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Dreaming of the East

Orientalism in Early Modern Dance

by Iana Komarnytska
posted May 1, 2013


As a belly dancer and a modern dance student at York University, my attention was captured by the fact that a number of early modern dancers performed variations on Oriental themes. I became interested in how they interpreted the Orient through their modern dance technique, and how they represented the Orient in their choreographies, since their performances could have been loosely associated with actual Middle-Eastern dances.

Before starting this discussion, it is important to understand the conditions and social environment of the early twentieth century that might have influenced a dancers decision to use Oriental themes. At the turn of the century, dance was generally regarded as vaudeville or circus entertainment, not as a serious art. It was a conservative era. Dance as a career was not a respectable profession in general, especially for women, because it was considered improper for women to exhibit themselves in public, especially in dance costumes. However, the beginning of feminist emancipation brought some freedom to women in the society. This trend was fused with a femme fatale image, popular from the nineteenth century, and refreshed by the premiere of Oscar Wilde‘s play "Salome" in 1896 (and the following Salomania).

After Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in 1798, the Middle-East became a popular place to visit for travelers from Europe. As a result, their writings inspired the imagination of Western readers.

Unfortunately it rarely reflected the true reality of the Orient, but presented what the authors wished to see as the Orient.

Such a constructed Orient can be understood through the European colonial domination over the Orient during that period, and later through Edward Said’s concept of Orientalism and Otherness.

Edward Said defines Orientalism as "the corporate institution for dealing with the Orient – dealing with it by making statements about it, authorizing views of it, describing it, by teaching it, settling it; ruling over it: in short, Orientalism as a Western style for dominating, restricting, and having authority over the Orient". Additionally, Said describes the Orient by introducing the term "European imaginative geography", the so called theatrical stage on which Westerners could explore their own hidden fantasies or compressed desires by projecting them onto the others, or Orientals. From a dance perspective, projecting a fantasy from their own alternative reality onto the Orient, allowed dance to be presented to a Western audience of the early twentieth century, while the status of traditional Western cultural and social norms remained intact.

Loie Fuller (1862-1928)

Loie Fuller was one of the first dancers who referred to Oriental themes. In 1895, she performed her first version of "Salome", a year before the premiere Salome detail from painting by Gustave Moreauof Oscar Wilde’s play, and more than ten years before Maud Allan‘s "The Vision of Salome". In 1907 she presented her second sketch on Salome. Compared to the first one, it was received by most critics as Wilde’s Salome dance variation.

As Tony Bentlay acknowledges in her book: "Loie Fuller has a special place in the Salome canon for having presented one of the first versions of the story". Fuller’s 1895 "Salome" production is remarkable because of several features. Loie Fuller ignored the popular Salome image of the femme fatale. In one of her interviews translated and quoted in Rhonda K Garelick‘s book, Fuller describes her Salome as "an innocent child who dances before Herod at the instigation of her mother. Salome does not ask for the head of John the Baptist and when it is delivered to her she falls to the ground in fright". Garelick argues that Fuller "insisted not only on Salome’s sexual purity, but also on her proximity to Christianity and, implicitly, on her distance from the Orient.” To support this idea Garelick analyzed the Gustave Moreau’s paintings which inspired Fuller’s costume designs. In contrast to the lotuses in Moreau’s painting, which, according to Garelick, were believed to be Oriental flowers with erotic overtones, Fuller decorated her costume with white roses. White roses belong to the iconography of the Christian tradition. They are considered to be the chosen flowers of the Virgin Mary. In this way, Loie Fuller transformed "the most famous femme fatale in history" into a Christian martyr. (see more on this subject Garelick 95-101).

Before Wilde’s play in 1896, the Salome story was associated with the Biblical character.

In both the 1895 and 1907 sketches, the theme of Salome serves Fuller merely as a frame for a variety of pantomime dances, but not as a central focus. In both productions, she danced representations of a storm and a dance of the Dead Sea. These dances from the first Salome," La Dance du feu" and "Le Lys", were later performed as independent pieces. For the 1907 version, Fuller used a completely different Salome image, not a biblical image, but a femme fatale, and focused more on the technical and electrical aspects of the dance spectacle.

Maud Allan (1873-1956)

Maud Allan, another North American dancer, is considered the most famous Salome dancer in a dance history. She started her dance career at the age of twenty seven with no previous dance training. She conquered Europe with "The Vision of Salome" from 1906 to 1908.

