The Moving Body:
A Brief History

The Cultural Origins
of Burlesque
and Modern Dance
by J. Carlsson

Thomas Jefferson thought America should remain a rural nation of small farmers. This, he believed, would be the best way to maintain an egalitarian society. With the huge acceleration in industrialization from the 1840s to the 1860s swelling the cities with immigrants and farm youngsters to fill labor demands, Jefferson's dream died forever. America became two societies: one, a "money"-centered society of rich capitalists along with the working classes who supported them and emulated their "crass" materialistic values, and a second society of middle-class reformers, shocked at the tide of social problems brought on by industrialization and determined to do something about them.

Members of the middle class volunteered their time and financial support to hundreds of benevolence societies: instituting public education, making working conditions and tenement living safer, providing food, shelter and training for the poor, orphans, handicapped, insane, juvenile delinquents, and to generally "elevate" the working class out of their "evil" condition. The Progressive movement wanted to build a society centered on the American people's physical and spiritual "health."

The Progressives were equally appalled at the conspicuous luxury and frivolous self-indulgence of the very rich, as setting a bad example and a morally incorrect set of life expectations for the working class. By criticizing the rich and elevating the poor, the proponents of Progressivism thought they could destroy "the corrupting inequities of wealth" and create a new egalitarian "urban middle class" society embedded in such character-building traits as honesty, orderliness, nonviolence, social concern, and self-restraint regarding one's instinctual drives.

Decent as the Progressive middle class saw itself (and generally was), it had severe blind spots regarding how culture develops. Art tended to emulate European classical and popular models; at the same, time the reformers (largely white, Protestant, new world-born Americans) wished to stamp out "alien and immoral" influences from Europe (Romanticism, Catholicism, and later, Anarchism, Socialism, and Avant Garde-ism). Censorship was morally justified if something could be convincingly pointed to as dangerous or obscene. Art's cultural (and Progressive social) function was to be "morally uplifting," to redeem or renew basic American values.

Fortunately for American culture, Progressivism has always had a radical wing of Bohemians, wanting to renew America and make it culturally and spiritually "healthy," not through emulating or rejecting outside influences, but by a very native experimentation. Boston was the proud, self-proclaimed center of American literary culture during these early industrial years, but the genuinely significant developments in American culture did not come from the established major figures of the day (Oliver Wendell Holmes, Longfellow, or the Lowells), but from the Bohemian enclave of "Transcendentalists" north of Boston in Cambridge (Hawthorne, Emerson, Thoreau, etc., along with their New Yorker friends, Melville and Walt Whitman). The Transcendentalists' literary explorations gave a genuinely new (and American) voice to human experience.

The Progressives had an even more severe blind spot in their attitude toward working class culture, one day dismissing it as gaudy and frivolous, the next condemning it as depraved and sordid. With the upsurge in industrialization during the 1840s, the mass entertainment industry erupted to provide the hordes of new urban laborers with diversions. "Tin Pan Alley" developed as a song-writing mill to fill an insatiable appetite for fresh bits of rowdy, energetic music. Periodicals such as the "National Police Gazette" brought sports news and lurid crime stories with engraved illustrations. "Professional" writers in writing factories pumped out violent, emotionally twisted dime-novels which anticipated formula pulp-literature of the 20th century. (In a regime of pure capitalism, the only form of censorship is the box office: Are people willing to pay their hard-earned money for it?)

The Progressives saw this so-called "literature," "art," and "music" as vulgar, materialistic, and sensationalistic at best. At worst it was judged morally degrading in its unapologetic exploitation of sex and violence to gain audience interest. Social workers were most appalled by live entertainment venues which they bore witness to as dens of sin, vice, and crime. The most notorious of these venues were the dance hall and the concert saloon.

"As two social workers commented, 'coming from the monotony of work, and from the oftentimes dreary home surroundings, the dance hall, with its lights, gay music, refreshments, and attractive surroundings, seems everything that is bright and beautiful.' The music and the dances in many of these halls owed their origins to black entertainers, whose styles migrated north from the brothels and dives of New Orleans and Memphis where the musicians had originally found employment. Listening to the ragtime beats in one black establishment, a patron commented that 'it was music that demanded a physical response. Willie Smith, a jazz pianist in pre-World War I Harlem, described the dances favored by the young. 'Some of these,' he said, 'were pretty wild. They called them "hug me close," "the shiver," "hump-back rag,"… "the lover's walk." …Songs with the 'most blatant and vulgar' lyrics, according to Jane Addams, added to the air of sexual energy that permeated the environment."
— John D'Emilio &
Estelle B. Freedman,
Intimate Matters:
A History of Sexuality
in America,

This atmosphere of expectancy and excitement was also part of the allure of the concert saloon. Not only did (mostly) men come here to smoke, drink and gamble, but also to see the floor shows. The featured event might be a male clog-dancing contest (the most famous of these was btween the Irish champion and a "free-Black" named Juba, a marvel of movement and the first great tap dancer). A wrestling match or a bare-knuckle prize fight was also a popular feature (these performers were the first professional athletes). While better paid than at the factory, this idea of professional gladiators performing for spectators was so appalling to the middle class that it made a virtual fetish out of its ethic of "amateur athletics": athletics done soley for spiritual self-reward). Between features, waitresses stopped waiting tables long enough to perform an inexpertly dainty floor show (where the flash of an ankle was still an inadvertent event). The atmosphere permitted working-class men to ogle women in a way that propriety wouldn't allow in normal social settings within their ethnic communities.

