Writing Women Dance

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This project examines dance scenes in nineteenth-century French novels written by women to consider how grace—beauty in motion—defines women as social, moral, and artistic actors. Creating a constellation of dance scenes, I develop a concept called graceful inclinations, meaning experiences that move observers to contemplate space, time, or bodies differently. I use this concept to study representations of women’s sexuality and subjectivity in dances scenes written by Sophie Cottin, Germaine de Staël, Barbara von Krüdener, Claire de Duras, George Sand, and Marie d’Agoult. Because previous studies of dance in nineteenth-century French literature focus predominately on texts by canonical male authors, scholarship on literary descriptions of dance is limited to a masculine perspective. Moreover, studies of the philosophical and esthetic meanings of grace rarely cite primary sources written by women, although, since the eighteenth century, grace has been closely associated with Western understandings of femininity.This project focuses on four genres of dance: contradances, the waltz, presentational dances (the shawl dance, quadrille, and bolero), and the tarantella. Whereas descriptions of contradances propose ideal social relations or contest the idealization of disembodied femininity, waltz scenes create dystopian depictions of upper-class debauchery and masculine authority. Characters performing presentational dances become archetypal representations of their gender or race. The tarantella in Staël’s novel Corinne, ou l’Italie presents the ultimate dancer who is graceful and sensual. Analyzing representations of exoticism throughout this corpus, I use Srinivas Aravamudan’s theory of Enlightenment Orientalism to consider how exoticized bodies became a testing ground for thinking about female sexuality. I draw upon the theories of Adriana Cavarero, Michel Foucault, Simone de Beauvoir, Luce Irigaray, Genviève Fraisse, and Judith Lynne Hanna to study the sexual politics of dance scenes. In my study of the aesthetic and philosophical concept of grace, dance emerges as an art capable of moving its viewers but not yet capable of instigating social change. Creating both utopian or dystopian moments, dance scenes offer insight into the different worlds that writers wished to create or to avoid.





Nunn, Tessa Ashlin (2021). Writing Women Dance. Dissertation, Duke University. Retrieved from https://hdl.handle.net/10161/22994.


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