The Image of the Eastern Dancer: Flaubert’s Salome
by Andrea Deagon, Ph.D.
Until now we have understood the Orient as something shimmering, screaming, passionate and full of contrasts. We have seen nothing in it but dancing-girls and curved sabers, fanaticism, sensual pleasure, etc. In a word, we haven’t progressed since Byron.
On a Spring day in the year 1876, Gustave Flaubert, one of France’s most respected and popular authors, paid a visit to the Salon, Paris’s annual official art exhibition, where the nation’s most prominent artists competed to show their work. There he saw two large paintings by Gustave Moreau, Salome Dancing before Herod2 and The Apparition, which brought Salome’s notorious dance vividly to life in rich, jeweled tones and mythically complex detail. These paintings were an intriguing counterpoint to a theme he was already deeply involved in: Salome’s dance, the crucial center of his short story, “Herodias,” the last story he published before his death four years later. Salome’s dance was critical to this story, and he took writing it very seriously. “I am sick with fear at the thought of Salome’s dance,” he wrote to his niece Caroline, “I’m afraid to spoil it.”3 But despite his concerns, the scene was a triumph, a visual, intriguing choreography that brought out all the horror, sensuality and exoticism he envisioned during the decline of Rome, in the palace of a despot, on the edge of the desert in Palestine.
Flaubert’s description of Salome’s dance, visually detailed and richly evocative, became a well-known portrayal of the dance of the East. It was known to Oscar Wilde, whose play Salome introduced the “dance of the seven veils” and spurred the first actual performances of “Salome’s dance” in modern theater.4 Salome performances began to capture the imagination of both the public and creative artists at the turn of the century, sometimes in association with productions of Wilde’s play or Richard Strauss’s 1905 opera Salome, and sometimes as solo performances by aesthetic dancers such as Maud Allan, Loie Fuller, Mata Hari, and Gertrude Hoffman. For these artists, Flaubert’s story may well have been a source of inspiration. Flaubert’s status as a respected and much-read author, as well as his reputation for detailed research, made him an obvious source of ideas about Salome’s dance. In addition, his work carried an air of authenticity because of his own experiences in the Orient. In 1849-50, as a young man in his late twenties, he had traveled through Egypt, Turkey, and Greece, recording his observations in travel journals. While in Egypt he had witnessed several dancers of note: the almeh Azizeh, the famed male dancer Hasan el-Belbeissi, and most particularly, the almeh Kuchuk Hanem, whose dance was only one element of the complex emotional engagement Flaubert felt with her.
Flaubert may be best known to oriental dancers from these descriptions of Egyptian dance, both for the information they give and for the late 19th century prejudices about the Orient they convey. His poetic descriptions of Egyptian dance, emphasizing the sexuality, crudeness and grittiness of his experiences, underline the Western world’s association of Eastern dancing with the underside of life – prostitutes, homosexual or heterosexual; poverty, seaminess, and danger. But during his lifetime, his travel writings remained unpublished. His direct observations of the East were known only to his friends, while others – dancers, directors, and ordinary readers – only knew his evocative fictional visions of Eastern dance. And in the days before film, and before serious interest in or capability of documenting the dance practices of other cultures existed, Flaubert’s orientalizing Salome provided a compelling image of Eastern dance for Westerners.
In this essay I will explore how Flaubert presents Salome’s dance as a performance, and how it incorporates the performance traditions of the East and the West. This clarifies some of the deeply ingrained ideas about dancers, dance and performance that even today affect Western audiences for, and performers of, raqs sharqi. It also allows a clearer vision of Flaubert’s specific perspectives and limitations in his descriptions of actual Egyptian dance.
Flaubert’s Salome Dancing
In his story “Herodias,” Flaubert illustrates the failures and frustrations of Herod, ruler of Judea. He is a man caught between cultures, at the decadent end of an age, unable to overcome his own weaknesses and failures, and tricked by his momentary lust for his stepdaughter’s dancing into betraying what he knew was right and ordering the execution of John the Baptist. The climactic scene takes place at Herod’s birthday banquet, amidst religious argumentation, repulsive indulgence, and political scheming by Herodias, Herod’s wife, for whom he feels only revulsion. Herodias, knowing how to manipulate Herod’s weaknesses, sends Salome to dance for him.
But then there arose from the far end of the hall a hum of surprise and admiration. A girl had just come in.
Under a bluish veil that concealed her head and breasts, one could just make out the arch of her eyes, the chalcedonies in her ears, and the whiteness of her skin. A square of dove-colored silk covered her shoulders and was fastened to her loins by a jeweled girdle. Her black trousers were spangled with mandrakes, and she moved with indolent ease, her little slippers of hummingbirds’ down tapping on the floor.
Going up to the dais, she removed her veil. It was Herodias as she used to be in her youth. Then she began to dance.
Her feet flashed to and fro, to the music of the flute and a pair of castanets. Her rounded arms seemed to be beckoning someone who was forever fleeing from her. She ran after him, lighter than a butterfly, like an inquisitive Psyche or a wandering soul, always apparently on the point of fluttering away.
