THE SERPENTINE DANCE, PIONEERED BY DANCERS LOIE FULLER , HAS ITS ORIGIN IN A FORM OF BURLESQUE AND WAS CENTRAL IN EARLY COLOR RECORDINGS BY THE LUMIÈRE BROTHERS, WHO HAND PAINTED EACH FRAME.
The Serpentine Dance emerged during the late nineteenth century. It evolved from the skirt dance, a form of early burlesque in which moving figures were swathed in light fabric and optical shadows to create a fluid sequence of shapes.
Pioneered by Loïe Fuller, it was created in reaction to the popular can-can dances of the time, and is one of the early examples of live stage and cinematic performance. By the turn of the century, it had become a globally famous spectacle, which saw dancers perform in cages with lions, on stilts or on horseback. They became celebrities and in turn fashion icons, known for their billowing yards of silk and voluminous costumes.
Fuller was a visionary artist whose novel genre of performance combined billowing costumes with dazzling lights and projections to conjure transformative imagery of hypnotic beauty.
Born in Chicago, Fuller embarked on an early theatrical career as an actress and singer in vaudeville, stock companies, and burlesque before developing the dance style that made her famous. Through experiments with silk drapery and colored lights, she evolved her first Serpentine Dance.
Her warm reception in Paris during a European tour persuaded Fuller to remain in France and continue her work. A regular performer at the Folies Bergère with works such as Fire Dance, Fuller became the embodiment of the Art Nouveau movement.
Fuller’s pioneering work attracted the attention, respect, and friendship of many French artists and scientists, including Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Auguste Rodin, Maurice Denis, Thomas Theodor Heine, Stéphane Mallarmé, and Marie Curie.
At the turn of the 20th century, Fuller brought dance to the cutting edge of modernity, and her energy and ambition made her one of the most influential American women of her era.
The Serpentine Dance was a frequent subject of early motion pictures, as it highlighted the new medium’s ability to portray movement and light.
Here we share an 1896 film of Fuller performing the dance by pioneering film-makers the Lumière brothers. It gives a hint of what her performance was like. Many other filmmakers produced their own versions, distributing prints that had been hand-tinted to evoke the appearance of colored light projection.