Salomé’s Dance of the Seven Veils Oscar Wilde, Esoteric Thought, and the Dancer


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Salomé’s Dance of the Seven Veils

Oscar Wilde, Esoteric Thought, and the Dancer

by Andrea Deagon, Ph.D.
All art is at once surface and symbol.

Those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril.

Those who read the symbols do so at their peril.

It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors.

(Oscar Wilde)
In the fall of 1891, Oscar Wilde, well-known in London as a playwright and novelist, went to Paris for a period of recreation and creative renewal among his many literary friends. He had been thinking for some time of writing a new treatment of the Salomé story, and he wanted to try his hand at writing it in French. As biographer Richard Ellmann describes it, assembling the accounts of Wilde’s friends and acquaintances,

One night [Wilde] told his Salomé story to a group of young French writers, and returned to his lodgings in the boulevard des Capucines. A blank notebook lay on the table, and it occurred to him that he might as well write down what he had been telling them. “If the book had not been there I should never have dreamed of doing it...” (Ellmann 343)

The play took form in an explosive act of creation; Wilde said that he wrote it in one night and manuscripts show that he revised it very little afterwards. That spring in London, Wilde, enjoying the triumph of his hit play Lady Windemere’s Fan, persuaded the renowned actress Sarah Bernhardt to include Salomé in her London season. Production began quickly. But disastrously, the state censor refused to grant a performing license because of the play’s Biblical subject matter. For three more years it languished. By the time Salomé finally went into production in Paris in 1896, Wilde was in prison, serving two years at hard labor for sodomy. Prison destroyed his health and marred his career. Dead by 1900, he never saw Salomé performed.

In his Salomé, Wilde left a powerful vision of the Biblical dancer as a passionate but doomed femme fatale, written in a fascinating (if sometimes almost parodic) incantatory style. Despite critical ambivalence toward it (until recently at least), Salomé has had a lasting importance. And perhaps the most influential single line of the play was a simple, even stark, stage direction:

Salomé dances the dance of the seven veils.

The Dance of the Seven Veils has captured the imagination of popular culture for a century now. It evocatively incorporates the bodily dimension of dance, the mystical number seven, and the multivalent symbol of the veil. By the mid-20th century, the Dance of the Seven Veils was generally thought of as a harem-girl strip tease. But by the 1980’s, it had been re-envisioned as a sacred ritual and projected into the ancient past. When Wilde invented it, he unleashed a powerful idea through which artists, authors, dancers and religious thinkers have explored our culture’s conflicts in the realms of gender and power, body and spirit, identity and transformation.

This article investigates the complex influences that went into the creation and first performances of the dance at the end of the 19th century. It explores two realms of the late 19th century experience that contributed to not only Wilde’s creation of the dance, but also the perceptions of both the artists who performed it, and their audiences. The first is esoteric thought, a significant thread of late Victorian spirituality. The other is performed dance: its venues, its techniques, and what it meant to be a dancer. These two realms combined to make Salomé’s Dance of the Seven Veils a rich interpretive field for the women who first performed it. And the controversial pairing of mystic symbols and a woman’s expressive, sensualized solo dance, has remained a vital tension in the performance of oriental dance today.

The Salomés

The gospels of Matthew and Mark describe the dance of the “daughter of Herodias” for Herod on his birthday, his promise to grant her anything she wanted in return, and that she asked what her mother told her to ask: the head of John the Baptist. Early on, Christian scholars identified the unnamed dancer with Herodias’ daughter Salomé, mentioned by the first century CE historian Josephus. Salomé’s dance and her licentious character were topics for church fathers such as Nicephorus and John Chrysostom; the dance itself and the maiden with the head are illustrated in manuscripts and monumental art in the medieval period. Renaissance and later painters frequently depicted Salomé (dressed in contemporary clothing, portrayed as a woman of their own culture), usually with the Baptist’s head.

Even after Wilde made the Dance of the Seven Veils a catchword for popular audiences, the veil never figured dominantly in representations of Salomé’s dance. What marked Salomé was never the veil, but the Head. The classic image of Salomé showed her as one half of an eternal dyad: the body (and all it represents) vs. the head (likewise). The body is conceived as female, the head male. The body is youthful, sexual, and without moral sense; the head is a mature man’s, ascetic, the silenced voice of God. The body is victorious in the present, “worldly” sphere, but subject to age, death, and the processes of history, thus ultimately revealed to be worthless. The silenced head continues to “speak” a truth that prevails in both heaven and history.

