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  • “The Call of Salome”American Adaptations and Re-creations of the Female Body in the Early Twentieth Century
  • Mary Simonson (bio)

It is announced on good authority," a New York Times writer joked in August 1908, "that the management at the New Amsterdam Theater has been exceptionally active in guarding against outbreaks of Salomania among members of the company. As soon as any chorus girl shows the first symptoms of the disease, she is at once enveloped in a fur coat—the most efficacious safeguard known against the Salome dance—and hurriedly isolated." The Salome jokes continued. "It is rumored," he reported, tongue in cheek, "that Oscar Hammerstein will introduce the 'Salome' dance into every opera to be given by him at the Manhattan Opera House next season. . . . As soon as he got the idea he at once called an expert play tinkerer and gave him, as a starter, the libretto of Götterdämmerung with strict instructions to insert the Salome dance in an artistic and convincing manner."1

Today, Salome is a familiar figure: she is everybody's favorite bad girl, the original dancing vamp, a launchpad for discussions of late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century insecurities and fascinations with women, national identity, imperialism, the Oriental "Other," and the female body.2 A tale of female sexuality, erotic [End Page 1] transgression, and taboo, the Salome narrative and particularly her "Dance of the Seven Veils" have come to stand for anxieties about cultural disorder, describing a desire to legitimize male control of female bodies and behavior. Salome herself has become a promising and yet troublesome icon in feminist opera scholarship. Try as musicologists might to read her as something more than a fantasy of the male artistic imagination, something other than yet another operatic woman undone, Salome inevitably seems to slip away as the curtain falls, leaving her would-be liberators musing over her intangibility, her indescribability, her strangeness. "The emancipated Salome," Lawrence Kramer has lamented in analyses of the opera, "is still a critical phantom; the real Salome is still a cheap date."3

Yet as the humorous New York Times quote above implies, early-twentieth-century American culture was flooded with dancing Salomes that were neither cheap dates nor critical phantoms. Rather, they were depictions created and enacted by female performers that were both liberating and comical, offering new, meaningful visions of femininity to American women and simultaneously poking fun at themselves and their audiences. In this article I explore American Salome depictions and the female authors behind them. These Salomes, I argue, were just as slippery as their operatic sisters. Emerging at the juncture of theatrical and operatic traditions, they entangled the working class with the elite, entertainment with uplift, naughtiness with promises of purity, power and emancipation with misogyny. These Salome dancers represented a wide (and often jumbled) range of genres. Some, like Bianca Froelich and La Sylphe, were working-class actresses and dancers performing before massive crowds at Keith and Proctor's vaudeville house and on rooftop theaters; others, like Gertrude Hoffmann, were self-proclaimed highbrow artistic dancers engaged by upper-crust female patrons to perform at afternoon "Salome lawn parties" at private country homes. They were opera singers and film stars (and sometimes, as in Mary Garden's case, both); they were the subjects of jokes, speculation, adoration, and photo montages. Yet all of these Salomes, I argue, were creative authors, constructing their own "visions" of Salome and her dance in performance. Each of these Salome dances, then, was marked by its dancer's aesthetics and performance ideologies. Further, each simultaneously reflected and helped to define American cultural shifts, anxieties, and tastes, particularly in relation to gender roles and the evolving trope(s) of the "New Woman." Examining what I call "Salome-as-danced," a specific set of performances carefully contextualized within turn-of-the-century American life, allows us to momentarily shift the focus away from the temptation to treat Salome's dance as a phantomlike, mystical "truth." With this reorientation, the details of the creation and re-creation of Salome by each performer and each performance emerge, enabling us to engage with the diverse "truths" of the women who performed...


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