Modern Dance and the Perception of Body (excerpt)


By Sarah Hixon


Duncan and the Female Body

In other art forms and intellectual circles, a revival of interest in Ancient Greece was beginning (Kirstein 198).  Philosophical ideas about achieving perfect balance between body, mind, and spirit were investigated anew.  Emphasis was placed on what was considered “natural,” leading to reforms in dress and physical education.  In The Art of Beauty from 1878, Mrs. H. R. Haweis wrote that “The Greeks were proud of their beautiful bodies, as we are of a beautiful face, and a bare leg was no more to them than a bare arm is to us…But what was harmless in the early Greeks would be impossible in nations who have lost to a great extent the simple instinct of natural beauty, whilst they have grown abnormally self-conscious and reflective” (Daly, Done 170).  Dance was heralded in the United States as a new form of wholesome exercise, especially for women (Anderson 166).  New ideas about the body and movement began to emerge during this period, specifically the ideas of François Delsarte.  He was interested in enhancing performance through gesture and bearing.  His theories taught that every human gesture had some kind of emotional significance (Cohen 118).  Movement, he believed, was the outward manifestation of inner feelings (Anderson 168).

These new philosophical and practical ideas about the body were a major influence on one of the foremost pioneers of Modern dance, Isadora Duncan.  Duncan had little classical training in ballet, but had certainly taken classes in Delsarte from local teachers in her native California (Jowitt 78-80).  As she tried to enter the world of the theater, she was disappointed with the skirt dancing and chorus girls, chosen for their physical attributes rather than their ability to dance (Daly, Done 157).  The sexually charged spectacle of the theater did not align with Duncan’s new ideas about the Natural body and ideal beauty.  She held the natural female body, bare of flesh-colored tights or restrictive undergarments, as the epitome of natural beauty and movement.  She therefore costumed herself in light robes that often resembled a toga, and danced with bare legs and feet.  This “bareness” of the body was reflected in her choice of staging, the proscenium emptied of all adornment but a simple flowing piece of fabric.  Duncan wished to de-fetishize women’s sexuality, a commodity so strictly regulated at the time by traditional roles of wifehood and motherhood.  Duncan wanted her sexuality to simply be an integral part of her dancing body on stage, and therefore an integral part of the human condition, without eroticizing or objectifying it for the desires or consumption of a male audience (Daly, Done 170).  For these reasons she was adamantly opposed to ballet, stating “The ballet condemns itself by enforcing the deformation of the beautiful woman’s body!  No historical, no choreographic reasons can prevail against that!” (Cohen 125).


Though Duncan saw her aesthetic art as being intrinsically feminine, she often explored the role of gender in her work.  She presented a distinctly female form on stage, but in such works as Pan and Echo of 1903, or Orpheus around 1905-1908, she enacted both the male and female character roles.  In her later works, she used the idea of the Greek Chorus, representing a “universal being” or humanity that was not specifically male or female (Daly, Done 170).  This visual representation of humanity through the female figure harkened back to her use of classical art for inspiration.  She linked the physical with the metaphysical on stage through her emotive female form.  In her 1903 speech about the “Dance of the Future,” she argued that dance “…will have to become again a high religious art as it was with the Greeks.  For art which is not religious is not art, is mere merchandise” (Daly, Done 32).


Duncan also exemplified the shift of women’s roles in society, leaving the home to forge her own success in the public eye and living a controversial new lifestyle (Dils 233).  Duncan was influenced by the radical new ideas of the women’s emancipation movement and Feminism.  Women began voicing their right for equality with men in all spheres, including the sexual and the economic (Daly, Done 168).  Though Duncan was not officially aligned with any of these movements, she advocated women’s freedom to individuality and autonomy.  She did not believe that freedom could come from the state or from political action, but through the expression of the individual (Daly, Done 163).  Ducan’s dancing body was exciting to proponents of these new ideas because it represented the potential defeat of archaic social order and it transgressed traditional cultural ideas (Daly, Done 174).  Through Duncan, much of the groundwork had been laid for future generations of strong independent female dancers appearing on stage, and creating and directing off stage.


