

impact of modern dance and its institutional connections to

the training of film actors, as well as modern dance's

iconographic resemblance to gestural style in American film

has only recently been closely examined.5 I wish to add to

this debate by suggesting the existence of a gestural style

in the late twenties which is neither histrionic nor

verisimilar, but more closely linked to a kind of

expressionistic modern dance. I am not referring simply to

the expressive, dance-like gestures of a film such as The

Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919), although I believe there is a

connection, but to a style that is imbued with an

expressionist ideology grounded in Delsartean philosophy and

the modern dance which developed from it, a style which

attempted to define itself and was defined by outsiders as


I do not wish to refute Pearson's observations about the

Griffith films during these years; however, I do believe that

the totalizing nature of her historical narrative neglects

the possibility of certain exceptional moments in film

5 Jane Desmond, "Dancing Out the Difference: Cultural
Imperialism and Ruth St. Denis's 'Radha' of 1906," Signs:
Journal of Women in Culture and Society vol. 17:1 (1991): 28-
49; Gaylyn Studlar, "Douglas Fairbanks: Thief of the Ballet
Russes," Bodies of the Text: Dance as Theory, Literature as
Dance, Ellen W. Goellner and Jacqueline Shea Murphy, ed. (New
Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1995): 107-124.

acting. Acting careers, such as Gish's, that span many

decades and many directors, do not necessarily conform to

chronological demarcations of stylistic shifts. Actresses

during the teens and twenties often began their training

under a Delsartean or "histrionic" influence, and then were

affected by the drive towards a verisimilar style of acting

that Pearson identifies between 1908-1913. In Gish's case I

do not see Griffith's call for a less "theatrical" style of

cinematic acting during the years up to 1913 as precluding

the impact of other styles on Gish which emerged later, in

particular the drive towards a modern expressionistic mode

that developed during the twenties in both Germany and


The move towards American nationalism in all of the arts

following World War I provides a partial explanation for the

interest in an American gestural style as well as the

interest in national narratives. In the United States we

find in both modern dance and film an attraction to

narratives involving Native Americans and frontier history.

The Wind is a singular example of this nationalistic

interest, because, unlike most features, it includes a female

protagonist in the pioneer role. Even though Gish's character

is framed within a melodrama, rather than a classic Western

or frontier film genre, Letty Mason retains the heroic

qualities of the American pioneer. The use of the

melodramatic mode in this film offers an opportunity for an

expressive style that has been characterized both positively

and negatively as "feminine."

Gish's character, Letty, represents a type of pioneer

woman who was a familiar figure in American iconography at

the time--a figure who is at first a victim of the landscape,

but one who eventually conquers both land and fear.6 Pioneer

characters became a popular choice for silent film not only

because the pioneer lifestyle involved physical actions that

could be translated easily into non-verbal communication, but

also because of the growing sense of nationalism that the

pioneer spirit seemed to embody without words. In filmic

representation, the pioneer woman of the 1920s was almost

always associated with domestic tasks, such as cooking,

cleaning, and maintaining the emotional side of family life

in an environment that was as hostile or indifferent to

emotional display as the pioneer husband often was.7 These

6 In her examination of the iconography of the pioneer
prairie women, Carol Fairbanks in Prairie Women: Images in
American and Canadian Fiction (New Haven: Yale University
Press, 1986), 76, describes three distinct types: the
Prairie Angel, Prairie Victim, and Frontier Hero. The Angel
is typically a strong maternal type who takes provides for
herself and her family. The Prairie Victim Fairbanks sees as
the immigrant wife who reluctantly journeys west with her
husband leaving behind family, friends, and comfort. The
Frontier Hero may be represented as the independent
homesteader who makes it on her own against all odds.

7 In films specifically about pioneers, Larry Langman
notes that "despite the manipulations of movie makers to
place females in subordinate roles, women gained a mythical
status in the early silents." Filmmakers "never depicted the
wives and mothers as wanting to return to civilization." A
Guide to Silent Westerns, Bibliographies and Indexes in the

domestic actions often bear the weight of feminine emotional

expression in films which represent pioneer life.

Gish's gestures in The Wind, even when performing a

domestic chore such as sweeping, are imbued with a symbolic

code that moves beyond the iconic representation of a task.

Her movement style is more fluid than the histrionic tableau

of earlier melodrama and more expressive than the verisimilar

code that Pearson describes in the Biograph films. The

variations in Gish's bodily movement become themselves a kind

of metaphor for the frontier: a border that represents the

ambiguous distinction between movement and dance, between

control of and relinquishment to nature and men. Letty's

battle for subjectivity is exteriorized in her attempts to

maintain her balance in the face of the wind and Roddy's

attacks. Her body is symbolically buffeted on the edge of a

landscape that threatens to swallow up her self.

