Loïe Fuller’s serpentine success


Skirt dancing, involving the dancer’s graceful manipulation of a full skirt, was a widely popular genre in the U.S. when Loïe Fuller premiered her Serpentine dance in 1892.

Fuller’s costume for this dance involved so much fabric that—combined with atmospheric lighting—it almost completely obscured her human form. By shifting the focus from the dancer to the costume, she added a new level of abstraction to the skirt dance genre, prefiguring many of the innovations of modern dance.

The dance was a huge success and was much imitated, prompting Fuller to sue for copyright infringement; but the judge ruled against her, stating that a dance depicting no story, character, or emotion could not be considered a “dramatic composition” protected by the copyright act.

This according to “Loïe Fuller’s Serpentine dance: A discussion of its origins in skirt dancing and creative reconstruction” by Jody Sperling (Proceedings of the Society for Dance History Scholars XXII [1999] pp. 53–56). Below, a hand-colored 1895 film of an unnamed dancer by the Lumière brothers suggests what Fuller’s performance was like.

Related article: Tórtola Valencia and Otherness


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2 Responses to Loïe Fuller’s serpentine success

  1. This liminal space between the real world and the imagined is also something with which the Symbolists were concerned. Lively explains, “Many [symbolist] plays showed . . . characters . . . who seem to exist partway between the real world and beyond” (269). Fuller’s performance fits this description; in the moment that it is occurring it appears to exceed the bounds of the natural world. Albright describes the phenomena by stating, “Beginning with dim lighting (often described as ‘eerie’), her movement typically became more and more expansive as the surrounding lights increased in intensity and color variation, creating a climatic (sometimes apocalyptic) vision that exploded back into darkness” (66). The description of Fuller’s performance as climatic or apocalyptic reinforces the idea that her dance created a space that existed somewhere between the real world and that which is beyond the real world.

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