The pre-Christian rendition of this powerful cultural idea was Orpheus, the divine bard dismembered by Thracian Maenads, whose head floated down the river, still singing. In the Greek world, devoid of the Christian dualism of “good vs. evil,” the Maenads represented the god Dionysus, whose realm of chaotic, ecstatic experience complemented the dominant ideology of civilization and progress. Still, they are clearly primarily a threat in this story. The Maenads, like Salomé, are the unenlightened and possibly unenlightenable, those to whom the head’s incalculable wisdom, insight, and ethical sense is nothing. This image was a culturally comprehensible symbol in the West for at least 2,500 years, denoting fundamental conflicts that interlaced personal, social and political experience.

The Salomé motif entered a literary rage in the end of the 19th century, inspired by Heinrich Heine’s Atta Troll (1841), which portrayed the spirit of Herodias fondling and playing with the Baptist’s head; in the years that followed the story of the daughter/dancer overtook that of the wicked mother, and the motif proliferated in literature. “A patient researcher, Maurice Krafft, has listed 2,789 French poets who have written about Salomé . . . By the time Oscar Wilde had become fascinated with the theme, Salomé had been painted, received musical arrangements, mimed as a ballet, and had passed through three different literary genres: poetry, romance, and short story” (Severi 458-9).

These many artistic works divergently imagined Salomé as an innocent girl, a cruel siren, a femme fatale, an ice queen; they redefined the story’s family, personal and sexual dynamics; they described complex ethical and religious conflicts from different points of view. Salomé had become one of those figures whose reworking reflects a society’s need to reinterpret itself at a time of great change – and the vast social changes which marked the early twentieth century were already underway. S. I. Johnston comments,

It is always possible to propose reasons that such complex characters developed as they did, but . . . once they had become complex, they were allowed to remain that way. This implies that it is their complexity itself that appeals to the artist, the author, and their audiences. In seeking to understand the powerful hold that [such figures have had] upon our imaginations . . . we must embrace [their] complexity and look within it for the secret of [their] longevity (6-7).

When Oscar Wilde addressed the Salomé story, he was well aware that the heart of the story was precisely its complexity, clustering around the vital symbol of the lascivious female body and the disembodied masculine head. When he was first framing the story, he veered between seeing Salomé as a divinely inspired innocent, and an incarnation of evil. He toyed with different characterizations, plot twists and dénouements. The play he finally wrote revels in the story’s inherent complexities. His Salomé is a teenaged virgin, but she is described in the imagery of the eternal moon. She is overwhelmed by a violent passion for the ascetic prophet Iokanaan (John the Baptist), a passion with aspects of both a juvenile crush and a raging hunger of body and soul. Rejected by him (“Daughter of Sodom, come not near me!”), and surrounded by the petty squabbles and debaucheries of Herod’s court, her passion is warped into desire to possess what she cannot really have. Herod, whose melancholic and self-deceptive musings are central to the play, persuades her to dance for him. As her reward, she requests Iokanaan’s head. As others look on in horror, she addresses it at length: “ . . . If thou hadst looked at me thou hadst loved me. Well I know that thou wouldst have loved me, and the mystery of love is greater than the mystery of death . . .” With the stage in complete darkness, she announces, “I have kissed thy lips, Iokanaan . . .” Herod orders, “Kill that woman!” and in the final moments of the play, his soldiers crush her beneath their shields.

Critics have differed widely in their assessments of the play’s quality and performability, as well as on such issues as whether Salomé is an emancipated “New Woman” or a projection of 19th century misogyny. Wilde sought out such confusions; it was part of his definition of art: “Diversity of opinion about a work of art shows that the work is new, complex, and vital. When critics disagree, the artist is in accord with himself” (Dorian Gray 3). He apparently also took delight in creating in the audience a sense of failed interpretation and puzzlement:

“’This must be some secret symbol,’” they will say. “’What on earth can it mean?’”

“And what does it mean?” I asked.

“Nothing whatever,” said Oscar, “but that is just what nobody will guess.”

(Robertson 135) 1 

Wilde framed the Dance of the Seven Veils so that it would share in the play’s contradictions, embodying them in a new, moving icon whose action was unveiling, and whose representative was a woman, the object of the sexual gaze yet the subject of the passion which dominated the play’s actions and revelations.

