Continuing our look at burlesque history, we’re examining the Skirt Dancer, one of the most dramatic and visual aspects of the vaudeville stage, most popular in the late 1800s.
If you’ve been a regular on the burlesque scene – either through audience or performer, you will recognise a modern version of the skirt dancer in performances such as those by the beautiful Vicky Butterfly, the adorable A’dora Derriere and in most performers who use the Isis Wing prop (basically a big veil on sticks used most commonly in the belly dance field) or variations of this – such as Lada Redstar’s stunning Insect Queen act. Whether taken from the burlesque or belly dance forms, these props have their origins in the 1890s when pioneering performers including Loie Fuller and Letty Lind hit stages hit stages across Europe and America.
While the exact origins of the Skirt Dance are unclear, it is said to be inspired by the cancan and British dancer and actress Kate Vaughan is widely credited for lowering the hemline and giving the manipulation of the skirt a more visual and flowing aesthetic. Rather than the saucy reveal of the cancan dancer’s leg and – oops! bloomer or knickerbocker, the skirt dancer’s motivation was more about enjoying the movement of the fabric – usually silk, which has an ethereal floating quality, and could amount to 50 metres or more in the layered skirts, each layer based on double a full circle – or more.
From the age of 14, Kate Vaughan performed as part of the burlesque troupe at the Gaiety Theatre in London. We must remember burlesque in Victorian theatre isn’t the same as modern burlesque and British burlesque at the time concentrated more on parodies, theatrical shorts or longer theatrical or musical pieces that were a pastiche of an original work – usually an opera, ballet or serious theatrical piece. These pastiches were mocking of the original work and contained risque elements and rude character assassinations which grossly poked fingers at heroes – and villians – of the original. Vaughan enjoyed this position for seven years and it was during this time that she is credited with ‘inventing’ the skirt dance by combining a melting pot of influences including skirt manipulation from the cancan and other folk dancers, the grace of ballet (very modern and in fashion at the time!) and her own dance steps for a piece with her sister (Susie, they danced as the Vaughan Sisters) in the ‘Opera Bouffe’ (an opera with elements of farce and satire) Orpheus In The Underworld. Before this, dancing in full length skirts that were extremely full in volume had not been seen.
The most famous of the skirt dancers, and a performer to take it to new heights was American theatre pioneer Loie Fuller. Inspired by those before her, she adapted the Skirt Dance costume to include pockets in which rods could be inserted to manipulate the fabric, which was lightweight fine gauzes, silks, etc and much longer than her forerunner’s costume. Fuller changed theatre in more ways, being the first to use chemical mixes for slides and gels and luminescent salts (she held many patents for these mixes) and she was also a creative thinker when it came to lighting angles and the positioning of lights for creative effects, when in most theatres lighting was just used to light the stage or see what the actors were doing – and blackouts were the most creative lighting design got. Combining both these creative elements – projecting the angled coloured gas lights onto the yards and yards of silk – created a dramatic and breathtaking theatrical spectacle and Fuller moved the Skirt Dance (which had now become known as the Serpentine Dance due to one of her works) in a new futuristic direction.
Although hailing from the American burlesque circuit, her skirt dance often became the focus of melodramas such as Quack MD (where her character performed the skirt dance whilst under hypnosis – enabling the audiences to grasp a sense of what her character would be feeling whilst hypnotised) and Uncle Celestine, where a new skirt dance was created to match that of an apparition. Touring the US with these melodramas brought the dance to new audiences who were mesmerised and amazed by the never before seen visual feast on stage. She took the dance to the World Fairs and across the world, appearing at venues including the Follies Begere and was the subject of many films (also a pioneering media at the time) by early filmmakers Thomas Edison and the Lumiere Brothers. You can see some of those early films here and here with many of the frames being hand coloured by the film makers to recreate Fuller’s ‘Ballet of Light’. (pic – Loie Fuller as Salome – photo credit unknown)
Over the years, this dance has inspired many including contempories at the time such as Letty Lind (pictured, 1890) and Annabelle, which you can see in this Thomas Edison film of her 1894 Butterfly Dance here. Also variations of the dance like Amy Muller’s more balletic version with a shorter (although much fuller) skirt. It has also inspired many modern theatrical performers and also a popular belly dance prop, the Isis wing.
Although a fairly recent dancer is credited with making Isis wings popular through modern belly dance (Ayshe, whose instructional video Wings Of Ayshe has made the techniques and the prop widespread) a version of dancing with Isis Wings (so called because the fabric and shape represents the goddess wing of the ancient Egyptian deity Isis) has been around since the 1960s and the huge veils of Bal Anat dancer Aida, among others. Before this time, the wings were more of a two-piece silky veil tied around the neck like a cape, minus the sticks. The more recognisable pleated lame version with sticks filtered onto the scene in the ’70s and were used by belly dancers including Helene Erikson and versions have been used in other dance forms also (big Vegas show pieces, carnival dances of the Americas and Caribbean to name just a few). The wings have also filtered through to the burlesque scene and the origins of the movements in both burlesque and belly dance can be found in movements of the early pioneers, where fluttering and swirling, figure 8s, swooping, hiding and revealing lie.
Want to use the Isis Wing prop or perform a skirt dance inspired by the originators?
Your first bet is to head over to youtube and click on the links above! Check out the early film work of Edison and the lumiere brothers featuring Annabelle, Loie and more… Names to research on google include Carmencita (who took the skirt dance in a spanish-themed direction throwing in a fandango), Mabel Clark, Minnie Renwood and Adelaide Early. You can also find elements of the skirt dance in the works of modern dance pioneer Ruth St Denis (acts like White Jade, where acres of white fabric is used for visual effect). Also check out belly dancers including Asi Haskal’s Cloak dance (here) and Ozgen, who uses his long coat skirts as part of the dance. Also check out the swirling cloak dances of the toreodor dance.
You might also want to check out some instructional DVDs from belly dancers including Ayshe, here’s a taster of her Phoenix instructional choreography DVD. Also Tiazza has a brilliant Isis wing tutorial broken down into easy to follow videos via her free bellydance classes (it’s actually called that!) youtube channel.
If you are going to use any of the props above, make sure you remember to use the WHOLE OF YOUR BODY!! this cannot be stressed enough! there’s no point in doing a beautiful choreography if you are stood in the middle of loads of fluttering fabric, like a static thing! It will just look very stiff and like you are doing semaphores! Have fun with the hide-and-reveal aspects of both the skirt dance and the isis wing! We love seeing a body being slightly revealed in the swirling fabric!
Look out for the next part of our History Of Burlesque series, where we’ll be uncovering the Leg Mania Artiste!
(main image Loie Fuller in the 1890s)