We're fools whether we dance or not, so we may as well dance—Japanese proverb
Nine Ladies Dancing
Dancing has long been associated with celebrations and commemorations throughout fact and fiction. It has been around for centuries: traces from Egyptian tomb paintings date back to at least 3300 BC, and there are references to it in other ancient civilisations such as Roman, Greek and Indian. Many of these early dances were to give thanks to the gods for the return of spring, or for a successful harvest. Morris dancing, that peculiar English variant involving men wearing bells on their ankles and waving hankies, has a long connection with Whitsun celebrations. Dancing round the maypole, weaving multi-coloured ribbons, is another associated with spring. And like many ancient dances, these were not without political controversy, being banned by those killjoy Puritans. Weaponry features in traditional dances around the world, quite often commemorating some great battle. Sabre dancing is found in the Balkans, whilst various types of sword dancing are found throughout Europe. The Moresca in Spain recalls the strife between Christians and Muslims in that country. Sometimes the dance will form part of the pre-battle preparations, and the New Zealand rugby team, the All-Blacks, still use the traditional Maori Haka to instil fear into their opponents.
So especially for the 9th anniversary edition of The Post, I've picked out nine ladies dancing throughout history and fiction. Some of them changed my life, others changed the world.
Our first lady dancing is Cinderella, who entranced Prince Charming on the dance floor at the grand ball at the palace held to celebrate his birthday. She might have chosen more suitable dancing shoes though: glass slippers aren't the most practical footwear for performing the waltz. But Cinders was the first dancer I fell in love with, as I read and re-read the Ladybird book as a child, running my fingers over the illustration of her pale blue silk dress.
When I grew older, I went to ballet class. One of my older classmates there was a gap-toothed brown haired girl called Rosemary Brown, who put her heart and soul into her performances. I remember watching in delight in 1970, as under the stage name Dana, she captivated the Eurovision jury with her song "All Kinds of Everything". She later went into politics, and is still an MEP, making a song and dance about family issues.
My adored childhood heroine was Dame Margot Fonteyn. Born in 1919 as plain Peggy Hookham, she changed her name to make it sound more exotic, and enjoyed fame both in her own right, but also as a couple with Rudolf Nureyev. Professional dancing takes a terrible toll on the body, and many dancers retire before they are 35, and often move into other careers. However, Fonteyn continued well into her 50s, and there was a 19 year age gap between her and Nureyev. She was one of five Women of Achievement honoured in an issue of stamps in 1996. She died in Panama in 1991.
Ballet went global largely thanks to the efforts of the famous ballerina Anna Pavlova (1881 – 1931). Born in Russia, she is well known for her rendition of The Dying Swan, and was the first ballerina to travel widely, bringing her art to those who had never seen it before. And of course, she is so famous she has a pudding named after her. Created in Wellington in 1926 to honour her visit, it could well be the most famous thing to have come form the land of the long white cloud. (Cue very bad joke: Is that a pavlova in the window or a meringue? No, you're right).
Way way back many centuries ago, the New Testament gave us Salome, who has become an icon of female seductiveness. Various versions of the story exist, both in the Bible, but also retold by poets and storytellers from Oscar Wilde to Pete Doherty. The basic plot may have been elaborated throughout the years, but in essence her dance of the seven veils so beguiled Herod Antipas that he vowed to give her whatever she asked for: she requested the head of John the Baptist on a platter. The story was much loved by painters, mostly because it gave them the opportunity to paint semi-nude women dancing erotically, whilst claiming that they were doing a biblical illustration.
Another beacon of erotic dance, and sometimes called the mother of modern dance, was Isadora Duncan. She utterly rejected the strictures and rules of classical ballet, and instead developed her own primitive style, usually performed barefoot, wearing clingy scarves or a Grecian style tunic. Excited by the possibilities unfolding in Soviet Russia, she moved to Moscow in 1922, but was disappointed with the lack of promised funding for her projects, and returned to the West, making her home in Paris. Her personal life abounded with scandal: her Russian poet husband, 18 years her junior, accompanied her when touring, but was subject to frequent drunken rages, and left a trail of trashed hotel rooms in his wake. He later left Duncan, returned to Russia, and committed suicide aged 30. She had two children out of wedlock, who drowned in a bizarre car accident in the river Seine. She had little control over her finances, and relied heavily on the support of friends to provide her with a place to live. But it is for her shocking and dramatic death that she is most remembered: her trademark long silk scarf caught in the wheel of a car as she drove off, forcibly yanking her out of the vehicle and onto the ground.
Also dancing in Paris during the 1920s was Josephine Baker, who performed her danse sauvage wearing little more than a skirt made of plastic bananas. She was often accompanied by her pet cheetah, Chiquita, who wore a diamond collar, and used to escape into the orchestra pit, causing terror and mayhem. She struggled to find success and acclaim in her native USA, where she refused to perform for segregated audiences, but she was adored throughout Europe. Even the Nazis were unwilling to permit harm to come to her, which allowed her to act as a key member of the French Underground, smuggling messages written in invisible ink on her sheet music. For this she received several awards, including the Croix de Guerre and the Legion d'Honneur. She was the only woman to speak at the March on Washington in 1963, at the side of Martin Luther King. After the latter's death, she was approached by his widow to take over his position in the American Civil Rights movement, but she refused, citing her importance as mother to her 12 adopted children of multiple ethnicities—her "Rainbow Tribe". Her iconic style has influenced many of today's divas, including Shirley Bassey, Diana Ross, Whitney Houston and Beyonce.
Another dancer whose name has become synonymous with espionage was Mata Hari. Born in the Netherlands in 1876, Margaretha Geertruida Zelle married an army officer 21 years her senior, and moved with him to Java. She returned home in 1902, obtained a divorce and moved to Paris, where she established herself as an exotic dancer, changing her name to Mata Hari, which means "the light of day" in Malay. She had many high-ranking admirers, especially in the military. When World War I broke out she was recruited by the French secret police as a spy, her neutral Dutch background allowing her to travel across borders freely. However, they became suspicious that she was a double agent, and she was convicted and sentenced to death. She was executed by firing squad on October 15, 1917.
Famous more for her choreography and her acerbic comments as one of the Strictly judges, Arlene Phillips has contributed enormously to dance as it is performed today. She became a household name in 1974 when she created the Hot Gossip dance troupe, whose sexy suspenders had Mary Whitehouse reaching for her pen to complain vociferously. She created the original choreography for Starlight Express, the Lloyd Webber musical performed on roller skates, which was a huge challenge for a dancer—anyone lucky enough to get a part in this production has to undergo weeks of special training in dancing on roller skates. She has done much Broadway and West End choreography including the stage musical version of Saturday Night Fever, and We Will Rock You.
Dancing is still an important part of celebrations today. It would be hard to imagine a wedding in Western society without it. The bride and her female friends will undoubtedly have danced around their handbags at some point on the hen night, and after the wedding cake has been cut and eaten, all the elderly relatives will watch with benign smiles as the newly married couple take to the floor for the first dance. It usually goes downhill from there on, ending with a drunken uncle fixing his tie around his forehead and either air-guitar-ing to Status Quo, or recreating The Office's David Brent. Look out for other imitators at your works' Christmas Party, another annual celebration which wouldn't be the same without dancing!