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Oscar Wilde’s Salomé

Salomé’s Dance of the Seven Veils

Oscar Wilde, Esoteric Thought, and the Dancer

by Andrea Deagon, Ph.D.

All art is at once surface and symbol.

Those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril.

Those who read the symbols do so at their peril.

It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors.

(Oscar Wilde)

In the fall of 1891, Oscar Wilde, well-known in London as a playwright and novelist, went to Paris for a period of recreation and creative renewal among his many literary friends. He had been thinking for some time of writing a new treatment of the Salomé story, and he wanted to try his hand at writing it in French. As biographer Richard Ellmann describes it, assembling the accounts of Wilde’s friends and acquaintances,

“One night [Wilde] told his Salomé story to a group of young French writers, and returned to his lodgings in the boulevard des Capucines. A blank notebook lay on the table, and it occurred to him that he might as well write down what he had been telling them. ‘If the book had not been there I should never have dreamed of doing it…'” (Ellmann 343)

Oscar Wilde, c. 1890

The play took form in an explosive act of creation; Wilde said that he wrote it in one night and manuscripts show that he revised it very little afterwards. That spring in London, Wilde, enjoying the triumph of his hit play Lady Windemere’s Fan, persuaded the renowned actress Sarah Bernhardt to include Salomé in her London season. Production began quickly. But disastrously, the state censor refused to grant a performing license because of the play’s Biblical subject matter. For three more years it languished. By the time Salomé finally went into production in Paris in 1896, Wilde was in prison, serving two years at hard labor for sodomy. Prison destroyed his health and marred his career. Dead by 1900, he never saw Salomé performed.

In his Salomé, Wilde left a powerful vision of the Biblical dancer as a passionate but doomed femme fatale, written in a fascinating (if sometimes almost parodic) incantatory style. Despite critical ambivalence toward it (until recently at least), Salomé has had a lasting importance. And perhaps the most influential single line of the play was a simple, even stark, stage direction:

Salomé dances the dance of the seven veils.

The Dance of the Seven Veils has captured the imagination of popular culture for a century now. It evocatively incorporates the bodily dimension of dance, the mystical number seven, and the multivalent symbol of the veil. By the mid-20th century, the Dance of the Seven Veils was generally thought of as a harem-girl strip tease. But by the 1980’s, it had been re-envisioned as a sacred ritual and projected into the ancient past. When Wilde invented it, he unleashed a powerful idea through which artists, authors, dancers and religious thinkers have explored our culture’s conflicts in the realms of gender and power, body and spirit, identity and transformation.

Edouard Richter, Eastern Dancer, 1883

This article investigates the complex influences that went into the creation and first performances of the dance at the end of the 19th century. It explores two realms of the late 19th century experience that contributed to not only Wilde’s creation of the dance, but also the perceptions of both the artists who performed it, and their audiences. The first is esoteric thought, a significant thread of late Victorian spirituality. The other is performed dance: its venues, its techniques, and what it meant to be a dancer. These two realms combined to make Salomé’s Dance of the Seven Veils a rich interpretive field for the women who first performed it. And the controversial pairing of mystic symbols and a woman’s expressive, sensualized solo dance, has remained a vital tension in the performance of oriental dance today.

The Salomés

The gospels of Matthew and Mark describe the dance of the “daughter of Herodias” for Herod on his birthday, his promise to grant her anything she wanted in return, and that she asked what her mother told her to ask: the head of John the Baptist. Early on, Christian scholars identified the unnamed dancer with Herodias’ daughter Salomé, mentioned by the first century CE historian Josephus. Salomé’s dance and her licentious character were topics for church fathers such as Nicephorus and John Chrysostom; the dance itself and the maiden with the head are illustrated in manuscripts and monumental art in the medieval period. Renaissance and later painters frequently depicted Salomé (dressed in contemporary clothing, portrayed as a woman of their own culture), usually with the Baptist’s head.

Even after Wilde made the Dance of the Seven Veils a catchword for popular audiences, the veil never figured dominantly in representations of Salomé’s dance. What marked Salomé was never the veil, but the Head. The classic image of Salomé showed her as one half of an eternal dyad: the body (and all it represents) vs. the head (likewise). The body is conceived as female, the head male. The body is youthful, sexual, and without moral sense; the head is a mature man’s, ascetic, the silenced voice of God. The body is victorious in the present, “worldly” sphere, but subject to age, death, and the processes of history, thus ultimately revealed to be worthless. The silenced head continues to “speak” a truth that prevails in both heaven and history.

The pre-Christian rendition of this powerful cultural idea was Orpheus, the divine bard dismembered by Thracian Maenads, whose head floated down the river, still singing. In the Greek world, devoid of the Christian dualism of “good vs. evil,” the Maenads represented the god Dionysus, whose realm of chaotic, ecstatic experience complemented the dominant ideology of civilization and progress. Still, they are clearly primarily a threat in this story. The Maenads, like Salomé, are the unenlightened and possibly unenlightenable, those to whom the head’s incalculable wisdom, insight, and ethical sense is nothing. This image was a culturally comprehensible symbol in the West for at least 2,500 years, denoting fundamental conflicts that interlaced personal, social and political experience.

La Belle Otero in an orientalizing costume for the Folies Bergere, 1901

The Salomé motif entered a literary rage in the end of the 19th century, inspired by Heinrich Heine’s Atta Troll (1841), which portrayed the spirit of Herodias fondling and playing with the Baptist’s head; in the years that followed the story of the daughter/dancer overtook that of the wicked mother, and the motif proliferated in literature. “A patient researcher, Maurice Krafft, has listed 2,789 French poets who have written about Salomé . . . By the time Oscar Wilde had become fascinated with the theme, Salomé had been painted, received musical arrangements, mimed as a ballet, and had passed through three different literary genres: poetry, romance, and short story” (Severi 458-9).

These many artistic works divergently imagined Salomé as an innocent girl, a cruel siren, a femme fatale, an ice queen; they redefined the story’s family, personal and sexual dynamics; they described complex ethical and religious conflicts from different points of view. Salomé had become one of those figures whose reworking reflects a society’s need to reinterpret itself at a time of great change – and the vast social changes which marked the early twentieth century were already underway. S. I. Johnston comments,

It is always possible to propose reasons that such complex characters developed as they did, but . . . once they had become complex, they were allowed to remain that way. This implies that it is their complexity itself that appeals to the artist, the author, and their audiences. In seeking to understand the powerful hold that [such figures have had] upon our imaginations . . . we must embrace [their] complexity and look within it for the secret of [their] longevity (6-7).

When Oscar Wilde addressed the Salomé story, he was well aware that the heart of the story was precisely its complexity, clustering around the vital symbol of the lascivious female body and the disembodied masculine head. When he was first framing the story, he veered between seeing Salomé as a divinely inspired innocent, and an incarnation of evil. He toyed with different characterizations, plot twists and dénouements. The play he finally wrote revels in the story’s inherent complexities. His Salomé is a teenaged virgin, but she is described in the imagery of the eternal moon. She is overwhelmed by a violent passion for the ascetic prophet Iokanaan (John the Baptist), a passion with aspects of both a juvenile crush and a raging hunger of body and soul. Rejected by him (“Daughter of Sodom, come not near me!”), and surrounded by the petty squabbles and debaucheries of Herod’s court, her passion is warped into desire to possess what she cannot really have. Herod, whose melancholic and self-deceptive musings are central to the play, persuades her to dance for him. As her reward, she requests Iokanaan’s head. As others look on in horror, she addresses it at length: “ . . . If thou hadst looked at me thou hadst loved me. Well I know that thou wouldst have loved me, and the mystery of love is greater than the mystery of death . . .” With the stage in complete darkness, she announces, “I have kissed thy lips, Iokanaan . . .” Herod orders, “Kill that woman!” and in the final moments of the play, his soldiers crush her beneath their shields.

