Dancing Bodies and Medical Narratives

In Part 4 of the Moving Bodies takeover, Megan Girdwood considers how dance has been interpreted in both pathological and therapeutic terms across medical narratives. 

In her influential book The Primacy of Movement, the philosopher Maxine Sheets-Johnstone claims that “movement is our mother tongue” (2011, xxv). If we think of physical movement through the prism of language, what might it mean to read moving bodies as articulate subjects? Can language operate as a descriptive tool for rendering such movements, despite the inevitable gap between movement as live event and its textual inscription? Dance provides a natural focus for these critical questions. It is an art form in which bodies—often trained to meet a certain ideal ‘type’ or physical standard—are assembled and ‘read’ according to long-established gestural vocabularies. Dance encompasses both choreographed and improvised movements, varying widely across performance styles and cultural contexts.  

Taken more broadly, dance extends into the realm of everyday movement practices: from our habitual gestures and forms of sports and exercise to the more organised movements of bodies passing through public spaces. If conversations across kinesiology and the medical humanities can open up new ways of thinking about how we record, measure, and interpret moving bodies, dance also seems to be a uniquely complex object of cross-disciplinary study. It raises questions about the integration of aesthetics and bio-mechanics; ‘natural’ and ‘unnatural’ movements; systems of body training; and the relationship between movement and creativity. For Sheets-Johnstone, physical movement is the common language “at the root of our sense of agency” (xvii), giving structure to our spatial-temporal awareness and determining our understanding of the world. 

Dance Pathologies: Choreomania to Hysteria 

Movement is central to our sensory and perceptual faculties and has played a foundational role in shaping concepts of health and motor function. Dance, however, has always existed in ambivalent conjunction with medical histories. As a non-verbal corporeal art, it has commonly been aligned with the outward symptomatologies of a wide range of disorders, especially those seen to manifest in ‘choreic’ (i.e. dance-like or spasmodic) movements.  

These parallels can be traced back to at least the Early Modern period, when various regions in Northern Europe were afflicted with a rash of ‘choreomanias’, a type of ‘mass hysteria’ also known as the St Vitus Dance (Gotman 2017). The Dancing Disease was influentially chronicled by the Swiss physician Paracelsus and often erupted at moments of religious and social unease (Figure 1). The unsettled, inconstant narratives woven around choreomania perhaps tell us more about the development of medical interpretative practices than they do about the real dancing bodies described. Choreomaniacs, as Kélina Gotman has shown, “appear where there is a fault line in civilization, a rupture and an opening, out of which they seem to spill” (2017, 47).  Bodies that move in unconventional or indecipherable ways threaten, through their disorderliness, to expose the fantasy of a compliant and homogenous social body. 

Historically, these moving bodies have seldom left coherent traces. In the late nineteenth century, the medicalisation of choreic movements reached its apex in the figure of the female hysteric, whose body became a live index of arching, spreading, and contorting poses requiring interpretation by the trained physician (Didi-Huberman 2004). While not interchangeable, hysteria and dance share a “special affinity” in their codification of bodily movement (McCarren 1993, 17). Each depends upon a carefully constructed array of isolable figures imbued with symbolic meaning: the gestures they produce are thought to be decipherable under the gaze of an informed observer. The famous ‘arch of hysteria,’ recorded by the physician Jean-Martin Charcot at the Salpêtrière hospital in Paris, is the most notorious example of a bodily movement pathologised for its likeness to choreic tropes of madness and manic disorder (Figure 2). 

Yet such taxonomies always fragment the real bodies concerned, much as dance notation leaves only a partial record of an ephemeral performance. The bodies of the patients—displayed, photographed, measured, described—are only ever preserved in partial, atomised forms. It is critically valuable, therefore, to recover representations of movement practiced and described by those who pushed against the rigid interpretative frameworks imposed upon their bodies. If dance has been read, in certain medical contexts, as a symptom of disease, could it also be taken up as a vehicle for self-expression and redirected towards alternative, even therapeutic ends?  

Emily Holmes Coleman’s Dancing Cure 

In 1924, the American writer Emily Holmes Coleman was admitted to the psychiatric wing of Rochester State Hospital for two months following the birth of her son. She was suffering from puerperal fever, an illness caused by a post-partum bacterial infection. Though now uncommon, it can have extreme and unpredictable symptoms. Coleman fictionalised the experience in her Surrealist novel The Shutter of Snow (1930), in which her protagonist Marthe Gail is admitted in similar circumstances, after experiencing paranoid delusions.  

Unlike contemporaneous talking therapies, the ‘water cures’ Marthe undergoes at Gorestown State Hospital focus almost entirely on containing and disciplining the patient’s unruly body. During a hydrotherapy session, Marthe is “wound up like a French doll,” wrapped in strips of wet cloth and “carried like a stone Pharoah to her bed” (2003, 7). Coleman’s metaphors speak not only to the alienating and physically confining effects of the treatment, but also to Marthe’s sense of her body being deadened through its transformation, incorporated into premature burial rites. As a pathologised subject, Coleman’s narrator views her body in these scenes as an object to be manoeuvred by the attentive staff, in the manner of a historical artefact being prepared for display.  

The Shutter of Snow reflects the way the bodies of psychiatric patients have been incorporated into a particular set of historical records, measured against an established typology and scrutinized for evidence of their symptoms and recovery. It is intriguing, then, that Coleman uses physical movement to cut against the enforced stillness of the water cure, particularly in those scenes that describe her narrator dancing through the ward’s corridors (Coates 2022). Her language seems choreographic as it flits between images and gestures, refuting grammatical and linguistic conventions much as her protagonist’s movements defy the behavioural expectations of the asylum: 

She whirled in a black volcano and began to dance. The white faces in the beds drew back to the wall and watched her horrified, their eyes coiling. 