Comparing Maud Allan’s piece to Loie Fuller’s first version of Salome, Felix Cherniavsky argues that Maud Allan’s twenty-one minute version followed the original story line closely. He does not take into consideration that the original story lines of Maud Allan’s and Loie Fuller’s sketches were completely different. While Fuller based her dancing on the biblical story, Maud Allan was inspired by Wilde’s play from the very beginning.

Even though it was based on Wilde’s play, Maud Allan’s Salome had her personal interpretation. The main part of the dance starts after the seductive "Dance of Seven Veils" is finished. "The Vision of Salome" is not a reproduction of a dance given before Herod, but is the vision of Salome after it is finished, a retrospective.

The dancer represents Salome as a child accustomed to Oriental luxury who is transformed through the dance into a woman who realizes her superior female powers and wishes to be conquered by sexual desire. Having never traveled to the East, it is likely that Maud Allan, consciously or unconsciously, represented the Western women’s desires in a suppressed conservative Victorian society, rather than the dance of an Oriental princess.

The fact that she explores the theme of female sexuality through the Oriental one, is an example of Edward Said’s concept of Orientalism. It confirms that the Orient was a fabricated theatrical stage for Europeans on which they could project their desires without the fear of being judged unacceptable. Even the statement that Western women could understand and represent the essence of the East itself reaffirmed the West’s superiority based on the political and cultural colonialism of the period. It is interesting to compare how that audience perceived Maud Allan’s performances in comparison to traditional Middle-Eastern dance shows. In The Academy (21 March 1908) we find a review titled "Miss Maud Allan’s Salome Dance" in which the author states: "While authentic Eastern dancing calls attention to the sexualized body of the dancer, making it ugly, Allan’s version is Eastern but beautiful ". That supports the popular idea of that time, that authentic Eastern art, including dance, should be transformed and adopted according to Western aesthetic principles in order to be perceived as a high art.

Maud Allan’s dancing could not be described as authentically Eastern as it does not have any specific location. Amy Koritz argues in her article that: "Her [Maud’s] Salome was not Egyptian, Algerian or Syrian, but Eastern in a vague, homogenizing sense of the word. While Westerners might have national identities, the East, like Women, is characterized by eternal qualities shared by all its inhabitants". In this context "The Vision of Salome" is a classic dance example of Said’s idea of "European imaginary geography.”

Maud Allen

Ruth St. Denis (1879-1968)

Ruth St. Denis, an American dancer, is the most notable modern dance pioneer who introduced Eastern art to Western modern dance. She began her career as an actress performing small dancing roles from time to time in different vaudeville shows. In 1904, St. Denis launched her solo dance career. Later, with her husband Ted Shawn, she established a dance school, Denishawn, and they became famous for their numerous Oriental productions. A number of their students became well-known dance artists of the twentieth century, including Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, Lillian Powell, Evan-Burrows Fontaine, and Charles Weidman.

a cigarette posterThe starting point of Ruth St. Denis’s dancing career was an occasion during a tour in 1904. The following is a description from her autobiography. "We have reached Buffalo on our way west with the Dubarry company. … [Pat and I] went to a drugstore to get a soda. We were laughing as usual over some joke, and sipping our sodas, when my eyes lifted above the fountain and I saw a cigarette poster of Egyptian Deities”. From then on she was intrigued by everything Oriental, with almost a scholarly approach. However, she never tried to reproduce or imitate authentic Eastern dances in her productions.

The central idea for her was the mood. She suggests that the dance artist, including the musician, should never "steep themselves in the environment they wish to represent".

Being a highly spiritual person, and yet influenced by the vaudeville environment, Ruth St. Denis’ productions successfully combined these contrasting concepts. The hypersexualized image of Orientals was represented by Ruth St. Denis as a highly spiritual symbol in all her Oriental productions and dances. As Philip Hale wrote in Herald Magazine: "Miss St. Denis has never been in the East. Perhaps for this reason her art is the more Oriental, for the imaginative one, dreaming at home, is the most observing and receptive traveler. There is a spirit in this creative girl that saves her individuality from being tampered with by lesser minds".

Ruth St. Denis’ interpretations of Indian and Egyptian dances often borrowed common images and used similar movement vocabulary. For instance, Suzanne Shelton in her analysis of Egypta’s scenes concludes:

Her lively dance in the Egyptian banquet hall recalled the "Rektah" dance of Radha and The Nautch, and the opening moments of "The Mystery of Isis" duplicated the priestly processional from Radha. For "The Invocation to the Nile" St. Denis used the arm ripples of Incense, and she borrowed the flower chains from Radha’s "Dance of Smell." The source of her sun-worship ritual which opened the "Dance of Day" may have been a Genevieve Stebbins drill which instructed the Delsarte practitioner to [perform a certain sequence of movements]. The drill was part of Stebbins’ Eastern Temple Drill, adapted from various forms of oriental worship.