The castanets gave way to the funereal sound of the pipes: hope was followed by despondency. Her poses now suggested sighs, and her whole body was so languid that one could not tell whether she was mourning for a god or expiring in his embrace. With her eyes half-closed, she twisted her body backwards and forwards, making her belly rise and fall and her breasts quiver, while her face remained expressionless and her feet never stopped moving…
Next the girl depicted the frenzy of love that demands satisfaction. She danced like the priestesses of the Indies, like the Nubian girls of the cataracts, like the bacchantes of Lydia. She twisted from side to side like a flower shaken by the wind. The jewels in her ears swung in the air, the silk on her back shimmered in the light, and from her arms, her feet, and her clothes there shot invisible sparks which set the men on fire. A harp sang, and the crowd answered it with cheers. Without bending her knees, she opened her legs and leant over so low that her chin touched the floor. And the nomads inured to abstinence, the Roman soldiers skilled in debauchery, the avaricious publicans, and the old priests soured by controversy all sat there with their nostrils distended with desire.
Then she pirouetted madly around the Tetrarch’s table, like the sorceresses’ humming-top, and in a voice broken by sobs of passion, he cried to her:
She went on spinning round, while the crowd roared and the dulcimers rang out as if they would burst. But the Tetrarch could be heard shouting above the din:
“Come! Come! You shall have Capernaum, the plain of Tiberias, my citadels, half my kingdom!”
She threw herself on her hands with her heels in the air, and in that position ran around the dais like a great beetle. Then she stopped abruptly.
Her neck and her spine were at right angles. The colored sheaths about her legs hung down over her shoulders and on either side of her face to within a cubit of the ground. Her lips were painted, her eyebrows black, her eyes well-night terrifying, and the beads of sweat on her forehead looked like vapour on white marble.
She did not speak. They looked at one another.
There was a snapping of fingers on the balcony . . .
Herodias has called Salome to her to instruct her to ask for John the Baptist’s head.5
There are or may be some elements of this scene that reflect Flaubert’s experience of Eastern dance. Victor Brombert observes, “[Salome’s dance] rehearses, after an interval of twenty-five years, the dances of the Near Eastern prostitutes Flaubert and his friend Bouilhet [sic] had witnessed in the house of the courtesan Kuchiouk Hanem . . . Aziza’s motionless face as she dances with her neck sliding back and forth on her vertebrae . . . prefigures the expressionless face of Salome . . . The performance of Kuchiouk Hanem, who during her dance gradually lowers the head until she reaches with her teeth a cup of coffee set on the ground, prefigures Salome’s feat of leaning over so low, with her legs spread apart, that her chin touches the floor.” Marianna Mustacchi comments, “The description of Salome’s dance is by far the most complete rendition of an oriental dance found in any of Flaubert’s works,” finding that the “direct source [for this passage is] his recollection of Azizeh’s dance” (44). Edward Said observes that Kuchuk Hanem is the prototype for Salome and for other images of feminine carnality.6 These scholarly views come from very different perspectives: Said explores Orientalism as a political strategy for the domination of the East by the West, Brombert describes Flaubert’s literary technique, and Mustacchi (who also wrote several articles for the oriental dance publication Arabesque) studies literary depictions of dance. But they all reflect the way that scholars (as well as creative artists in the early 20th century and even the oriental dancers of today) have developed a habit of reading this dance as an Eastern dance, or at the very least, a Westerner’s appropriation of Eastern dance. But when Flaubert’s Salome dance is examined in detail, it is clear that in almost every way it is the creation of a Western dance aesthetic, and that it reflects staging, choreography, and ideas about the dance that are entrenched in Western theatrical tradition, specifically the Romantic ballet.
Scholars have understandably been interested in the politically significant issue of how influential Western visions of the East, including its dance, reflect the colonialist misconceptions about the East, and how these ideas have continued to dominate the Western ways of understanding Eastern life. But another aspect of Orientalism, and one which is particularly important of oriental dancers, is the way in which the East has emerged in the Western tradition as a place for women to express sexuality, desire, authority, and transgression of social codes – all while conforming in some respects to traditional expectations of feminine behavior. It is important for oriental dancers to understand these conventions, especially when so many members of the oriental dance community are trying to reach beyond them into non-patriarchal modes of expression, or aesthetics specific to traditions of Eastern dance performance. Flaubert’s Salome dance is a key text in this process.
Flaubert, Gautier, and the Romantic Ballet
Nothing illustrates Flaubert’s reliance on Western ideas of dance for his Salome scene, better than a comparison with a dance scene from a short story written by Theodore Gautier almost 40 years before Flaubert’s “Herodias.” Gautier, an influential author, publisher and journalist who shared Flaubert’s fascination with the Orient, was one of the more prominent members of Flaubert’s circle of friends. About 10 years Flaubert’s senior, he was a close friend of Maxime du Camp, Flaubert’s traveling companion in the Middle East. (In fact du Camp and Flaubert had dinner with Gautier on the eve of their departure for Egypt, and du Camp dedicated his published account of this trip to him.) After the travelers returned, Gautier encouraged Flaubert’s literary career. They were lifelong friends, and Flaubert was terribly distressed when Gautier died in 1872.