The Dance of the Seven Veils and its Esoteric Roots

Edward Piggott, the censor who forbade Salomé’s London performance in 1892, did so on the basis of its Biblical content alone, but when he called the play “half Biblical, half-pornographic” (Powell 33), he identified the crux of the play’s appeal. It juxtaposed sacred and erotic passions, but not only as opponents: as co-participants in a dysfunctional relationship that was all too close to the real dysfunctions of the whole society.

The Dance of the Seven Veils, an ornament on the shimmering fabric of the play, is a deliberately provocative image, meant to incite prurient assumptions amidst mystical referents. Into the midst of the battle between sacred (represented by the ascetic Iokanaan) and profane (represented in varying manifestations by all the denizens of Herod’s court), Salomé is a different voice, whose Dance of the Seven Veils interjects a new aspect of the divine. It is mystical, ancient and exotic, appropriately clad in a feminine body; it is also perhaps magical, in that it is oriented toward ritual action rather than words and faith.

While the easiest interpretation of Salomé’s dance was as a sexual tease, focusing on the removal of the veils, the nature of its action was clearly differently interpreted: Richard Strauss, for example, who used Wilde’s Salomé for the libretto of his 1905 opera of the same name, said that “[t]he dance should be purely oriental, as serious and measured as possible, and thoroughly decent, as if it was being done on a prayer-mat . . “ (quoted in Tydeman and Price, 130). Graham Robertson, who designed the costumes for the banned 1892 performance, based Salomé’s costume on the “sacerdotal robes of Aaron [the brother of Moses]” (Robertson 127). Apparently, if only among artists, it was agreed that Salomé in her dance could represent something spiritual as well as something carnal. That Wilde himself saw metaphorical meanings in the dance is attested by his inscription of a copy of the play he gave to Aubrey Beardsley, who illustrated its first English edition: “For Aubrey: for the only artist who, besides myself, knows what the dance of the seven veils is, and can see that invisible dance” (Hart-Davis 348 n. 3).

Christianity and its values, in Europe in the late 19th century, were assumed to represent both universal truth, and to be patently superior to “primitive” systems of belief. At the same time, mystic and esoteric thought was flourishing, providing a strong undercurrent of spiritual inquiry that exceeded the limits of mainstream Christian belief. Esoteric traditions, emphasizing secret paths to enlightenment through study with masters of ancient knowledge, had been a longstanding element of Western spiritual thought, and in the late 19th century they were proliferating and enjoying unprecedented popularity. Long established institutions, such as Freemasonry, had expanded to include record numbers of initiates; Theosophy was appropriated and popularized by Mme Blavatsky and the Theosophical Society; Rudolf Steiner was beginning to define Anthroposophy; occultism flourished and occult phenomena began to receive mainstream attention and discussion.2 In many of these schools of thought, Eastern wisdom was embraced as a font of knowledge, even privileged over the accepted “truths” of the Christian experience. In a similar vein, in the universities, scholars were pulling together parallel ideas from different cultures in arguments for universal patterns of human behavior. The disciplines of anthropology and psychology were taking shape in this atmosphere of exploring, intermixing (and appropriating) the thought of other cultures.3

It is possible to speculate on the extent to which these interrelated schools of thought affected Wilde; he was, for example, an enthusiastic Freemason4 and accomplished scholar in his University days. But it is more to the point that the upsurge of esoteric and syncretic thought reflected concerns of the age, and that the specific ideas of Freemasonry, Theosophy, and scholarly insight had a further effect on popular culture.

While relatively few of Wilde’s educated audience were likely to be adherents of one of these groups, esoteric thought was an integral aspect of mainstream culture, just as New Age spirituality has affected mainstream “spiritual literacy” in our own time. In the sections which follow, I will discuss some of the late 19th century esoteric thought surrounding the ideas of “seven,” “veils” and “dance” which may have influenced Wilde’s creation of the Dance of the Seven Veils, and which certainly provided fertile ground for its reception.

Seven is clearly a mystical number, noteworthy in both the Semitic and Indo-European mythological systems that were best known (and assumed to be universal) in the West when Wilde was writing. Seven is also a significant number, even the significant number, in almost every esoteric system. It appears in Kabbalistic and Christian Gnostic thought, in alchemy, and in Rosicrucianism. It was fundamental in Mme Blavatsky’s Theosophical system, both in the web of cultural interconnections that reveal universal truth to the initiate, and in the cosmos itself, where there are, for example, seven “layers” of earth and seven states of consciousness.

