For modernity, against modernization: Dance, representation, and the early twentieth-century female body

Hanna Järvinen

Looking at photographs of dancers in the first decades of the twentieth century, there appears to be a contradiction between the proposed ‘modernity’ of the bodies represented, and the contexts in which they dance. In this paper, I will focus on why green fields, Greek ruins, and forest glades appear so often in imagery about so-called modern dance – the works of canonised pioneers the likes of Loïe Fuller and Isadora Duncan as well as a number of less well-known figures popular at the time such as the Wiesenthal sisters. I argue that these images are not neutral nor documents of dance but rather illustrate an ideology that restricted dance into a representation of a limited range of affects (joy, grace) and a politics of the body where dancing was healthy exercise for women in need of a cure from the ills of urban life and modernization. Nostalgia for a pre-industrial landscape was thus essential to the modernity of the dancing bodies in a class-specific manner that could even be seen as serving eugenic aims.