Gautier, in addition to his other literary activities, was a ballet critic whose essays provide us with insight into how people of his time viewed the meaning of female dance and theater. He was intimately involved in the world of ballet, both professionally (he wrote the scenario for Giselle, the quintessential Romantic ballet) and personally (he maintained a 30-year romantic friendship with the ballerina Carlotta Grisi, and lived with her sister, the singer Ernesta Grisi, by whom he had two children). Gautier wrote the short story “Une Nuit de Cleopatre,” “One of Cleopatra’s Nights,” in 1838, and it was serialized in La Presse, the newspaper in which he published most frequently. He had also envisioned this story as a ballet. He submitted a scenario entitled “Cleopatre” to the Paris Opera in 1838. It was accepted, but never finally produced.7 In this story, a commoner, Meiamoun, ignores the love of a virtuous ordinary woman to indulge his hopeless passion for Cleopatra. Cleopatra, with easy cruelty, strikes a bargain with him: she will spend one night with him, after which he will drink poison. The dance scene takes place near the end of their luxurious night.
Gautier’s “Une Nuit de Cleopatre” and Flaubert’s “Herodias” have vastly different effects. Gautier’s story is a light tale, written by a young man (27), often with an almost tongue-in-cheek appreciation of its own sensationalism. Flaubert’s “Herodias” is a mature man’s disturbing, painful story of moral failure and cultural decline. Cleopatra’s dance is a sensual delight that concludes the exotic fable; Salome’s dance encapsulates the casual mindlessness of moral destruction. But the similarities in the two dances as performance are striking. Here is Gautier’s, set near dawn in Cleopatra’s brilliantly lit banquet hall:
Towards the end of the meal humpbacked dwarfs and tiny Moors performed grotesque dances and combats; then entered Egyptian and Greek maidens, representing the white and the black hours, dancing to the Ionian mode a voluptuous dance of inimitable perfection.8
Cleopatra herself rose from her throne, cast off her royal mantle, changed her starry diadem for a wreath of flowers, slipped golden crotala on her alabaster hands, and began to dance before Meiamoun, lost in ecstasy. Her fair arms, curved like the handles of a marble vase, cast above her streams of sparkling notes, and her crotala clattered with ever-increasing volubility. Standing upon the golden tips of her little feet, she advanced rapidly and touched Meiamoun’s brow with a kiss; then she resumed her dance and fluttered around him, sometimes throwing herself back, her head down, her eyes half-closed, her arms limp, her hair undone and hanging, like a Bacchante of Maenalus inspired by her god; sometimes quick, lively, laughing, butterfly-like, indefatigable, and more capricious in her meanderings than a bee in pursuit of honey. She expressed everything, — heart’s love, sensual voluptuousness, ardent passion, inexhaustible, fresh youth, the promise of future happiness.
The modest stars had ceased to look. Their chaste, golden eyes could not have bourne such a sight; even the sky was effaced, and a dim, fiery vapor covered the hall (281-2).
The similarities in these scenes (written forty years apart but by men who shared a culture, a circle of friends, familiarity with one another’s writings, a consciously romanticized longing for the Orient, and many conversations) reflect a deeply held, gut-level idea of what the dance of the East should be. Far stronger in both authors’ minds than real Eastern dance was the exoticized, gaslit and painted world across the footlights, the “erotic display” of the ballerina whose fame and chaotic status in the world of rank placed her above ordinary men, yet made her indelibly the object of their longing and their gaze.
One element of both scenes is the theatrical framing of the dance. Both scenes are set in a banquet hall, amid celebrants who are eager for entertainment as the appropriate conclusion of their evening. Gautier’s version in particular reflects a delight in lighting effects, as he describes how in the palace, “Light poured in torrents, and coursed from step to step like cascades down the porphyry stairs” (“Une Nuit,” 280). This kind of brilliant interior lighting was the technical pride of Western theaters, especially in the days before electricity made such lighting effects more attainable in less illustrious venues. In both, the dancer herself, lit to effect on the literary “stage,” appears as a source of light: Cleopatra’s crotala cast above her streams of sparkling notes, and as for Salome, “the silk on her back shimmered in the light, and from her arms, her feet, and her clothes there shot invisible sparks which set the men on fire.”
