SALOME 2 - Villains & Sidechicks Part 4
Updated: Jun 7
SHE-ROS, VILLAINS & SIDECHICKS - The Characters That Made Me
SALOME 1 - Strippers & Satins & Silks, Oh My!
...When I first started telling people that I was a belly dancer, the second most common question anyone asked was, "Whooaah, isn't that like stripping?" (1) It was topped only by, "Ooooh, do you do the Dance of the Seven Veils?" (2)
By the time I started studying veil dance, "that Salome nonsense" was disparaged as a bastardization and hijacking of ancient feminine power by the lightning-and-brimstone One God patriarchal religious oppressors. (3)
So who was Salome? Did she really dance her veils off? If so, how many were there? And that big question, just how DID that head get onto the platter?
Depends on who you're reading or watching. 😈🤓😈
The girl was unnamed in the Biblical accounts. There she was only known as the stepdaughter of Herod Antipas, the tetrarch of Galilee who had married his half-brother's ex-wife, Herodias. The dance performed by this stepdaughter on Herod's birthday was also unnamed and un-described. In the original language, the words used to denote the entertainment and the girl would liken her more to an ancient-world Shirley Temple than a salacious seductress. Whatever the dance was, it pleased the tetrarch so greatly that he offered her anything she wished, up to half his kingdom. Apparently this was a common custom of the day, not an automatic assumption that Herod was overcome with lust. (2, 4)
And what did this darling dancing daughter ask for, at her mother's urging? The head of John the Baptist, the man who had condemned Herodias' second marriage as adulterous. Said head was delivered on a platter.
We have Josephus' 1st Century Jewish Antiquities to thank for the girl's name. (4) For many centuries afterwards, the subject of Salome and the decapitated head was a consistent theme of art and paintings, providing a figure of Christian warning, but she is not yet portrayed in the nude. That happens in the late 1800s, when a dramatic transformation takes place amidst Orientalist Fever and the rise of the striptease. (7-9, 16)
Oscar Wilde not only used Salome's name in the title of his 1890s play, he also named her performance as the "Dance of the Seven Veils." The show was banned from London due to a restriction against portraying Biblical characters onstage, so they opened it in Paris instead. However, the script doesn't specify that the veils were shed in a one-by-one striptease. (2, 4, 16)
Richard Strauss' 1902 operatic version of the play combined with the era's striptease frenzy and sexually repressed obsession with the Erotic, Exotic East pushed us further down that road. These versions also hammer home the notion that, rather than being a rambunctious child who asked Step-Daddy for whatever Mommy said she should ask for, Salome was written as mature enough to have become sexually obsessed with John the Baptist and demand the head herself. The play even has her kiss his dead lips. (4, 16)
Thus, we now have the transformation of this clueless dancing daughter into the quintessential femme fatale.
Across the pond, the American scene was drunk on slavering over "that new hoochie-choochie dance" which was rapidly becoming a striptease on the vaudeville stages, and then Hollywood jumped on the Salome bandwagon. (1, 5-7, 16)
Ruth St. Denis considered taking on the role, but she wanted to stay true to the Biblical tale, rather than all the titillating hype. Alas, we never got to see her interpretation, for she returned home to found her Denishawn school instead. There was apparently one rehearsal video made when she returned to the theme later. In her version, she was handed each of the seven veils and played with them in their unique fashion before dropping them. (3)
Instead, the role launched the debut of Maud Allan who became known as "The Salome Dancer". She was a pianist, an illustrator, an author, and a costume designer, as well as a dancer contemporary to all our familiar ground-breaking she-roes: Ruth St. Denis, Isadora Duncan, Loie Fuller, and Mata Hari. As was the fashion of the day, Allan also took inspiration from Orientalist themes and classical mythology, and she danced briefly with Fuller's company in France. Her Vision of Salome gave an unprecedented 250 show run in England where she was considered superior to St. Denis. It's said that she was enraged by being compared to Duncan, and stole her thunder while performing down the street to enormous crowds at the Palace Theater. (3, 9)
BOOM. "Salomania" sprang up in her wake, inspiring a host of productions on the theme, including a version by the company Mata Hari coveted until her untimely death, the Ballet Russes. (3, 4, 7, 8, 16)
Maud Allan and the Great War's Super-Spy Scapegoat traded interwoven fates. Mata Hari also coveted the role of Salome, but she was turned down for the Strauss opera and had to settle for a private party at the home of an elderly Italian prince. Not long after she was condemned and executed as a German spy, Maud Allan was called out in the Vigilante, a journal by Noel Pemberton Billing, as a lesbian (which she was) and another German spy using her profession as a stage performer for espionage (which she wasn't). His article was called "The Cult of the Clitoris" and it warned the public against such an evil little button, and of the villainy of such women that wielded it, barely shielded by strands of dangling beads and a femme fatale smile.
Although Allan wasn't condemned as a spy, she lost the court case against Billings and was even accused of many of the acts portrayed in the Wilde play, including necrophilia. (9, 10)
This scandal put Salome productions on shaky footing, but it couldn't squash the fever for the Eye-Batting Head Lopper or for the Exotic East.