A North African dancer, costumed to perform for audiences in Europe, c. 1910

Critics have differed widely in their assessments of the play’s quality and performability, as well as on such issues as whether Salomé is an emancipated “New Woman” or a projection of 19th century misogyny. Wilde sought out such confusions; it was part of his definition of art: “Diversity of opinion about a work of art shows that the work is new, complex, and vital. When critics disagree, the artist is in accord with himself” (Dorian Gray 3). He apparently also took delight in creating in the audience a sense of failed interpretation and puzzlement:

“’This must be some secret symbol,’” they will say. “’What on earth can it mean?’”

“And what does it mean?” I asked.

“Nothing whatever,” said Oscar, “but that is just what nobody will guess.”

(Robertson 135) 1

Wilde framed the Dance of the Seven Veils so that it would share in the play’s contradictions, embodying them in a new, moving icon whose action was unveiling, and whose representative was a woman, the object of the sexual gaze yet the subject of the passion which dominated the play’s actions and revelations.

The Dance of the Seven Veils and its Esoteric Roots

Edward Piggott, the censor who forbade Salomé’s London performance in 1892, did so on the basis of its Biblical content alone, but when he called the play “half Biblical, half-pornographic” (Powell 33), he identified the crux of the play’s appeal. It juxtaposed sacred and erotic passions, but not only as opponents: as co-participants in a dysfunctional relationship that was all too close to the real dysfunctions of the whole society.

The Dance of the Seven Veils, an ornament on the shimmering fabric of the play, is a deliberately provocative image, meant to incite prurient assumptions amidst mystical referents. Into the midst of the battle between sacred (represented by the ascetic Iokanaan) and profane (represented in varying manifestations by all the denizens of Herod’s court), Salomé is a different voice, whose Dance of the Seven Veils interjects a new aspect of the divine. It is mystical, ancient and exotic, appropriately clad in a feminine body; it is also perhaps magical, in that it is oriented toward ritual action rather than words and faith.

Maud Allan performs as Salome, 1908.

While the easiest interpretation of Salomé’s dance was as a sexual tease, focusing on the removal of the veils, the nature of its action was clearly differently interpreted: Richard Strauss, for example, who used Wilde’s Salomé for the libretto of his 1905 opera of the same name, said that “[t]he dance should be purely oriental, as serious and measured as possible, and thoroughly decent, as if it was being done on a prayer-mat . . “ (quoted in Tydeman and Price, 130). Graham Robertson, who designed the costumes for the banned 1892 performance, based Salomé’s costume on the “sacerdotal robes of Aaron [the brother of Moses]” (Robertson 127). Apparently, if only among artists, it was agreed that Salomé in her dance could represent something spiritual as well as something carnal. That Wilde himself saw metaphorical meanings in the dance is attested by his inscription of a copy of the play he gave to Aubrey Beardsley, who illustrated its first English edition: “For Aubrey: for the only artist who, besides myself, knows what the dance of the seven veils is, and can see that invisible dance” (Hart-Davis 348 n. 3).

Christianity and its values, in Europe in the late 19th century, were assumed to represent both universal truth, and to be patently superior to “primitive” systems of belief. At the same time, mystic and esoteric thought was flourishing, providing a strong undercurrent of spiritual inquiry that exceeded the limits of mainstream Christian belief. Esoteric traditions, emphasizing secret paths to enlightenment through study with masters of ancient knowledge, had been a longstanding element of Western spiritual thought, and in the late 19th century they were proliferating and enjoying unprecedented popularity. Long established institutions, such as Freemasonry, had expanded to include record numbers of initiates; Theosophy was appropriated and popularized by Mme Blavatsky and the Theosophical Society; Rudolf Steiner was beginning to define Anthroposophy; occultism flourished and occult phenomena began to receive mainstream attention and discussion.2 In many of these schools of thought, Eastern wisdom was embraced as a font of knowledge, even privileged over the accepted “truths” of the Christian experience. In a similar vein, in the universities, scholars were pulling together parallel ideas from different cultures in arguments for universal patterns of human behavior. The disciplines of anthropology and psychology were taking shape in this atmosphere of exploring, intermixing (and appropriating) the thought of other cultures.3

It is possible to speculate on the extent to which these interrelated schools of thought affected Wilde; he was, for example, an enthusiastic Freemason4 and accomplished scholar in his University days. But it is more to the point that the upsurge of esoteric and syncretic thought reflected concerns of the age, and that the specific ideas of Freemasonry, Theosophy, and scholarly insight had a further effect on popular culture.

While relatively few of Wilde’s educated audience were likely to be adherents of one of these groups, esoteric thought was an integral aspect of mainstream culture, just as New Age spirituality has affected mainstream “spiritual literacy” in our own time. In the sections which follow, I will discuss some of the late 19th century esoteric thought surrounding the ideas of “seven,” “veils” and “dance” which may have influenced Wilde’s creation of the Dance of the Seven Veils, and which certainly provided fertile ground for its reception.


Seven is clearly a mystical number, noteworthy in both the Semitic and Indo-European mythological systems that were best known (and assumed to be universal) in the West when Wilde was writing. Seven is also a significant number, even the significant number, in almost every esoteric system. It appears in Kabbalistic and Christian Gnostic thought, in alchemy, and in Rosicrucianism. It was fundamental in Mme Blavatsky’s Theosophical system, both in the web of cultural interconnections that reveal universal truth to the initiate, and in the cosmos itself, where there are, for example, seven “layers” of earth and seven states of consciousness.

Albert G. Mackey, author/editor of an encyclopedia of Freemasonry first published in 1884, writes extensively on the significance of the number seven:

In every system of antiquity there is a frequent reference to this number, showing that the veneration for it proceeded from some common cause . . . The Pythagoreans called it a perfect number, because it was made up of 3 and 4, the triangle and the square, which are the two perfect figures. They called it also a virgin number . . . It is singular to observe the important part occupied by the number seven in all ancient systems. There were, for instance, seven ancient planets, seven Pleiades, and seven Hyades; seven altars burned continuously before the god Mithras; the Arabians had seven holy temples; the Hindus supposed the world to be enclosed within the compass of seven peninsulas; the Goths had seven deities . . . in the Persian mysteries were seven sacred caverns, through which the aspirant had to pass; in the Gothic mysteries, the candidate was met with seven obstructions . . . sacrifices were always considered the most efficacious when the victims were seven in number . . Much of Jewish ritual was governed by this number . . . The Hebrew idea, therefore, like the Pythagorean, is that of perfection. . . The Sabbath was the seventh day; Noah received seven days’ notice [many further scriptural examples follow] . . . the symbolic seven is to be found diffused in a hundred ways over the whole Masonic system. [There is a detailed discussion of sevens relative to the sun and Moon] . . .On every seventh day the moon assumed a new phase . . . In all countries the moon is best known under the beautiful figure of the unveiling Queen of Heaven. . . Hippocrates says that the septenary number, by its occult virtue, tends to the accomplishment of all things, as the dispenser of life and fountain of all its changes . . . (682-4)

This text shows some significant ideas about the ideology of “seven.” (1) Universality. Seven is assumed to be a universally sacred number, one of the ideas that unites all human religion and belief, however “advanced” or “primitive.” (2) Initiation. In the “Persian . . . and Gothic mysteries,” Mackey associates “seven” specifically with initiation, the progress of the individual into new states of knowledge and status – an important idea in Freemasonry, where progress through the Masonic degrees is marked by initiation rituals, as well as in other esoteric systems. (3) Feminization. While in some parts of this passage seven seems to be a sterile, unchanging, figuratively “sexless” number, in other places it is specifically feminized, in familiar mythic groups such as the Pleiades and the Hyades, and especially in its association with lunar cycles and the “beautiful figure of the unveiling Queen of Heaven.”5 (4) Action. Seven’s occult value is stressed: the idea that the number seven results in accomplishment, action, changes – an idea in keeping with the cataclysmic results of Salomé’s dance.