This general air of permissiveness, flaunting the male and female body, not to mention the prize-fight's brutality or the chorus dancers' carelessness about their modesty, was profoundly upsetting to the genteel sensibilities of the middle class. Indeed, the first morality-police were reformers who saw it as their mission to ameliorate the social ills caused by industrialization (large pools of unemployment, poverty, child labor, dangerous working conditions, sweatshop hours and wages), and also to stamp out the public vices that a money-based economy carries with it (political graft, collusive business dealings, corrupt unions, organized crime). The next logical extension of the reformer's concern for the health of both individual and community was to attempt to regulate people's (at first, largely men's) private vices (drinking, gambling and visiting prostitutes). This misplaced sense of mission and concern for people's well-being is what gave organized crime a secure place in American society.

As much as they disturbed the middle class, the dance hall where couples were liberated from chaperonage, and the concern saloon which mixed socializing with spectator events, were invigorating and cathartic places for the working class. Here their natural human instincts, so pent up during factory hours, could find a degree of frank, unaffected release. The life of the streets, factories and taverns had a different pulse to it than the middle-class drawing rooms and artists' salons — a more modern pulse, linked intrinsically with emerging technologies and the new mass media which hungered to express itself. For all their righteous preaching, the Progressives could not change the fact that the working class had produced their own "lifestyle" in America, a lifestyle they adamantly preferred. It was savory and ferocious, and irreducibly linked to the future.

By the turn of the century, most major U.S. cities had small Bohemian enclaves of artists, thinkers, and social radicals. The most infamous was Greewich Village in New York, where Alfred Stiegliz' galleries displayed disconcerting avant-garde painting and Photo-Secession photography experiments. Mabel Dodge conducted a heady, vigorous salon that rivaled Getrude Stein's soirées in Paris; Eugene O'Neill wrote daring (often-censored) plays about adultery and interracial marriage, Havelock Ellis' voluminous study of sexuality and Margaret Sanger's dissemination of birth control information pioneered the modern attitude toward sex, and Edna St. Vincent Millay became as notorious for her unapologetic "free love" lifestyle as she was famous for her poetry.

Sex, in the Village, was looked upon as a healthy and spiritually necessary ingredient in the personal development of one's character, and in a tolerant, creative, open-ended attitude toward life. The body was considered sacred and the act of love, spiritual. And while these serious-minded, often righteously utopian experiments were considered shocking and indecent to their own generation, America's Bohemians consistently operated as the opening cultural wedge that would provide the bedrock foundation for a later middle-class generation's core values.

In the late nineteenth century, Dalcroze's "eurythmic" notions of calisthenic exercise and the more thorough-going Delsartean system of "expressive movement" for the body (through careful attention to diet, loose-fitting clothing, and healthy regimens of outdoor and indoor exercise) particularly caught on amongst middle-class women. The whalebone corset was thrown out, rhythmic exercise bcame a key ingredient in "progressive education," and the health food movement (initiated by later cracker and cereal manufacturers Graham and Kellogg, amongst others) was fully under way.

In this atmosphere, modern dance was born. Wearing a loose-fitting "ancient Greet" tunic, Isadora Duncan (a native of Bohemian San Francisco) performed her free-form "natural" dances in New York and Europe. Lacking studied gestures, spirit could merge with corporeality in the moving body. Ruth St. Denis provided a sinuous personal spirituality to her (relatively accurate) recreations of traditional Hindu, Native-American, or Japanese dances. Students flocked to her in 1915 when she opened a teaching studio in Los Angeles (which later moved to New York), novices looking to express through dance a connection to exotic spiritual sources which American Puritanism did not inspire. But by the mid-1920s, students Martha Graham and Doris Humphrey separately broke free from St. Denis to return to American sources. For both, the body became a deeply emotional vessel for expressing in rhythmic, earthy terms the character of American experience. In their heated aesthetic rivalries in Bohemian New York, the history of modern dance as a high art form properly began.

Modern dance is largely an American, and a female, invention, but it grew out of the evolving character of the American middle class, led by its Bohemian cultural vanguard. Unconventional painting, writing, dance, theater and music would find middle-class acceptance (and financial support) only as its high-minded, spiritual aims were recognized. Working-class audiences and entertainers, by contrast, never saw a need to take "art" so seriously.

