ORIENTALIST DREAMS - Following in the Footsteps of Ruth. St. Denis
Updated: Apr 29
👆 Let's have a quick recap, shall we: 👆
In September of my sophomore year of college, I (blessedly) got to switch from Ballet to Modern Dance. In October, belly dance literally saved my life. Just after New Year's, I lost my belly dance teacher and wouldn't get to replace her for two years. The discovery of my second teacher only lasted three months. This would eventually thrust me into my voracious-sponge act on the weekends when I got to attend an SCA event where there were more experienced belly dancers.
But until then, I scoured the world for any hint of my new obsession and filled in the blanks as best I could. My Modern Dance curriculum began with Isadora Duncan, then progressed to Loie Fuller, Ruth St. Denis, and Ted Shawn. (11)
Modern interpretations of dances by Isadora Duncan, Ruth St. Denis & Ted Shawn by UW’s Chamber Dance:
To the severe disappointment of the blossoming belly-nerd, the Duncan technique was the only one we got to spend any time embodying in the dance studio. Even so, all of these theories are embedded deeply into me.
In the video above, White Nautch in particular holds a familiarity to me. Even without a deep study of the St. Denis style, I still learned to take the movements I had been taught from other styles or cultures and use them like a paint palate to express music the way it made me feel, no matter if the origins of the movements and the music emanated from the same tradition or not. Now having viewed and studied the way Indian choreographers express their traditional music compared to this Western interpretation set to piano, I feel this inheritance deep within my bones and my blood in a way that I couldn't have done while watching her old black-and-white clips when I was twenty.
The Incense calls to something I craved deeply in my earliest college days--and continue to crave. When I left my parents' house, I began searching for the spiritual devotion that resonated in my heart and soul, first in Christian churches that were not Catholic, and later in other religions. I would eventually abandon any dogma, and instead weave my celebration of the Divine Mysteries that science can not yet explain into a personalized expression that is ever-evolving, ever fluctuating, and ever expanding with each exploration that comes my way.
Using dance as a sacred expression was a huge part of this. Just like I followed in the footsteps of Isadora Duncan in the broad range of artistic and emotional expressions that needed to pour forth from me, so Ruth St. Denis was right up my alley for the wondrous reverence and sacred celebration that has always gushed from my depths. But just like my predecessor, I was only exposed to these captivating art forms of other cultures in glimpses, scraps, and brief saturation, rather than decades of intensive study with a master from that culture.
All I could do was listen to the Muse and create from my heart and soul.
RUTH ST. DENIS
Like Loie Fuller, Ruth St. Denis also started as a skirt dancer shortly before the turn of the 20th Century. She studied gymnastics, voice, and emotional expression through gesture taught in the Delsarte System. (6, 11) The day she spied a poster for Egyptian Deities cigarettes changed everything. She left the company she was touring with and set out as a soloist, incorporating Orientalist philosophies, mysticism, and imagery into her choreographies. (5, 8, 11)
The same time period that would give rise to the flapper’s touting of traditional, conservative femininity also saw an attempt to find deeper meaning in dance beyond mere entertainment, and to tie these expressions to their ancient sacred roots. Like Isadora Duncan, St. Denis was a proponent of this practice. She danced it, spoke about it, and wrote about it, including poetry like this:
St. Denis was the first American dancer to appear in a full length dance production, her 1906 version of the Hindu goddess Radha. (8) She continued to perform well into the 1960s, with a repertoire of dances inspired by the indigenous cultures of the Americas, Japan, and the favored obsession of the era: the Exotic, Mysterious East. (2, 4, 7, 8)
Unfortunately, topics like this always require a detour into the realm of appropriation, exotification, erotification, so let's deviate over there for a sec, before we get back to all the dancey swooning. No matter the inspirational and visionary ideals that were intended, it's important to remember that these dances helped contribute to the creation of Orientalism, a misrepresentation that still fosters damaging stereotypes and prejudices that influence not just dance, but interpersonal dynamics to this day.
Although St. Denis' choreographies were not accurate to their cultural traditions or born of longterm study in these styles, they appealed to "Western" (from a Euro-centric vantage point) audiences of the day who hungered for what Orientalist Fever delivered.
For some, these appetites included:
the exotic, far-flung, and fascinating (to be explored and conquered)
the sumptuous (to be exploited and exported)
the sacredly mysterious and erotically uninhibited (displayed by "those primitive, ignorant barbarians who don't know any better and can therefore be excused so we civilized nations are free to ogle, fantasize, and artistically portray without cultural and religious guilt")
THIS JSTOR ARTICLE would have been highly useful to me when it was written in 2003. A better understanding of Orientalism, exoticism, and self-exoticism (whereby inaccurate Imperialist fantasies are catered to and propagated by the originating culture in question) would have been even more useful in 1993 when I added belly dancing to my ever-growing repertoire of dance styles.