Loie Fuller, Maud Allan and Ruth St. Denis never presented their dances as authentically Eastern. They established themselves as Oriental interpretive dancers, and that might have been one of the key factors to their successful careers in early twentieth century. It is interesting to note that all three of them were originally from North America, but they received their most enthusiastic recognition in Europe.

While there may be several explanations for such a phenomenon, I think it has its roots in Edward Said’s term "European imaginative geography". The Oriental interpretive dances at the turn of the twentieth century might have been less accepted in North America due to the vigorous social campaign against Little Egypt and other hootchy-kootchy performers of that period. Europe seemed more open to Oriental themes, and this might be because several Eastern countries were under its direct imperial influence. In its turn, because it was under colonial rule, the Orient was speechless and subject to representation and interpretation in European imagination in any way they wished to see it.

Iana by Paul Yang

  • Allan, Maud. My life and dancing. London : Everett, 1908.
  • Bentley, Toni. Sisters of Salome. New Haven : Yale University Press, 2002.
  • Buonaventura, Wendy. Serpent of the Nile: women and dance in the Arab world. Northampton, Mass.: Interlink Books, 2010.
  • Caddy, Davinia. "Variations on the Dance of the Seven Veils" in Cambridge Opera Journal by Cambridge University Press, Vol. 17, No. 1 (Mar., 2005), pp. 37-58.
  • Cherniavsky, Felix. Maud Allan and Her Art. Toronto, ON: Dance Collection Danse Press, 1998.
  • Cherniavsky, Felix. The Salome dancer: the life and times of Maud Allan. Toronto, ON: McClelland & Stewart Inc., 1991.
  • Desmond, Jane. "Dancing out the Difference: Cultural Imperialism and Ruth St. Denis’s "Radha" of 1906" in Signs by The University of Chicago Press. Vol. 17, No. 1, Autumn, 1991, pp. 28-49.
  • Fuller, Loie. Fifteen years of a dancer’s life: with some account of her distinguished friends. New York: Dance Horizons, 1976.
  • Garelick, Rhonda K.. Electric Salome: Loie Fuller’s performance of modernism. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007.
  • Koritz, Amy. "Dancing the Orient for England: Maud Allan’s "The Vision of Salome" in Theatre Journal. The Johns Hopkins University Press, Vol. 46, No 1 (Mar., 1994), pp. 63-78.
  • Leoni, Stefano A.E. "Western Middle-East Music Imagery in the Face of Napoleon’s Enterprise in Egypt: From Mere Eurocentric Exoticism, to Very Organized Orientalistic Ears" in Croatian Musicological Society: International Review of the Aesthetics and Sociology of Music. Vol. 38, No 2 (December 2007), pp. 171-196.
  • Lewis, Reina. Gendering orientalism: race, femininity and representation. New York, NY: Routledge, 1996.
  • Lewis, Reina. Rethinking orientalism: women, travel, and the Ottoman harem. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2004.
  • MacKenzie, John M. Orientalism: history, theory, and the arts. New York: Manchester University Press ; 1995.
  • Said, Edward W. Orientalism. New York : Vintage Books, 1979.
  • Schlundt, Christina L.. "Into the Mystic with Miss Ruth" in Dance Perspectives, no. 46 (Summer 1971).
  • Shelton, Suzanne. Divine Dancer. A Biography of Ruth St. Denis. Doubleday & Company, Inc. Garden City, New York, 1981.
  • St. Denis, Ruth. Ruth St. Denis, an unfinished life: an autobiography. Brooklyn: [Dance Horizons], 1969.



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  1. Renee RothmanNo Gravatar

    May 24, 2013 - 10:05:24

    This is a beautifully written and solidly researched essay. Thank you! I also love the addition of websites where we can buy the literature cited. There are a few new references here I’m anxious to look up.

  2. IanaNo Gravatar

    May 26, 2013 - 03:05:11

    Thank you for your lovely comment, Renee! I’m very glad that you enjoyed the article.
    And lots of credits to GildedSerpent editors who did an additional research and added all these links for the books!

  3. SadiraNo Gravatar

    Jun 23, 2013 - 02:06:24

    Excellently researched and referenced!  I especially like the reference to Edward Said’s definations of Western interpretations of Oriental dance.  The fantasy and romance etc.


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