“Like St. Denis, the presentation of Allen as a hyper-sexualized Eastern goddess reinforced orientalist attitudes regarding the perceived sexual deviance of non-white women. This image of the sexually deviant or threatening Oriental woman serves as a representation of the Eastern world as a whole: sensual, erotic, and therefore worthy of domination by the Western male.”
~Krista Kee, Dance, the Divine, and the Devious Other. (7)
On Hollywood's silent screen, Salome's image twisted further. The earliest known film--now classified as lost--starred "The Vamp," Theda Bara in 1918. She was also called "Serpent of the Nile," and her professional image was built around the strange and macabre. Her myth said that she was "descended from a sheik and a French woman, born in the shadow of the pyramids and weaned on serpents' blood," and that a lover had committed suicide in her dressing room. She wore Middle Eastern dress and pretended not to speak English. She had a Nubian footman who drove her around in a white limousine. The snake theme was everywhere. Even her Ohio family changed their Jewish surname of Goodman to Bara in promotion of her image. (3, 11)
Alas, we only have photographs of the Theda Bara version.
Here is the dance scene from the 1923 silent film starring Alla Nazimova. Salome's veils are down to two sleeve-veils, and she actually puts the big one ON for her finale, rather than stripping it off:
In the 1961 King of Kings, Salome has no veils, and she's become Cleopatra's evil-brat belly dancing mini-me. In this rendition, she is the one who slavers after the Baptist's head, rather than asking mommy what she should request:
Salome’s Last Dance: this 1988 Ken Russell number with the Oscar Wilde play-within-the-film leaves us no doubt why, throughout the earliest decade of my career, belly dancing was still so continuously mistaken for erotic dance and striptease. The movie also goes over the top in reminding the audience how "debauched, wanton, gluttonous, and unhinged" those dastardly Eastern courts must have been. These rank among the many assumptions that we newbie belly dancers of the 90s battled alongside the navel jewel, the quarter-rolling, and our Salome lineage.
Here in Oscar Wilde fashion, Salome is back to her ravenous Baptist-obsession. She also appears much younger than many of the other actresses who portrayed her, which makes the character even more creepy. (Shudder...well done.) When she does finally get around to dancing...well...spoiler alert: veils are stripped off. So are other things. There's some butt-slapping. There's genital nudity--and it's not the kind you'd expect to see from the seven-layer peel-down of the classic Salome, hence why my blog host won't let me embed the video.
Apparently, the starring actress, Imogen Millais-Scott, was struck nearly blind by a virus just weeks before the filming. But the director wouldn't have anyone but her, and it's rumored that they may have used a body double for the dance scene because she was too weak to perform it. Unfortunately, not only was it Salome's last dance, but it was also the last dance of Imogen Millais-Scott. (12)
In 1953, with Salome played by Rita Hayworth, we're back to the traditional seven veils and a flesh-hued costume beneath, but this time it's her mother who is the dastardly doer of the deed.
Spoiler alert 2: Being that the royal Salome is one of the only blondes in a movie populated by Judeans and Romans (you remember that in Ancient Rome, a significant number of blondes were either slaves or prostitutes, right?), it is indicated to our subconscious that this rare rendition of our notorious vamp is virtuous, redeemable, destined to become a Christian and win the love of the gallant hero, a Roman officer newly converted to the growing faith. Remember: Blonde = Light; Light = Good.
After her fervent love interest tells her and the imprisoned John about meeting Jesus, Salome is convinced. She decides to dance for Herod with the intention of asking him for the Baptist's release, not his head--over which she had formerly been salivating, but only to save her mother from being condemned as an adulteress, not from sexually rejected spite. Meanwhile, Herodias sneakily offers Salome to the lust-drunk Herod if he will execute the Baptist. To the horror of our she-ro, the head is delivered on a platter after her grand dance finale.
The movie ends with a demure Salome embraced by her Roman beloved at Jesus' sermon. Here she is overt amongst the crowd in a pure white gown and veil. The era's distinctive Messiah music swells as the sunbeams gleam behind Christ on the Mount.
As a child, I always loved these old classics about the dawn of Christianity. They struck a deep chord within me--far more so than the Old Testament stories. I watched Ten Commandments every year, but it was never my favorite. Rather, I found the Christian rallying cries for freedom and rebellion, married to a message of peace, love, healing, and kindness even to one's enemies highly inspirational. The message of Jesus provided a counterweight against the terrifying, oppressive, judgmental deity I had been taught to fear, along with so many of the equally terrifying, oppressive, judgmental practices that sprang up in Christ's name.
I could commiserate with Herodias' desperation, for I had grown up with that same instinctual fear of "you deserve to be stoned" if I opened my legs, whether willingly or not. It didn't matter that our laws and customs had relaxed. When you read that shit as a child from a text that is called "the infallible Law of God" it sticks. This is why I had such an affinity for the kinder, forgiving, "cast no stones unless you're without sin" practices of Jesus.
