NeMLA 2014

A Body of Poetry: Ballet and the Dance of Death in Victorian England


When Havelock Ellis proposes that dancing is “the loftiest, the most moving, the most beautiful of the arts, because it is not mere translation or abstraction from life; it is life itself,” he aligns himself with early nineteenth-century discourse rather than with popular Victorian views of dancing.  Early nineteenth-century texts – such as those by Goethe – frequently coupled dance and life in what appears a much more harmonious marriage than during Queen Victoria’s reign. The marriage of dance and poetry during the Victorian period evoked shame as well as pleasure.  Ballet and villanelles were very different art forms, yet both reflected the developing interest of the Empire to learn about other nations and to, in turn, establish England as an elite ruling power.   Although the villanelle regained popularity during the Victorian period, it did not meet with the same enthusiasm as the coupling of dance and poetry did in the early nineteenth or twentieth century.  Dance was quickly becoming a symbol of moral and cultural degeneration. What made the ballet unsavory to so many palates was its exclusiveness in which very elite bodies of both sexes were put on display.  Max Beerbohm suggests that even at the turn of the century ballet had not completely thrown off its garish garb.  The spectacle of ballet was its unashamed display of athletic bodies, particularly the female form.  When ballet resurfaced in the 1880s as a popular form of entertainment its rejuvenation was due not only to its pantomime but to its presentation of public bodies in motion. The arguments made against both social and professional dancing in mid-to-late nineteenth-century rhetoric signal that disease and death are primary concerns, especially in relation to the public female body. In this way, Victorian ballet – and its counterpart the villanelle – center on rhetoric that manifests the trend of connecting social dance to the dance of death at the turn of the century in Western culture: a mode that perhaps wasn’t as unequivocally expressed in Victorian texts but was, nevertheless, prevalent. While publications about the ills of social dance and cosmopolitan forms of the villanelle each contributed to the tenuous relationship between the general public and the gendered issues of dancing, a common vehicle that Victorians used to express their interest in the intersection between death, disease, gender and dance was ballet.


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