Two ideas that are significant in modern interpretations of the underlying meanings of the Dance of the Seven Veils do not seem to figure in the late 19th century thought-world: the descent of Ishtar/Inanna through the seven gates of the underworld, and the seven chakras.

The Babylonian text of Ishtar’s descent was known from the 1880’s onward; its earliest appearance is in German scholarly works. It was widely available in English translation by 1901 and possibly before (Frazer V. 8, 10 n.1; IX. 406 n.1). But late 19th century commentary on Ishtar’s descent does not emphasize her ritual unclothing at each of the seven gates and the possible meanings of her descent. Instead, accounts of the story focus on the role of her consort Tammuz, and on “fertility” issues: e.g. the barrenness of the earth while she is in the underworld. The popular scholarship of the late 19th century had created an overriding image of “primitive,” “fertility” religions, exemplified in Sir James Frazer’s 11-volume masterwork The Golden Bough, which centered on the figures of a Great Goddess and her son-consort, a “dying god,” whose relationship symbolized the eternal earth and its seasonal crops. Because it shoehorned Ishtar into this static “Great Mother” role, late 19th century scholarship did not recognize her actual position in Babylonian and Sumerian mythologies as a transgressive, liminal deity whose underworld journey was more than an explanation for the seasons of the year. Her journey – though it could easily have fed the contemporary interest in transformative initiation – was simply overlooked because its female protagonist was essentialized as a static maternal figure, of secondary interest to her supposedly more complex consort.6

The seven chakras are now firmly established in the popular consciousness as energy centers of the body. But in the late 19th century, the chakras were a new idea in the West, known only to a very few. The Oxford English Dictionary identifies the first use of the word in an article in an 1888 Theosophy publication. While the concept soon entered the intellectual vocabulary, it would not have figured on the thought horizon of Wilde and his audience.

This lack highlights a limitation in the late 19th century views of the mystical sevens: relevance to the body. The Masonic system embraces a time-frame of seven years which mark stages of human development, but outside of this temporal framework, the grosser physical body is not integrated in to the systems of seven, an absence also found in contemporary Theosophy. In the micro/macrocosm of fin de siècle spirituality, the external world is laced with sevens, and spiritual traditions from all nations resonate with the perfect number. But the human body is only tenuously tied into the loop.

This exclusion of the body from the realm of the sacred is clearly an issue of late Victorian thought, both spiritual and scientific. As clear as is this break between the body and the sacred, there is also clearly a widespread trend toward bringing the two realms together, as witness such diverse threads as the German physician Richard von Krafft-Ebing’s controversial linking of sexual and sacred urges, and the physical culture program of Etienne Delsarte, oriented toward uniting body, heart and mind through exercise and performance. But despite these trends, the habit of opposing body and soul was deeply ingrained. It resonates, of course, in the dominant image of the Salomé story: the disembodied, spiritual head of John, and the carnal, desiring, dancing body of Salomé.

Even the most perfect number would be hard pressed to bridge that gap.


The veil, in the sense of a practical or ornamental but certainly symbolic head or body covering for women, was an element of the dress of most Eastern and Western societies from Greco-Roman antiquity until the current century. Its use varied widely with respect to its prevalence through different social classes, how often and on what occasions it was worn, and the degree to which it was a real concealment vs. a symbolic covering: from the Roman matron’s stola, to the all-covering burka, to the swath of netting across a modern bride’s tiara. East and West, whatever their differences in its actual use, shared this millennia-old association between a woman’s matur(ing) sexuality, and the need (defined as the woman’s and/or society’s) for it to be, on some occasions at least, and however flimsily – concealed. The fascination of the West with the veil in its Eastern manifestations, our willingness and eagerness to portray it, interpret it, gaze at it, and dance with it, arise in part because, as we seemingly interpret another culture, we are also speaking from and about our own ideas of concealing and revealing.

Because the concealing veil must eventually be removed, it has come to embody the intersection between culturally vital oppositions: modesty and sexual desire, sacred taboo and sensual revelation, protected interiority and objectified display. The motion of uncovering is the motion of confusion, revelation, and change. The ancient Greeks, for example, portrayed in their art a veil gesture which evoked this complex moment. The gesture of a woman holding a veil close to her face – static as it is in art – could indicate a woman hiding herself (to preserve her modesty against an unwanted gaze, or to hide her own sexual excitement), or revealing herself to her husband. In Wilde’s era as in our own, visitors to the British Museum could observe in the “Elgin marbles,” plundered from the Athenian Parthenon, a classic example of this action as the goddess Hera sits before her husband Zeus.

In this well-known instance, and in many other places in the Greek and Roman art and literature that Europe identified as the font of its own culture, the veil also represented the yielding of all that is vulnerable, feminine and Other to the domination of the physically and intellectually virile male. The gesture had naturally come to symbolize other fin de siècle concerns, and had attained an almost universal relevance: E. Showalter observes, “science and medicine had traditionally made use of sexual metaphors which represented “Nature” as a woman to be unveiled by the man who seeks her secrets . . . [T]he veiled woman who is dangerous to look upon also signifies the quest for the mystery of origins, the truths of birth and death” (145).

It is not surprising, therefore, that increasingly in the 19th and 20th centuries, in the age of colonial powers in the Eastern world, the veil should take a central place in the discourse of how the powerful, civilized, progressive and “masculine” West should “rightfully” dominate the Orient it defined as weak/despotic, over-refined/barbaric, backward/eternal – and therefore, “feminine.” Orientalist art only occasionally represented the gauzy, sensuous veil as an instrument of dance; art representing Greco-Roman antiquity is almost equally likely to show sensuous maidens fingering a slipping, blowing, fluttering or otherwise not-very-concealing diaphanous veil. But in the discourse of the Orient, the frequently expressed and illustrated idea of an all-concealing outside appearance, and an utterly naked, leisured and degenerate existence within a harem stocked with masseuses and narghiles, heightened the sense of sexuality awaiting beneath the feminine veil. Whether Salomé was a disheveled Maenad or a daughter of the harem, the very mention of her concealing veils was, ironically, implicit permission to imagine her naked, languorous – and maybe even a little bit stoned.

