The Poetry of Skirts

March 17, 2012

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In 1889 and again in 1891, the London Gaiety Girls descended on Philadelphia. They were the girls of the chorus line from London’s Gaiety Theatre – polite, genteel, well-bred young ladies. They introduced Philadelphians to a novelty dance originated by one of their members, Miss Kate Vaughn; see photo right. Kate had costumed herself in a long, black, accordion-pleated skirt which she swirled about as she danced around the stage, creating with it images of voluminous  silken butterflies, flowers and serpentine forms. Audiences were enthralled. “Skirt dancing” didn’t require years of ballet training and impeccable technique, it only needed a few dozen yards of silk, a lithe figure and some feminine gracefulness.

Within a few years Miss Vaughn had spawned hundreds of disciples, variations and imitations in England and America, including Letty Lind, Mable Clark, Chrissie Sheridan, Chicago’s Annabelle Moore and Philadelphia’s own Bessie Clayton.

In 1892, Lottie Collins, left, appearing at the Walnut Street Theatre, brought the house down by adding a little bit of the naughtiness of the  can-can, as she did her high-kicking rendition of the skirt dance to the immensely popular tune “Ta-Ra-Ra-Boom-De-Ay!” Depending on the venue, the skirt dance could supply enough artistry to satisfy the ladies and enough glimpses of leg to satisfy the men in the audience.

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From about 1890 to 1910, skirt dancing was synonymous with dancing that was modern and artistic.  It captured both the spirit of the healthy, athletic, “New Woman,” and the aesthetics of the blossoming Art Nouveau movement, which celebrated the curving, sinuous lines found in nature; see William H. Bradley’s 1894 cover for the Chapbook entitled “The Skirt Dance,” below, right.

Soon dance masters in Philadelphia were teaching skirt dancing to every female in their classes between the ages of 5 and 45. Since it required more charm and gracefulness than technique, skirt dancing often showed up at recitals and soirées at the  homes of the social set all around the city. (The New York Times reported that a craze for skirt dancing even appeared among the pupils of a private boys’ school – Columbia University – until it was stopped by the officials of the college on the ground that “the exhibitions are not manly. There is something distinctly effeminate in the spectacle of a boy in girl’s clothing, talking and acting like a girl.”)

Here, the debutante who once entertained guests with tearful ballads warbled at the piano now displayed her terpsichorean skills in a parlor version of the skirt dance. The Philadelphia Inquirer had this to say:

“The muscles of the skirt dancer are so symmetrically developed that there is no touch of ungainliness about the physical form. The unattractive lumps that are painfully visible in the legs of the pirouetting French danseuse are replaced by the long slim lines that bend as gracefully as a reed.

The plump woman must bow to her slim sister’s superiority in this profession, as every teacher of the art will confess . . . her preferable weight is 96 pounds.”

This was, perhaps, the beginning of the 20th century American obsession with the slim, athletic woman and the death knell for the Victorian idealization of the hourglass figure.

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In 1891, Illinois born actress Loie Fuller appeared in a bit part in a vaudeville melodrama called “Quack, M.D.” In it, she portrayed a character who performed a skirt dance while under hypnosis. The play was a mediocre flop, but Loie was a hit. She soon found herself drawn more to dance than to acting. She began experimenting with costume design for her “Serpentine Dance,” using hundreds of yards of gauzy silk for her skirts and manipulating them with long bamboo wands, left.  She also created innovative lighting designs, bathing herself with electric lights, brightly  colored with gels and luminescent salts. Art Nouveau glassmakers were known to consult her about colors and dyes. Her stage craft innovations and effects, using as many as eight lighting technicians, multiple mirrors and projections, were so creative that they were featured in an 1895 issue of Scientific American; see illustration, right.  An article in Cosmopolitan Magazine entitled “The Poetry of Skirts” remarked:

The blackness of the night, the brilliancy of noon, the fluttering of the leaves in the forest, the undulation of the grass on the prairie, the yellow waves of a field of wheat, the tossing surf of the rocky coast, the gleam and glister of the frost on the deadened turf, the sweep of the blowing, blustering, billowing snow – all can be portrayed.”

Fuller found her most responsive audiences in Paris, who called her “La Loïe” and she became the first American expatriate dancer. She returned to the U.S. on  tour many times, however, performing to adoring crowds in Philadelphia’s Walnut Theatre and Chestnut Street Opera House.

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Fuller did something entirely new; she created a dance form that involved her entire body; she was entirely transformed into an abstract, evocative swirl of color and light. The effect was “unique, ethereal and delicious.” Before Ruth St. Denis and Isidora Duncan, whom she introduced to Parisian audiences, she abandoned corsets, danced in bare feet and trained a company of women dancers in her style. She lived openly as a lesbian in Paris for decades, continuing as a pioneer in both dance and technology. She proved that other types of dance than classical ballet could have an intense emotional impact and be perceived as serious art.  Her integration of music, movement, lighting and costume influenced theatre for years after her death.  Fuller had opened the door to 20th century modern dance.

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The beautifully hand colored silent film “Danse Serpentine,” below, was made in 1896 at the Lumière Brothers studio in France. The identity of the dancer on the stage is unknown, but she comes closer to capturing the style of Fuller than some of the dancers filmed by the American Edison studio around the same time.

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● “Fifteen Years of a Dancer’s Life,” Loie Fuller, 1913

● “The Poetry of Skirts,” Cosmopolitan, April, 1900

● “The Skirt Dance,” Scientific American, June, 1896

● “Skirt Dancing and Its Charms,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, March 3, 1895

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