Baker Dances in Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Parisian café society was spellbound by exotic dancer Josephine Baker, who would soon change how Europe viewed modern dance.

Summary of Event

By the age of nineteen, Josephine Baker had risen from her poverty-stricken background in East St. Louis to the endless possibilities of New York City show business. In 1921, she first made her name known in Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake’s show Shuffle Along. She later appeared in their show Chocolate Dandies. Both of these all-black Broadway shows are remembered for their role in helping to introduce black entertainment to the stages of New York City. Baker’s clowning, comical style helped to get her noticed during rehearsals and auditions, but she appeared in these productions only briefly, as a dancer or a “walk-on.” Her well-known ragamuffin period was labeled as such because of her popular cross-eyed and knees-turned-in dance position that eventually helped her break into entertainment. However, Baker’s stage appearances were not due to her dancing ability or beautiful body. On the contrary, Baker was perceived as an ugly tomboy and was clad in big shoes and tattered clothes. [kw]Baker Dances in La Revue nègre (Oct.-Dec., 1925) [kw]Dances in La Revue nègre, Baker (Oct.-Dec., 1925) [kw]La Revue nègre, Baker Dances in (Oct.-Dec., 1925) [kw]Revue nègre, Baker Dances in La (Oct.-Dec., 1925) Dance;modern Revue nègre, La Modern dance;Josephine Baker[Baker] [g]France;Oct.-Dec., 1925: Baker Dances in La Revue nègre[06530] [c]Dance;Oct.-Dec., 1925: Baker Dances in La Revue nègre[06530] Baker, Josephine Daven, André Mare, Rolf de Colin, Paul Dudley, Caroline Charles, Jacques

In the summer of 1925, show coordinator Caroline Dudley organized a black song-and-dance troupe at the request of the French theater director André Daven. Dudley and Daven believed that if anything would help save Paris’s Théâtre des Champs-Élysées from hard economic postwar times, it would be a real African American show. The theater was very large for such a small production, but the directors hoped to move the show into smaller dance halls later. Baker was one of the twenty-four musicians, singers, and dancers to travel across the Atlantic Ocean and perform in what is one of the best-known American productions of the 1920’s, La Revue nègre (the black revue).

Baker arrived in Paris dumbfounded and ready to return to the United States immediately after the show was completed. Her attitude would soon change, however. La Revue nègre was developed to give the European audience an idea of how black Americans danced. When the opening night of La Revue nègre finally came, Paris was caught by surprise. A popular comment from the audience was that the show had the most black people they had ever seen on a stage at one time. To Parisian café society, the popular class of people involved in the city life of downtown Paris, this was a part of the world they knew little about.

Before La Revue nègre was ready for its preview showing at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, director Daven and producer Rolf de Mare had to make significant changes to the format and content of the show, which had been presented in Britain and across Europe as Blackbirds. They thought the show was too noisy, too long, inelegant, and not black enough. Jacques Charles, a producer at the well-known Moulin Rouge, rearranged the dancers and put more focus on Baker. She was given the spotlight in one particularly exotic dance, the “Danse sauvage,” which was strategically placed at the end of the show to create a shocking finale. Baker and her partner appeared in bare skin and feathers, and they raced around the stage to upbeat African music. Baker’s part in the “Danse sauvage” was the foundation of her exotic dance period. Interestingly, Baker was not originally scheduled to star in the show. When Maud de Forrest, the original lead singer, could no longer handle the pressure of performing in La Revue nègre, she was dismissed from the show. Baker took her place as the leading lady, and a star was born.

When the show was ready for opening night, journalists and celebrities were given an exclusive preview showing. An enormous amount of publicity appeared in the French tabloids and newspapers. What mattered was not whether the reviews were good or bad, but that the show had become the most talked-about production in Paris. Almost immediately after opening night, Baker became a well-known success. Surrounded by handsome men, publicity people, and artists, her impression of Paris quickly changed, and she became accustomed to the European lifestyle. France would soon become her new home, and she became part of France’s growing obsession with black entertainment.

