Leaping into Mystery

The Dancing Goddesses:

Folklore, Archeology, and the Origins of European Dance

By Elizabeth Wayland Barber

New York: Norton, 2013, 429 pp., $35.00, hardcover

Reviewed by Debra Cash

The study of material culture is, at heart, the study of the unspoken. In recent decades, as it has taken its place among historiographic and sociological research methods, it has given us access to the look, touch, taste, and feel of ephemeral culture: the farm implements of peasantry, the homespun aprons of working women, the iron shackles and pine cabins of antebellum slaves. Most of human history, especially that of women, remains unwritten, so it’s no surprise that feminist scholars have often turned to the study of material culture to recapture lives lost to official, recorded history.

Dance is the quintessential ephemeral cultural artifact. No culture discovered to date has been entirely danceless, and there’s reason to believe that human beings have always danced, yet western notions of dance culture, both before and after the advent of film, have often been fraught with denigration, colonialism, and exoticism. Until recently, it was not uncommon for a college-level dance history syllabus to promote the idea of cultural “progress” by starting with the so-called “primitivism” of “African tribes” or “aboriginal” dancing in the Americas and then moving toward a perceived cultural apotheosis in the ballets of George Balanchine.

Yet all along, both scholarly and amateur dance lovers have tried to piece together the history of the art form from remaining traces. That search has been infused with extrapolations that say as much about contemporary preoccupations as they do about the past.  As the scholar Samuel Dorf has demonstrated, for instance, when Isadora Duncan started dancing barefoot and uncorseted on a beach near San Francisco and in Parisian drawing rooms, her performances conflated her experience of her own physicality; images repurposed from an 1896 “scientific” classification of the meanings of the figures portrayed on Greek vases—raised arms signaling praise, etc.; popular ideas about the eroticism and “Sapphism” of antiquity (those flowing tunics must have meant a lot to the literally straight-laced Victorians); assertions about nature and the so-called natural rights that formed the basis of American freedoms; and the nascent ideologies of feminism and universal suffrage. Duncan’s “Greek” dancing, in other words, was a mixture of the tastes of her time, and a skewed and perhaps self-serving ethnography. As twenty-first-century readers, we need to be alert to the histories and contexts of aesthetic choices.

Which brings me to Elizabeth Wayland Barber’s The Dancing Goddesses. Like her 1995 Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years, in which Barber argued for the importance of the invention of string and sewing, she shoots for the encyclopedic with breathtaking confidence. Professor emerita at Occidental College and the leader of an international (i.e., pan-European) folkdance ensemble, she has described her scholarly work as standing at the crossroads of archeology and linguistics. This work, however, is not a social history but rather an excavation of myth and legend that draws attention to tantalizing traces of dancing in the shape of agrarian ritual, primarily in the Balkans, and then leaps, like Nijinsky, into mystery.

The Dancing Goddesses—a title that automatically signals credulity and romanticism—posits a kind of terpsichorean Collective Unconscious. Civilizations from Bronze Age Crete and classical Greece and Rome to the premodern, agrarian Balkans “sought to influence the flow of life by means of dance...form[ing] a sort of glue holding people and life together, bonding communities,” posits Barber. In such societies, she asserts, dance “marked off ritual time and space, served to anesthetize fatigue and heal sickness, and even sought to produce life. Dance was not an ‘art form’ but the essence of life itself.”

Barber’s dancing goddesses are the spirits of young women who died before their time. She tracks them across national boundaries, open fields, and threshing floors. Nymphs and spirits of water and air, they are called, in various languages, rusalki, nixies, wilis, and neraida. Ballet-goers know these maidens from the plot of the 1841 Giselle and recognize their long braids from Natalia Gontcharova’s famous costumes for Bronislava Nijinska’s 1923 Les Noces. Barber paints a picture of the correspondences among and persistence of these figures across the European continent, especially in Russia and the Balkans. Her retold tales are lush with evocative, fairytale-worthy detail.