After the turn of the century, a whole range of spectator sports "vulgarly" displayed men's bodies in contests of skill and coordination (and the worship of sports stars continued, unaffected by middle-class prejudices against treating the body as a money-making machine — and indeed won a large share of middle-class youths over to this "superficial" adulation). Ragtime and jazz developed in the sin districts of Mississippi River towns until the beat caught on and the musicians migrated into higher class (better paying) establishments in Chicago and Harlem. The radio and record industry would disseminate and popularize new sounds even more (and with radio, stretch the meaning of "spectator sports" even further). The "western" and the "detective novel" threw off their heavy-handed melodramtic formula and became the streamlined action story: a "modernness" that would translate well into cinema. Violence became subsumed in the action; sensuality in the insistent flow of sensation. Vaudeville's family-oriented variety shows, which changed weekly in each town, anticipated television.

If jazz was the most radically innovative of the machine age media and best attuned to its anguished rhythms, burlesque (I would like to believe) was the most subversive. In America's machine culture, members of the working class treated their bodies (and those of others) like machines. Their energies and expectations from life tended to anticipate the mental wiring, the exquisite enticements, of the new technologies (in a way that most Bohemian art, in its adherence to old media, never really could). With the technological ability to record art, music, and dance, the "aliveness" of a live performance became crucial to its meaning for an audience. What made it click? Burlesque poses this dilemma, and one can only speculate about these now remote-in-time performances.

Burlesque's acknowledged precursors were largely accidents of fate (or of box office moxie). What specific social anxieties (and curiosities) made female cross-dressing minstrel shows and "extravaganzas" a mid-century theatrical attraction? What so grabbed blood-weary Civil War audiences in witnessing a seemingly-naked Adah Isaacs Menken (as Byron's Mazeppa), strapped, with her back downward, upon a stallion galloping across a theatrical stage? Or what national recuperative need turned a mediocre ballet troupe (dressed in body-hugging, figure-displaying tights) into the hit of a tedious musical (The Black Crook) when they were stranded in America a year after the War?

Burlesque proper began a few years later when Lydia Thompson made her British Blondes an American institution. Burlesque in Europe was a farce that satirized high art conventions and important personages, and Thompson in tights strutted like a courtier and swore like a sailor. Her working-class audiences connected with this goreous dynamo perhaps because this product of working-class England very acutely mocked the sterile, hypocritical righteousness underlying middle-class pretensions and pronouncements about how to conduct a good life. She invited their stares and their laughter, and eased their anxiety about being the robust, raunchy characters that they were. Pauline Markham too, with her fine physical lines and her sweet but salty tongue, must have nudged American males into acknowledging their own appetites while recognizing that women have them too.

As the medium of burlesque became Americanized, the theatrical bits became shorter, dividing into comedy skits (done mostly by male comics) and parades of the chorus girls in tights. Except for singers, the women performers were reduced to bodies-on-display by the 1890s, having pretty much lost their voices and half their power. When Little Egypt's bellydance called the "hootchie-cootchie" became the rage of the Chicago World's Fair (saving the fair from its initial slow box office), burlesque re-invigorated itself with the cootch dance by again foregrounding women as active, self-creating creatures, not merely as mute objects of the male gaze.

By the 1920s, however, the bump-and-grind, and the audience involvement in hoot-and-response, of cootching, had become tawdry and conventionalized. The chorus girls paraded bare-bosomed (and often more scantily clad than strippers would ever be by the end of a routine), marching passively before the barely inspired lechery of the male gaze. When striptease arrived at the end of the 1920s, it saved burlesque (for another three decades) from following vaudeville into immediate extinction: burlesque now had something radio and movies couldn't provide. The music would start. She came out dressed to the hilt, a high-class dame. She would prance around a little, letting the music guide her, maybe exchange a bit of conversation with the audience, remove a glove and then leave the stage. The music comes on, and the game begins again. This time she moves more aggressively. A skirt suddenly comes off. She stomps and glares at the audience, turns tail and walks off again. Two calls later you see a flash of breast, a hint of naked rump before the stage suddenly, rudely goes black, and you find yourself stomping and hollering along with your nothing-like-polite applause. You are physically caught up and somewhere beyond yourself.

Striptease is perhaps the quintessential live entertainment. The instinctual interest is in the stripping, but the fascination in the tease. This is the subtle part, the tricky immediacy of the live situation, walking a very fine line with audience interest and dramatic distancing. This is probably the hardest test there is in any genre of live performance. When it works, it works exquisitely.

Working fast or taking it slow, talking with the audience or just blaring the music at them, mixing in cootch or creating moves, the "tease" was a high-wire game, a performance form originated and developed (like Modern Dance) almost entirely by women. Ann Corio, Gypsy Rose Less, Margie Hart, and Georgia Sothern were exhibitionists to the core. But what made them the queens not just of burlesque but of working-class American culture (in the decade before the two American cultures began to blur into one after World War II) was how exquisitely they could pull an onlooker's stretched hormones through a sieve. The intensely fine line they walked, they could walk better than anyone.end

The Moving Body: A Brief History is reprinted from the September/October 1992 issue of Reflex with the author's permission.


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