Albert G. Mackey, author/editor of an encyclopedia of Freemasonry first published in 1884, writes extensively on the significance of the number seven:

In every system of antiquity there is a frequent reference to this number, showing that the veneration for it proceeded from some common cause . . . The Pythagoreans called it a perfect number, because it was made up of 3 and 4, the triangle and the square, which are the two perfect figures. They called it also a virgin number . . . It is singular to observe the important part occupied by the number seven in all ancient systems. There were, for instance, seven ancient planets, seven Pleiades, and seven Hyades; seven altars burned continuously before the god Mithras; the Arabians had seven holy temples; the Hindus supposed the world to be enclosed within the compass of seven peninsulas; the Goths had seven deities . . . in the Persian mysteries were seven sacred caverns, through which the aspirant had to pass; in the Gothic mysteries, the candidate was met with seven obstructions . . . sacrifices were always considered the most efficacious when the victims were seven in number . . Much of Jewish ritual was governed by this number . . . The Hebrew idea, therefore, like the Pythagorean, is that of perfection. . . The Sabbath was the seventh day; Noah received seven days’ notice [many further scriptural examples follow] . . . the symbolic seven is to be found diffused in a hundred ways over the whole Masonic system. [There is a detailed discussion of sevens relative to the sun and Moon] . . .On every seventh day the moon assumed a new phase . . . In all countries the moon is best known under the beautiful figure of the unveiling Queen of Heaven. . . Hippocrates says that the septenary number, by its occult virtue, tends to the accomplishment of all things, as the dispenser of life and fountain of all its changes . . . (682-4)

This text shows some significant ideas about the ideology of “seven.” (1) Universality. Seven is assumed to be a universally sacred number, one of the ideas that unites all human religion and belief, however “advanced” or “primitive.” (2) Initiation. In the “Persian . . . and Gothic mysteries,” Mackey associates “seven” specifically with initiation, the progress of the individual into new states of knowledge and status – an important idea in Freemasonry, where progress through the Masonic degrees is marked by initiation rituals, as well as in other esoteric systems. (3) Feminization. While in some parts of this passage seven seems to be a sterile, unchanging, figuratively “sexless” number, in other places it is specifically feminized, in familiar mythic groups such as the Pleiades and the Hyades, and especially in its association with lunar cycles and the “beautiful figure of the unveiling Queen of Heaven.”5 (4) Action. Seven’s occult value is stressed: the idea that the number seven results in accomplishment, action, changes – an idea in keeping with the cataclysmic results of Salomé’s dance.

Two ideas that are significant in modern interpretations of the underlying meanings of the Dance of the Seven Veils do not seem to figure in the late 19th century thought-world: the descent of Ishtar/Inanna through the seven gates of the underworld, and the seven chakras.

The Babylonian text of Ishtar’s descent was known from the 1880’s onward; its earliest appearance is in German scholarly works. It was widely available in English translation by 1901 and possibly before (Frazer V. 8, 10 n.1; IX. 406 n.1). But late 19th century commentary on Ishtar’s descent does not emphasize her ritual unclothing at each of the seven gates and the possible meanings of her descent. Instead, accounts of the story focus on the role of her consort Tammuz, and on “fertility” issues: e.g. the barrenness of the earth while she is in the underworld. The popular scholarship of the late 19th century had created an overriding image of “primitive,” “fertility” religions, exemplified in Sir James Frazer’s 11-volume masterwork The Golden Bough, which centered on the figures of a Great Goddess and her son-consort, a “dying god,” whose relationship symbolized the eternal earth and its seasonal crops. Because it shoehorned Ishtar into this static “Great Mother” role, late 19th century scholarship did not recognize her actual position in Babylonian and Sumerian mythologies as a transgressive, liminal deity whose underworld journey was more than an explanation for the seasons of the year. Her journey – though it could easily have fed the contemporary interest in transformative initiation – was simply overlooked because its female protagonist was essentialized as a static maternal figure, of secondary interest to her supposedly more complex consort.6 

The seven chakras are now firmly established in the popular consciousness as energy centers of the body. But in the late 19th century, the chakras were a new idea in the West, known only to a very few. The Oxford English Dictionary identifies the first use of the word in an article in an 1888 Theosophy publication. While the concept soon entered the intellectual vocabulary, it would not have figured on the thought horizon of Wilde and his audience.

