Originally published by Gillie Kleiman and Sara Lindström for A Lyrical Dance Concert.
In 1859 (or thereabouts) Jules Leotard slipped on his tight, knitted malliot and made his first public appearance with the Cirque Napoleon. This “daring young man on the flying trapeze” (for it was he that the song was inspired by) became an overnight success; the first person to perform a mid-air somersault and the first to leap from one trapeze bar to another. As well as this acrobatic revolution, his sleek outfit created a bit of sexual revolution with women quite taken with his athleticism; “A daring young man on the flying trapeze, His movements were graceful, all girls he could please.”
Emma Goldman was a Russian-born American, atheist anarchist who wrote about capitalism, free speech, free love. In her 1931 biography Living My Life she recounted her fondness for dancing.
“At the dances I was one of the most untiring and gayest. One evening a cousin of Sasha, a young boy, took me aside. With a grave face, as if he were about to announce the death of a dear comrade, he whispered to me that it did not behoove an agitator to dance. Certainly not with such reckless abandon, anyway. It was undignified for one who was on the way to become a force in the anarchist movement. My frivolity would only hurt the Cause.
I grew furious at the impudent interference of the boy. I told him to mind his own business. I was tired of having the Cause constantly thrown into my face. I did not believe that a Cause which stood for a beautiful ideal, for anarchism, for release and freedom from convention and prejudice, should demand the denial of life and joy.
I insisted that our Cause could not expect me to become a nun and that the movement would not be turned into a cloister. If it meant that, I did not want it. “I want freedom, the right to self-expression, everybody’s right to beautiful, radiant things.” Anarchism meant that to me, and I would live it in spite of the whole world — prisons, persecution, everything. Yes, even in spite of the condemnation of my own closest comrades I would live my beautiful ideal.” (p. 56)
1932 was a time of big political ideas: Adolf Hitler was running for president in Germany; Stalin was two years away from starting his political purges in Russia; Gandhi was fasting to protest separate elections for Dalits; and the USA was in the depths of the Great Depression.
Meanwhile modern dance was emerging as a new art form; exciting, political and anti-establishment. Contemporaries of Martha Graham, the New Dance Group (NDG) was founded in 1932 “for the purpose of developing and creating group and mass dances expressive of the working class and its revolutionary upsurge.”
They performed at rallies and marched during protests and made their way into FBI files. The group’s ten-cent classes for workers consisted of an hour-long dance class, an hour of improvisation based on a social theme, and an hour of discussion on Marxism and social issues.
In October 1988 a national referendum was held in Chile to determine whether or not dictator Augusto Pinochet would continue in power for another eight years. 56 per cent of voters said ‘No’ and Pinochet’s 16 and half years in office came to an end.
The victory was the result of many years of grass roots political activism and in the weeks leading up to the vote, both the ‘Yes’ and ‘No campaigns were given 15 minutes of TV advertising time each night. As Olga Khazan summarises in The Atlantic:
“The pro-Pinochet side alternated between cloying propaganda and foreboding images warning of an apocalyptic post-Pinochet future. Meanwhile, the campaign led by a coalition of opposition parties — the “No” — did in fact concoct a positive, joyful ad campaign”
It is striking to note the prominence of dancing bodies in the ‘No’ advertisement for example a woman casually jiving on a bridge (0:54), a leotard-wearing jazz class (1:19) or some grooving mountaineers (1:36). While these may not have led the democratic revolution, there is little doubt that these colourful, free bodies were the embodied antithesis of the ordered choreography of the military state.
Could a revolution still be started wearing a leotard? From Dictatorship to Democracy, A Conceptual Framework for Liberation is a manual by Gene Sharp on how to destroy a dictatorship and to prevent the rise of a new one. It was written in 1993 and influenced the Arab Spring in 2010-12.
The book doesn’t talk about leotards or dancing specifically it is possible to read between the lines. There is an appendix of 198 ‘methods of nonviolent protest and persuasion’ for example which includes:
“30. Rude gestures…
32. Taunting officials…
36. Performance of plays and music…
174. Establishing new social patterns”
Somewhere in and amongst these methods, dancing rings loudly.
Could a revolution be started here in the UK wearing a leotard? One might not think not, when a Member of Parliament can dance in a leotard on a reality TV programme.
Not when modern dance has been co-opted into the establishment and when a protest dance is just another idea to be sold back to us:
Not when control lies in pervasive information systems rather than military choroegraphy.
I hesitate to predict what sort of body might be required to revolt if not a dancing one.
Where colourful leotards and dancing might still be part of the revolution are in those countries where the state uses the old ways of control its people. In Tunisia for example before the 2010-11 revolution there were restrictions in the wearing of the hijab and police were known to harass, detain and shave men with ‘Islamic’ appearance. Since the revolution, the Islamist government has been symbolically resisted with the Harlem Shake, responding in turn with threats of a ban.
As Mohamed-Salah Omr writes in the Guardian:
“Harlem shakers claim to represent life by setting their dancing and colourful costumes against a culture they see as preaching death and darkness – a reference to black niqabs and gowns worn by followers of Salafism, and their trademark black banner.”