Preferred Citation: Toepfer, Karl. Empire of Ecstasy: Nudity and Movement in German Body Culture, 1910-1935. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1997 1997.

Early Nackttanz

Early Nackttanz

In the years immediately after World War I, several factions within the German modern dance movement attempted to present the nude body as a sign of a modern, liberated identity in the age of mechanical reproduction. Concurrent with the appearance of Nackttanz, or nude dancing, was the discovery, one might say, of modern relations between desire, the body, and the gaze. But whereas the use of nudity to signify modernity occurred at a time of quite complicated experimentation in formulating a modern attitude toward relations between desire and the body, these relations were never remote from erotic significance. Attitudes toward the modern, nude, and especially female body exposed more complex and recessed attitudes toward danced performances of sexual difference, in which nudity symbolically equated modernity, with the assertion of a more naked identity.

Shortly before World War I, several female dancers acquired fame in Central Europe by performing solo dances completely in the nude. Knowledge about these dances is obscure, highly unreliable, and dominated by the notion that their artistic significance merely rests upon their having been performed in the nude. However, it also suggests that nude dancing actually had the effect of producing significant differences between performers in their attitudes toward modernity.

Adorée Villany

Adorée Villany apparently performed a kind of refined striptease that unveiled her body as an artwork. Nude dancing was, for her, movement toward a pose; total nudity apparently brought the movement of the body to an end. Complete nakedness therefore stabilized both the body unveiled and the gaze of the spectator. Villany began performing nude dances in


public around 1910. All were versions of works she had been performing since at least 1905, and it appears that she performed nude dances for photographs as early as 1906.

Born in Rouen, she became enamored of theatre as a child, though she had almost no firsthand experience of it. Alone in her bedroom, she performed little plays of her own composition, despite stern opposition from her mother and aunt. She was completely self-taught as a performer, blessed as she was with an astonishingly rich imagination and sense of enterprise. She first captured public attention in 1905 with a Salome dance in which she not only performed the Dance of the Seven Veils but simultaneously spoke (in French) Salome's final monologue from Wilde's play. From then on she continued to experiment with what she called "spoken dances." As an exponent of new dance, however, she displayed a curious fondness for archaic, mythical, historical, and Oriental themes: The Assyrian Dance, The Dance of Esther, Dance of the Roman Woman, The Old Egyptian Dance, The Old Hebrew Dance, The Old Persian Dance, The Dance of Phryne, The Babylonian Dance, The Pre-Raphaelite Woman, and Death and the Maiden, all of which involved pantomimic and intricately narratived movements. She combined these performances with "silhouette dances" (Turkish) and dances of a more abstract quality, such as Dance of Anger, Visionary Dance, The Seduction, and Dance of the Blind . In all these works, she exhibited a brilliant skill at manipulating costumes (which she designed herself) and scenographic effects; apparently she favored archaic themes because these provided greater opportunities to employ daring, even lurid, costumes that generously revealed her flesh. In 1909 she performed her morbid one-act femme fatale play, La Panthere, in which the heroine, in a spotted leotard, performs a strange panther dance for the man she loves before strangling him; the panther woman "strokes—then scratches." Supplementing this repertoire with dances that interpreted paintings by Stuck, Böcklin, and other contemporary artists, Villany performed in Prague, Paris, Ghent, Berlin, Rotterdam, Vienna, Brussels, and numerous spas, such as Marienbad and San Sebastian. But it was in Germany that she found her largest audience.

Villany's nude performances were attended largely by upper-class aesthetes and held in private homes or in spaces Villany rented for the purpose of entertaining members of a specially formed dance society. Munich police found these strategies distressing and prosecuted her for obscenity in 1911. The following year, she responded to her conviction by publishing Tanz-Reform und Pseudo-Moral, a huge and wonderfully entertaining book—one of the most entertaining books on dance ever published—in which she argued that reform of dance was equivalent to reform of morality. Undaunted by condemnation of her as a narcissist and exhibitionist, she perceived that to overcome a pervasive fear of the female body one had to gaze at it with the same seriousness that one applied to the contemplation