Expressionistic Gesture

The erasure of the influence of modern dance on film is

not surprising because it is a part of cultural history that

involves both issues of sexual difference and the

participation of large numbers of women in the 1920s. The

history of modern dance is grounded in the nineteenth century

Performing Arts, No. 13. (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press,
1992), xv. See also Cheryl J. Foote, "Changing Images of
Women in the Western Film," Journal of the West 22, 4 (Oct.
1983): 64-71; Andrew Jefchak, "Prostitutes and Schoolmarms:
An Essay of Women in Western Films," Heritage of the Great
Plains 16, 3 (Summer 1983): 19-26.

physical culture movement, which not only affected gestural

style in film, but also inaugerated a cultural movement that

affected women throughout the United States. The movement

began with the importation from France of the ideas of

Francois Delsarte in 1869 by Steele Mackaye. By the turn of

the century, Delsarte was a household word; by the 1920s

Delsartean practices were institutionalized in gymnasiums,

university departments, and private foundations. Most middle

class white "young ladies" knew something about Delsartean

expressive methods and could demonstrate some of the poses.8

Delsarte used relaxation techniques along with exercises

to encourage self-expression. He assigned spiritual

functions to bodily functions and divided the body into zones

of three with each third representing an emotional or

spiritual state. Every gesture or grouping of gestures

expressed a specific motivational emotion. Here, for

example, is a typical exercise which connects a gesture to an

emotion. "Complex Emotional Action in Walk: is taken from an

1894 book on Harmonic Gymnastics and Pantomimic Expression:

1st action: Rhythm one and slow, poise elastic.
Expression: Concentration or intensity of emotion
in walk.
2nd action: Rhythm one and slow, poise passive.
Expression: Cautious or secretive.

8 For early writers on Delsarte see Florence Fowle
Adams, Gesture and Pantomimic Action (New York: Edgar S.
Werne, 1897); Anna Morgan,An Hour With Delsarte (Boston: Lee
and Shepard, 1889); and especially Genevieve Stebbins,
Delsarte's System of Expression (New York: Dance Horizons,

3rd action: Rhythm one and slow, stride short.
Expression: Indolence.9

The symbolic nature of the Delsartean lexicon should be

obvious. Ballet, another formalized gestural practice, has a

lexicon, but emotional attitudes are not associated with a

pirouette in the same way that a Delsartean stride is

connected to "indolence." Pearson describes in Eloquent

Gestures the histrionic code that developed out of Delsarte

as emphasizing emotional expression through poses. Movement

was generally used as a means to an end, as a way of getting

to a pose or of transporting a still pose or expression.

Poses were held so the audience would have enough time to

"read" them. However, Pearson does not account for the type

of Delsartean exercises that include expressive movement

along with an attitude, such as the ones described above.

Emotional expression associated with movement and not just

with poses is an important distinction between the

expressionistic gesture that I define through Delsarte and

modern dance, and Pearson's histrionic gesture which

emphasizes the static side of Delsartean practices.

Delsarte primarily found his way to the American public

in the 1890s and 1900s through classes and salon performances

of attitudes. Attitudes were poses which a performer

demonstrated in tableau of various emotional states and

9 Marion Lowell, Harmonic Gymnastics and Pantomimic
Expression (Boston: 1894), 300.

mythic or heroic figures. They were easily performed and

readily identified and thus were not limited to the

professional dancer. The general public, particularly the

female public, practiced Delsarte throughout the first two

decades of this century.10 In Imaging American Women, Martha

Banta's makes an interesting comparison between the

simultaneous mass production of cameras and the mass

production of Delsartean gestural practices:

Just as the simplified system perfected by
the Eastman Company for loading photographic
film and adjusting the focus made it possible
for anyone to take snaps with the Kodak Brownie,
the codification of the Delsarte system encouraged
the notion that no one need forgo 'the attitudes'
just because one was an amateur, not a

Bodily performance became a "democratic" practice at the same

time that picture-taking did. The convergence of these two

practices is not necessarily coincidental: one provides a

spectacle for the other. Likewise, the representation of

women performing "physical culture" exercises was one of the

more popular subjects for films made during this same


10 Banta(b), 640.

11 Martha Banta, Imaging American Women: Idea and Ideals
in Cultural History(New York: Columbia University Press,
1987), 641.

12 See Kemp R Niver, Motion Pictures from the Library of
Congress Paper Print Collection: 1894-1912. ed. Bebe
Bergsten (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967).