On the other hand, the veil is equally clearly associated with a range of sacred meanings which was manifest throughout late 19th century esoteric thought. Mme Blavatsky, in the preface to her 1877 work The Veils of Isis, uses the veil as a symbol of the processes of enlightenment by which Truth is revealed to the seeker:

“Reverently we stepped in spirit within the temple of Isis; to lift aside the veil of “the one that is and was and shall be” at Sais; to look through the rent curtain of the Sanctum Sanctorum at Jerusalem; and even to interrogate within the crypts which once existed beneath the sacred edifice, the mysterious Bath-Kol. The Filia Vocis — the daughter of the divine voice — responded from the mercy-seat within the veil, and science, theology, every human hypothesis and conception born of imperfect knowledge, lost forever their authoritative character in our sight.”

In Blavatsky’s imagery, the one within the veil is the one who, when seen clearly by the outsider, brings enlightenment. Knowledge – personified as feminine in the figures of Isis and the Filia Vocis – conceals itself by nature, but allows itself to be seen to the true seeker. In this context, the veiled dancer could represent a powerful voice of truth, and her dance, the progress toward that truth’s revelation to those outside the veil.

An opposite but related reading of the veil is found in the masculine imagery of Freemasonry: the veil does not clothe the concealed (therefore “feminine”) truth, but rather stands between the initiate and the external, manifest (therefore “masculine”) truth he aspires to. The four veils of the tabernacle (concealing curtains, not fabric to be worn) “present obstacles to the neophyte in his progress to the place where the grand council sits… The passage through the veils is, therefore, a symbol of the trials and difficulties that are encountered and must be overcome in the search for and the acquisition of truth” (Mackey v. II p. 825). M. Carnes observes that, in the rigidly masculine context of Freemasonry, feminizing imagery was often used of initiates: for example, the blindfolds used in initiations were called “veils” (86). He suggests that the purely masculine space of Masonic ritual allowed men to put aside the limiting factors of the masculinity their culture required of them by incorporating feminine imagery into their rituals (87-90). I would add that in many cultures, initiation ritual feminizes male initiates, destabilizing, inverting – and perhaps lowering – their established identity before raising them to a new status. Salomé’s dance could, in some dark undercurrent, evoke (or invert) the feminized initiate’s progress toward a final truth.

In the Classical tradition, which dominated the elite educational system of the late 19th century, the veil was generally associated with women, and often with the motif of uncovered sexuality. But it figured in initiation in one well-known instance: the Eleusinian Mysteries, where the initiate sat “veiled and in silence” before the next day’s rituals (Frazer VII:38). These rituals, the most famous of the ancient world, incorporated the conceptual triad of “things seen, things said, things done.” These three elements were present in the initiation rituals of fraternal organizations; they were a part of the popular consciousness of Wilde’s era. And in his Salomé, the things seen and things said are a prominent contrast of the play, as Iokanaan’s disembodied voice contrasts with Salomé’s visual presence. The “thing done” is the Dance of the Seven Veils. After its completion, the hesitations and prevarications of the first part of the play must cease, and the play rushes to its violent conclusion. Truth, of a sort, is revealed.

Wilde’s writings in general reveal a sensitivity to the significance of the veil, as K. Worth observes:

Imagery of veiling and unveiling is frequent in Wilde’s prose writings and is usually associated with some kind of spiritual exploration. . . Unveiling was an appropriate image for the activity which Wilde regarded as the artist’s primary duty: self-expression and self-revelation. In performing the dance of the seven veils, Salomé is then perhaps offering not just a view of the naked body but of the soul or innermost being (66-7).

Wilde has provided a scenario in which the audience watches from outside the veil, making the dancer the object of their gaze. But he has also created a Salomé who speaks her mind, pursues her desires, and (like the artist) performs her own dance which is defined by the context as valuable enough to win half a kingdom or destroy a precious human life. He leaves us with a central complication: the tension between the dancer as a subject, experiencing and speaking from inside the veil, and the dancer as an object, whose veiled, then revealed, body “belongs” to the viewer. This is a tension inherent to women’s performance of dance in patriarchal society, and it is an issue addressed by not only Wilde’s Salomé but the many Salomé dancers of the early 20th century.


Dance was, of course, a central part of the Salomé story, if only as the (literal) embodiment of the opposing poles of experiences defined and valued by the patriarchal culture in which the image flourished. The words of the poet or prophet endured; their source was eternal and true; their effect was transformative. The art of the body, on the other hand, is “only” dance: powerfully affecting at the time of its performance – powerful enough to win half a kingdom – but lost to experience thereafter.7 Words remain, dance once performed is gone.

For millennia Salomé’s dance was only sketched statically in art and described in words. Perhaps the dominant culture’s fear of and scorn for the dance’s sexual and expressive character had kept it from becoming a significant motif in performed art. For all of the literary Salomés of the late 19th century, her story had only once been danced in a theatrical setting, in Jules Massenet’s 1881 opera Salomé. But while the opera contained many dance scenes, perversely, Salomé’s dance before Herod was not one of them (Ellis 34-8).

By putting the dance on stage, Wilde gave it a reality in performance which it had never had before. A real woman would dance it. The audience would see it in the body. The costume, the technique, the performance of the dance would define Salomé as clearly as would her passionate speeches to Iokanaan and her unseen kiss on his dead lips. Wilde had found a way for the dancing body to have an equal voice in the dyad.

But while Wilde created an evocative image of the dance, he left its contents willfully unclear. If he had wanted to describe a dance of initiatory transformation, soul discovery, or structuring of the cosmos, he could have done so. But when it came to describing the dance, and indicating what the dancer should do to evoke the power that represented the body and its temporal power, Wilde said only, “Salomé dances the dance of the seven veils.” His “telegraphic stage directions,” as Rita Severi observes, “convey . . . the idea that this particular dance is universally known” (460). This is entirely in keeping with his idea of art; his friend Robert Ross commented, “Wilde used to say that ‘Salomé’ was a mirror in which everyone could see himself. The artist, art; the dull, dullness; the vulgar, vulgarity” (18).

Another issue may have influenced Wilde’s cryptic stage direction, though: his sense that an artist in dance needed to inhabit the role for the dance to truly take shape. Katharine Worth comments, “[Wilde] evidently thought hard about the dance . . . [but] had no opportunity to influence stage interpretations of his dance . . . Wilde may not have known how the symbolic effect he wanted could be achieved on physical terms but a sufficiently imaginative dancer could surely find the means” (65-7).

Visions of Salomé’s dance: One previous literary version of Salomé’s dance seems to have affected Wilde strongly: Gustave Flaubert’s8 . In 1890, visiting a friend, Wilde saw “an engraving of Herodias9 dancing on her hands, as she is pictured doing in Flaubert’s ‘Herodias’ . . . Wilde went up to the picture and said, ‘La bella donna della mia mente’ [the beautiful woman of my imagination]. . . [and] said that he would write about her. . .” (Ellmann 340-1). A year before Wilde had seriously begun his work, then, Flaubert’s image of Salomé, who “threw herself on her hands with her heels in the air, and in that position ran around the dais like a great beetle,” supported as it was by depictions in both medieval and modern art, had impressed itself on him as an appropriate, striking way for Salomé to dance. The acrobatic, vaguely orientalized dance Flaubert described remained on his mind, as another account shows:

[One day Wilde] and Stuart Merrill went into the Moulin Rouge and saw an acrobat dancing on her hands. Wilde hastily wrote something on his calling card and sent it to her, but to his disappointment she did not respond. He had wanted, he said, to make her an offer to dance the part of Salomé in a play he was writing. “I want her to dance on her hands, as in Flaubert’s story” (Ellmann 343).

