When Madonna released her 1989 hit single “Express Yourself,” little did she realize how directly her lyrics echoed themes expounded by American women at the end of the nineteenth century. Riding on the momentum produced by the twin forces of industrialization and urbanization (which included increased educational opportunities and more leisure time for middle-class women), the first generation of modern dancers believed that bodily movement could be an expression of inner feeling, a physicalization of one’s “true” self. The word “expression” means “to press out,” and Madonna’s exhortations to communicate one’s true feelings resonate with the new approach to movement and gesture developed by the first generation of “modern” dancers 100 years earlier. In the late nineteenth century and first decades of the twentieth century, proponents of “expressive” or “interpretive” dancing flooded the theaters, living rooms, college gymnasiums, and community stages of America, helping to lay the cultural foundations for later generations of women performers to “express” themselves – just like Madonna.
This module explores the cultural context of early modern dance, delving into the dress reform, temperance and early feminist movements that contributed to its rise in America. Dance pedagogy, both in higher education and in early movement systems like Delsarte, was influenced by the scientific leanings of the time. The cultural landscape, in turn, was influenced by individuals, from ballroom dance sensation Irene Castle and the fictional Gibson Girl to the dance icons Loïe Fuller and Isadora Duncan. Despite differences in personal temperament and artistic sensibilities, these two innovators shared strong wills and the experience of working to support themselves early in their lives. Eventually, both became world-renown dancers, rivaling even Madonna’s star power. Through examining their manifestos, autobiographies, photographs and and artistic renderings of their performances, we will understand more fully how these two dancers came to embody not only a new manner of moving for women in the early twentieth century, but a new way of being in the world.