The Evolution of Aesthetic and Expressive Dance in Boston

by Jody Weber


Nineteenth-century Bostonians considered their city a model for intellectual pursuit, high culture, and democracy. The city’s wealthiest citizens believed it was their responsibility to support and nurture the artistic and intellectual landscape of their community. But despite the city’s image of itself as a center for intellectual curiosity and cultural sophistication, women had still not acquired the freedom to participate fully in society. Their particular desire for self expression and freedom of the body created pathways for pioneers who linked recreational movement and expression. These early-movement pioneers laid the foundation for acceptance of the moving female body as both beautiful and expressive. The Delsarte System, first introduced to the nation at a lecture in Boston, provided the spiritual component needed to awaken and legitimize expressive movement. In Boston, this movement was supported by the city wealthiest women who used their influence and money to sanction the first schools of dance. Through these schools, Bostonians experienced the work of Denishawn and the fundamentals of German Ausdruckstanz in conjunction with original work created by regional artists.

Although the story of the evolution of expressive dance has been told through the exceptional work of dance pioneers such as Isadora Duncan and Ruth St. Denis, it nevertheless was unfolding in communities across the nation. Boston’s unique story provides an opportunity to see how the foundation for acceptance of expressive movement was established, and how the art form gained acceptance beyond New York and Los Angeles. Boston’s regional dance pioneers forged powerful relationships with their community that shaped their broader work in terms of education, choreography, and advocacy. An investigation of their schools, artistic work, and audience development provides insight into the development of expressive movement both regionally and nationally.

The Evolution of Aesthetic and Expressive Dance in Boston provides a regional history of the physical education pioneers who established the groundwork for women to participate in movement and expression. Their schools and their writing offer insights into the powerful cultural changes that were reconfiguring women’s perceptions of their bodies in motion. The book examines the history from the first successful school of ballroom dance run by Lorenzo Papanti to the establishment of the Braggiotti School by Berthe and Francesca Braggiotti (two wealthy Bostonian socialites who used their power and money to support dance in Boston). The Delsartean ideas about beauty and the expressive capacity of the body freed upper-class women to explore movement beyond social dance and to enjoy movement as artistic self expression. Their interest and pleasure in early “parlor forms” engaged them as sponsors and advocates of expressive dance. Although revolutionaries such as Isadora Duncan and Ruth St. Denis also garnered support from Boston and New York’s social sets, in Boston the relationship of the city’s elite and its native dancers was both intimate and ongoing. The Braggiotti sisters did not use this support to embark on international tours; instead they founded a school that educated the children of their sponsors and offered performances for their own community. Although later artists, Miriam Winslow and Hans Weiner, did tour nationally and internationally, the intimate relationships they maintained with the upper echelon of Boston society required that they remain sensitive to the needs of their students and their community. Through the study of these schools, the reader is offered a unique perspective on the evolution of expressive dance as it unfolded in Boston and its environs.

The Evolution of Aesthetic and Expressive Dance in Boston is an important book for those interested in dance history, women’s studies, and regional histories.


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