There is no account of whether any other element of this acrobat’s performance evoked Salomé. Did she adopt a femme fatale persona, or was her performance orientalizing in some way? Or did she simply dance with the sensuous and energetic abandon of Flaubert’s ingénue manquée? But the play was not yet written, and the dance a long way from realization on stage.

If the “inverted Salomé” Flaubert so evocatively described affected Wilde’s vision of the dance’s realization on stage, other art also had its place. Inspired by a painting by Bernardo Luini, Wilde described Salomé’s dance:

“She would dance before Herod out of divine inspiration, to accomplish the death of the imposter John, that enemy of Jehovah. ‘Her body, tall and pale, undulates like a lily. . . There is nothing sensuous in her beauty. The richest laces cover her svelte flesh . . . In her pupils gleam the flames of faith.’” (Ellmann 342)

In this vision, “undulation” may serve as a marker for an Eastern milieu or style of dance – or it may be a general idea that could equally describe balletic grace. But again, the dance was a long way from any final staging, and from this description, it seems likely that the seven veils had not yet occurred to Wilde as the mechanism for the dance.

Wild and terrible music: As Wilde described how he wrote his draft of Salomé, the final inspiration was provided by music, if not dance. Running out of energy after writing for hours, he went to a café for a meal:

“That fellow Rigo who ran away with the Princesse de Chimay, Clara Ward, was then the leader of the orchestra of Tziganes. I called him over to my table and said, ‘I am writing a play about a woman dancing with her bare feet in the blood of a man she has craved for and slain. I want you to play something in harmony with my thoughts.’ And Rigo played such a wild and terrible music that those who were there stopped talking and looked at each other with blanched faces. Then I went back and finished Salomé” (Ellmann 344).

Wilde tells Rigo that the subject of the play is “a woman dancing with her bare feet in the blood of a man she has craved for and slain.” Dancing in blood is also an image he emphasizes in the moments leading up to Salomé’s performance, in the text of the actual play. Although, of course, Iokanaan is still alive at this point, there is in fact blood on the stage, since a young man rejected by Salomé has killed himself in despair. But the actual blood pales in relation to the metaphorical blood Wilde conjures before Salomé dances, as Herod hallucinates, “No, no, she is going to dance on blood. There is blood spilt on the ground. She must not dance on blood . . .Ah! Look at the moon! She has become red. She has become as red as blood . . . [Iokanaan] prophesied that the moon would become red as blood . . .”10 However the mystical veils and sevens have been construed, here they collide with the specter of destruction, which becomes the milieu for the dance itself.

Wilde was Irish, with an affinity for all things French; his “imaginary Orient” was the Arab world of French colonization, rather than the India of the British colonial experience. But India, home to so many of the insights of late 19th century esoteric movements, gave the dance in blood its own mystic relevance: “It is through the cosmic dance that Siva Nataraja (master of the dance) begins the process of transformation of the Universe . . . “ (Severi 460). England in the late 19th century was familiar with images of not only Siva, but his frightening female counterpart, Kali. Kali, decorated with a necklace of the heads of the slain, dancing the destruction that counterbalanced Siva’s creation, had already intruded herself into the English consciousness as a metaphor for the dangers inherent in dominating the East, the racially Other, the concealed woman. Salomé’s dance in blood added a layer of violence not hinted at by the benevolently mystical seven veils, but this violence, too, had a disconcertingly sacred relevance to the dance of an ancient, Eastern woman. By this association, Salomé’s dance of destruction exceeds the place prepared for it by Christian tradition, and moves into the mystic territory of cyclical upheavals, their frightening devastations, and their potential for inventing a new age.

A First-class Dancer

Wilde had said that he wanted his Salomé to be played by “an actress who was also a first-class dancer” (Tydeman and Price 19), which supports the notion that he intended to rely on the creative impulse of a dancer to complete his artistic vision, and intentionally left the canvas blank in order for her to do so. But what, in the late 19th century, did a “first-class dancer” do? The expectations of any author or audience member, and the ways in which they interpret movement, are shaped by the conventions of their age. What was a dancer, in the late 19th century? What would Wilde and his audience have seen dancers do? What range of theatrical performances would have shaped their approach to the dance of Salomé?

Performance dynamics and the dancer’s role: In the modern world, audio and video recording have created a unique way of experiencing entertainment, very different from that of the world before this century. We are now used to having fully realized, professional entertainment alone, in our homes or cars, and only rarely gathering with others for films or concerts. Live entertainment in our culture is a small percentage of entertainment as a whole. In contrast, before this century, music, dance and drama were by definition shared experiences. To get this sort of entertainment, people had to put themselves into surroundings where entertainment was offered, and experience it communally with others, in the actual presence of the performers.

The venues for entertainment in late 19th century France11 varied widely. On one end of the scale was the café chantant: “There were more than 200 cafés chantants in Paris during this period . . . These small theaters played a social role; here the petty bourgeoisie and proletariat could go to forget their misery and relieve their emotions. The public shouted, whistled, wept and laughed and joined in the choruses of the songs” (Castle 18). On the other end were the major theaters with proscenium stages, some state sponsored, where opera, ballet and drama were performed. Even there, audiences were expected to be vocal, active participants in the entertainment rather than silent spectators. Large music halls, such as the Folies Bergère and the Moulin Rouge, continued the tradition of the bal public, or public place where “Parisians danced, drank and watched small-scale entertainments in the open air” (Castle 17). These bals, “characterized by unrehearsed routines interspersed with virtuoso displays of technique more or less improvised,” increasingly came to center around female performers rather than on general social dancing, resulting in a shift in the entertainment experience from participation to spectatorship (Celik and Kinney 43).

These venues offered different levels of prestige and autonomy for the dancers (and other performers) who worked in them; within the larger venues, a star system solidified differences in status between the performers who won a place in the notice of the theatrical audiences, and the less exalted ones who had not achieved such notice. Stars emerged in music halls as well as in legitimate theater.

Female performers were expected not to adhere to the ideas of feminine virtue attached to middle class or non-performing women. It was assumed that, under certain circumstances at least, they were available for sex outside of marriage, though the terms of availability might vary widely from one to the other. Some stars, such as La Belle Otero who rose to fame in the Folies Bergère, were more famous for the high prices they could demand for their sexual favors than for the quality of entertainment they offered on stage, and their artistic achievement was always seen in the mirror of their sexuality. Others, like Loie Fuller, who would begin her rise to stardom at the Folies Bergère in 1892, won a reputation for their art, and whatever unconventional sexuality they embraced was considered appropriate to their position as performers.

Between these two extremes, performers made all varieties of choices about their sexual behaviors. Dance did not by any means equal prostitution, but this precise lack of definition created some of the sexual aura that surrounded the female performer’s role on and off the stage. Theater patrons and performers were constantly engaged in a naturally complex negotiation of the territory between the sensuality, physical vitality, and emotional projections of the stage, and the equivalent range of these powers in the private, sexual world. Also a factor of the negotiation was how these qualities, exaggerated and made transcendent in the theatrical context, could by valued in monetary terms.

Not all theater patrons, of course, were actively involved in the carnal aspects of this interchange. (Wilde apparently was not, though probably the Rumanian acrobat to whom he sent his card might have had reason to doubt that this visiting Englishman was really planning to cast her in a play.) But all theater patrons were aware on some level of the sexual gloss that adhered to the woman who danced in public, on stage.

