One Grecian Urn

I’m searching for a term that would help me find some sort of documentary evidence, preferably video, of a style of dance that was popular around the start of the twentieth century.

Backstory: I encountered a reference to John Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn” recently, which for some reason made me think of The Music Man and the scene where the mayor’s nasty wife Eulalie (Hermione Gingold) performs a classical “tableau” dance with the ladies dance committee (“one Grecian Urn”!) at the ice cream social near the film’s end.

Which then reminded me of a documentary I saw years ago with black and white footage of women doing a similar dance for real around the turn of the century.  Flowing Greek robes and all, just like the characters in The Music Man.  And it was incredibly beautiful.  When Eulalie and her biddies assume their “Grecian Urn” pose, it’s ridiculous.  But when these real-life women struck their poses, they were creating an art form in dance.

Naturally I can’t figure out what the documentary was or find any video clips online of women performing such a dance—although I did find some photographs of women in classical Greek gowns creating tableaux, like the one below.

Acadia Ladies Seminary Physical Cultural Exhibition Scene from fan drill 1901 - retrieved from February 2015 internet archive

Acadia Ladies Seminary Physical Cultural Exhibition Scene from fan drill, 1901 (retrieved from the Internet Archive

And I found an extremely cool short film, “Serpentine Dance,” or “Danse Serpentine” (in French), from 1896 made by the famous Lumière brothers, French film pioneers.

The Serpentine Dance was created by Loie Fuller, Chicago burlesque dancer who experimented with the effects of stage lights on her swirling silk gowns.  Below is a photograph of the real Loie Fuller, taken by Frederick Glasier in 1902.

And here is the Lumière brothers’ film, one of the earliest “color” motion pictures.  Each frame was hand tinted to mimic the effect that stage lighting had on Fuller’s gowns.  This dancer is not the real Loie Fuller, but she is extraordinarily good.  Once you get past the kind of dorky opening 43 seconds, the swirling robes are astonishing.  It’s surprising to me that dancing from 100 years ago would still look so good today.  Somehow I just don’t expect it.


About Katherine Wikoff

I am a college professor at Milwaukee School of Engineering, where I teach literature, film studies, political science, and communication. I also volunteer with a Milwaukee homeless sanctuary, Repairers of the Breach, as chair of the Communications and Fund Development Committee.
This entry was posted in Art, History, Life, Movies and film, Popular culture and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to One Grecian Urn

  1. Tony Wolf says:

    I don’t know if you’re still interested in this subject, but a search for “greek dance” at will bring up four or five short films from the 1920s featuring women dancing in quasi-ancient Greek style.


  2. Nicole McMurray says:

    You gotta research Isadora Duncan.


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