An artist by the name of Paul Colin was partly responsible for Baker’s fame in La Revue nègre. Colin was called in to draw the publicity program cover and poster. As the posters covered walls throughout Paris, positive reviews continued to flourish, and more and more Parisians came to see the show. La Revue nègre had created a celebrity and proved to Paris that black is beautiful. Artists soon drowned Baker with requests to photograph or paint her in the nude. She was at first too modest but soon realized that nude portrayals were going to become common.

Although Baker was said not to have liked La Revue nègre, she would not have become a dance celebrity without it. Colin’s posters made her recognizable long before the public knew her by name. La Revue nègre played for three months, from October to December of 1925. As the directors of the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées had predicted, La Revue nègre was able to continue its run by moving into smaller theaters. The show traveled from Paris to Brussels and then to the Nelson Theatre in Berlin. Although it was not a long-running show, by the end of 1925 it had made Baker one of the most famous dancers in Europe.

From Baker and La Revue nègre, European society gained a knowledge and understanding of a dance culture that was previously all but unknown to it. Credit for this discovery must be given not only to Charles, Daven, de Mare, and the other show organizers, but to Baker and her unique talent. Her dance was not regarded immediately as artistically valuable. On the opening night of La Revue nègre, Baker was pleased to hear what she thought were whistles of approval coming from the audience. She soon found out, however, that in Paris whistling signaled rejection and dislike. Baker was in disbelief. In the weeks after opening night, the whistling came to be drowned out by chants of “Josephine” and calls for more wonderful dance. Parties were thrown for the singers and dancers night after night.

La Revue nègre certainly left an impression on Jacques-Émile Blanche, a renowned French portrait painter. He had been searching for a “manifestation of the modern spirit” in the Art Deco Show but found it instead in La Revue nègre. This led other people to look at the show in that manner. The numerous reviews became Baker’s texts for learning the French language. Whether good or bad, the critiques of La Revue nègre educated Baker and the public. One critic compared the dance movements in the show to St. Vitus’s Dance, a nervous disorder that makes the body tremble. Another labeled Baker a “Black Venus.”

A particularly harsh critic of Baker was distinguished dance critic Andre Levinson. He referred at first to black dance as primitive and prehuman, saying that black dancers turned their bodies into percussion instruments. He gave La Revue nègre a favorable although somewhat condescending review and later was persuaded of the validity of black dance and jazz music. Librettist and playwright Robert de Flers referred to La Revue nègre as “the most direct assault ever perpetrated against French taste.” It is difficult to assess the widely differing opinions of Baker and the show. Unfortunately, there are no film recordings of La Revue nègre, only photographs and stories told by Baker’s friends and family.

The fame Baker received from La Revue nègre was only a fraction of what was to come. In 1926, she was asked to join productions of the Folies-Bergère, a major tourist attraction in the Paris theater district. In 1927, she performed at the Folies-Bergère with two live cheetahs, wearing nothing but a short skirt made of imitation bananas. Ironically, Baker was not received as well when she returned to the United States to appear in Ziegfeld Follies of 1936. After that, it would be fifteen years before she would return to her native country again. Baker joined the French Women’s Air Force at the outbreak of World War II and later joined the French Resistance; for this work she was awarded the Croix de Guerre with Palm, among other decorations. When she did return to the United States in 1951, she refused to appear in clubs that did not allow black patrons. Her stand convinced the Copa City Club in Miami, Florida, to change its discriminatory policies, and other clubs began to follow the trend.

Baker’s performances included singing as well as dancing, but it was her dancing that made her famous. She performed all over the world in various shows and eventually went on a solo world tour. Baker visited the United States on her tours and, in later years, said that she thought of it once again as her home. With the stamina of a twenty-year-old, Baker performed into the final days of her life, appearing in Josephine, a show commemorating her fifty years in show business, five days before she died on April 12, 1975, in Paris. Her funeral was publicized throughout the country. Starting at the church of the Madeleine, the procession went by the theaters at which she had performed. Eulogies recognized her civil and military achievements as well as her artistic ability. Baker is remembered as one of the most famous female performers, responsible in large part for bringing new dance forms to Europe, beginning with her performance in La Revue nègre.

