Archives for posts with tag: dance

Born in 1906 to an impoverished family in St Louis, and dropping out of school at 12 to dance on street corners for money, when Josephine Baker died in 1975 she received full military honours at her funeral in Paris. Her journey was eventful, filled with scandals and successes.


From dancing on street corners she worked her way into vaudeville, via the clothing department, and performed as the “last girl” in the chorus line, a comedy role which involved dancing poorly until the encore when she outshone the other chorus dancers. She caught the eye of New York socialite Nancy Cunard, who invited her to Paris. To capitalise on France’s current rage for ‘negrophilie’ Cunard was putting together  a show of ‘real’ negro music and dance. Baker accepted. She arrived in Paris in 1925 and premiered at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées (a theatre which in 1913 has seen the scandalous debut of the Ballets Russes) later that year as the star of the show.

Although chorus girls of the era were often scantily clad, stars never were, so Baker’s semi-nude appearance unsettled the Paris audiences at first. Amongst other acts she danced a pas de deux “Danse Sauvage”, wearing nothing but a flamingo feather. Her unique dancing and her vibrant personality soon won audiences over and she became a success. Her choreography was different from the European tradition. Baker’s improvised style was grounded where European dance reached upwards. Body parts moved independently where European dance sought a unified line. Baker sought to express the rhythm of the music rather than harmony of movement. Critics didn’t know what to make of her. One admiringly called her “the exact opposite of the Ballets Russes”, which says as much about the vagaries of fashion as about Baker. Some compared her freedom of movement to Isadora Duncan, who was horrified at the comparison. Duncan, whose dancing emphasised the solar plexus rather than the hips, as Baker did, insisted that any dance representative of America could not contain the “sensual convulsion of the South African negro”.  Many critics wrote of the dancing in terms of its exoticness. Andre Levinson wrote “the undeniable rhythmic superiority of these negro dancers is nothing less than an adjunct of their irrepressible animality.”

Racist though these views were, Josephine Baker knew to play up to the stereotypes in order to find acceptance and success. From her near-naked stage appearances, clad in a feather or string of bananas, to her pet leopard, she fed the public’s appetite for the exotic, the ‘savage’. Arnold Haskell, dance critic, noted that she ‘always seemed to be playing up to what the public wants the negro to be’. Playing up to those assumptions made her one of the best paid performers in Europe. Over the years her dance style progressed from leaps and stunts to more sophisticated works, as well as singing on stage. This was interpreted by some as “an example of the perfecting of the black race by its intellectual contact with European civilisation.” Cunard, for her part, lamented the loss of the “authentic Baker”.

Baker had leapt at the chance to move to France, away from the USA and its oppressive Jim Crow laws. Despite stereotypes and prejudices she was at least in France an equal citizen, free to sit, eat and socialise with anyone. But while she found fame and acceptance in France, her adoptive country from 1937, the USA was more reluctant. In 1936 she returned to America to star in the famous Ziegfield Follies, but despite being one of the most successful stars in Europe, US audiences refused to accept a strong black female star. Critics were vicious in their disdain for her. Baker returned to France.

Paris society also loved to see their “little savage” off stage, at fashionable cafes and parties. During World War 2 she was banned from performing publicly, but she remained a fixture of Paris high society. She also worked for the Red Cross, the French resistance, performed for troops abroad, performed in other countries, and volunteered as a spy. Her position enabled her to overhear information at parties and other events and pass it on to the Resistance or other European countries. She would write messages in invisible ink on her sheet music. Her efforts earned her the Medal of the Resistance with Rosette, and she was made a Chevalier of the Legion of Honour.

Baker did not return to the USA until the 1950’s, by which time she found things had not changed much. Theatre audiences, for one, were still segregated. The Stork Club, the most fashionable spot in New York City, reluctantly admitted her in 1951 but once inside she was refused service. Walter Winchell, the gossip commentator, was apparently also in the room at the time but refused to help Baker. Winchell denied this and the argument escalated into a media battle, in which Baker spoke against segregation and Winchell accused Baker of being a communist, “an enemy of her own race and a fraud”. This escalated into a libel against Winchell, and the communist accusation resulted in the FBI keeping a file on Baker for 17 years.

From then on Baker refused to perform anywhere whites and blacks were not permitted to sit together. She spoke publicly and regularly against injustice in the USA. She spoke in the 1963 March on Washington, in which more than 200,000 people demonstrated for civil and economic rights. She was the only female speaker that day. There were few successful black women in that era so she was, she hoped, an inspiring figure. She wanted to pass on to the younger generation spread out before her, the “fire burning within me”. She said of the assembled crowd “you look like salt and pepper. As you should be.” When in 1973 she performed at New York’s Carnegie Hall, it was to an integrated audience. They gave her a standing ovation before the performance had even begun. Seeing before her at last a “salt and pepper” audience, she cried on stage.

Dance was Josephine Baker’s route out of poverty, her body her instrument. Though poorly educated she was smart. Combined with her talents, the image she cultivated brought her success and wealth. She did more than merely escape poverty and racism; she became the toast of Paris, an international superstar, a mother to 12 adopted children, a civil rights advocate, and, eventually, returned to the USA as an equal.

