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"Wherever I go, it is the same to me. I adapt myself; nothing is ever strange."

—Tórtola Valencia, interview in Woman's Life, June 6, 19081

[End Page 28]

In 1907, the Nicaraguan poet Rubén Darío published the collection El canto errante [The Wandering Song], containing a poem entitled "La bailarina de los pies desnudos" ["The Barefoot Dancer"]. The title leads the reader to anticipate an aesthetic of lightness and simplicity, yet the poem is weighted down by its many cultural references: at least one per line, and barely harmonizing amongst themselves. Its space is heavily perfumed, thickly ornamented, animated by the movements of a dancer who invokes different cultural references and plastic forms with each extended limb, each trembling body part. At first sight sinuously seductive, this central figure unravels into a welter of fragments and contradictions: both animal and divine, eroticized and chaste, a lunar deity (Selene) and a literary character (Anactoria), a "constellation of examples and of objects" (constelada de casos y de cosas) whose body, as the line suggests, barely contains its referential chaos.

The poem has frequently been read as inspired by Tórtola Valencia, the Spanish early modern dancer who generally performed barefoot, and who featured a dance titled "La gitana de los pies desnudos" [The Barefoot Gypsy] in her repertoire.2 The fact that she first appeared on stage in 1908 makes this an impossibility, albeit one glossed over by Tórtola herself in her canny self-promotion: she included the designation in her publicity materials, likely devised her "Barefoot Gypsy" dance to play off the poem, and occasionally referred to her unlikely acquaintance with Darío. Yet she did in fact inspire more than two hundred poems by Spanish, Latin American, and even German poets during her lifetime, not to mention harvesting accolades from d'Annunzio and Maeterlinck (Amor y Vázquez 1987; Garland 1999b). Tórtola was performing in a historical moment in which dance, on its way to becoming a high art-form, had begun to call forth essays and poems by such writers as Mallarmé, Yeats, and Rilke. Those writings simultaneously veil and unveil the bodies of performers; in the case of the many dancers who left little material record of their performances—still photographs, brief film clips—it is a challenge to try to extricate their bodies from [End Page 29] the layers of textuality in which they are swathed. The question is less the obligatory "how can we know the dancer from the dance?" than the only slightly less urgent "how can we know the dancer from the writing?"

Darío's poem may in any case be important insofar as it does not restrict itself to a particular dancer: In its myriad cultural references, it might seem to refer to any number of dancers performing in the early years of the century, from the Hellenic-inflected Isadora Duncan, through the Indian-inspired Ruth St. Denis, to the Orientalist Maud Allan—or to their host of imitators, who performed repertories notable for their cultural eclecticism. Viewed in this light, Darío's poem points not to the uniqueness of any one dancer, but rather to a generalized practice of cultural hybridity in early modern dance. Indeed the very eclecticism of the standard repertoire allowed its practitioners to be measured against one another, as audiences learned to distinguish between them on the basis of their interpretation of various set-pieces in constant circulation: a vision of Salome, a Chopin funeral march, a serpentine dance, a Peer Gynt sequence.

As several critics have noted, Tórtola and her contemporaries formed the first generation of female dancers to attempt to seize full hold of their public image, both on and off stage, aiming to become subjects rather than mere objects of representation (Garland 1999a; Manning 1997). But their drive to produce new images of themselves as solo female performers was fraught with paradoxes. Working independently, with a keen eye on the practices of their rivals, dancers performing in the music-halls of Europe began to circulate...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1940-509X
Print ISSN
0149-7677
Pages
pp. 28-49
Launched on MUSE
2012-04-21
Open Access
No
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