Alas. In 1993, the only historical or cultural information I could acquire from the entire University of Minnesota and public library systems about this topic was the original 1989 version of Wendy Buonaventura’s Serpent of the Nile. (3) During the two weeks I was allowed to pore over those captivating images and read the sweeping texts, followed by the two weeks I renewed the book, and the final two weeks before I was forced to send it back, those Orientalist-ornamented images were forever hammered into my ravenously influenceable, twenty-year-old imagination.
If you hop onto Pinterest and search for “Orientalist photos late 19th century,” (4) the results will paint a clear picture of the glamor and mystique that captivated the heart of my Baby Belly-Modern-Jazzy Dancer who longed to learn a new way of expressing her feminine self, and who ached to make soulful art, not merely titillate and entertain--precisely what many of our Modern Dance pioneer great-great-grandmothers yearned to do.
We dancers are obviously not alone in these fascinations. They have been burning and yearning in the hearts and minds of countless others for centuries--millennia, even. Orientalism, after all, became a widespread obsession toward the end of the 1800s, but its preoccupations and stereotypes are older than Cleopatra.
But even if I had been able to get ahold of belly dance footage from the Middle East in 1993, who knows what I would have been taught about those cultures in any video I was able to find back then? Would I have found the legit history and ancient roots that I craved? I was a History Major, after all. Or would I have been given partial information? Even downright myths?
This definitely happened in my later studies.
We can speculate all day about what might have been, had I had access to the information I sought from the start. The reality is: my life was forever changed when I found Orientalist fantasy, the American feminist and Goddess-worship cultures, and the Society for Creative Anachronism in a region where Arab or Turkish personas were considered dastardly outcasts. "Those heathens? Those uncouth desert dogs? Belly dancing? We'll have none of that here!" This was the motto of a community a little further north of mine, and it echoed the more politely worded objections I received from classical Western dance, and the nasty vulgarities uttered by other people I encountered.
The discouragements didn't matter, because I needed these things more than I was afraid of what anybody thought of them.
Although I wasn't forced into corsets and barred from voting, the echoes of earlier breath-stifling, restrictive, damning societal pressures trickle down to this day. They were even more pungent back when I discovered belly dance and the Modern pioneers. I held similar types of yearnings, similar aches and dreams, similar secretive imaginings, shames, angers and sorrows deep in my heart.
Once free of my parents' house and my tiny hometown, they needed to be liberated.
This manifested in my three-pronged war of resistance: I abandoned Christianity for world-spirituality, I traded in my Nice Girl card for a pursuit of martial arts, and I chose belly dance over ballet. In all these acts, I stood up with a fist raised, shouting, "No, I will not! No, you will not do that to me! You can't make me!"
Anytime I start asking myself why I back-burnered all my other passions in pursuit of belly dance, Goddessy goodness, the exotic imagery I found in Serpent of the Nile, and the Orientalist fantasy dances of the old epic movies of my youth, that quote by Randa Jarrar in her infamous article, "Why I Can't Stand White Belly Dancers" sticks out in my mind:
"Why does a white woman’s sisterhood, her self-reclamation, her celebration, have to happen on Arab women’s backs?"
Say what you want about this quote, and about this whole article. (I had a great deal to say about it. Better writers and dancers than I am had even more to say, which is why I let the links to their posts stand, rather than trying to reiterate them.) But there is a point in here to be considered.
As the counter-articles pointed out, color, nationality, and race are not necessarily the best ways to delineate this social wound. It exists any place where one stressed person climbs on the backs of even more oppressed people, squashing them farther down in order to get out of the hole.
Aching, yearning, drowning men in too-tight ties trying to keep the world they've inherited balanced on their backs while feeding their families and trying to make things better for their children and society as a whole in the ways they've been taught.
Aching, suffocated, muzzled, shamed women in pearls and corsets under the thumbs of those men, loving those men or shackled to them, trying to make things better for their children and society as a whole in the ways they've been taught.
Aching, exhausted, frazzled men and women in simpler renditions of those ties and corsets, working-working-working while trying to feed their families and make things better for their children and society.
Aching, shivering, hungry men and women in shabbier renditions wishing they could find work and doing the same.
Aching, brokenhearted men and women denigrated for their skin color or nationality, serving with a bow and a smile in too-tight ties, shabby skirts, or nothing at all as they try to make things better for their children and survive a world that tells them they're less than human.
Aching, self-muzzled people being crushed under masks as they hide the most intimate and sacred pieces of their hearts and spirits--who they love, who they are, how they most naturally express themselves under their pearls, corsets, shabby suits, and shackles as they try to make things better for their children and hide in plain sight in a world that tells them they're less than than human.
