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  • Monstrous Choreographies:Waltzing, Madness, and Miscarriage
  • Elizabeth Claire (bio)

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Figure 1.

The dancing master's tuneful waltz leads Cælia to her death in Thomas Rowlandson's "The Waltz," from The English Dance of Death, 1815:

She sinks, she faints, she pants for breath:

Alas! it was the WALTZ OF DEATH.1

Pathologizing Dance

Felicia McCarren argues in Dance Pathologies: Performance, Poetics, Medicine that the power of nineteenth-century ballet and the popularity of the ballerina in Paris derived from an historic connection between what she frames as "dances of death" and "hysterical dances of repression."2Dance Pathologies discusses the nineteenth-century feminization of theater dance in Paris that occurred in tandem with a bourgeois idealization of femininity in enlightened European culture, noting how the practice of [End Page 199] prostituting female dancers at the Opéra and the real pathological impact of syphilis intertwined with the fictional pathology expressed in the choreography of women's dancing bodies. Perhaps most striking in McCarren's cultural history of the French Romantic ballet is her analysis of women's danced embodiment of a pathologically conflicted ideal of femininity: McCarren elaborates how the practices of dance and prostitution at the Opéra intersected with the medicalization of hysteria in France. As McCarren explains, "[t]he medicine of experiment, instrument, and clinical observation" were combined in Jean-Martin Charcot's study of the physiology of the nervous system and locomotor functional disorders and this allowed him to develop a notion of idiopathy that he applied to explain "what pathology could not explain, a pathology of 'idea' itself."3

This essay focuses not on the performance of theatrical dance praxis as McCarren's study does, but on the performance of social dancing and the literary, medical, and iconographic responses to dance developments that preceded the period of Charcot's work on hysteria. By examining the emergence of the waltz as a new social fad one sees how the phenomenon partnered the political revolution in France and came to be considered a symptom of social "mania" throughout Europe. In 1791 in Paris, there were 400 registered ballrooms open for business, and possibly as many more unregistered spaces used informally as dance halls.4 Anecdotal accounts transcribed in the journals of aristocrats who had survived the 1789 massacres claimed that the revolutionaries didn't hesitate to dance on the blood of their victims, in the churches and graveyards throughout Paris:

On danse en effet, un peu partout: sur les dalles, encore rouges du sang de l'échafaud, dans les couvents des Carmélites, au Marais, au séminaire Saint-Sulpice, dans la maison des ci-devant Carmes-Déchaux, sous les murs même où retentissaient les sinistres appels des condamnés, la musique fait entendre ses flonflons.5

The deafening cacophony of these dances of death did not echo the polite feet of a king's minuet. Along with group dances such as the carmagnole, people experimented with the new-found waltz that rapidly gained popularity in France. According to German historians Rudolf Braun and David Gugerli, the waltz became the cult dance of emancipation for French citizens during the revolution in France.6 In 1804, the patriotic German writer Ernst Moritz Arndt noted in his travel journal that the French citizens' "Liebe zum Walzer, und die Nationalisierung dieses deutschen Tanzes, ist ganz neu. Erst seit [End Page 200] dem Kriege ist er mit den Tabakrauchen und andern gemeinen Moden gewöhnlich geworden."7

The emergence and rapid popularization of waltzing among enlightened youth during and after the revolution can be mapped in parallel with developments in the medical history of the female imagination: physicians wrote specifically about the nefarious effects of this revolutionary dance practice on the state of women's mental and physical health. The late eighteenth-century "dance craze" of waltzing unleashed a bevy of medical discourse not only in France, but in Germany and England as well. These medical texts remain yet unexplored in American scholarship on dance studies. Arguing, often desperately, that the dance was symptomatic of a moral and social contagion, French medical philosophers and physicians particularly shunned this intimate...


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pp. 199-235
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