It is the turn of the last century and half-naked young women are dancing with seven veils and papier-mâché heads. “Salomania” is spreading through Europe and the United States, with crowds succumbing. In 1907, a school starts on the roof of the New York Theatre. For two hours each morning, Mlle. Dazié, a/k/a Daisy Peterkin from Detroit, directs her pupils; she produces 150 Salomes every month, filling American music halls. As Toni Bentley writes in her new Sisters of Salome (Yale), by August 1908 four Salomes are performing in New York alone, and by October the number increases sixfold. The next year, every variety and vaudeville show has a Salome on its bill. Every hootchy-kootchy dancer wiggling without underwear in some vaguely Eastern outfit in every early film is a Salome in spirit. By 1912, almost 3000 French poets have fallen under the spell, writing their own versions of the tale. And there are protests. Early feminist Julia Ward Howe, writer of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” says Oriental dancing involves “only the most deforming movement of the whole abdominal and lumbar regions.”
Bentley studies the figure of the fin-de-siècle femme fatale, in particular four women—Colette, Maud Allan, Mata Hari, and Ida Rubinstein—who chose the way of Salome. They danced exotically to wield their power, reinvent themselves, and, paradoxically, hide their sad pasts by becoming as nude as possible. (Colette had a happy upbringing, but Allan—her brother had murdered two women, slicing open one of them.) The Salome dance was an aspect of the Orientalism that had seized the West stylistically and thematically in the 19th century. Bentley notes the historical simultaneity of the theater as women’s erotic territory and, offstage, the beginning of women’s rights, as well as the dance’s symbolic importance: The story of Salome is “a woman’s naked beauty” resulting in a dead man.
Flaubert and others were preoccupied by the Eastern femme fatale, but it was Oscar Wilde’s 1893 play Salome (illustrated by Aubrey Beardsley) and Richard Strauss’s 1905 opera that sparked the craze. Wilde is the first to give the young girl a dance of the veils—”the unlikely father of modern striptease”—and an independent voice. The Wilde story goes like this: King Herod has just married his sister-in-law after murdering her husband. He is attracted to her daughter Salome and offers her anything to dance; finally she does (in the New Testament Gospels, it is her mother who urges her on), and after taking off each of the seven veils (a reference to the Babylonian goddess Ishtar at the underworld’s seven gates), Salome says, I want the head of John the Baptist. She has fallen in love with him while he was howling in the prison below about the coming of Christ, and he would have nothing to do with her. But after she gets the head, the guards kill her.
Wilde also added her murder. Femme fatales always end up dead and take down everybody around them.
I shall dance naked . . . spinning round ablaze with light, blind as a fly in a sunbeam. And I shall invent beautiful slow dances with a veil; sometimes it will cover my body, sometimes it will envelop me with a spiral of smoke, and . . . —Colette, La Vie Parisienne, 1906
Colette was “always in search of an escape from her desk,” Bentley notes, detailing the six years of the French writer’s life during which she made a whole career out of playing nude fauns and gypsies in music halls and at the all-female Natalie Barney afternoons.
Bentley, a former New York City Ballet dancer and the author of three other books, remembers getting carried away herself. One night in 1980, while the company is in Paris, she follows ballet director George Balanchine to the “red velvet underworld of the Crazy Horse.” As the naked women come out wearing only sequined rope around their waists, she wonders why Mr. Balanchine is here. Then she wonders about the women: “This creature, in that moment, was to me the most powerful woman in the world.” She is “more powerful than a rich woman, a married woman, a titled woman, or a woman with degrees, diplomas, or awards.” She goes backstage and gets some school supplies: Dior No. 004 stage makeup and the black Leichner for painting an equilateral triangle. As Crazy Horse owner Alain Bernardin insists, “Like a painting, like a Modigliani, everyone the same.”
Next scene: 1996. A rainy Saturday night, an empty Tribeca street. The place with the blue lightbulb. Here, at the Blue Angel, Bentley finds her training ground. There’s a nude fire-eater, someone in a schoolgirl kilt. Working up a little act to Leonard Cohen’s “Waiting for the Miracle,” Bentley makes a fast $89 and concludes that her “urge to strip in public was an archetypal will to power.” This later brings to mind the theatrical leanings of her Viennese great-grandmother and her obsessive handbag collection.
But is going to Salome school the way to go? Three of the four sisters of Salome did not end up very powerful. True, Colette became one of the major French writers of the 20th century, but Maud Allan and Mata Hari subsidized their careers with a lot of prostitution, and the latter was executed for espionage. (After they killed her, they found out she was innocent.) The Canadian Allan, one of Europe’s most famous Salomes, ended up in a shabby one-room rental in Los Angeles, working as a drafter at Douglas Aircraft. And Russian performance artist Ida Rubinstein—”a sexy Jewish girl with quite a lot of money,” according to Diana Vreeland—who had spent most of her life putting on extravagant vanity productions, passed her remaining years with former lover Romaine Brooks refusing to see her (because she was “no longer like an orchid”) and drinking champagne and taking a laxative every night.
Back to 1996. When Bentley does her dance at the Blue Angel, in black pumps and little else, she notices one man in particular: “His desire burned into my own gaze, showing me with a clarity I had not experienced before the power of my own body,” she writes. “I then knew what triumph felt like.” This reminded me of all those Madonna bad girls and Camille Paglia and gender studies gurgling with excitement of a real takeover and getting mixed up with subversion as fashion. Around that time in New York, I remember, there was a very attractive former semiotics student who would secretly tell everybody that she was stripping at the Blue Angel. One night, she brought one of her fans, an audience member, to a dinner party and he was this accountant and he lived with his mother in Queens and his glasses were smudgy. Now who would want to hold him in the palm of her hands?
A nude woman onstage has power as long as she initiates the dance, Bentley notes, becoming both the subject and author of her show, embodying the misogynist and feminist as the cultural debate of the time. But when the clothes are off, and the music stops, then what? After all this reading about Salome empowerment, all I can think about is when the strip-club owner in The Killing of a Chinese Bookie says to the girl, “You don’t have to jump anymore, sweetheart. Just walk up and down.”