Both scenes incorporate the symbolic “opening of the curtain” in the dancer’s act of unveiling. Cleopatra simply throws off her cloak and puts on a flower wreath (an allusion to the imagined conventions of ancient Greek dance) and crotala (essentially, castanets). Salome’s unveiling is richer and more theatrical: she appears suddenly, as if making a stage entrance; her head is covered by a transparent veil, which makes her a partly-seen mysterious figure. When she throws off her veil, symbolic curtains part. One “curtain” is between past and present, another between lust and revulsion, as she is revealed to by the image of her mother Herodias, many years before. Another is between order and chaos, as the concealed, mysterious icon suddenly bursts into compelling, erotic movement. Jean Morris observes that veils – actual and in imagery – are an omnipresent motif in Flaubert’s fiction set in antiquity and the Orient, and that the veils produce a sense of “unreality . . . and theatricalizing doubt.” Observing that “hijab,” the Arabic word for veil, means “curtain,” Morris discusses how Flaubert frequently uses this image to “create a separation between two people (the spectator and the performer, for example) or between two spaces (as in the theater’s opposition between the space of the real and the space of illusion)” (67, 81). Salome’s unveiling fits this pattern. This notion of revealing, uncovering and displaying the dancer, clearly an element of Orientalism, is equally clearly a deeply imbedded principle of the staging of Romantic ballet, when mists part, crowds recede, or illusions fall away to reveal the dancer in her exotic beauty. With Cleopatra and Salome the dancer’s revelation takes place with the drop of a veil, reinforcing the particularly Eastern metaphor.
In both dances, the musical accompaniment described is more balletic than actually Eastern. Flaubert had described the musical accompaniment to Kuchuk Hanem’s dance in very uncomplimentary terms: “[The musicians] scrape on the rebabah . . . Nothing could be more discordant or disagreeable. The musicians never stop for a moment unless you shout at them to do so” (Steegmuller 115). But in Salome’s dance, he, like Gautier, chooses the flute and castanets (and later, dulcimers) for his ballerina, though Salome, unlike Cleopatra, does not play the crotala herself. These are the instruments thought to be typical of ancient dance, whose sounds were sometimes imitated in the orchestration of ballet scores to indicate ancient or Eastern music.
The playing of the castanets was, perhaps surprisingly to us today, a skill that ballerinas were expected to have in the mid-19th century, since crowd-pleasing Spanish pas featured in many ballets. Gautier writes of Fanny Elssler, “At the tips of her rosy fingers quiver ebony castanets. . . With her hands she seems to shake down great clusters of rhythm” (Romantic Ballet 15). He envisions Cleopatra’s playing in similar terms.
The similes both authors use are also the images of the Romantic ballet. Both describe the dancer as a butterfly, an image of lightness and grace that occurs frequently in contemporary discussions of ballet, as in Gautier’s obituary for Emma Livry, who died of burns received onstage when her costume caught fire in the footlights. Both also describe the dancer’s fluttering back and forth. Flaubert’s Salome “seemed to be beckoning someone who was forever fleeing from her,” and chases after him like “a wandering soul, always apparently on the point of fluttering away . . .” He could be describing the diaphanous spirits (who are in fact wandering souls) of Giselle. Likewise, the seemingly Eastern image he evokes when he writes that “her whole body was so languid that one could not tell whether she was mourning for a god or expiring in his embrace” reflects an image from a popular orientalizing ballet, Le Dieu et la Bayadere (1830), which contains just such a scene.
Both Flaubert and Gautier evoke the image of the maenads, female worshippers of Dionysus who, in mythology at least, danced wildly in the mountains in honor of their god. The wildness of the maenads is part of a Western tradition of describing women’s expressive dance, which emphasizes its variability and rapidly changing nature. Cleopatra’s dance is sometimes ecstatic, sometimes inward and languid, sometimes lively and capricious. Salome’s dance whirls through the more complicated variations of rapid seeking, funereal despondency, “the frenzy of love which demands satisfaction,” and mad whirling around. This vision of Eastern (and ancient) dance makes the “stage” the locale for an emotional whirlwind, the theatrical depiction of the essentialized woman’s emotional instability.
The techniques of both dances are clearly Western. Cleopatra (like Moreau’s Salome) dances on the tips of her toes, and Salome’s “feet flashed to and fro . . .” and “never stopped moving,” reflecting the ballerina’s virtuosity rather than Eastern movements Flaubert had observed (such as hands alternating to rest on the head, repetitive hip movements such as Bambeh performs, or Kuchuk Hanem’s step-hop) that could have expressed a similar hypnotic drive in an Eastern milieu. Salome “pirouettes madly,” again, a balletic convention for expressing wildness, chaos, risk, or frenzy. (There is such use of this movement in Gautier’s Giselle, for example.) Her “rounded arms” (like Cleopatra’s) are a stock compliment for ballerinas in contemporary critics’ reviews rather than an evocation of Eastern fluidity. And interestingly, one particularly appropriate Eastern movement Flaubert observes and comments on in Azizeh’s dance, the head slide, with its “terrifying effect of decapitation” (Steegmuller 121), is not a feature of Salome’s choreography.
Flaubert also describes Salome as performing two acrobatic feats. In one, she leans forward without bending her knees until her chin touches the floor, and in the other, she walks on her hands “like a giant beetle.” The first feat is often compared to a dance of Kuchuk Hanem, in which a cup of coffee is placed on the ground, and she “dances before it, then falls on her knees and continues to move her torso, always clacking the castanets, and describing in the air a gesture with her arms as though she were swimming. That continues; gradually the head is lowered, she reaches the cup, takes the edges of it between her teeth, and then leaps up quickly with a single bound” (Steegmuller 118). The second is said to recall a backbend in the dance of Azizeh – a more supportable comparison. Maxime du Camp observes, “Sometimes [Azizeh] bent herself completely over backwards, supporting herself on her hands in the position of the dancing Salome over the left portal of the Rouen cathedral” (Steegmuller 155). While Flaubert says nothing about this move in his travel notes, there is a good chance that the two men shared their impressions at the time, and Flaubert read du Camp’s account when it was published, so he was certainly aware of du Camp’s connection of Azizeh, Salome and backbends. And he does casually describe “Herodias” as a story about one of the figures from Rouen in an October 1875 letter to Turgenev.