There was a painted scarf hung from the mantelpiece at the end of the ward. She pulled it down and flung it about her body. She lifted up her limbs to the lights over her head and bowed down her body to her feet. She was a fair white stream gushing down the ill-poised canyons of a dream. She leaped into an abyss of crowded murmurs and she swept again to peaks of light. She was a comet in her dream a shooting star loosed from the portals of the rainbow’s chilling. She fled and fled away down the long labyrinths of her childhood’s darkness and into mazes of fine winding through which she spun and wheeled and crouched to die … (Coleman 2003, 73-74)  

In such moments, dance becomes a site of self-authorship, releasing the body from the regulatory strictures of the ward. Coleman’s dance is liquid, errant: where drapes were previously used to bind her, the painted scarf is now protean in her hands, recalling the illuminated silks manipulated by Loïe Fuller in her famous serpentine dance (see Figure 3 above).

Dissolving the ordinary parameters of her setting, Marthe’s dance transforms the ward from a primarily diagnostic into a creative space, echoing the way Fuller turned the fin-de-siècle theatre from a “space of potential hysteria into a space of poetic expression” (McCarren 1998, 129). With its Surrealist re-moulding of ordinary syntax and logic, Marthe’s moving body turns outwards in expansive communion with the cosmos. Yet at the same time, the dance delves inwards. Marthe’s movements are both corporeal and psychological, reaching into the “labyrinths of her childhood’s darkness.” As Peggy Phelan observes in her discussion of hysteria, “psychic health is in part contingent upon the body finding its rhythm in words and time” (1995, 100). Creating a porous seam between external and internal space, the dancer faces the buried source of her trauma, performing the integrative therapeutic work that the hospital has overlooked.  

Dance and Movement Therapies 

Reviewing The Shutter of Snow in The American Journal of Sociology, Harold D. Lasswell (1931) suggested that Coleman’s novel might offer valuable instruction for medics in the field: 

The clinical psychologist will find here a richly nuanced characterization of the inner life of the patient. Its impressionistic, aesthetic excellence ought admirably to counteract the scientific tendency to ignore the subtleties of the individual case. (331)  

Through dance, Coleman finds a way to integrate her narrator’s ‘inner life’ with the outwardly oriented movements of her body through space.  

In this respect, it is possible to trace conceptual links between Coleman’s novel and contemporary uses of Dance and Movement Therapies, which have been part of an established field of therapeutic practice since the 1940s. Psychologists have proposed a theory of embodied aesthetics to explain the efficacy of arts-based therapeutic interventions (including dance), which account for the importance of play and pleasure, beauty and ‘authentic’ expression, and the production of meaning through metaphor (Koch 2017). Yet Coleman appears to have understood the value of dance as both a remedial practice and a form of creative self-expression from at least the early 1930s. Just a few years on from her own experience of psychosis, she wrote in a diary entry, “I love to let myself into the sweep of a dance” (Coleman 2012, 29). Through movement, the dancer becomes, Coleman suggests, the author of her own healing.  

Scholars in sports and exercise and the medical humanities could learn much from the forms of knowledge made possible through movement in medicalised settings. In revolt against the established treatments of her day, Coleman’s dancer links expressive movement—movement that cannot be easily measured, taxonomized, or contained—to moments of therapeutic insight, articulating the value of an embodied knowledge achieved through freer forms of self-creation. 

About the author 

Megan Girdwood is Assistant Professor in Modern Literature at Durham University, where she is a member of the Moving Bodies Lab at the Institute for Medical Humanities. Her first book, Modernism and the Choreographic Imagination: Salome’s Dance after 1890, was published by Edinburgh University Press in 2021 and shortlisted for the Modernist Studies Association First Book Prize. Her articles have been published or are forthcoming in journals including English Literary History, Modernist Cultures and the Journal of Modern Literature. She is currently writing a book about kinaesthesia, the sense of movement, in women’s modernist literature and dance from 1880 to 1940.  


Coates, Kimberly. 2022. “Audacious Limbs: Dance as Revolutionary Praxis in Emily Holmes Coleman’s Surrealist Novel The Shutter of Snow.” Feminist Modernist Studies 5 (3): 261-276. 

Didi-Huberman, Georges. 2004. Invention of Hysteria: Charcot and the Photographic Iconography of the Salpêtrière. Translated by Alisa Hartz. Cambridge: The MIT Press. 

Gotman, Kélina. 2017. Choreomania: Dance and Disorder. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Holmes Coleman, Emily. 2012. Rough Draft: The Modernist Diaries of Emily Holmes Coleman. Edited by Elizabeth Pondnieks. Newark: University of Delaware Press. 

Holmes Coleman, Emily. 2023. The Shutter of Snow. London: Faber and Faber. 

Koch, Sabine. 2017. “Arts and Health: Active Factors and a Theory Framework of Embodied Aesthetics.” The Arts in Psychotherapy 54 (July): 85-91. 

Lasswell, Harold. 1931. “Book Review.” The American Journal of Sociology 37 (2): 328-331. 

McCarren, Felicia. 1998. Dance Pathologies: Performance, Poetics, Medicine. Stanford: Stanford University Press. 

Phelan, Peggy. 1995. “Dance and the History of Hysteria.” In: Corporealities: Dancing, Knowledge, Culture and Power, edited by Susan Foster, 90-107. London: Routledge.  

Sheets-Johnstone, Maxine. 2011. The Primacy of Movement. Amsterdam: John Benjamins. 

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