In Wilde’s day, a “first-class dancer” might, like Fuller, have been obviously not for sale. But she was by necessity sexualized, denizen of a society where conventional choices did not apply, and where the expected patterns of her experience could include the active, pursuing sexual passion that makes Salomé so unique in the experience of her age. While Salomé was, in the context of the play, a virgin and an aristocrat, her impersonation by a professional dancer could add, on some level, a perception of her performance as a variety of commercialized eroticism.

Technique: The grande dame of theatrical dance was ballet, with its narrative structure and ensemble cast which supported the stars. From early in the 19th century, ballet had made use of oriental themes and scenes (together with depictions of antiquity, and fairy-tale “peasant” culture) to evoke an escapist realm. The techniques of ballet, based on extensions from the center, leaps, and creating a sensation of lightness and release from earth, had been formalized and developed from European social dances, and consequently, seemed a “natural,” if exalted and refined, type of movement to its European audiences.

Popular dance performance was dominated by the “naturalist quadrille,” the vigorous, high-kicking dance we know as the “can-can.”12 . It too had developed from social dancing, more recently and in popular venues rather than elite theaters. The stars of the naturalist quadrille were known for their individual styles and for the sense of transgressive excitement and celebration they were capable of releasing in their (dancing) audiences. The “can-can,” still identifiable as a social dance, filled the role of “solo improvised dance”13 in the Western mode.

Ethnic dances were performed in ballet theaters, music halls, and café chantants. Spanish dances in particular were a staple of both ballet and music hall. Spanish dance is described by contemporary sources as earthy and exciting, with techniques which engaged the hips and torso for a sensual, powerful, and crowd-pleasing effect. Oriental dance was also an established element of music hall entertainment. Expositions in 1878 and 1889 had introduced Parisian audiences to oriental dance in a purported “re-creation” of its original context, but it had quickly found a place in established entertainment venues. Eastern performers (such as the Algerian, La Belle Fathma) presumably adapted authentic techniques to the expectations of their Western audiences, while Western performers, such as the Moulin Rouge star of naturalist quadrille, La Goulue, and Renée de Presles of the Folies Bergère, interpreted Eastern techniques from the perspectives of their own culture.14

Though Wilde, a frequent visitor to France, could have been familiar with Eastern dance as performed there, it is questionable whether he intended anything particularly oriental in Salomé’s dance. When he describes how the body of his innocent version of Salomé “undulates like a lily,” does he envision a variety of undulation specific to Eastern dance techniques? Or is he, like Flaubert before him, conceiving his ancient, Eastern dancer in the light of the dance techniques of his own culture? This is far more likely, especially since his Salomé, “tall and pale,” seems more European than Eastern – part of the habit of mind that projected the European racial makeup into Biblical and Greco-Roman antiquity, relegating the racial Other to the orient of the present day. It is, after all, the Western tradition that sexualizes its performers off stage while insisting on their ability to create the appearance of light, airy, purity, so that as his Salomé undulates, Wilde can still say, “There is nothing sensuous in her beauty.”

The dancer’s pay: In his portrayal of Salomé and her fate, in particular around the evocative imagery surrounding her Dance of the Seven Veils, Oscar Wilde created a character who embodies “the two sides of the Orient[:] the exotic, which is sensual and erotic, and the mystic, which is transcendent and eternal . . . The exotic princess Salomé is no longer only the object of sexual desire; she has demanded the possession of the mouthpiece of God” (Koritz 77, 80). Amy Koritz argues that Wilde has created in Salomé a character who strives for a prophetic voice, but ultimately fails:

A woman, least of all a sexually desirable woman, cannot be a prophet as well. She cannot so easily escape her own identity as the object of the male desiring gaze. Nor can she create a mysticism that will share her own physicality – that will speak the spirit from the place of the body . . . A woman imprisoned by our culture’s stereotypes of the Orient and the fatal woman truly lacks the power to speak as a prophet of God. (81)

The dance serves as a focal point for this dynamic, nowhere more than in the way Wilde emphatically shows Herod, the most “ordinary” character of the play, misjudging the importance of the sacred wherever he encounters it.

Herod has already violated one veil: that holiest of holies, the veil of the sanctuary. Midway through the play, he querrulously asks, “And that restoration of the Temple about which they have talked so much, will anything be done? They say the veil of the Sanctuary has disappeared, do they not?” Herodias responds, “It was thyself didst steal it.” Immediately afterward, Herod asks for the first time, “Dance for me, Salomé” (88). The sacred, stolen veil of the sanctuary is the last thing on his mind before he begins to crave his step-daughter’s dance. Wilde has juxtaposed the two veils, part of the tangle of body and soul, sacred and sexual, that characterize the play – and in a way that emphasizes Herod’s unthinking corruption.

Later, when “Slaves bring perfumes and the seven veils, and take off the sandals of Salomé,” we witness Herod’s fetishistic appreciation of her person: “Ah, you are going to dance with naked feet. ‘Tis well. Your little feet will be like white doves . . .” (98). Again, Herod is blind to her ritual preparations, her possible intentions, and her personhood, focusing stuporously on only the carnal aspects of her dance.

After she has danced, Herod comments, “Ah! wonderful! wonderful! . . . Come near, Salomé, come near, that I may give you your reward. Ah! I pay the dancers well. I will pay thee royally . . .” Blind once more to the meaning and purpose of her dance, he casually categorizes his aristocratic step-daughter with “dancers,” simultaneously dismissing them all as women who serve for pay, who can be paid off, whose performance equals its commercial value. He blindly identifies the dance he has just seen as part of a conventional commercial transaction, representing the assumptions about dance and its performers shown by late 19th century audiences. To Salomé – and in the dynamics of the play – it is, of course, far more. After Herod tries, in three lengthy speeches, to dissuade Salomé from asking for Iokanaan’s head, he finally cries out, “I will give thee the veil of the sanctuary!” Salomé’s dance is bracketed by these two mentions of the holiest of holies. It is punctuated by Herod’s insistence on seeing only the carnal aspects of the dance, with his stupidity and limitations of perspective revealed at every turn.

Herod is, however, the most “normal” character in the play. One can sympathize with his weaknesses; he is no bloodthirsty tyrant; he tries to be nice guy . . . But he fails utterly to see what is revealed to him by the play’s two sources of mystic insight, the troublesome Iokanaan and the equally problematic Salomé. Herod’s mundane failures are what ultimately bring about the deaths of both. Whatever the mystic significance of Salomé’s dance, the play’s outcome shows that it is doomed to be read by those who, like Herod, see only what they are capable of seeing, and not the true, “invisible dance.”

“A truth in Art . . .”

Wilde wrote that “A truth in Art is that whose contradictory is also true” (Worth 66). Salomé’s dance embodies this principle. It is mystic and carnal, world-shaking and ultimately meaningless, the ultimate in the power of the visual, but “invisible” both in the complexity of its referents, and in the way it fails to be seen, understood, and appreciated by its audiences.

Women performers of the time, like oriental dancers now, danced that invisible dance. The hours of training, the ambitions, successes and compromises of a career in the performing arts, the thought and intent that went into creating and performing, again and again, the dances they offered on stage, were invisible to the patrons of theater. What was visible was the body in motion, and it was always a body that was sexualized, desired, and seen as open to being purchased and possessed.