Aching, shackled, whipped, mutilated people trying to figure out how to stay alive and free their children in a world that tells them they are living, breathing things to be bred, used, and sold.
Aching, lonely people hidden in back rooms, locked up, booted out into the cold, exterminated, and exposed on mountainsides for their injuries, illnesses, differences, and stereotypes, trying to survive and find home in a world that tells them they don't deserve to breed, be loved, eat, or breathe.
These are the reasons people need dance. Music. Art. Stories. Fantasy. The exotic. The erotic. The curious and novel. We need to dream and explore and invent and move and breathe and jump and touch and gaze and desire. We flourish when we are inspired by and devoted to something greater than ourselves. We wither under fear, terror, shame, "I shouldn't," and "don't you dare or else."
In survival mode, we rise to our greatest, most powerful, and most inspirational.
Forced to LIVE in traumatized survival mode, we often devolve into our worst, animal-selves. We just happen to have these big frontal lobes that we're convinced set us sooooo far above our fellow mammals, reptiles, avians, and insects.
Hahahahahahaha...that's funny. I hope this pandemic has opened some eyes about that. Because in the beginning we were "all in this together." There were miraculous feats of person after person being their best selves. But after 2.5 months of it, we were at each other's throats worse than ever. There's something about that two-month marker that breaks down the human endurance for trauma. Maybe it's American endurance for trauma. I'm not sure. I'd have to go through one somewhere else. But I've watched it over and over: after my big car wreck, with my friends who have lost spouses or children, and again with this pandemic.
What does all that have to do with a Modern dancer from the dawn of the 1900s and other women in pearls, spangles, and silks, portraying fantastical characters on the stage (Radha, Cleopatra, Salome) or calling themselves something that they're not? (Mata Hari was billed as a Javanese Princess when she was actually Dutch.)
There is a lot of rabid frothing that demonizes people like Ruth St. Denis and other contributors to the Orientalist movements. There has been other demonizing of people like me who are from an Imperialist culture with the "right" skin tone who play with toys that "belong" to a culture that's been put under the thumb.
I agree, the oppressive, exploitative, dehumanizing practices absolutely need to be abolished.
AND the best way to accomplish this is not cut-and-dried. It's certainly not black-and-white...white vs. non-white...East vs. West.
These topics exploded again last summer as the initial "pull together" response of the pandemic gave way to prolonged trauma endurance. That particular social eruption happened to coincide with exactly what I was researching and writing about: the seedy underbelly of prejudice and exploitation that infiltrates the answers to some of the most commonly asked questions that have ever been posed to me. They've even been asked as I sashayed between tables in the middle of a show: "How did you get started dancing? What is your style? Where does it come from? Where did you learn it?" These questions are intimately knotted up and connected to my other FAQs: "How do you live with TBI and smile? How do you live with PTSD and love?"
This is how: I write. I train. I create. I destroy. I meditate. I explore. I cry. I worship nature. I rage. And I dance.
So as I examine these things in my history and my own world--it's really the only place where I have a shred of control over it--I look back on my first dance Muses and these art forms that saved my life. I delve into the reasons and motivations behind the choices I've made. My artistic career has been a thirty-year journey of delving ever more deeply and asking myself, over and over, what needs to change and what do I choose to keep?
I could apologize for choosing as a model and guide a white dancer who took artistic inspiration from the oppressed societies in her world while earning money for it without having the pay the prices that someone of those cultures would have. I could shout that I made a mistake by following in the footsteps of Ruth St. Denis and picking up her torches.
But to do that, I'd have to look at her through the lenses of today, rather than the lenses of the world she was born into. Instead, I would rather acknowledge the crappy things in my inherited past, and then focus on the reasons why I found her so inspiring, and still do.
A recreation of her peacock dance by Livia Vanaver:
Time and again in Modern class, I wished we would delve into the physical incarnation of her concepts. Now it makes sense to me why the crossroads between Modern Dance and the dances of the East were so glossed over and quickly swept under the carpet during my college days. In a place that was so conservative, restricted, stifled and prejudiced, this type of movement and costuming was just not something that a proper, respectable "true" dancer did.
Additionally, my teacher’s primary area of study was Ballet, followed by a style of Modern that was far more Humphrey/Graham than St. Denis/Fuller.
As such, any influence from the earliest pioneers except Isadora Duncan had to be gleaned more…academically.
My tiny-dancer’s mind is filled with those myriad sepia-toned photos, smoke-den paintings, and mist-hued colorization of the dancers of the “Exotic East”. This was the best I could find to fan the flames of my soul’s yearning: to express who I was on the inside through costumes, makeup, and movement.
The dancing I was being taught through the university could only begin to scratch the surface. Upon first experiencing the sensation of shimmies, undulations, and swaying infinities drawn with my hips--that was it! I knew instinctually: that’s how my body was born to move. My hip construction doesn’t open properly for balletic leg extensions and leaps. Instead, my hips were designed to move in vastly different ways.