All the same, the movements of Flaubert’s Salome are not really like the movements of Kuchuk Hanem and Azizeh. Salome’s forward bend is more like a split, leaning forward and maintaining her balance. Du Camp describes Azizeh as performing a standing backbend in which her hands touch the ground, which is a far cry from Salome’s running around on her hands. The movements Flaubert describes were most likely inspired by the acrobats who could be seen performing in outdoor cafes such as the Alcazar on the Champs Elysees, or in other popular venues. In fact, although it was 20 years later, Oscar Wilde saw a Rumanian acrobat dancing on her hands at the Moulin Rouge in Paris, and was interested in contacting her to perform in his own version of Salome (Ellmann 343). However much one would like to connect these movements with oriental dance, Flaubert is not describing the forward and backward bends that were seamlessly incorporated into Eastern dance performance, but rather the dramatic acrobatic tricks he and his readers were familiar with from their own culture.
The most striking differences between Flaubert’s descriptions of Eastern dancers and his Salome, though, are his portrayal of the dancer herself, and her relationship with the audience.
As with Gautier’s Cleopatra, Salome reflects the 19th century physical ideal of the Romantic ballerina, youthful and with a rounded shapeliness (rather than, as in our day, extremely thin). She is the image of pampered physical perfection. Salome (like Salammbo, another of Flaubert’s ancient oriental dancers) is a maiden, with a virgin’s aura of untouchability despite the lust she inspires. Even Cleopatra evokes carnality more than she practices it. The dancer’s skin is described as very white; neither Gautier nor Flaubert represents an Eastern beauty, dark-haired, dark-eyed, racially Other. And Flaubert in particular abandons his favorite mode of description of Eastern dancers: to insert into the account of their attractions disillusioning observations of ugliness and imperfection.
The convention of the Eastern dancer (often called a bayadere, the name commonly used for the Indian devadasi) dancing for an Eastern potentate was well established in Romantic ballet by the early 19th century, so it is not surprising that both stories follow the orientalizing notion of the dancer performing for an audience of one, despite the presence of a crowd of others. Cleopatra dances for the doomed Meiamoun, even caressing him in passing, while Salome dances for Herod (it is his birthday after all), and concludes her performance in front of him, fixing him with her strange inverted gaze. Gautier does not mention Cleopatra’s audience, but Flaubert does: he notes the hum of admiration when Salome enters, the lust that her dance inspires, and also shows us a vocal audience who answers the harp’s sound with cheers, and which roars as Salome spins wildly around the room. It is difficult to know how Eastern audiences would have responded to dance performances, given our lack of information, but it is well documented that ballet audiences were very vocal in approval or disapproval of dancers in performance, a tradition of audience participation that also extended into the less exalted theaters where burlesque performances could be seen.
Why did we ever fall into the habit of seeing Salome’s dance as Eastern? Its dancer is a ballerina, the technique is balletic, the images are the images of the discourse of Romantic ballet, the orientalizing elements are the traditional Orientalisms of ballet rather than Flaubert’s grittier observations of the East, its audience is a ballet audience, and its almost narrative structure and emotional timbre are that of a ballet performance. The elements that are often called Oriental are not Flaubert’s Orientalism but the traditional Orientalism of ballet.
When this scene is recognized as balletic, it gives us grounds for observing both some specific prejudices Flaubert brought with him on his descriptions of Eastern dance, and some theatrical assumptions that even oriental dancers still make in performing Eastern dance.
Describing Eastern Dance
To begin with, Flaubert is a brilliant writer but he is not a very good observer of dance, and he does not describe its techniques effectively or with the evocative imagery he brings to other subjects. His Salome scene succeeds because he conveys so many complexities of the situation, and he describes the dance in vibrant images, but his physical descriptions are awkward. The same is true of his descriptions of Eastern dance. We are reminded that Flaubert was not a trained observer of dance, and that he had the typical (even today) Western failure to recognize Eastern techniques. His comments about the relative qualities of dancers – for example, the fact that he was impressed by Hasan el-Belbeissi and Azizeh but thought Kuchuk Hanem was overrated – may reflect his own failure to recognize good dancing in an Eastern milieu, and his inclination only to recognize quality in more extraverted dance forms and styles.
There are many ways in which Flaubert’s descriptions of Egyptian dance are illuminated by his Salome dance, but I will focus on only three: the audience, the person of the dancer, and the expressionlessness of the dance.