This lack highlights a limitation in the late 19th century views of the mystical sevens: relevance to the body. The Masonic system embraces a time-frame of seven years which mark stages of human development, but outside of this temporal framework, the grosser physical body is not integrated in to the systems of seven, an absence also found in contemporary Theosophy. In the micro/macrocosm of fin de siècle spirituality, the external world is laced with sevens, and spiritual traditions from all nations resonate with the perfect number. But the human body is only tenuously tied into the loop.

This exclusion of the body from the realm of the sacred is clearly an issue of late Victorian thought, both spiritual and scientific. As clear as is this break between the body and the sacred, there is also clearly a widespread trend toward bringing the two realms together, as witness such diverse threads as the German physician Richard von Krafft-Ebing’s controversial linking of sexual and sacred urges, and the physical culture program of Etienne Delsarte, oriented toward uniting body, heart and mind through exercise and performance. But despite these trends, the habit of opposing body and soul was deeply ingrained. It resonates, of course, in the dominant image of the Salomé story: the disembodied, spiritual head of John, and the carnal, desiring, dancing body of Salomé.

Even the most perfect number would be hard pressed to bridge that gap.

The veil, in the sense of a practical or ornamental but certainly symbolic head or body covering for women, was an element of the dress of most Eastern and Western societies from Greco-Roman antiquity until the current century. Its use varied widely with respect to its prevalence through different social classes, how often and on what occasions it was worn, and the degree to which it was a real concealment vs. a symbolic covering: from the Roman matron’s stola, to the all-covering burka, to the swath of netting across a modern bride’s tiara. East and West, whatever their differences in its actual use, shared this millennia-old association between a woman’s matur(ing) sexuality, and the need (defined as the woman’s and/or society’s) for it to be, on some occasions at least, and however flimsily – concealed. The fascination of the West with the veil in its Eastern manifestations, our willingness and eagerness to portray it, interpret it, gaze at it, and dance with it, arise in part because, as we seemingly interpret another culture, we are also speaking from and about our own ideas of concealing and revealing.

Because the concealing veil must eventually be removed, it has come to embody the intersection between culturally vital oppositions: modesty and sexual desire, sacred taboo and sensual revelation, protected interiority and objectified display. The motion of uncovering is the motion of confusion, revelation, and change. The ancient Greeks, for example, portrayed in their art a veil gesture which evoked this complex moment. The gesture of a woman holding a veil close to her face – static as it is in art – could indicate a woman hiding herself (to preserve her modesty against an unwanted gaze, or to hide her own sexual excitement), or revealing herself to her husband. In Wilde’s era as in our own, visitors to the British Museum could observe in the “Elgin marbles,” plundered from the Athenian Parthenon, a classic example of this action as the goddess Hera sits before her husband Zeus.

In this well-known instance, and in many other places in the Greek and Roman art and literature that Europe identified as the font of its own culture, the veil also represented the yielding of all that is vulnerable, feminine and Other to the domination of the physically and intellectually virile male. The gesture had naturally come to symbolize other fin de siècle concerns, and had attained an almost universal relevance: E. Showalter observes, “science and medicine had traditionally made use of sexual metaphors which represented “Nature” as a woman to be unveiled by the man who seeks her secrets . . . [T]he veiled woman who is dangerous to look upon also signifies the quest for the mystery of origins, the truths of birth and death” (145).

It is not surprising, therefore, that increasingly in the 19th and 20th centuries, in the age of colonial powers in the Eastern world, the veil should take a central place in the discourse of how the powerful, civilized, progressive and “masculine” West should “rightfully” dominate the Orient it defined as weak/despotic, over-refined/barbaric, backward/eternal – and therefore, “feminine.” Orientalist art only occasionally represented the gauzy, sensuous veil as an instrument of dance; art representing Greco-Roman antiquity is almost equally likely to show sensuous maidens fingering a slipping, blowing, fluttering or otherwise not-very-concealing diaphanous veil. But in the discourse of the Orient, the frequently expressed and illustrated idea of an all-concealing outside appearance, and an utterly naked, leisured and degenerate existence within a harem stocked with masseuses and narghiles, heightened the sense of sexuality awaiting beneath the feminine veil. Whether Salomé was a disheveled Maenad or a daughter of the harem, the very mention of her concealing veils was, ironically, implicit permission to imagine her naked, languorous – and maybe even a little bit stoned.

