La danse des bananes
It was the summer of 1926 at the Folies Bergère in Paris. Hordes of white Parisians flocked to the famed theater to see La Revue Nègre, a musical show that emerged from France due to the country’s fascination with jazz culture. And there, wearing little more than strings of pearls, wrist cuffs, and a skirt made of 16 rubber bananas, Josephine Baker descended from a palm tree onstage, and began to dance. This dance—the danse sauvage—is what established her as the biggest black female star in the world. She became an overnight sensation: Thousands of dolls in banana skirts were sold all over Europe; beauty editors advised women to rub walnut oil on their faces to darken their skin like Baker’s; postcards, featuring Baker with a glossy, slicked-down hairstyle in her famous banana skirt with jewelry strategically placed over naked breasts, were widely distributed.
©Gaumont Pathe Archives, Actuality Pathé's collection
(1906 – 1975)
French dancer and singer of American origin.
She learnt how to dance in the streets and courtyards of Saint Louis (Missouri), assimilating an immense repertoire of movements before debuting at the age of fifteen and gaining notice with her facial expressions and buffoonery in the chorus for "Shuffle Along" (1921), where her number mocked the idea of the chorus line. In 1924, she appeared on Broadway with "Chocolate Dandies" then in the L. Leslie review at the Plantation Club. She appeared in Paris in 1925 at the Theatre des Champs-Elysées in the Revue Nègre, where her sense of rhythm, vivacity, stage presence, and exotic nature in the eyes of the public earned her immediate success. At nineteen, she became the symbol of the latest Parisian fad: hot jazz. She then teamed up with the Folies-Bergère for a long association that would end in 1950, also appearing in “The Siren of the Tropics" (1927), "Zouzou" (1935), and in cabarets around the world.
If in the 1920s the French public compared her to an animal, it was due to racial prejudice, and also because of her apparent spontaneity which, in fact, masked well-known steps and dances (mess around, shake, shimmy) and years of daily practice. By dropping and rising, sliding, squinting, twirling a finger on her head like a spinning top, she achieved the essence of jazz through her dance, built of a series of improvised changes. Also called a “living African sculpture", multi-rhythmic and perfectly dissociated, almost joint-less, she demonstrated enormous elasticity and used her entire body, including her pelvis: her “fanatic jiggling" violated the conventions of the day, eliciting criticism which, most of the time, reflected male hypocrisy. Through the ease with which she executed, her enthusiasm and contagious joy, the way she gave herself entirely to the dance (in particular the Charleston, which she made fashionable in France), she symbolises the 1920s and their rejection of all bonds.
Source : Dictionnaire de la Danse, dir. Philippe Le Moal, Larousse, 1999
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La danse des bananes