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  • The Expressive Efficiencies of American Delsarte and Mensendieck Body Culture
  • Robin Veder (bio)

At the turn of the twentieth century, an extended community of American and European actors, dancers, and physical culture teachers created a spectrum of “body cultures” that responded and contributed to social modernity and artistic modernism. Body cultures are theories about how bodies should look, feel, work, and move, and physical practices for training and presenting oneself accordingly. Such combinations of somatic theory and practice are culturally and historically specific, determined by the needs, interests, and places of their making. In this period, they occurred within multiple contexts, including theater, dance, fashion, medicine, labor, sport, and “physical culture” (the contemporary term for calisthenic exercise).1 Collectively, they crafted and visualized a “modern” body, ready for work, play, and self-expression. This essay considers how modern body cultures such as the American Delsarte and Mensendieck systems reached for industrial, disciplinary efficiency and individualized, emancipatory expressiveness, thus uniting social modernity and artistic modernism.

The body cultures most explicitly and frequently connected to industrial and social modernity are those that pursued engineered efficiency. This somatic ideal can be seen in the rationalized, disciplined, and mechanized body of Taylorized assembly line workers, the Tiller Girls and Ziegfeld Follies theatrical extravaganzas, physical education jumping jacks, the modern military assembly, and the mass movement performances recorded by Leni Riefenstahl. Alternatively, the body culture that is most obviously associated with artistic expressive modernism valued holistic fluidity and the search for archaic, primitive, and authentic [End Page 819] somatic experience. This relaxed, flexible, and individualized body is associated with the un-corseted and lounging avant-garde elite, the athletic New Woman, barefoot modern dancers, and German Nacktkultur’s nudists frolicking in meadows. Following Foucault, or Adorno and Horkheimer, it is tempting to see bodies in the first category as the subject of discipline, against which those in the second react by remaking the body into a site of liberation.

Although they seem to be at odds, these two modes of embodiment – disciplinary efficiency and emancipatory expressiveness – actually co-existed and were even united within specific body culture praxis. This essay joins recent scholarship by offering two linked case studies of how modernizing body cultures “often elided the question of the relation between external and internal disciplines, between a mechanical and a motivational or expressive model of the body,” as Tim Armstrong argues in his study of writers’ physical regimes and self-reconstructions.2 Similarly, Carrie J. Preston shows that Isadora Duncan, probably the greatest icon of the expressive and organic modern body, “consistently position[ed] her choreography at the juncture of motorized movement and soulful expression.” Duncan herself said that in order to perform, she had to “place a motor in [her] soul.” Although Duncan’s performances appeared to be effortless improvisations, mechanical metaphors abound in her philosophy and process of choreographing, rehearsing, and performing. The force of her “motor” energy, focused through repetition, produced a “multiplied body” that, like a powered machine, accomplished many tasks at once.3

Whereas the intellectual lineage from the original French Delsarte system of rhetorical gesture to Duncan and other modern dancers in the United States and Europe is well-recognized, the path from Delsartism to Mensendieck body mechanics exercise is less well known and has yet to be contextualized.4 This essay offers three simultaneous layers of exploration into the expressive efficiencies of American Delsarte and Mensendieck body cultures. First, there is a chronological narrative of how each emerged, the latter out of the former, and how these essentially European schools of body training evolved in American contexts. The character of those changes provides the second layer. Delsarte and Mensendieck formulated extremely orderly systems of movement, one explicitly artistic and the other explicitly mechanical, but both rationalized physical positions and motions. In American contexts, practitioners of each program would increasingly focus on individual personality development, thus merging efficiency and expression. Recovering their similarities enables us to see the third layer; in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, some emancipatory forms of artistic modernism and disciplinary forms of social modernity could work together in mutually constitutive ways.

The importance of uniting expression and efficiency is evident in the...


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