The Audience: The audience both Gautier and Flaubert portray shows one “honored” man who is destroyed in the end, and a crowd of appreciative witnesses. When Flaubert describes Egyptian dance, he puts himself in the place of the “single observer,” the man towards whom the dance is directed.9 We see the dancer through his gaze, but we also see a relationship between the two of them, which has an overglaze of destruction. Lying beside Kuchuk Hanem, Flaubert recalls Judith and Holofernes, another Biblical seduction followed by beheading. His focus is so completely on himself and the dancer that when he describes dance performances, it always comes as a bit of a surprise to realize that so many people are actually there – with every mention of a new observer, the impression of intimacy is shaken a little. It is almost as if the rest of the world – like Kuchuk Hanem’s musicians when she performs the Bee – are blindfolded. It is reasonable enough that Flaubert’s depiction of the scenes he understands as preludes to sexual intimacy, he should focus on himself and the dancers, but even in the public performance of Hasan el-Belbeissi, the audience fades away, and only the performer and the observer remain.10 Flaubert brings the convention of the Romantic ballet’s “performance for a powerful audience of one” to his experience of Eastern dance.
The Dancer: Flaubert went to the Orient wanting to find something different from the “shimmering, screaming, passionate” world of “dancing-girls and curved sabers.” What he “found” was a deeper and more political type of Orientalism than that of the Romantic ballet: “This is the true Orient and consequently the poetic one as well: rag-bedecked scoundrels covered in vermin. If you leave them alone, these vermin form golden arabesques in the sun” (quoted in Donato 49). Beauty, in Flaubert’s Orient, arises from the grotesque.
When he describes Egyptian dancers, he describes them “warts and all,” insisting on the individual types of ugliness underlying their effect as performers. Kuchuk Hanem has a bad tooth; Hasan el-Belbeissi is “very ugly,” and Flaubert describes Azizeh in a way that evokes European ideas of the African grotesque (e.g. “black – or rather, green – frizzy negro hair”). It is possible, though, that his derogatory comments are a flippant articulation of his perception of a real aesthetic difference between the conventions of performance of his culture and the East: that in Egypt, idiosyncrasies and flaws did not negate the charm, ability and success of these “ugly” yet strangely beautiful performers. Yet his Salome does not have the flawed individuality of the Eastern dancers he admired, but the iconic beauty appropriate for the Western stage.
“Expressionless”: One of the few observations of Eastern dance that Flaubert preserves in his description of Salome is insistence on expressionlessness in the midst of voluptuous movement: “[S]he twisted her body backwards and forwards, making her belly rise and fall and her breasts quiver, while her face remained expressionless . . .” He notes this detail in his descriptions of the dancers he is most impressed by (but does not have sex with, in contrast to Kuchuk Hanem). Of Azizeh he says, in blunt travel notes, “Furious jerking of the hips. The face always expressionless” (122). Of Hasan el-Belbeissi and his (male) dancing partner, he comments, “The dancers move forward and back. Expressionlessness of their faces under the streaks of rouge and sweat. The effect comes from the gravity of the face contrasted with the lascivious movements of the body . . .” (70).
One wonders what Flaubert saw that he interpreted as “expressionless.” In his own culture, ballet was essentially dramatic, and dancers maintained dramatic personae through much of their performance. In extensive pantomime sequences, the dancer’s face would have been very expressive. In the pas, dance sequences focused on displaying the dancer’s technique and personal charm, the conventions of Western dance encouraged her to express pleasure in movement and connection with the audience through smiling. Eastern conventions of dance probably did not involve the same sort of pleasure-projection through facial expression that Western dance did; the dancer’s expression may have been relaxed, receptive, or subtly changing, or dancers may have adopted “conversational” expressive patterns rather than Western-style performance projections. In other words, Flaubert could have been responding to real cultural differences in the conventions of performed dance. Salome’s lack of expression would have been a marker for an Eastern performance style.
Regardless of cultural differences, Flaubert certainly imbued this expressionlessness with a meaning that attributed to the women of the Orient, and its male and female dancers, an issue that was deeply characteristic of his own nature: the split between sensual experience and true pleasure, between sexuality and emotional tenderness. Significantly, he does not focus on the idea of expressionlessness in his description of Kuchuk Hanem, with whom he apparently felt or longed to feel some real connection. The literature of the Orient, orientalist art, and the experiences of others in his circle of friends and acquaintances, had all prepared Flaubert to find this potent metaphor for his own sense of dissociation and cultural decline.
Flaubert knew something about real Egyptian dance, however little he could really appreciate it. But when it came to writing a scene in which the dance of the East played a vital symbolic role, he ignored what he knew and instead portrayed the mythic images he had lived with all his life. Myth – as so often – was stronger than reality; archetype overwhelmed observation.
Western Traditions in Eastern Dance
I asked why Salome’s dance was ever thought to be Eastern, given its obvious balletic underpinnings. Perhaps one answer is that many of the elements of Salome’s dance that reflect the orientalizing aesthetics of Romantic ballet, have become entrenched elements of raqs sharqi as practiced in the West.