Nevertheless, artists in the theater of the late 19th century were finding ways to negotiate this territory in ways that built not only on the gender ideology that already existed at the time, but also on the possibilities that came with social change. Isadora Duncan and Ruth St. Denis, among other aesthetic dancers, incorporated ideas of women as fonts of natural, spiritual insight that could be expressed through the medium of dance, considered (as we have seen) to be a feminine art. By the early years of the 20th century, following the success of Richard Strauss’s opera Salomé (based on Wilde’s text), there was an explosion of “Salomé dancers,” as women interpreted the “head and body” dyad in many different ways. The powerful voice Wilde shows crushed into silence, was struggling to emerge, by appropriating the image of the femme fatale, or by reclaiming stories of the fatal woman and giving them new meanings.

It is a struggle oriental dancers are still vitally engaged in, as we confront, reclaim, and rewrite the stereotypes of the women’s sexuality and women’s performance, and their relationship to money and power, that are embedded in our culture’s perceptions of women, dance and the East.

Appendix: Pre-1891 History of the Dance of the Seven Veils

Many of the books oriental dancers turn to for the history of our art express the idea that the Dance of the Seven Veils is an ancient sacred dance, an empowering women’s ritual misunderstood and finally reduced to a sordid strip-tease. Consequently, accepting that there is no pre-Wildean history of the dance can be a hard pill to swallow. In the body of the paper I addressed what Wilde’s influences and inspirations might have been in choosing this evocative, influential phrase to describe Salomé’s dance. In this appendix I address the evidence, or rather lack of evidence, for a pre-1891 history of the dance.

First it should be understood exactly how much creative and scholarly energy has been devoted to Salomé and to Wilde without any trace of the dance emerging. Salomé was a common trope in art from the late medieval period through the early 20th century, in almost unbroken succession, with her popularity greatly increasing in the late 19th century. Until after Wilde’s play and the scandal surrounding it (and him), and especially after the popularity and notoriety of Strauss’s 1905 opera, Salomé is not portrayed dancing with veils, though in several literary and artistic depictions, a single veil adorns or covers her. Throughout this time period, Salomé is portrayed in contemporary clothes, in vaguely “Biblical” or “Greco-Roman” clothing, and later – again mostly after Wilde and Strauss – in outfits imagined to be “eastern.” But her primary attribute is the saint’s head on a charger, not a veil. Despite the vast body of material, there is no artistic evidence for a dance of seven veils.

Given, as Maurice Krafft found, that somewhere between two and three thousand French poets had written about Salomé, one would expect to find the Dance of the Seven Veils in some of their work. Yet it does not appear. If there were a tradition of such a dance, however obscure the sources that would reveal it, someone would surely have discovered it and incorporated this evocative image in his work. That no one did is an important argument from silence.

Poets seeking to make a reputation and give full expression to their art are no more tenacious and creative in their search for inspiration than are scholars seeking original and valuable publications in the modern University. Wilde has been a part of the literary cannon almost since his death, and there are hundreds of volumes devoted to his study. Yet of all of the thousands of articles written by Wildean scholars brilliant enough to win professorships at major Universities, none allude to historical precursors for the Dance of the Seven Veils.15

Antiquity is equally silent. There is nothing in the literature or visual art of the Mediterranean or the Near East to indicate a Dance of the Seven Veils. But representations of dance in visual art tend to show social or dramatic situations rather than actual dances or dance techniques, so if we did find a specific dance represented, it would be very unusual.16 No texts in Greek, Latin or Hebrew refer to such a dance. Mesopotamian texts (Sumerian and Akkadian) rarely mention any kind of dance; it is not what the hierarchic, priestly, largely masculine class of scribes thought important.

This is not conclusive proof that a Dance of the Seven Veils never existed, since so much of the writing and culture of antiquity have been lost over time. All the same, as Christianity spread, and especially after it became the official religion of the Roman Empire in 312 CE, scholars devoted time and resources – including the thousands of books and eyewitness information lost between then and now – to comment on the scriptures. If a Dance of the Seven Veils had been noted in any culture of the late Roman Empire (which spread from England to Morocco and Iran), scholars would probably have noted such a significant Biblical reference – that is, if there were any notion that Salomé’s dance was a Dance of the Seven Veils, and there isn’t.

It is remotely possible that in Sumerian or even Babylonian culture, the descent of Ishtar/Inanna was reenacted. We have no record of this, which is not surprising because there are few detailed records of rituals remaining. But we do know that many myths were tied to ritual and were sometimes reenacted, however schematized the reenactment might be. It is possible that the ritual unclothing (not unveiling, and not specifically dance) of a priestess representing the goddess played a role in Mesopotamian ritual. But even if we took this possibility for a fact, we would have to remember that in her culture, the meanings and experiences she brought to the ritual, and the way it was received by her society, would be very different from anything we can imagine from our own spiritual impulses. And even if one posits ancient rituals that mirror the Dance of the Seven Veils Wilde named, no evidence of them remains and they have not continued to inform the tradition.

The true place of the dance’s raw elements of mysticism and sexuality, sevens and veils, cosmic and carnal dance, was clearly the late Victorian world. Equally clear is that the Dance of the Seven Veils speaks powerfully to our own issues of women’s power, and to the intersection of spiritual and sexual that is, in our culture at least, allied with women’s sacred experience.

The idea that the Dance of the Seven Veils is a sacred dance is a story born of the desire to reclaim women’s spiritual power from degrading images that disempowered women. The contradictions implicit in the dance and its story – the allusions to mystical and sacred meanings couched in terms that emphasize the sensual – were clearly intended by Wilde. They made it possible for the dance to be appropriated by burlesque, and on the flip side, they made it possible for the dance to be reappropriated by proponents of women’s spirituality who were more concerned with undoing patriarchal damage than with preserving historical accuracy. I feel that it is vital to our integrity to do both at the same time. And so, although I approve the readings of this dance as both sacred and sensual, I feel it is important to place these interpretations where they belong: in the 20th century, where veiling, stripping, sex and spirituality are at war on this particular field – rather than in the distant past, where there was no such dance, and the issues of women’s spirit and women’s power had different battlegrounds.

If the Dance of the Seven Veils has a spiritual meaning, if it has importance as a ritual of empowerment, cosmic ordering, and transformation, then that meaning has taken shape in this century. It does not need to have historical roots for it to have spiritual validity. One of the tenets of the esoteric traditions which provided the milieu for its creation, is that important ideas reveal themselves when the time is right for them.17 Clearly, the Dance of the Seven Veils, as an idea and as a performed piece, has become an important text for the exploration through dance of significant meanings and experiences in a sacred context.18

Its time is now, and we are the priestesses who dance it.

Works Cited

Blavatsky, H. P., The Veils of Isis.

Carnes, Mark C. 1996. Scottish Rite and the visible semiotics of gender. In Brockman, C. Lance. Theatre of the Fraternity: Staging the Ritual Space of Scottish Freemasonry, 1896-1929. University of Minnesota/Frederick R. Weisman Art Museum, 72-91.

Castle, Charles. The Folies Bergère. London: Methuen, 1982.

Celik, Zeynep, and Leila Kinney. Ethnography and Exhibitionism at the Expositions Universelles. Assemblage 13 (1990), 35-59.

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.

Faivre, Antoine and Jacob Needleman, eds. Modern Esoteric Spirituality. New York: Crossroad, 1992.

Flaubert, Gustave. Three Tales. Robert Baldick, trans. Penguin, 1961 [1877].

Frazer, Sir James George. The golden bough : a study in magic and religion. 3rd ed. London : Macmillan: 1963.

Hart-Davis, Rupert, ed. The letters of Oscar Wilde. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1962.

Johnston, S. I. Introduction. In James J. Clauss and Sarah Iles Johnston, eds. Medea : essays on Medea in myth, literature, philosophy, and art. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1997.