It was also why I was so confused during my youngest years, because I didn't understand the different historical legacies of the Old and New Testaments. To me it was just The Bible. It was all What We Were Supposed To Do and Not Do. But those things often conflicted.
Was I supposed to turn the other cheek and love my enemies, or was I supposed to take an eye for an eye? If the latter, there would have been a lot of blindings in my young history...but I'd never truly wanted to do that.
Only in college after having my mind blown by Ishmael was I able to re-read the Bible and put Jesus Christ on my long list of favorite rebel heroes who fought against corruption and oppressive fists. (You remember my thing about corrupt, oppressive fists, right?) Yet the idea was to do this without then becoming the oppressive fist.
This would be even more important when I finally began learning how to wield weapons and engage in the arts of self-defense.
Once I filed these tales on the shelf of religious and moral mythology rather than The Word, I was able to appreciate them in a way I never could while being forced to "because I should." I, like the Hayworth Salome, was convinced. I wanted to wield my arts passionately for the things I believed in, like this revolutionary way of thinking that had swept through the Roman world.
Yet even in the New Testament, there were still many things that didn't work for me. For example, I had no interest in exchanging my skimpy, encrusted costumes and dancing veils for the washed-clean Mary robes. I eventually put all the various types of Christianity I sampled into the big soup cauldron, along with other religions and philosophies that would eventually become my spirituality. I also rejected much of what the religion later became--just different shades of what it had originally stood against. Instead, I always hearkened back to the original messages, and tied them to other similar messages wherever I could find them.
And I found them in all sorts of places that my own culture had long hailed as "strange, dangerous, salacious, barbaric, primitive."
Of particular interest to me was the theory that, during his missing years, Jesus had studied Indian spirituality, which I was also just beginning to discover. (13) As was true of most of my search topics from religion to morals to belly dance origins to the meaning of life, I found no concrete Answers.
Only more questions and ever-deepening curiosity.
This was where a lot of my cherry-picking came from when I reached adulthood and got to decide for myself how I wanted to spend my spiritual time and energy. This blending and mixing also became my norm in dance, first as necessity, later as preference, and I always found myself wanting to mix my arts. Sacred dance. Meditative martial arts. Storytelling sword dance. The reverent revealing of my body, baring of my soul, healing of my heart, and enlightening of my mind by shedding veil after veil.
I longed to become La Boheme incarnate: Beauty, Truth, Freedom & Love, all wrapped up in spangles, sparkles, silks and satins. (14, 17)
I shall leave you now with breadcrumbs to a completely different vision of Salome from another human commentary book that found me at a time when I was asking a great number of those questions we talked about earlier. The book is Tom Robbin's Skinny Legs and All. In this tall, quirky tale, every time Salome drops one of her veils, a human mystery is revealed. (15)
As such, the act of peeling off my veils became a much broader metaphor in my dancing than mere hiding and revealing of my body. Sometimes veils are just that, especially when it's only me and you in that one room after I've drawn the blinds closed. Other times, when I'm removing a veil while I dance, I'm telling you something extremely important.
Of course, if you know me even just a little bit, you should know by now that when those blinds close, I'm about to speak to you about some of the most important things of all.
Shhh...I recommend your headphones and a very...very...very quiet closet. Some things can only be spoken about in whispers, until that day comes when they are no longer secrets.
CHOOSE YOUR OWN ADVENTURE
--UP NEXT: CLEOPATRA--Nope. As I started writing about Salome and flinging veils around, well...shenanigans happened. I may have a tendency to go off on tangents. Occasionally. Ahem.
--INSTEAD: YOUR RESTAURANT IS STALKING YOU - So Are Your Costumes, whereby I drop a whole bunch of veils to reveal what life is really like as a belly dancer in the restaurant scene.
--OR if you want a sneak-peek of that time I did use the chakra-hued Dance of the 7 Veils to tell the tale of Inanna's Descent to the Underworld, you can pop over here.
MORE LINKS FOR YOUR GEEKING PLEASURE
Articles by one of my favorite dance historians, Shira:
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.)
--God Belly Danced 3 - an article covering the description of the birthday dance performed for Herod in the original language
--Dance, the Divine, and the Devious Other: Orientalism and the Presentation of Race and Gender in the Work of Ruth St. Denis by Krista Kee
8) Here you can outright glut yourself on Salome art from paintings to photographs to screen stills from the many movies.
9) Maud Allan - Wiki
10) The Devil's Teat: the war against and the power of that button of Eve-il - the Clitoris
11) Theda Bara
12) Imogen Millais-Scott's Last Dance - the nearly blind actress who played Salome/Rose
--If you'd like to see the dance scene from the movie, you'll have to go over here. And yup. You'll see it all.
14) Living La Boheme
16) THE WIKIS FOR YOUR RABBIT HOLE INTRODUCTIONS
17) My silk veil artists:
--Akai Silks - my fellow coffee-nerd who is now the Legend Herself
--Bean Cummings - the FiberBitch SilkFaerie Extraordinaire