Some of these, such as the idea of dancing for one man and/or before an audience of excited men, are stereotypes oriental dancers still struggle with. But others are accepted elements of Western raqs. Salome, like the ballerina, makes an entrance that causes a hum of admiration, rather than simply beginning to weave her dance. After her veiled, mysterious presence during her entrance, she unveils. As most oriental dancers are aware, the use of the veil in oriental dance is a Western invention. It corresponds to our perception that the act of uncovering the dancer is central to the appreciation of women’s dance: an idea we have applied to the East, but which is clearly a Western issue. Salome’s dance, like the American 5- or 7- part routine, expresses a variety of moods. Her dance is extremely expressive, in a way that is both sensual (the “love that demands satisfaction” and attuned to the spiritual world (“mourning for a god or expiring in his embrace”). She circles her audience with expansive movements, and extended spinning is the climactic moment of her dance. Then there is the dancer herself: young, flawless, and in the words of Theophile Gautier, “voluptuous but chaste.”11
When Mustacchi commented on the Eastern aesthetics of Salome’s dance, she was working from the flawed assumption that the oriental dance with which she was familiar, was really the dance of the Orient. She observes that the “very deliberate tripartite division [of Salome’s dance,] which proceeds from a light, butterfly-like tempo to a languorous, sensuous mood, and builds up to a fast, stunning climax, parallels the succession of segments, each danced to a different type of music so as to create different moods, of a typical dance routine as performed today” (45).
Salome’s dance is demonstrably not the dance Flaubert observed in Egypt, but the ballet of his own world. Yet, despite its technical differences, it is the very image of raqs sharqi as it has developed in the West.
The Uses of Orientalism
Edward Said’s Orientalism is one of the most influential books of the late 20th century. In it, he explores the range of Western myths about the East, and defines Orientalism as “a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient” (3). Clearly, in today’s difficult world, the political aspects of misreading the Orient are vital subjects of study. But the intra-cultural aspects of Orientalism are also important to understand, especially since that the position of the Eastern Other has for a long time given Western women a persona in which to find power, sensuality and spirituality, and to explore the interconnections between these areas from which they may well feel disenfranchised.
The Orient was one of three main sites for mythmaking in the West, manifesting in literature, visual art, and dance. Greco-Roman antiquity, with it s images of heroic warriors and vulnerable nymphs, was another, and the “peasant” world of fairy tales (where commoners were so unrealistically loved by kings) was a third. All three have a political dimension, as popular myths that served to maintain the status quo. But, in the contradictory nature of mythmaking, all three also served as an imaginative space in which these received ideas could be challenged. For the mythmakers of the 19th century, the ancient past, the Orient, and the world of fairy tales all offered alternative landscapes for the exploration of plots and passions that seemed limited and out of place in the humdrum world of the “present day.” And while ballet offered to men an enchanting vision of feminine loveliness, and the possibility and hope that the ballerina herself might be sexually available, it offered for women a scenario for escape from the ordinary and many metaphors for adventure, tragedy, joy, and wealth of experience.
Raqs sharqi as practiced in the West today is an extension of this tradition. The balletic Orientalisms of Flaubert’s Salome dance fit oriental dancers like a glove and we are often unable even to recognize them. When we do, we may be reluctant to set them aside, because they correspond with our own instinctive feelings about what the dance of the East offers us – since our instincts were formed by the Western tradition, after all. Our assumptions about the nature of Eastern dance have very deep roots in the Western tradition, and we exploit them in our development as Western artists. This is of course our right.
Yet if we are to understand what raqs really is – wherever we want to take it – we need to keep our subtle assumptions in mind. Many Westerners embrace raqs sharqi as a liberating point of departure from the limitations perceived in our own culture’s dance. Yet this use of the Eastern milieu is a long-established, powerful element of our own culture’s dance tradition.
Raqs has been a starting point for so many journeys of self-discovery not simply because of its intrinsic interest – though its music, aesthetics, and culture have led many on to deeper appreciation – but because it fills a position that Western culture has held for it for a very long time. Fanny Elssler and Carlotta Grisi as much as Isadora Duncan, Ruth St. Denis, La Meri, Morocco, Jamila Salimpour, Dahlena, Ibrahim Farrah and many others, have contributed to Western raqs sharqi’s images of sensual grace and voluptuous power. So, like it or not, have artists like Flaubert and Gautier, whose Cleopatras and Salomes have danced through our imaginations for centuries.
1 Quoted by Donato, 49.
2 This painting, by the way, is held by the Los Angeles County Museum or Art, Armand Hammer Collection.
3 Flaubert, Correspondence VIII.14, quoted in Brombert 253.
4 The first actual performance of a Salome dance was by Loie Fuller at the Folies Bergere in Paris in 1895; Fuller was probably aware of the potential of the theme from the controversy that had accompanied the publication of Wilde’s play and from a production of it that was prohibited by censors in 1892. Wilde’s play was finally performed (also in Paris) in 1896. A spate of Salome dances followed productions of Strauss’s opera beginning in 1905-6. There had been a previous opera/ballet version of Salome with music by Massenet, though this creatively scripted version had not even included a “dance before Herod.” For more on the early performance history of Salome dances, see Ellis 1-83, and Bizot.
