Risky dancing

02 July 2015 | By Caitlyn Lehmann

In Giselle, the heroine’s love of dancing is seen as a threat to her poor health. However, in the 19th century, it wasn’t only the weak of heart that were thought to endanger their lives through too much indulgence in ballroom pleasures … Caitlyn Lehmann investigates.

“You have been dancing too much, my poor child!” cried she, terrified at seeing her daughter pale and breathless.

Elisa was unable to utter a syllable in reply; and Madame Laloine hastened to withdraw her from the dancing-room.

“Ah! Poor girl!” said Tirelot, watching her faltering steps as she quitted the room on her mother’s arm. “They were very wrong to let her attempt a galop. She has been subject from childhood to palpitations of the heart and any violent emotion might destroy her.”

Catherine Gore, First Love, 1842.

In the same year that Giselle premiered in London, novelist Catherine Gore published her own tale of a weak-hearted damsel hastened to the grave by the reckless attentions of an aristocratic cad. Giselle’s autumnal Rhineland may seem a world away from the lace and satin of a silver fork romance. But peasant maid and debutante are actually close kin in nineteenth-century fiction, both charming and spirited, and both passionately—and provocatively—fond of dancing.

In the era that followed Jane Austen’s novels, debutantes became a popular focus for the public’s fascination with corruptive influences, particularly those that lurked beneath the chandeliers and between the press of bodies in the ballroom. Britain’s town planners and social reformers may have been engineering a revolution in urban sanitation, constructing vast networks of culverts, drains and tunnels under the nation’s principal cities. But the causes of many common diseases remained inexplicable and bewildering. In the literary imagination, it was not simple heartbreak that haunted debutantes and fair maids; it heartbreak precipitated by chills and miasmas, weak constitutions and violent flushes of passion.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the period’s interest in pathology and the supernatural also saw the resurgent popularity of the motif of the medieval Dance of Death. As Molly Engelhardt notes, the partnering of death, dance and mania fed Victorians’ anxiety “to understand the etiology of contagious disease and mysterious inner-workings of the body.” Even without the cadaverous rattle of waltzing skeletons, Giselle’s famous “mad scene” can be interpreted literally and figuratively as a dance of death, while the ghoulish reels of the wilis are unmistakably reminiscent of the danse macabre. The wilis share the crusty cadaver’s delight in pressing fools and innocents to the grave. And each seeks out her victim “with that marvellous instinct of a woman looking for someone to partner her in a waltz”, as the ballet’s librettist, Theophile Gautier memorably put it.

The debutante’s world is one where gaiety and prudence are in perpetual tussle. And that tussle, indeed, found its echo among the Victorians’ opposing viewpoints on the effects of dance itself. For the advocates of exercise and the champions of sturdy womanhood, the benefits of dancing were self-evident. It brought a healthy glow to the otherwise pallid features of sequestered women; it fostered sociability and strength. Yet, for others, dancing was the fever-ground for maladies and disorder – synonymous with the hot and crowded ballroom where bodies mingled, flushed and panting.

These are tensions that still animate Giselle today, creating danger and excitement, subtlety and shades of meanings. What is dancing for Giselle? Is it a sign of her spiritedness and vigour? A token of infatuation or impending neurosis? Of gentility or rusticity? Is Giselle’s passion for dancing a ticking time bomb or, ultimately, her salvation? These are questions for each interpreter of the role to explore, for Giselle, like the debutante, sways perpetually in her loveliness between pleasure and recklessness, ruin and exaltation.