As shocking as the balloon nudes of Matisse and fractured bodies of Duchamp were, at least they stayed on the canvas. There bodies remained odd, perhaps unsettling but still. Bodies dancing on stages and in dancehalls outside of the Armory Show, however, were vibrantly – even dangerously — on edge. At the time of the exhibit, a dance craze was sweeping the nation, lifting young men and women off their feet, toward each other, and in pursuit of pleasure and escape.
Dance hall moves such as the turkey trot and the grizzly bear mimicked the thrusts and grunts of animals, and such imitations only confirmed anxieties about the abrasive behavior of working men and women determined to explore leisure and independence in new ways. Reformers reacted swiftly, attempting to shut down dancehalls and excoriating the new moves as animal savagery made human even as couples such as Irene and Vernon Castle polished the foxtrot and tango into acceptable movement for the upper classes.
As people moved for pleasure in dancehalls, cabarets, restaurants, and dancehalls, Isadora Duncan, Loie Fuller, and Ruth St. Denis insisted upon higher meanings of dance. These women eschewed the animal moves in favor of fluid, inspired gestures of sacred thought, philosophical import, and ancient traditions. They claimed dance as art, movement as both primal and primary and, therefore, foundational to thought and expression.
Duncan embodied this most when she danced in flowing tunics that looked like Grecian togas and hinted at the naked body underneath. Her movement was part of a more radical lifestyle of free love, feminism, and anarchism–a beacon of modernism for the artists and intellectuals of Greenwich Village. In all this, Duncan enacted the significance of bodies that visual artists displayed on canvas at the Armory Show. But she moved–resisting iconicity and remaining dynamic, ever changing, and insistent.
Written for the blog accompanying the exhibit “The Armory Show at 100” at the New-York Historical Society (2013-14)
Featured image: Moffett, Irene and Vernon Castle. Dance Division, New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Astor, Lenox, and Tilden Foundations. Dance Heritage Coalition, 31 August 2014.