The Guardian discusses the gap that has emerged between women and men choreographers.


Dance has been used ritually for millennia. Stone-age rock paintings have been found depicting dance. The ancient Egyptians had dancers for festivals and ceremonies. Dance to tell stories, to express emotion, and to accompany ritual has figured in every culture, and every era.

The rituals that took place at the great temple complex of Angkor in Cambodia were no exception. I was lucky enough to visit this World Heritage Site in 2010, where I spent day after day traipsing through big temples dramatically overgrown with trees, trailing after tour guides to catch snippets of info, and climbing to the temple tops to take in views of the flat landscape.

You could visit for just a day – after all one temple can look much like another – but I was captivated by the scale and the beauty. Angkor Thom, only one of the main groups of buildings, covers 9 km². Almost every building is a temple, but my favourite is not – it’s the dancing school. Walking through the ruined building you can make out the floor plan. I imagined students running to practice rooms on time, trying on costumes, listening (or not listening) to their teachers – the same experience for students hundreds of years ago as today. During the era of Angkor, dance was ritually performed at temples. The young dancing girls depicted Apsara, female spirits, as well as portraying stories from the Ramayana (an epic poem) and traditional stories, both during ceremonies and to entertain royalty. Apsara can be seen depicted on temples throughout Asia from India to Indonesia, but they are nowhere more prevalent than in Angkor.

Around 800 AD the Khmer kings ruled over a wealthy empire across South-East Asia. They began work on big temple projects in the capital of Angkor that were added to by successive rulers. The complex spread further and further outwards as each tried to leave his mark. Each artist, too, filled up every bit of wall and pillar with carvings of elephants, battles, stories and apsara and devata. Over time Buddhism was adopted as the main religion, and the existing temples were repurposed instead of destroyed. In the 15th century Angkor was abandoned, after the fall of the empire. Cambodia fell under the control of Siam (modern day Thailand) and, later, France.

The classical dance of Cambodia was sheltered and developed in the royal court during these years, and, post-independence, was formalised into a Royal Ballet by Queen Kossamak. They performed for public occasions and ceremonies, and were seen as iconic of Cambodian culture. Then came Pol Pot’s Communist regime, from 1975 to 1979. The damage committed by the Khmer Rouge decimated Cambodian life and culture. Many dancers were killed or starved to death. Those who survived were determined to resurrect Khmer classical dance and over time it regained lost ground. Today you can watch performances by both the Royal Ballet and by local groups dancing in Angkor again after so many years.

At Angkor tourists stop and pose for the obligatory Apsara photo – arms out, elbows and wrists bent. These female spirits of the clouds and waters figure in Hindu and Buddhist mythology, often dancing in the palaces of the gods. The full-hipped, beautiful figures are depicted both standing and in dance poses. Standing still, they are considered devatas – guardian spirits – and posed they are considered Apsara. Thousands upon thousands of both adorn the walls and pillars of the temples. Most if not all of them are entirely unique. I took picture after picture on my visit, one of which is the profile picture for this blog. Five line a wall here, three encircle a pillar there, two pose together over there, their hands touching. They are all face-on, all barefoot and all wear elaborate adornments. Their arms, breasts, stomachs and often legs are uncovered. Their stance, headdresses, jewellery, and garments are all intricately and individually carved. This one arcs in a deep knee bend with one foot off the floor and one hand arced above her headdress, which is shaped like three coronets. That one has one hand in front of her, thumb and finger touching, and the other arm to the side, bent at the elbow. Two solid anklets encircle each ankle. On the next wall one wears heavy earrings that have stretched the lobes of her ears. Jewellery also adorns her waistband. Her headdress has a large studded sphere with a leaf shape emerging from it. And beside her are four grouped together, caught in action. Their skirts billow with movement. Despite their heavy adornments they look light and graceful. Half-smiles of enjoyment are on their faces.

Cambodian classical dance can be called dance-drama as it is dance that is intended to convey a story or message. The movements share similarities with other Asian dance styles as they have all, over the centuries, influenced each other. The movements are slow, deliberate, close to the body. Posture is kept taut, back and feet arched, and the fingers flexed. The dancing is grounded, subtle, but with flowing quality. Certain hand and face gestures convey specific meanings, for example to represent flying. The Apsara Dance in particular aims to evoke the tension between earthly groundedness and heavenly lightness. The costume is a key element of the performance. Much like the apsara in Angkor the dancers wear exquisite headdresses, wrist, ankle and arm jewellery, and thick chains of rank, known as kse-sangvar. Less like the carvings, they are covered up, wearing bright costumes often crafted from silk.

Previous attempts to foster dance in Cambodia, such as the Queen’s efforts in the 1940’s and the post-Khmer Rouge dancers, have focused on reviving and preserving classical dance. Contemporary dance is now being tentatively explored, with companies like Amrita forging new pathways for classical and contemporary dance in Cambodia that both reflects its centuries-long heritage and looks out into the future.