On the other hand, the veil is equally clearly associated with a range of sacred meanings which was manifest throughout late 19th century esoteric thought. Mme Blavatsky, in the preface to her 1877 work The Veils of Isis, uses the veil as a symbol of the processes of enlightenment by which Truth is revealed to the seeker:

Reverently we stepped in spirit within the temple of Isis; to lift aside the veil of “the one that is and was and shall be” at Sais; to look through the rent curtain of the Sanctum Sanctorum at Jerusalem; and even to interrogate within the crypts which once existed beneath the sacred edifice, the mysterious Bath-Kol. The Filia Vocis — the daughter of the divine voice — responded from the mercy-seat within the veil, and science, theology, every human hypothesis and conception born of imperfect knowledge, lost forever their authoritative character in our sight.

In Blavatsky’s imagery, the one within the veil is the one who, when seen clearly by the outsider, brings enlightenment. Knowledge – personified as feminine in the figures of Isis and the Filia Vocis – conceals itself by nature, but allows itself to be seen to the true seeker. In this context, the veiled dancer could represent a powerful voice of truth, and her dance, the progress toward that truth’s revelation to those outside the veil.

An opposite but related reading of the veil is found in the masculine imagery of Freemasonry: the veil does not clothe the concealed (therefore “feminine”) truth, but rather stands between the initiate and the external, manifest (therefore “masculine”) truth he aspires to. The four veils of the tabernacle (concealing curtains, not fabric to be worn) “present obstacles to the neophyte in his progress to the place where the grand council sits... The passage through the veils is, therefore, a symbol of the trials and difficulties that are encountered and must be overcome in the search for and the acquisition of truth” (Mackey v. II p. 825). M. Carnes observes that, in the rigidly masculine context of Freemasonry, feminizing imagery was often used of initiates: for example, the blindfolds used in initiations were called “veils” (86). He suggests that the purely masculine space of Masonic ritual allowed men to put aside the limiting factors of the masculinity their culture required of them by incorporating feminine imagery into their rituals (87-90). I would add that in many cultures, initiation ritual feminizes male initiates, destabilizing, inverting – and perhaps lowering – their established identity before raising them to a new status. Salomé’s dance could, in some dark undercurrent, evoke (or invert) the feminized initiate’s progress toward a final truth.

In the Classical tradition, which dominated the elite educational system of the late 19th century, the veil was generally associated with women, and often with the motif of uncovered sexuality. But it figured in initiation in one well-known instance: the Eleusinian Mysteries, where the initiate sat “veiled and in silence” before the next day’s rituals (Frazer VII:38). These rituals, the most famous of the ancient world, incorporated the conceptual triad of “things seen, things said, things done.” These three elements were present in the initiation rituals of fraternal organizations; they were a part of the popular consciousness of Wilde’s era. And in his Salomé, the things seen and things said are a prominent contrast of the play, as Iokanaan’s disembodied voice contrasts with Salomé’s visual presence. The “thing done” is the Dance of the Seven Veils. After its completion, the hesitations and prevarications of the first part of the play must cease, and the play rushes to its violent conclusion. Truth, of a sort, is revealed.

Wilde’s writings in general reveal a sensitivity to the significance of the veil, as K. Worth observes:

Imagery of veiling and unveiling is frequent in Wilde’s prose writings and is usually associated with some kind of spiritual exploration. . . Unveiling was an appropriate image for the activity which Wilde regarded as the artist’s primary duty: self-expression and self-revelation. In performing the dance of the seven veils, Salomé is then perhaps offering not just a view of the naked body but of the soul or innermost being (66-7).

Wilde has provided a scenario in which the audience watches from outside the veil, making the dancer the object of their gaze. But he has also created a Salomé who speaks her mind, pursues her desires, and (like the artist) performs her own dance which is defined by the context as valuable enough to win half a kingdom or destroy a precious human life. He leaves us with a central complication: the tension between the dancer as a subject, experiencing and speaking from inside the veil, and the dancer as an object, whose veiled, then revealed, body “belongs” to the viewer. This is a tension inherent to women’s performance of dance in patriarchal society, and it is an issue addressed by not only Wilde’s Salomé but the many Salomé dancers of the early 20th century.

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