05/10/2012 by noonobservation
Someone stuck a leaflet for Zumba classes through my door this week. After tossing it into the recycling, the thought struck me that perhaps I had been hasty. For centuries, dance has been a vital rung on the ladder for poor girls trying to break out of their damp garrets and into society – maybe I shouldn’t disdain this opportunity.
Allow me to demonstrate…
Salome (AD 14-70ish).
When all you want is a nice dress or a new iPod, there are common ways and means of getting them out of your parents (smiling sweetly, cleaning your room without being asked, locking them in the garage until they give you their pin number, etc.) When you want the head of a famous religious leader on a dish however, what you need is a special dance.
In the first century AD, the only requirements were 5-10 veils and a willingness to shake your biblical booty. This Salome did with legendary aplomb, pleasing her step-dad so much that he granted her anything she wanted.
I still think I would have asked for something more useful though. Give a girl a head and she’ll be happy for a day. Give a girl an axe and some axe-wielding lessons and she can amuse herself for years.
Dance instructions: Dress yourself in approximately seven insubstantial pieces of fabric and slowly remove them. No particular steps required, but a good seaman-like knowledge of knots is an asset.
Charlotte Slottsberg (1760-1800)
Born to a poor wig maker in Stockholm, Charlotte became one of the first elite Swedish ballet dancers. Though described as “beautiful as a spring day” she was also said to be rude, vulgar and a tease. She teased Duke Charles (later Charles XIII of Sweden) most cruelly by forcing him to come to the ballet, drink champagne and write plays in his spare time. She also took bribes from Charles’s brother, King Gustav III to manipulate him into toeing the regal line.
In her off-duty hours, Charlotte kept a cavalry officer called Heitmüller, whose secondary duties included pawning all the presents that Charles and her other lovers gave her. She spent her winnings on a large country estate, which Duke Charles confiscate on her death in lieu of “debts”.
Dance instructions: Lose 3-4 stone and train every day for 10 years. Bend, stretch, plie, plie, leap, then artistically die of a chill.
The exotic Spanish dancer, Lola Montez, started life in County Sligo in Ireland as Eliza Gilbert, the daughter of a British army officer. Following a childhood in India, a silly elopement and a messy separation, she decided to use her last funds to train for the stage.
Her London début as the mysterious Lola Montez having been spoiled by someone shouting “Why, it’s Betty James,” she fled to Europe and embarked on a hand-to-mouth existence on the theatre circuit. During this time she occupied herself in making up extravagant lies, like that she was a Russian spy, that she was responsible for an insurrection in Warsaw and that she was the daughter of the most famous toreador in Spain (who vigorously denied this). After a spell in Paris, where she became an ardent republican and met Alexandre Dumas (who didn’t like her at all), she eventual washed up in Munich.
She danced three times for King Ludwig I of Bavaria (a great lover of Beauty) and five days later he introduced her to his court as his “best friend”. At this time, Ludwig was engaged in unpopular reactionary policies that were causing his subjects to resent his high expenditure on classical statues, archaeological digs and paintings of his mistresses. Being a good republican, Lola determined to save the monarchy. Over her two year rule, she instigated liberal reforms, including higher wages for teachers and civil servants and a thorough rationalisation of the legal system.
This sort of liberal nonsense didn’t go down at all well. The Jesuits believed her to be part of a secret revolutionary society aimed at disturbing public peace. The Catholic Church in Bavaria declared her to be The Beast and said that “Venus has driven the Virgin out of Munich”. Prince Metternich offered her a million florins if she would leave.
Her fatal error however, was to antagonise the students. In their rage at her reforming zeal and her addition of a new University club who wore red hats, they naturally set to rioting, forcing the King to exile his favourite. Lola escaped her burning palace dressed as a boy and escorted by a troop of horse.
Having fled with nothing but her new title, the Countess of Landsfeld was forced to return to the stage, playing herself in Lola Montez in Bavaria and other plays about herself, which even in the dark cultural wastelands of Australia were considered “utterly subversive to all ideas of public morality.”
Dance instructions: Develop false identity, elaborate back story and liberal political leanings. Apply to half-learned dance steps and emote vigorously until you gain possession of a small kingdom.
Originally called Julie Leboeuf, Marguerite escaped her tedious life as a laundress when she was 15 to become an acrobatic dancer in a local circus. She apparently had “such natural flexibility that when lying flat on her back she could rise in one spring.”
There are many tales of how she came to meet Emperor Napoleon III, but the best is surely the one in which she was presented at court and came into the room walking on her hands and thus “showing all her fascinations.”
Marguerite dated the Emperor for years, living extravagantly at his expense and acquiring a number of houses, a lace making business and a large château. The French press detested her, commenting, “she was like a lamprey sucking all the millions in her neighbourhood; she was an octopus and could be said without injustice to have no useless mouth.” I’m not quite sure this has been translated correctly, but it creates a powerful image.
Dance instructions: Stand on your head until a person of sufficient social status notices you.
La Belle Otero (1868–1965)
Agustina Otero Iglesias decided that life as a maid in Galicia was just not fun. She ran away at 14 to become the famous Andalusian Gypsy “La Belle” Otero.
As the star attraction at the Folies Bergère music hall in Paris, she worked her way up to “most sought-after woman in Europe”. Her lovers included Edward VII, Albert I of Monaco, the King of Serbia and the King of Spain, plus two Russian grand dukes. This high turnover inevitably led to a lot of dumping and two-timing, resulting in at least one duel and up to six suicides.
Showered with gems, carriages and houses by her admirers, La Belle wouldn’t get into bed for less than 10,000 francs (a sum she actually turned down, causing the humiliated gentleman to shoot himself). She retired to her enormous mansion in the South of France after the Great War and spent most of her time and money gambling in Monte Carlo. By her death in 1965, she was almost penniless and whiled away her last days babbling to her bored neighbours about “feasts, princes and champagne”.
Dance instructions: glue your jewellery collection to your body (you may need to get a friend to help you), and gyrate around like you’re Lady Gaga off her face on absinthe.
Mata Hari (1876-1917)
A cautionary tale – not all dancers end well.
The Javanese Hindu princess, Mata Hari, was born Margaretha Geertruida Zelle in Leeuwarden, the Netherlands. Returning from a failed marriage in the Dutch East Indies, she used her knowledge of Indonesian traditions to create the exotic dancer, Mata Hari. Attired in a flesh-coloured body stocking and little else, Margaretha took Paris (and several high-ranking military officers, industrialists and politicians) by storm.
Sadly, come the War, her habit of skipping about Europe sleeping with generals was seen in a less harmlessly-Bohemian light and she was shot as a German spy (which she was) in 1917. Having no family to bury her, Margaretha’s body was donated to science, embalmed and misplaced in the 1950s by the Museum of Anatomy in Paris.
Dance instructions: Refuse blindfold and stand really still.
On reflection, I don’t think I will use dance as my route to riches. Dancing appears to be but the prelude to sleeping with disgusting old men, which is where most of the money is. It also seems that one must move to Paris and pretend to be “foreign”, two things which I do not think I could abide.
And I have a phobia of sequins.
One must also remember that with the power of dance comes great responsibility. Look at what it can accomplish in the hands of unprincipled people like Michael Flatley and Kate Bush.