Rae Beth Gordon, Dances with Darwin, 1875-1910

Rae Beth Gordon, Dances with Darwin, 1875-1910: Vernacular Modernity in France (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2009). 311 pp. £60 hb. ISBN 0754652434.

(BSLS members receive a discount on all Ashgate titles)

Rae Beth Gordon’s Dances with Darwin examines a unique combination of influences including hystero-epilepsy, Darwinism, and a fascination with Africa which conflated in vivid café-concert performances often considered scandalous or shocking—but also immensely popular—in France from 1875-1910. Gordon provides detailed accounts of the inspirations for song lyrics and dance moves, such as the frenetic, hysterical gesticulations which appeared both on stage and in the halls of the famous Salpêtrière asylum, and the unique performers—usually women—who embodied the mix of these interests, in particular the dark-skinned Franco-Algerian singer Polaire.

The popularity of dancers thrusting their chests, kicking their legs, arching their backs, and even sticking out their tongues grew, Gordon argues, from a mix of unease and fascination with the hysterical, which was considered innate or primitive. From this comes the link with Darwinism and degeneration, which were inseparable in the period Gordon is considering. Gordon examines ‘how closely the discourses of Darwinism and degeneration were knit together in the popular press and in popular spectacle’ (59), and provides a great deal of evidence for the popularity of zoo-like displays of ‘Phenomena,’ which could include almost any exotic person or animal.

From Krao, ‘the so-called Missing-Link or monkey-woman’ (69), to Prince Charles the dapper chimpanzee, to Polaire, billed as ‘the ugliest woman in the world,’ (interestingly, actually pretty by current standards) all of these displays or performers were highly sexualized. Gordon demonstrates how the feared regression in hysteria and Darwinism also provided opportunities for an animalistic lack of inhibition. Enter Africans and black Americans—any dark-skinned peoples who were then considered somehow between human and ape—into the performance scene. And the scene was stolen with the Cake-Walk, which Gordon traces from its roots in the American south (from slaves imitating the dances of white people,) to its meteoric rise in popularity in France, danced by whites, who (re)interpreted it as a black, or even African, dance. Famous exotic performers like Polaire herself personalized the Cake-Walk, and it made its way from the café-concert stage into more formal music halls and back again.

Gordon also touches upon contemporary painting, fitting it into the idea of Darwinian degeneration—High (white, beautiful, classical) versus Low (on a sliding scale, with darker as lower, uglier, more shocking). Similarly, ‘brilliant colour is a sign of the primitive’ (116). A shocking effect on the viewer, whether it be through a painting of a woman cannibalistically gnawing her own leg or flashing the audience in the cancan, is linked, Gordon argues, to ideas of the primitive and degenerative. These were combined to the point of hybridization, and the hybrid is another Darwinian idea evident in café-concert performances.

The specific attitude of the French towards these Darwinian ideas of regression is briefly addressed in Dances with Darwin. As Gordon puts it, ‘at the turn-of-the-century, thanks in large part to music-hall shows featuring the cancan and epileptic singers, Paris represents sexual license, the nudity of musical reviews, and indecent dances’ (186). She argues that this closeness is part of the attraction to the performances discussed. Africa, apes, and wild, savage dances are foreign and yet tantalizingly familiar. They are objects of both derision and attraction.

Dances with Darwin makes a strong case as well as a pleasant read, although descriptions of many of the dances can prove problematic—one does not get a clear enough idea as to what exactly the dancers were doing to cause such commotion. This is not for lack of description on Gordon’s part, but rather the difficulty of translating movement to text. Well chosen images and pictures throughout the book assist in this translation, though again for dance there is the challenge in visualizing the movements.

Gordon weaves her argument for the relationships between epileptic singers and Darwinism well, but Chapter 6, the final chapter, as well as the Epilogue, seem to wrench her argument away from a thorough overview of the phenomenon—‘the ties between primitivism and modernism, [and] their convergence in fin-de-siècle popular entertainment’—to two very specific cases which do not fit quite as seamlessly into her argument. Though in the body of the book Gordon does give much attention to one particular case, Polaire, this case works as an exemplar of ‘the [pop culture] ties between primitivism and modernism.’ However, the final chapter focuses specifically on the character Père Ubu, created by playwright Alfred Jarry, whom Gordon successfully argues ‘saw himself as a Naturalist-Biologist’ (247). If Jarry was such a naturalist, and, as Gordon says, ‘[Jarry’s] knowledge of natural history [was] far from superficial’ (246), his incorporation of Darwinism into his work is not the same sort of latent, absorptive incorporation as that of the general public through popular song, dance, fashion, newspapers, etc.

Gordon’s final case-study of the black dancer Josephine Baker, in the Epilogue of the book, relates back to Polaire and the more popular attitude of savage, sexy, regressive femininity, with a great deal of indirect influence from Darwinian ideas. She points out that Baker was so popular exactly because her ‘startingly ‘new’ and shocking performances…in fact corresponded to a tradition that had begun in 1875, and to a dynamic of hybridization that was already firmly anchored in Parisian entertainment and spectatorship’ (276).

Dances with Darwin is a fascinating read and a useful contribution to studies in modernity, drawing a convincing case for ‘an aesthetic of disorder a half century before the eruptions of Dada and Surrealism.’ Gordon questions previous boundaries of ‘modernity’ in vernacular culture in France, asking (regarding Baker) ‘how was it possible that the public forget they had applauded ‘animalistic,’ ‘disarticulated’ and ‘epileptic’ women a generation earlier?’ (274). If the public did forget, Dances with Darwin helps to remind, locate, and vividly enlighten.

Kelley Swain