Significance

When La Revue nègre opened at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, the French had no idea what impact Baker would have on the history of dance. European audiences were enchanted immediately when Baker stepped out on stage and became a beautiful, flowing piece of art. Because so little was known about African dance, Baker became even more of a celebrated creature. When she danced, her somewhat-disproportionate body became unexplicably beautiful and perfect, moving in ways no one knew were possible. Baker danced so exotically that the audience was mesmerized just by watching her move. Her dancing was said to have been on the verge of being obscene.

Many different events illustrate how African dance was regarded after the popularity of La Revue nègre. According to the average Parisian audience member, black dancers were instinctive and incapable of discipline. When on stage, they were thought of as indecent, primitive, and savage. Because Baker’s dance moves were so unconventional and so different from those of Caucasian dancers, it was easy to understand why these thoughts were prevalent. La Revue nègre came to symbolize postwar modernism, bringing to Europe the spirit of Americanized Africa. The dance culture was left refreshed and more dynamic, with unconventional forms more accepted. Baker helped introduce popular American dances to Europe, including the Charleston and the Black Bottom. Her dancing also helped to popularize the jazz music that accompanied it. Critic Andre Levinson wrote about jazz, “The music is born from the dance, and what a dance!” The impact Baker had on the European culture was strong, and Baker’s style became an institution in French society. Restaurateurs and club owners named their establishments after her. Fashion designers followed the advice of Baker and eventually designed dresses in her name, such as Robe Josephine. Dance;modern Revue nègre, La Modern dance;Josephine Baker[Baker]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Baker, Josephine, and Jo Boullion. Josephine. Translated by Mariana Fitzpatrick. New York: Harper & Row, 1977. Biography written by Baker and her former husband, with many interviews with her associates. Because of Boullion’s relationship to Baker, the information is very accurate. Baker reveals personal thoughts and stories that do not appear in other biographies. Portions of the book tend to include Boullion excessively, but the reader can overlook these excerpts. Good index and small section of photographs.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bennetta, Jules Rosette. Two Loves: Josephine Baker in Art and Life. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2006. A thorough and carefully researched biography that provides a particularly interesting discussion of Baker’s experiences as an African American. Bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hammond, Bryan. Josephine Baker. London: Jonathan Cape, 1988. Complete photographic biography of Baker’s performing life. Extraordinary photographs of Baker on stage, at home, and in various publicity pieces. Complete discography and index. The text is very brief, but this book is a good visual aid to other Baker biographies.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Haney, Lynn. Naked at the Feast: A Biography of Josephine Baker. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1981. A good basic reference concerning Baker’s dance career. Haney is thorough and accurate in her accounts of which theaters, directors, and other celebrities were involved at each stage of Baker’s performing life. A large part of the book is devoted to Baker’s problems with her husbands and children.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lahs-Gonzales, Olivia, Bennetta Jules Rosette, and Tyler Stovall. Josephine Baker: Image and Icon. St. Louis, Mo.: Reedy Press, 2006. This generously illustrated volume was created to commemorate the one hundredth anniversary of Baker’s birth. In addition to its many images, it contains two substantial biographical essays.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rose, Phyllis. Jazz Cleopatra. New York: Vintage Books, 1989. Excellent biography in a story format. The book is separated into three sections, of which the first, covering 1925 and 1926, is the most complete. Only one chapter on La Revue nègre, but the “Danse sauvage” is covered extensively. Numerous photographs show Baker’s diverse phases.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wiser, William. “Josephine Baker, 1906-1975.” In The Great Good Place: American Expatriate Women in Paris. New York: W. W. Norton, 1991. Wiser offers a succinct but lively account of the dancer’s life. He paints a picture of a 1920’s Paris so jaded that almost nothing could shock it—except Baker’s energetic, seminude dancing.

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