From the salons the Delsartean "attitudes" travelled to

schools, churches, lodges, and civic groups. Women often

found this particular form of body language to be liberating,

although the context and content of most performances tended

not to be overwhelmingly political.13 Mythic heroines, women

in melodramatic distress, and figures who tend to be

suffering great pain made popular subject matter for the

Delsartean mill. As important as these forms of bodily

expression may have been for a female population that had

little access to more verbal forms of expression, they

primarily served to reinforce already existing iconic

stereotypes; however, there were a few significant

exceptions. For example, the feminist Margaret Wycherly

posed as "Woman" in 1915 in order to "associate her demands

for the vote with the Liberty pose."14 More often than not,

however, Delsartean attitudes acquired the reputation of

feminine salon entertainment or worse, as an excuse for early

film directors to get their subjects to strip down to their


Pearson argues that Delsarte training led to a

histrionic gestural style, which can be identified through

13 Banta, Imaging American Women, 654.

14 Banta, Imaging American Women, 655.

15 See video Trailblazers of Modern Dance, New York
Public Library, Dance Collection, Lincoln Center.

iconic resemblance in Griffith Biograph films; she further

clarifies this phenomenological approach by pointing out that

the connections between the "Biograph and Delsarte style lie

not in specific poses but in the overall principles of

histrionically coded acting shared by the two."16 Pearson

defines the principles of the histrionic and verisimilar

codes as follows:

1. Verisimilarly coded acting had no standard
repertoire of gestures, no limited lexicon. The
style defined itself by the very abandonment of the
conventional gestures of the histrionic code.
Actors no longer portrayed emotions and states of
mind by selecting from a pre-established repertoire
but by deciding what was appropriate for a
particular character in particular circumstances.
2. Whereas the histrionic code tended to
resemble digital communication, the verisimilar
tended to resemble analogical communication. The
histrionic code depended upon gestural isolation,
each gesture sufficiently distinct to be read by
the audience. Actors struck attitudes and took
poses, with intervening gestures omitted. When the
new-style actors used gesture (and they were
counseled to use it sparingly), they employed a
continuous flow of movement composed of little
details rather than broad sweeping motions.
3. Though opposition still operated in the
verisimilar code, the opposition were not as
extreme as in the histrionic code. The verisimilar
style no longer held gestures for dramatic effect
and the fully extended, upward, outward, or
downward movements of heighened emotion were

I quote Pearson at such length because of the specifics she

provides which separate the "attitudes" and "poses" of the

histrionic code from the more fluid style of the verisimilar

16 Pearson, 23-24.

17 Pearson, 37.

code. Pearson describes the "continuous flow of movement

composed of little details" as a sign of the verisimilar

code. She is describing a flow, rather than flowing movement

which I would describe as a sign of expressionistic gesture.

The "little details" actually seek to hide the flow of the

directed movement, whereas in expressionistic gesture, the

flow and its emotional significance is foregrounded.

The distinctions that Pearson makes between the two

styles of acting are valuable for the films she considers,

but I find that these two categories are inadequate to cover

certain gestural styles which are more fluid than histrionic

tableau and more symbolic than verisimilar. I believe

Pearson does not consider the extent to which certain

variations of Delsarte got transformed into a less rigid

system of movement, particularly in the theories of modern

dance. Susan Roberts's analysis can be seen as offering

support to my criticism of Pearson as she claims that

Delsarte's "technique emphasizes the musical nature of

gesture and movement," while forming the basis for "stylized

gesture in the early screen melodrama."18

James Naremore in Acting in the Cinema also associates

Delsarte with an expressive or stylized gestural performance

in his examination of the role that Delsarte played in

influencing film acting. He sees Delsarte as being as

18 Susan Roberts, "Melodramatic Performance Signs,"
Framework 32-33 (1986): 68-69.

important to the tradition of pantomime as Konstantin

Stanislavsky was to realist acting; importantly, however,

Naremore also sees a connection between the Delsartean

training which began at the turn of the century and the

reemergence of an expressionistic code in the 1920s. He

argues that "the expressive behavior of the entire cast in

The Phantom of the Opera (1925) owes to Delsarte's vision of

the theater."19 Lon Chaney's performance in this film, which

is often linked to the expressionist style of The Cabinet of

Dr. Caligari (1920), is, according to Naremore, the result of

"the supple, demonstrative, highly codified style of

pantomime that dominated the previous century and remained in

use to a greater or lesser degree throughout silent movies."20

Naremore continues to argue throughout his book, using

Lillian Gish's performance style as an example, that what at

first glance may seem to conform to a "realist" aesthetic

19 Naremore, 53.

20 Naremore, 53. To Naremore's observations about The
Phantom of the Opera, I would also emphasize, besides the
expressionistic nature of Lon Chaney's performance, the
importance of the opening scenes with the corps de ballet.
After the ballet dancers have finished their piece on stage
they continue to exhibit "dance-like" gestures back stage.
When the phantom is first sighted, the dancers run in unison,
while a few fling their arms over their heads in graceful
fright and others twirl. These movements appear as highly
choreographed as their stage performance. This film
continually blurs distinctions between the performing self
and the "natural" self, a blurring which I take to be a
quality of expressionistic gesture as well as a stereotype of
"feminized" performances.

Full Text
xml version 1.0 encoding UTF-8
REPORT xmlns http:www.fcla.edudlsmddaitss xmlns:xsi http:www.w3.org2001XMLSchema-instance xsi:schemaLocation http:www.fcla.edudlsmddaitssdaitssReport.xsd
INGEST IEID EVVC4K0XR_5IAY6G INGEST_TIME 2013-09-28T00:50:32Z PACKAGE AA00014278_00001