Signification and the Dancing Body, 1760-1826

Published in 1760, Jean-Georges Noverre’s Lettres sur la danse and sur les ballets offered a revolutionary approach to the atrophying world of ballet. Deeply engaged with Enlightenment cultural theory, Noverre’s Lettres and his ballets d’action did for dance what Diderot in France and Garrick in England did for theater: insisting on the primacy of gesture as a means of expressing psychological and moral authenticity. Like other defenders of dance,  Noverre looked to classical Greek pantomime as the origin and fullest legitimation of dance’s expressive capacity. Ballets d’action responded to the “utopian desire,” in  Jennifer  Homans’  words,  “to return to a presocial world and to rediscover a primitive and universal language that would speak directly to all human beings” (Apollo’s Angels, 76). Dance would enact a sentimentalist, Burkean ritualization of nature that, in James Chandler’s formulation, constitutes a “second nature…a way of thinking that conveniently collapses certain troublesome oppositions” (72).

In the print culture of post-Revolutionary England, these oppositions resurface. In Romantic-era articles about social dance, dance becomes de-natured: devoid of meaning and warmth, realigned with the artifice of the ancien régime. At the same time, dance is frighteningly re-natured: Authenticity of expression becomes spontaneity, which becomes excess, even disease. The natural—opposed to the civil—becomes the sign  and  perpetrator  of  chaos.  This essay will examine two such articles in the context of Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment approaches to  dance as embodied gesture. In both, the  question of  dance’s legitimacy as  art turns on whether it constitutes organized movement—an exercise of the intellect upon the body—or is fundamentally disorganized, a command of the mind by the body that releases uncontrollable  energies.

Kristin Samuelian received her PhD from Boston University. Her scholarly and teaching interests include nineteenth-century British literature and culture, the novels of Jane Austen, and materialist approaches to literature. She has published articles on Austen, Charles Dickens, and Elizabeth Gaskell; has edited Austen's Emma for Broadview Press (2004); and is the author of Royal Romances: Sex, Scandal, and Monarchy in Print, 1780-1821(Palgrave Macmillan, 2010). In addition to the English Department, she teaches regularly for the Honors Program in General Education at George Mason University in Fairfax County, Virginia.


Kristin Flieger Samuelian
Author affiliation
George Mason University