Choreographing Power: Dance in Political Caricature of the Late Eighteenth Century

In the past ten to fifteen years, historians have rediscovered the aesthetic dynamism of, and wealth of cultural data offered by, graphic satire. In various forms, dance appears with significant frequency in caricatures between 1770 and 1820, though the nature and extent of such choreographies remains entirely unstudied. My paper will, for the first time, consider the ways in which the satirical iconography of caricature harnessed dance as a visual syntax of discipline and power. In this way, I hope not only to refine our understanding of the cultural and ideological function of a 'language of dance', but to elicit the different political connotations generated by various dance forms.

Two contrasting responses to the same event - the infamous coalition ministry of Charles James Fox and Lord North of 1783-4 - succinctly encapsulate the ways in which dance provided caricaturists with a vocabulary through which to engage in a wide range of readings of politics. In Coalition Dance(1783), for instance, James Gillray depicts Fox, North, and Edmund Burke - until this time the firmest of adversaries - dancing around a terminal topped by a bust of King George III. In contrast, William Dent's The Dancing Dogs(1784) portrayed the same three statesmen as performing animals, skipping on their hind legs to the tune of a devil's fiddle. In the one print, the ronde emblematizes an absurdly idyllic community; in the other, it diagrams mastery and manipulation - the powerlessness of the political over-reacher. It is such complex appropriations and deployments of the language of dance that my paper will trace and problematize.

David Taylor
Symposium Title: 
Dance and Image – 2009
Author affiliation: 
Trinity College, Oxford