The Male Body

The prejudice against male dancers from the 19th century had serious repercussions on future generations.  Victorian ideas about gender behavior and construction led to the removal of the male body as a fitting subject for artistic expression.  The “spectacle of the male body” became problematic as middle-class morality covered up the male body in the plain “black, bourgeois suit” (Burt, Moving 46).  The male nude was no longer a subject in art, and the male body was no longer a subject for the dance stage.  “Gender representations in cultural forms, including theatre dance, do not merely reflect changing social definitions of femininity and masculinity but are actively involved in the processes through which gender is constructed (Burt, Moving 45-46).  This gender construction meant that there was a particular way for men to interact, and it did not include seeing an expressive male body on stage.  This “homophobia” generated so long ago is still affecting how the male body is seen on the dance stage and in society today.


Around the time of Duncan, the male American dancer also made efforts to reclaim dance as a masculine art.  Ted Shawn was one of the first instrumental male performers/choreographers to emphasize the masculine body on stage.  Like Duncan and his partner Ruth St. Denis, Shawn began his endeavor by looking to classical images of men from books, artwork, or other cultures (Siegel 306).  He was interested primarily in the heroic male body, and his works presented men laboring, fighting, and conquering.  He used the upper body in strong angular lines, showing virility and strength; a pointed contrast to the soft rounded port de bras of the European male ballet dancer.  In the 1930s Shawn began a group of all male dancers who toured and performed for seven years throughout the United States, unheard of up to that point in history (Siegel 307).


Choreographically, Shawn’s work was simple and lacked the crafting that later choreographers would bring to the stage.  José Limón, a dancer who came out of the Humphrey/Weidman Company, was one of the first major male choreographers to be interested in the masculine body.  Limón believed that intelligent ideas, humor, pathos, and a sensitive aesthetic could be portrayed in a distinctly masculine body.  His urge to create work that emphasized masculine identity was also a way to preserve the male image during the “general surge of feminism…[that had become] the dominant creative factor in the dance” (Reynolds 329).  He had more choreographic ability than Shawn, and had learned more about craft from his years with Doris Humphrey.  His chosen movement was more abstract than Shawn’s, but still explored the strength of a male dancer.  The use of gesture was powerful, with emphasis still on the upper body (Siegel 309).  His vocabulary was effortful and weighted, and largely defined by his own physique and physical presence on stage.


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Works Cited


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Banes, Sally.  Terpsichore in Sneakers: Post-modern Dance.  Middletown: Wesleyan U. P., 1977.


Brown, Jean Morrison, Naomi Mindlin, and Charles H. Woodford, eds.  The Vision of Modern Dance: In the Words of Its Creators.  Hightown: Princeton, 1979.


Burt, Ramsay.  “The trouble with the male dancer is…” Moving History, Dancing Cultures.  Ann Dils & Ann Cooper Albright.  Middletown: Wesleyan U. P., 2001.  Pg 44-55


Cohen, Selma Jeanne. Dance as a Theatre Art; Source Readings in Dance History from 1581 to the Present. Princeton: Princeton, 1992 (second edition).


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Dale, Monica.  “Mistaken Identities: François Delsarte.”  MusiKinesis Online.  April 2006.  <>


Daly, Ann.  Critical Gestures: Writings on Dance and Culture.  Middletown: Wesleyan U. P., 2002.


—–.  Done Into Dance: Isadora Duncan in America.  Middletown: Wesleyan U. P., 1995.


DeFrantz, Thomas.  “Simmering Passivity: The Black Male Body in Concert Dance.”  Moving Words: Re-writing Dance.  ed., Gay Morris.  London: Routledge, 1996.  Pg 107-120


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—-, ed.  Rethinking the Sylph: New Perspectives on the Romantic Ballet.  Hanover: Wesleyan U. P., 1997.


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Jowitt, Deborah. Time and the Dancing Image. New York: Morrow, 1988.


Kirstein, Lincoln.  Four Centuries of Ballet: Fifty Masterworks.  New York: Dover, 1984.


Les Ballets Trockcadero.  Dir. Luc Riolon.  Perf. Les Ballet Trockadero de Monte Carlo.  TDK Recording Media, 2002.


Meglin, Joellen A.  “Feminism or Fetishism: La Révolt des femmes and Women’s Liberation in France in the 1830s.”  Rethinking the Sylph: New Perspectives on the Romantic Ballet. ed. Lynn Garafola.  Hanover: Wesleyan U. P., 1997.  Pg 69-91


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Reynolds, Nancy and Malcolm McCormick.  No Fixed Points: Dance in the Twentieth Century.  London: Yale U. P., 2003.


Siegel, Marcia B.  The Shapes of Change: Images of American Dance.  Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979.