And the expression of my personality? I wanted to wear the things Ruth and Mata Hari wore. I wanted to swirl swaths of cloth in the lights of stage and sun like Loie and Isadora. All those luscious fabrics, the rich ornamentation of headdresses, fringe- and pearl-encrusted bras, girdles, necklaces, arm bands, anklets…flowing silk and whirling satin…textiles and earthy fabrics…
Dammit, I didn’t wanna cram my feet into toe shoes and prance in a tutu, feeling like a klutzy-clod ox on a tightrope because I hadn’t been training my legs to fly up over my head since I was three like all the hot-shot starlets around me.
I didn’t wanna dance in high heels, sex-kitten tux jackets, or top-hats with the jazz and tap crowd. (Okay, I didn't only wanna wear those.)
And I really, really didn’t wanna express the depths of my own lamentations by making abstract shapes inside one of those cough-syrup purple sacks of stretchy jersey our dance department had acquired. The explorations of setting these kinds of emotions into motion--the feelings you just didn't show in the world of show-stopper entertainment or the pretty-pretty dances--this stuck with me. The Graham "contract & release" and the Humphrey "fall & recovery" theories gave new vocabulary to what I felt and yearned to say. I loved it. But this was not how I wanted to dress onstage:
After our days in the purple sacks, I did want to express my pain, joy, desire, delight, revulsion, and all my teeth-gnashing, growling, roaring, rending rebelliousness--no, I needed to express it. But I needed to do so…
I didn’t quite know what that meant. I only knew that those two-and-a-half moments onstage, drawing infinities with my hips in a faux-Polynesian sarong, and my first mind-blowing eight weeks of belly dance had given me the unequivocal YES. A thousand-and-one times YES. Those ways of moving and dressing felt right. They hummed in my body and they set my spirit aflame. They ranked among the ways that I wanted to enact that all-too-human drive--to make the world a better place for myself, the people around me, and future generations. I wanted to make art that really meant something.
So whenever Ruth St. Denis flashed across the lecture hall projection screen or that 13” Panasonic VHS/TV fat-screen we clumped in front of on the marley-covered studio floor, I was mesmerized.
That’s it! That’s what I wanna do!
And right there before me was a legit Modern Dance pioneer showing me that I could. Hah! So there!
A photo shoot I did with Kirk Lanier in a costume patchworked from a belly dance skirt, Indian jewelry, a medieval crocheted snood, a pearl costume inspired by Mira Nair's film Kama Sutra, Tale of Love, and a Russian headpiece. The second costume is another dance fantasy mashup of no singular origin. It's just pretty and it moves well.
So exactly WHY do we crave these the exotic and erotic? The sacred and the sensual? The luscious and ornate? I can't answer that for you, or you, or you over there, and I can't answer it for her and her back then unless I can point toward the answers in a particular dancer's own words. (5)
But I can explore the answers to why I needed it. I've been asking myself that question since I was twenty years old, when people chastised me for diving into such a dastardly dance form, demanding that very answer.
The origins of these cravings are almost as old as I am, and they have everything to do with history and myth, religion and prejudice, wives and whores and rebels and queens. They revolve around that even older and most intrinsic question:
WHO ARE YOU?
SOME MORE LINKS
3) The original 1989 version of Wendy Buonaventura’s Serpent of the Nile (This visually stunning book has since been revised for the second time in 2010, but I haven’t read it to know if it more appropriately reflects and respects the cultures in question.)
4) A search for “Orientalist photos late 19th century”
--An article from the website Photorientalist - A website dedicated to exhibiting 19th and 20th century photographs of the Middle East and North Africa: Orientalism in Nineteenth-Century Photography
5) The 5 part video series: Ruth St. Denis Project
8) Cultural Imperialism and Ruth St. Denis' Radha - another article that would have been useful information to have acquired in my early dance explorations, especially since it had been published only two years prior to my descent into the den of the belly dancer.
9) The Roots of Yoga in Modern/Concert Dance and Contemporary "Superspiritual" Practices - The ways in which yoga and yogis were extracted yet exalted from the origins and inheritances of Modern Dance. A similar tale to what happened with many root forms of belly dance, as well as a slice of history from the styles of dance to which I was most often exposed.
10) Mary Ripper Baker - my amazing first physical therapist
11) THE WIKIS TO SCRATCH SURFACES: Modern Dance
CHOOSE YOUR OWN ADVENTURE
--UP NEXT: SHE-ROES & VILLAINS - The Characters That Made Me
--OR: if you want to know more about the world I grew up in--rural Northern Minnesota of the 1970s and 80s--I've written a bunch about it HERE.