Koritz, Amy. Gendering bodies/performing art: dance and literature in early twentieth-century culture. University of Michigan Press, 1995.

Mackey, Albert G., et al. An Encyclopedia of Freemasonry and its Kindred Sciences (2 vols.). Chicago: The Masonic History Company, 1921 (1884).

Powell, Kerry. Oscar Wilde and the theatre of the 1890s. Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Robertson, W. Graham. Life was worth living. New York: Harper and Brothers, Publishers, 1931.

Ross, Robert. A Note on “Salomé.” In Oscar Wilde, Salomé. New York: Illustrated Editions Company, 1931.

Severi, Rita. Oscar Wilde, La Femme Fatale and the Salomé Myth. Proceedings of the Xth Congress of the International Comparative Literature Association. New York: Garland Publishing, 1985.

Shay, Anthony. Is a picture worth a thousand words? Iconographic sources of Middle Eastern dancing. Habibi 19.1 (2002) 22-35.

Showalter, Elaine. Sexual Anarchy: Gender and Culture at the Fin de Siècle. New York: Viking, 1990.

Tydeman, William, and Steven Price. Wilde/Salomé. Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Wilde, Oscar. The Picture of Dorian Gray. In Richard Ellmann, ed. The Picture of Dorian Gray and other Writings. New York: Bantam, 1982.

———. Salomé. New York: Illustrated Editions Company, 1931.

Worth, Katharine. Oscar Wilde. New York: Grove Press, 1983.


1 Robertson tells this story about Wilde’s suggestion that Robertson and a number of others wear green carnations in their button-holes for the premiere of his play, “Lady Windemere’s Fan.” The lines leading up to my excerpt above are, “’I want a good many men to wear them tomorrow – it will annoy the public.’ ‘But why annoy the public?’ ‘It likes to be annoyed. A young man on the stage will wear a green carnation; people will stare at it and wonder. Then they will look round the house and see every here and there more and more little specks of mystic green. “This must be . . .” (135). Despite Wilde’s protest of its meaninglessness, the green carnation came to be (and probably already was) a symbol of homosexual identity in a time when ideas about sexual identity was undergoing radical revision.

2 For a historical overview of the development of esoteric traditions at this time, see Faivre and Needleman.

3 The West’s colonial dominance of the East was underwritten by a rhetoric associating the East with timeless wisdom as well as primitive barbarity. Esoteric thought put particular value on oriental wisdom as more ancient, less corrupted by modern ways, and closer to primal (therefore fundamental) truths. The colonianlist subtext makes Eastern wisdom grist for the Western intellectual mill, where complete truth is ultimately manufactured.

4 According to J. Bodley, the friend who interested Wilde in Freemasonry, at dinner after his admission to the Apollo Lodge at Oxford, “Wilde got very festive, and at my request hedged in John the B[aptist}. ‘I have heard’ he said, ‘that S[aint] J[ohn] the B[aptist] was the founder of this Order [yells of laughter]. I hope that we shall emulate his life but not his death – I mean we ought to keep our heads.’” Quoted in Ellmann 40 (who adds, “It was his first mention of Salomé”).

5 Here it is particularly tempting to see a direct influence of Masonic ideas on Wilde, since his Salomé is so closely associated with the moon and with unveiling. But this is, in all honesty, a long shot, since we have no way of knowing what Wilde knew about the ideas Mackey reports, or whether they were shared by the Lodge into which he was initiated. The “unveiling Queen of Heaven,” to the modern reader familiar with women’s spirituality, evokes Isis or Inanna; these connections will be further discussed below.

6 Samuel Noah Kramer published the longer though fragmentary Sumerian version of Inanna’s descent in the years between 1935 and 1955. In the 1960’s and 70’s both Kramer and his colleague Thorkild Jacobsen wrote scholarly treatments of Sumerian myth and history which were accessible to the general public. Their more complex and accurate readings of the meanings of Inanna and her underworld journey were available to feminist religious thinkers in the 1960’s and 70’s, when Inanna began to be a key figure in women’s spirituality. Publication in 1983 of Inanna, Queen of Heaven and Earth, co-authored by Kramer and feminist poet Diane Wolkstein, allowed Inanna’s descent to become a standard text of women’s spirituality, and steered interpretation toward the idea of her journey as a soul-journey or initiation, which is usually how it is seen in conjunction with the Dance of the Seven Veils in modern New Age readings. While Wolkstein’s interpretation is overly consonant with modern concerns with personal growth and self-knowledge, it is at least based on a more accurate reading of the goddess’s actual role in Sumerian culture. Unfortunately, the reductive “Great Mother” perspectives of the late 19th century still find their way into current discussions of both women’s spirituality and the Dance of the Seven Veils.

7 I should note that in the pre-literate culture in which the Orphic image emerged, and practically speaking with the limited literacy in Galilee in the 1st century CE, the survival of words, like that of dance, would have depended on memory and repetition. The culture’s assumption is nevertheless that dance is expressive and therefore a creature of the moment, whereas words have divine inspiration as their source and are rightfully preserved by memory.

8 See my article, “The Image of the Eastern Dancer: Flaubert’s Salomé,” Habibi 19.1 (Jan. 2002), 10-17, for a discussion of Flaubert’s treatment of the episode. Wilde was influenced not only by Flaubert’s portrayal of the dance, but also by his portrayal of Herod. But while Flaubert sticks close to the Biblical story, in which Herodias demands the Baptist’s head, Wilde makes the passion and death-drive all Salomé’s.

9 The dancer now known only as Salomé was sometimes called by her mother’s name, Herodias (or Herodiade), in the late 19th century.

10 Stage lighting reflected this vision in many productions; see Tydeman and Price passim.

11 I focus on France because that is where Wilde composed his Salomé.

12 People of the time distinguished between the can-can, the chahut, and the naturalist quadrille, all of which we categorize more inclusively as can-can.

13 For an insightful discussion of the social and personal dynamics of solo improvised dance (specific to Iranian culture but very valuable in understanding this as a general cultural phenomenon), see Anthony Shay, Choreophobia: Solo Improvised Dance in the Iranian World. Costa Mesa, CA: Mazda Publishers, 1999.

14 See Celik and Kinney, Folies. Celik and Kinney observe that “La Goulue’s dance of the “almee,” … seems to contain the characteristic cancan kick” (52). While de Presles apparently performed oriental dance on the proscenium stage, intimate venues were probably considered more appropriate for oriental dance; Fathma and La Goulue both operated intimate café/theaters which featured their eastern dances.

15 Well, one. R. K. Garelick, in an otherwise well researched book on early 20th century performance, provides a footnote which offers undocumented information suggesting that the Dance of the Seven Veils was an ancient dance done to celebrate the seven wonders of the world – an idea that is utterly at odds with the kinds of dances and reasons for dancing them, that actual historical sources reveal. Rising star: dandyism, gender and performance in the fin de siècle. Princeton 1998, p. 202 n.5.

16 See Shay on issues of visual representation in dance.

17 I am indebted for this insight to Yasmina Ramzy, who also alerted me to the role that esoteric traditions played in the framing of this dance.

18 I explore these ideas further in “The Dance of the Seven Veils: The Revision of Revelation in the Oriental Dance Community” (forthcoming).

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 in Middle Eastern Dance for over twenty years, as a 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. Her current work focuses on the history of the performance of Eastern dance in the West. (email:deagona@uncw.edu)

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