5 Flaubert had actually stuck close to the Biblical narratives in Mark and Matthew for framing this scene, especially since he portrays Salome as the “innocent” tool of Herodias rather than as a love-lorn or vindictive woman herself. Most of his contemporaries who treated the Salome scene made Salome the one who wanted John dead, for whatever reason. See Ellis 1-83.
6 “Less a woman than a display of impressive but verbally inexpressive femininity, Kuchuk is the prototype of Flaubert’s Salammbo and Salome, as well as of all the versions of carnal female temptation to which his Saint Anthony is subject. . . . Yet like Tanit, Salome, and Salammbo herself, Kuchuk was doomed to remain barren, corrupting, without issue” (187). Said also observes the circularity of this inspiration, since western travelers like Flaubert and his acquaintance Gerard de Nerval also brought to the orient their own fascination with the occult, the macabre, and the femme fatale: “For Nerval and Flaubert, such female figures as Cleopatra, Salome and Isis have a special significance; and it was by no means accidental that in their work on the Orient, and in their visits to it, they pre-eminently valorized and enhanced female types of this legendary, richly suggestive, and associative sort” (180).
7 Guest, 58. In one of the bizarre interconnections so common in the ballet world, the plot of his story was adapted for a ballet produced in 1907 by Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, “Une Nuit d’Egypte” or “Cleopatre”. The role of Cleopatra was choreographed by Michel Fokine on Ida Rubinstein, who had only the year before had a great success with her St. Petersburg production of Oscar Wilde’s Salome; Wilde in turn was familiar with Flaubert’s Salome, especially the dance scene.
8 Gautier had actually seen a similar dance contrasting light-skinned and dark-skinned dancers in a ballet he had reviewed the year before. He commented critically on how the body-stockings of the darker dancers did not convey “the lovely amber-yellow colour of oriental complexions in which the eyes open like black flowers” (Guest 30).
9 See Stavros Stavrou, “Dismissal and Veiled Desire: Kuchuk Hanem and Imperial Politics of Masculinity,” in Habibi (current issue).
10 His description of el-Belbeissi’s performance focuses on El-Belbeissi but includes mentions of the other dancer and a commentator whose purpose, in Flaubert’s narrative at least, is to highlight the sexual deviancy and availability of the dancers.
11 This is not to say that these ideas are not also a part of raqs in is Eastern manifestations – no one familiar with Nagwa Fouad’s litter-bourne entrance to Sit el Hosni could say she didn’t know how to make an entrance, for example. Raqs sharqi developed through an exchange of Eastern and Western performance ideals. But the overlap of Western dance aesthetics and raqs performance does mean that we should be alert to what culture we are representing in our dance, and understand our artistic goals appropriately.
Bizot, Richard. The Turn-of-the-Century Salome Era: High- and Pop-Culture Variations on the Dance of the Seven Veils. Choreography and Dance 2.3 (1992), 71-87.
Brombert, Victor. The Novels of Flaubert: A Study in Themes and Techniques. Princeton University Press, 1966.
Dijkstra, Bram. Idols of perversity: fantasies of feminine evil in fin de siècle culture. Oxford University Press, 1986.
Donato, Eugenio. The Script of Decadence: Essays on the Fictions of Flaubert and the Poetics of Romanticism. Oxford University Press, 1993.
Ellis, Sylvia C. The plays of W. B. Yeats: Yeats and the dancer. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995.
Ellmann, Richard. Oscar Wilde. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1988.
Flaubert, Gustave. “Herodias.” In Three Tales. Trans. Robert Baldick. Penguin Books, 1965.
Gautier, Theophile. The Romantic Ballet. Cyril W. Beaumont, trans. and ed. New York: Arno Press, 1980.
Une Nuit de Cleopatre. In Complete Works, vol. IV. Ed. and trans. by F. C. DeSumichrast. Boston and New York: The C.T. Brainard Publishing Co., 1900.
Guest, Ivor, trans. and ed. Gautier on Dance. London: Dance Books Ltd., 1986.
Morris, Jean. History as a theatre of cruelty: representation and theatricality in Flaubert’s Salammbô and Hérodias and in Gustave Moreau’s Salome paintings. Ann Arbor: University Microfilms International, 1994.
Mustacchi, Marianna M. Flaubert in the Orient: From Myth to Creativity. Dance Scope 15.2, 37-46.
Said, Edward W. Orientalism. New York: Random House, 1978.
Steegmuller, Francis, trans. and ed. Flaubert in Egypt: A Sensibility on Tour. Chicago: Academy Chicago Publishers, 1979.
Andrea Deagon received her Ph.D. in Classical Studies from Duke University in 1984. She is Associate Professor at the University of North Carolina in Wilmington, where she directs the Classical Studies Program and teaches Women’s Studies. She has been involved with Middle Eastern Dance for over twenty years, as student, teacher, performer and scholar. In addition to classwork with the foremost proponents of Middle Eastern dance in America, she has also studied ballet, modern, African and Balinese dance. She is currently at work on a book, In the Corridors of Night: The Mythic Meanings of Insomnia, with grant and sabbatical support from UNC-W. (email:email@example.com)