Uninhibited, exotic and spontaneous, Josephine Baker (1906-1975) swept through the landscape of 20th century dance like a wild, booty-shaking tornado. From the moment she arrived in Paris in 1925, she electrified French audiences with her signature piece — the jaw dropping ‘Banana Dance‘, in which she wore little else except for a skirt made out of bananas.
Baker was African-American, born in St Louis, Missouri. She was 16 when she started performing on the streets of her hometown, but moved to New York a few years later to become a chorus girl on Broadway. In October 1925 she performed in La Revue nègre at the Théatre des Champs-Élysées in Paris. With her partner Joe Alex, she danced a pas de deux called Danse Sauvage. Josephine Baker was an instant hit.
Contemporary critic Pierre de Régnier described watching her perform the Danse Sauvage:
“She is in constant motion, her body writhing like a snake or more precisely like a dipping saxophone. Music seems to pour from her body. She grimaces, crosses her eyes, wiggles disjointedly, does a split and finally crawls off the stage stiff-legged, her rump higher than her head, like a young giraffe.”
The Théatre des Champs-Élysées had been the scene of the famous 1913 premiere of the Rite of Spring. But interestingly, a review in Vogue from 1925 stated that “the Negro … dances better than Nijinsky”.
A few months later, Baker had a show at the Folies Bergère and she was also taking ballet classes with Balanchine. She had swiftly become one of France’s most famous, important and beloved performers.
Writer Philip M Ward explains how her improvisations transgressed the conventions of choreographed dance. “Where European dancers showed the front, presenting the body as a unified line, Baker contrived to move different parts of her body to different rhythms,” he says. “Most shocking to dance purists, she used her backside, shaking it, as one of her biographers says, as though it were an instrument.”
Fortunately, many of her routines have been archived and Baker’s remarkable style can still be admired. With movements as syncopated and frenzied as wild fire, Josephine Baker was always in control.