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Not quite ballet...

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Looking for Belle Epoque images of dance lately, in the last 24 hours two images caught my attention:


From this website: http://www.thursdaysantiques.com/categories/prints.html

And the "fancy dancer" photograph here (look to bottom of page) http://www.royalacademy.org.uk/exhibitions/degas/#photos=gallery_%252Fgallery.html%253FLgalleryHandleId%253D487

Fairly ignorant on such things, I wondered what was Belle Epoque in the first image as it seemed to depict Empire era dance... Is it the artist's style? Or a misnomer? Or is it inspired by a Belle Epoque "fancy dancer" like the one in the photograph? I thought the way the dancer balanced her weight on her feet looked more like images from an earlier era rhan depictions of women by Belle Epoque artists. I've never quite understood what a "fancy dancer" was...

Looks like a marvelous exhibit coming up at the Royal Academy.

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Oooh, big fun!

The "Belle Epoque" image seems to be of a parlor entertainment, someone performing for a small audience in a social setting. The dancer could be a part of the ensemble, dancing for her peers in the same way that someone of the era would sing or play an instrument, or she may be a professional. Her dress is more sheer than the other women present, which sometimes implied a professional dancer, but that might be the style -- some women of the period wore muslin so thin as to almost be transparent, and then dampened their dress so that it would cling to their body, but that was considered fairly risque.

The "fancy dancer" is an image by the photographer Eadweard Muybridge, and comes from an extensive collection of his called Animal Locomotion -- his use of multiple cameras to take closely spaced images was a precursor of motion pictures. Several years ago Dover Books reprinted his work in a very affordable set, and they are fascinating. He shot humans in all kinds of activities, as well as race horses and farm animals. If I remember correctly, the woman in the image is a precursor to Isadora Duncan.

wikipedia on muybridge

smithsonian on muybridge

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Very interesting sites... And, Wow, I had no idea Muybridge's personal life was such a soap opera! Wish they had chosen to animate the "fancy dancer". I didn't realize Isadora had precursors besides Loie Fuller, but then she seems to have been a master of self promotion... Wonder how she would have used Youtube....though I suspect she would blended in with current lifestyles and been less notable.

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The term "fancy dance" is an archaism used to describe dancing characterized by requiring some special aspect unusual to simply having a person moving rhythmically to music. It's from the same era as describing a solo dance (usually, but not always by a man) as a "hornpipe". "Fancy dancing" involves specialized costuming, props, environment (as a stage set), and even years-long technical training. I recall a dancer from the "station wagon days" of the Joffrey recounting a story of being broken down on the road and encountering a rural Good Samaritan who helped get the car back into running condition. In the course of fixing the car, he asked her what she did for a living. She said that she was a dancer. "Plain dancin', er fancy dancin'?" asked the fellow. She said that she had to think about that for a minute, but owned that her dancing was pretty fancy.

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One of Ninette de Valois's earliest teachers was a Mrs. Wordsworth. In her memoirs 'Come Dance with Me' de Valois said that "Mrs Wordworth's class answered to a system that was known as Fancy Dancing; a quaint compromise of rudimentary steps such as the chassé and glissade combined with other steps fancy beyond belief." She apparently "had a puritanical loathing of dancing as a profession" and de Valois claimed she "wasted years as a Wordsworth show pupil displaying a pair of painfully untheatrical feet".

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An intriguing topic.

There is also Native American "Fancy Dancing" involving full costumes and sometimes hoops, etc.

This Native American version of "fancy dancing" certainly seems to predominate on YouTube.

It's interesting that the Native American fancy dancers of the 20s and 30s (up to today) took the name of a form of entertainment that was a fixture of vaudeville and musical reviews, and was a big part of the festivities of upper-class society during the pre World War One era. In that period, fancy dancing even showed up in schools.

Some examples from the archives of the NY Times.

In 1908 the NYC Board of Superintendents proscribed such performances in the city's public schools "if taken also to include fancy, extravagant costuming." Folk dancing could be edifying, if kept simple. But fancy dancing was perceived as having "purely an entertainment character." (NY Times, 6/21/1908)

Another Times article (6/5/1912) describes a performance of amateur "vaudeville performances" held on the roof of the Astor Hotel for the Committee for the Prevention of Infant Mortality. On the program, examples of "fancy dancing by society girls," Including were a number entitled "Legnide from Denalorose," something called "Tanagra," and some "interesting dancing" by a male-female quartet called the Gaiety Dancers. "Tanagra" could possibly have been suggested by the ancient Greek terracotta figurines. For some reason, I find myself visualising of long, floating fabric, with lots of gliding, arm-waving, and posing. Loie Fuller, as Amy suggests, does spring to mind.

Two years later, those fortunate enough to receive an invitation to Mrs. Stuyvesant Fish's place on East 78th might enjoy a program of monologues and "exhibitions of fancy dancing." (Monologues seem to be a standard feature of these evenings.) Baroness Von Rottenthal danced the Barcarole from Tales of Hoffmann, also performing a "Love Waltz" by Moussorgsky. Mr. and Mrs. Murray Anderson, wearing court dress from the time of Henri III, danced a Pavane. After changing into 18th-century garments, they danced a Minuet. (NYT, 2/14/1914)

Alas, none of these performances are preserved on YouTube. I have the feeling that one can find glimpses of this kind of fancy dancing in some of the early Hollywood musicals that show up on Turner Classic Movies from time to time. Many of those take place in theater or high society milieux, and vaudeville and review performers often had a chance to present bits of their acts for preservation on celluloid.

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Oh thank you for going out and bringing back these quotes -- the roots of American modern dance are in these oddball performances. We look back today and think that they are simple and slight, but in their time some of these dances were bold and transgressive.

The Tanagra references are not so much to Loie Fuller, who was mostly working in Europe by that time, but to Ruth St Denis, who began her performance life as a girl dancing in dime museum shows, but had an epiphanal experience while on tour with the David Belasco company -- she saw an ad for Egyptian Deity cigarettes with an illustration of Isis kneeling in front of a temple, and conceived of a vaudeville number where she portrayed Isis. This kind of "orientalism" became a foundation of her work, and influenced many other performers, including young amateurs like the woman described in this review. And yes, the dances were full of "gliding, arm-waving, and posing!"

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