Unfortunately, though, her assertions about the underlying meaning of these figures stand on marshy soil. The Slavic rusalki, Barber writes, represented women who had “not used their natural store of fertility.” She suggests that believers in rusalki hoped those spirits might be enjoined to bestow their “unused” fertility on needy families, flocks, and fields, and argues that young Russian girls who danced the May dances were analogized to these spirits. Thus, villagers “delegate[d] the village maidens to behave like the Dancing Goddesses, in hopes of either jump-starting the goddess’ activities ... or even creating the same effects directly [Barber’s italics].”

Of the young men who also died without descendents in illness or in battle, Barber is silent. Nor does she consider that these unmothering, seductive spirit maidens may be one way that a culture disavows or contains certain types of female behavior. She considers no counterexamples. She’s too enchanted with watching the rusalki dance in the gloaming.

Barber spotlights the construction, appearance, and use of folk paraphernalia, and how the dancing body is ornamented and reshaped in space by special props, shoes, and clothing. Her process is associative and personal, but her range of references is impressively deep, and her rough line drawings illustrating the text attest to years spent prowling museum display cases, notebook in hand. She describes the red fringes draping dance clothing from Macedonia; the leaves that disguise an orphan as she sings a charm for rain; the horse-head bonnets worn by Welsh mummers; and the staves and swords of garlic-and-wormwood chewing men from herding societies. She lovingly describes rituals step by step, based primarily on records collected during nineteenth- and twentieth-century ethnographic tours and her own observations and participation. She ranges far into prehistory, quoting others’ research about Neolithic clay figurines and Danish bog men and, like almost everyone in the popular social sciences these days, refers to brain science and neurology by way of Oliver Sacks.  She is alert to the meaning of musical details because of her folkdancing practice: she makes the point that the difference between walking naturally in 2/4 time and dancing in “non-practical” Balkan 7/8 time would signal that something special was happening during a bridal procession, and she convincingly explains how the very conformity among people in a village who danced in their own distinctive, local style reinforces neighborly social bonds.

The problem is that once Barber gets an idea, she casually attributes it to an entire civilization and beyond. “How could the glorious fragrance of amassed roses not [Barber’s italics] herald the presence of divinity, especially of flower-loving spirit girls who had died before their time?” she asks with a rhetorical flourish that shouldn’t have gotten past her editors and certainly won’t inspire trust in her scholarly peers. If the women she interviewed in the 1970s in Kargopol, Russia, were not aware that the traditional chain-stitch embroidery on their aprons represented a twelve-month calendar, does a similar pattern on a fourth-century tureen prove anything? Does the experience of a single Russian family in the 1990s in which the wife worked from 4 a.m. until midnight while the husband played electronic games correlate in any reliable way with the division of labor in the premodern Russia of folk tales?

Her assertions about the role and nature of dance in a given agrarian society are equally questionable. I can believe that the Balkan folk dance “test”—in which a man breaks into a ring of women, selects one, and tugs her hand to see if she can stay on her feet and keep dancing—represents a challenge to the young woman’s balance and strength. It is probably fun! But everything we know about the economic determinants of marriage in premodern European village communities indicates that even women who “failed” the bride test dance were probably desirable for all sorts of other reasons.

Looking for linguistic correspondences, Barber piles up details and bibliographic references in multiple languages, as if quantity implies proof. And astonishingly, on the very last page of this sprawling volume, she admits to confirmation bias. Citing Galileo, of all people, she notes that “immediate satisfaction flows from a story that covers the apparent facts of the case [Barber’s italics].”

Given its shaping by ideas and values about the nature of embodiment, gender, and time, dance deserves to be investigated by feminist researchers as a resonant topic in the history of ideas. Alas, The Dancing Goddesses is ultimately neither history nor sociology. It’s wish fulfillment.

Debra Cash has been scholar in residence at both the Bates Dance Festival and Jacob’s Pillow, and contributes regular arts criticism to ArtsFuse.org. She was awarded a 2012 Creative Arts grant for poetry from the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute.

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