of artworks. She felt that being beautiful was a right and that the assertion of this right entailed displaying her own beauty, which in itself did not transgress any healthy idea of the good. Of persistent fascination to her audiences was the slenderness of her body, which contrasted dramatically with the "softer" ideal of feminine beauty that prevailed at that time. Besides reprinting much of the sensational press coverage of her performances and trial, she made extensive, unprecedented use of photography to document her aesthetic and link her dances to the lofty zones of consciousness occupied by the visual arts. (Apparently she made some films of her dances, too.) But some of the nude images self-consciously show facial expressions that betray a measure of anxiety toward either her nakedness itself or toward the gaze focused upon it. Villany also included abundantly illustrated chapters on her stylized dances, on her costumes—"The reform of dance is as much a question of costume as it is a question of dance technique" (79)—on "dance language and body culture," and on her life; she condemned ballet as an oppressive, obsolete art form; she denounced her imitators; she presented witty interviews with herself and included quite humorous cartoons satirizing her notoriety; she presented the views of her critics; and she offered a series of comic fantasy sketches of nude dances she proposed to perform in public, at the Frankfurt Zoo, before government ministers, painted entirely black so that she looked Negroid, and so forth. She even imagined the creation in 1950 of a museum dedicated to her memory and wrote humorous tour-guide commentary for it.

Tanz-Reform und Pseudo-Moral is a maddeningly complicated book, and it therefore seems that Villany's nude performances must be seen in the context of a rather ambitious vision of freedom. The author's nakedness motivates a wild and monumentally generous release of discourse and imagery that allows her to shift suavely, if somewhat manically, from luxuriant tragedy and theory to exquisite comedy and affable memoir ("I have no idea what headaches are," 121). But above all, Villany linked the reform of dance (and morality) not to reform of movement, music, nor even law but to reform of the body and its image. For her, reform of the body involved not just looking at it but displaying it with unapologetic narcissism. However, it is quite difficult to determine what happened to her after 1912. In 1915 she performed, as a "special attraction," a nude dance at the Oscar Theatre in Stockholm in an operetta, Solstrålen , set in a "dance cafe" on the planet Mars (Jannario 21). After that, I find no trace of her.

Mata Hari

By contrast, Mata Hari (Margarete van Zelle) (1876–1917) offered both public and "members only" concerts that included dances in which she displayed her nudity from beginning to end. But even before she gained noto-


riety for her espionage activities, the public seemed to regard her style of dancing, with its emphasis on exotic, Oriental effects, as the product of a courtesan personality whose chief objective was to bewitch wealthy, influential male spectators.

Mata Hari began doing nude dances for private audiences in Paris in 1905, then in Vienna and Berlin, but shortly before the war broke out her appeal started to wane, especially in Paris after the immense success of the Ballet Russes. Like Villany she was interested in photography, and she produced numerous images of herself in nude dance poses, some of which were even available as postcards. But the femme fatale image she projected through these pictures (rather than performances) was powerful enough to preclude any serious study of her dances themselves, which to this day commentators tend to dismiss as vulgar, presumably because the image she constructed conformed entirely to expectations defining the male gaze. Biographies of Mata Hari invariably teach an archaic moral lesson that more modern innovators in nude dancing were anxious to discredit: that naked dancing actually hides something, a "secret" life whose treacherous desires can have disastrous consequences for entire nations.[1] With Mata Hari, then, we encounter an extravagant manifestation of the myth-bound perception that nudity urges us to inquire about the life of the dancer rather than about the significance of the dance itself. Moreover, the life Mata Hari constructed was such a dense web of lies, fabrications, and deceptions that it was difficult to equate her nude performances with superior honesty of identity.

Gertrud Leistikow

A German dancer whose career unfolded largely in Holland, Gertrud Leistikow (1885–1948) was also familiar to German audiences before and during World War I. She, however, displayed less confidence than Villany or Mata Hari in photography's ability to produce a satisfactory image of her art. Photographs of her nude dances are extremely difficult to locate, although Brandenburg published one (an ecstatic leap in a meadow, with face obscured) in Der moderne Tanz (Figure 6). Instead, she placed the documentation of her image in the hands of gifted painters, for her face lacked charm, and her reputation as a dancer stemmed primarily from her innovations in grotesque dancing, which sometimes entailed the use of bizarre

[1] Of the many biographies of Mata Hari, the most complete and scholarly is Waagenaar's, although even he does not examine her dances very seriously. But his book contains much intriguing photo documentation. The "diary" of Mata Hari is also an interesting document, but its authenticity and even its authorship are questionable, and in any case it, too, devotes more pages to the dancer's lurid private life than to her dance aesthetic.


costumes and masks. It is not clear where or when she performed nude dances. She debuted in Berlin in 1910, but nearly all references to her nudity in performance seem to date from the war years. In 1917 the Dutch artist Jan Sluijters did a mysterious, expressionistic painting of Leistikow in nude performance (he also did a very similar print of the painting) (Juffermans 96, 100; Bakker and Trappeniers 72, 115). Her flesh glows out of a dark, curtained background and through a diaphanous, veil-like negligee; lurid flowers blossom behind her. The pose captures her in a moment of voluptuous bodily undulation while she turns her face, with eyes shut, away from the spectator. This tension between revealing and withholding, expressed in a single movement, effectively dramatizes an attitude of deep (and by no means unpleasurable) uncertainty in her regarding the consequences of performing the nude dance.

Leistikow brought an unprecedented complexity to the image of nude dancing. Hans Brandenburg (HB 157–173) discussed Leistikow at length as a "tragic," "Dionysian" dancer but devoted only one page (167) to her nude performances. In her case, he explained, nudity served to expose movements concealed by costume and mask; more important, it revealed the "thousand-fold play of muscles" in the body. He did not analyze any particular dance but identified general features of Leistikow's aesthetic defining all her dances. Because "the painful tension between the personal and suprapersonal sets her body in action" (161), Leistikow was the "envoy of a new tragic culture" rather than some sort of savior who linked women's emancipation (Frauenemanzipation ) to "women's movement" (Frauenbewegung ) (173). The book included Dora Brandenburg-Polter's collagelike sketches of Leistikow in nude performance; these ascribed to the body of the dancer a freedom that was much less evident in those sketches of Leistikow performing in costume. In other words, the sketches did not entirely support the text's contention that nude dancing is the sign of a tragic, rather than emancipated, condition of female identity. What was evident in the images of both visual artists was the stark expressionistic quality of her nude performances. Unlike the many prewar female dancers who linked the performance of graceful movements to the signification of an elevating spirituality, Leistikow favored a hard, convulsive, ecstatic, even violent type of movement. The "thousand-fold play of muscles" disclosed by her nudity made her body a radical sign of power and freedom, contradicting traditional inclinations to inscribe female bodily strength in theosophic, exotic, and spiritual terms. Moreover, Leistikow was in her mid-thirties when she had artists document her nudity; it seems quite possible that, because she did not depend on photography to transmit her image, she succeeded in making nudity a sign of modernity without imprisoning that sign within the image of virginal youthfulness pervading female nude dancing in the 1920s.


The discussion of these three pioneers of nude dancing raises a contradiction. The evolution of modern dance generally (not just nude dancing) depended on the still image of the dancer projected by the visual arts, chiefly photography; yet modern dance, with its stress on the liberating effects of movement, sought quite consciously to release the body, especially the female body, from the imprisoning images of it dominating premodern consciousness. Not surprisingly, many dancers, particularly those involved with nude performance, entered into an ambivalent relation with those who wished to produce images of them. Images of dance were obviously necessary to expand public interest in dance, but it was also necessary for the image to project enough complexity to indicate something withheld from it and given only in performance. Nina Hard, a Swiss expressionist, is a peculiar example of this ambivalence. She enjoyed posing nude for photographers and painters, especially (1921) Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, but apparently did not want her nude dances documented photographically (Kirchner 241, 259, 270, 281; LFg 110, 118). Yet she did not mind photodocumentation of her transvestite performances (Holtmont 205).

Olga Desmond

Somewhat more complex was the aesthetic of Olga Desmond, an English woman whose career developed almost entirely in Germany. In her prewar work she used photography to blur distinctions between dance and posed tableaux, so it is not quite clear whether the images documented a performance or functioned as a mode of performance in themselves. In 1910 she produced a luxurious folio that featured narratively sequenced nude photos of her as she assumed statuesque, classical Greek poses of a heroic character. She even treated her hair to give it a sculpted look. Thus, the sense of movement was cinematic rather than corporeal (Figure 7). Furthermore, she dramatized her nudity in a manner that was extremely rare in nude dance: in partnership with a nearly nude male, Adolf Salge. Fear of obscenity prosecution perhaps compelled her to confine such presentation of the body to a Berlin photography studio. Dance, nevertheless, was where she wanted to manifest her enthusiasm for nudity. In 1919 Desmond published a pamphlet, Rhythmograpik, that linked the self-study of dance to the study of her own system of dance notation. For her, as for so many other modern dancers, the new image of dance actually implied a new method of writing down dances, of transcribing the movements into a special grammar of symbols. Yet the pamphlet's frontispiece is a photograph of Desmond dancing in a see-through diaphanous gown. The little book, obviously intended for female readers, also prefaced chapters with ornamental arabesque designs that showed nude women dancing within floral or arboreal patterns. For Desmond, nothing was more significant than


nudity in calling attention to the problem of seeing the movement of the body itself.

But in spite of her close connection to the nudist movement (she was for a while the wife of Karl Vanselow, the editor of the nudist magazine Die Schönheit ), after the war she avoided nude dancing and photography altogether, perhaps because she felt she was too old. A review of a 1920 Berlin dance concert (KTP 4, 115) suggests that she projected a sibylline aura of "great artistic consciousness" signified chiefly through movements of extreme precision and delicacy (rather than voluptuousness or wildness): a "convincing, lovely self-absorption which makes one forget for a moment that her elegance and cosmetic as well as dance- technical aesthetic cannot dispel her age and her weariness." In reporting her suicide attempt in 1937, Der Tanz (10/11, 8–10) associated her dance aesthetic with that of Anita Berber, Lucy Kieselhausen, and Cleo de Merode, all of whom delighted in flamboyantly theatrical, artificial effects rather than unity with "nature." In 1925 Der Blitz (2/50, 1) published a photograph of seven women at Desmond's Berlin school wearing tiny bikinis, constructing a very complicated tableau for a "ballet." Yet an anonymous 1924 mimeograph deposited in the Fritz Böhme Collection of the Leipzig Tanzarchiv, "Olga Desmond" (apparently a lecture by Desmond herself), urged students to keep focused on simple movements (stepping, breathing, bending, turning, plucking, springing, hopping) and then to incorporate the movement of insects, birds, and animals. Thus, for Desmond, nudity appears to have been an early phase in an evolution toward greater and greater uncertainty concerning her aesthetic and identity.

Barefoot Modernism

Before all these dancers gained renown, Isadora Duncan had made modern dance virtually synonymous in popular consciousness with barefoot performance, and in 1903 she even went so far as to appear nude in a performance at the Kroll Opera in Berlin. Barefoot dancing may have signified the modernity of a body liberated from external (social) constraints (for which clothing is the most obvious sign), but efforts to extend nudity in performance beyond bare feet or beyond the solo performer always seemed to produce an enormous, quite unliberating anxiety. Barefoot dancing introduced a logic of signification that teased the spectator with a promise of liberation, which the dance world then hesitated to fulfill. Perhaps for this reason, the grotesque dancer Valeska Gert, who apparently never danced nude, asserted that "one should dance barefoot only when naked or simply covered with a shirt" (VP 13–16). Moreover, because all the early nude dancers were women, the European public seemed to regard nude dancing as a mode of erotic performance capable of sexually exciting its spectators.


Occasionally, German courts had to determine the legality of some of these dances (OG 49–73).

But it was clear even before the war that the legal ambiguity of nude dances did not stem entirely from a perceived threat to the female body posed by the male gaze, for audiences of nude dancing were as much female as male. Moreover, it became obvious during the 1920s that female nude dancing was inspiring many women to participate in modern dance culture. The degree to which nude dancing transgressed moral norms depended on the relation, in performance, between nudity and the signification of erotic desire. This relation apparently achieved transgressive power when a nude dance included both male and female bodies (with either gender dancing nude), for we encounter great difficulty in finding manifestations of such combinations of bodies. However, male interest in nude dancing did not confine itself to spectatorship. By 1910 Emile Jaques-Dalcroze had incorporated nudity into his ambitious program for the liberation of European bodies through systematic study of bodily movements and musical rhythms. "Nudity," he remarked,

provides not only a medium of control indispensable for purposes of physical expression, but is in addition an aesthetic element inducing the respect for the body that animated the great Greek philosophers. In proportion as the idea of sex subsides in the fervour of the artist, and in the passion for complete absorption in beauty and truth, so our bodies take on new life, and we feel lack of respect for nudity to be a sin against the spirit (Jaques-Dalcroze, 207; Appia, Oeuvre Complètes, III 14).

Dalcroze hoped that as erotic interest in nude movement waned, rhythmic gymnastics would gain wider support from the state and the public. An implication of his argument was that a linking of nudity to erotic signification produced a profound anxiety toward the body, impeding the hygienic or therapeutic, rather than aesthetic, significance of movement studies. But after the war, Dalcroze's linking of nudity to an idealized classical antiquity seemed an inadequate sign of modernity; indeed, nudity was modern to the extent that it avoided classical models. Of greater significance by far in shaping German attitudes toward the relation between nudity and dance was the strange and complex world of Nacktkultur (free body movement). However, by 1930 Nacktkultur had not succeeded at all in changing the conditions under which nude dance had been possible in 1920. Getting men involved with nudism was hardly a problem, but getting them to perform modern dances was, and getting them to perform nude dances was practically impossible.


Early Nackttanz

Preferred Citation: Toepfer, Karl. Empire of Ecstasy: Nudity and Movement in German Body Culture, 1910-1935. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1997 1997.