Absolutely Nothing but the Chiffon: Rhythmic Dance: 1915

rhythmic dance

Friday last was May-Day, a time for crowning the May Queen, rejoicing in the beauties of nature, and doing spring-dances on the newly-green grass. To prepare us for these dances, let us hear from a fervent exponent of the “Rhythmic Dance,” Mrs Florence Fleming Noyes:

“When we cultivate the sympathetic nervous system through the right use of rhythmic movement we will be capable of great things in creative art since all the beauty which we feel and to which we respond registers on the brain….But the people of the upper classes need this art just as much, if not more than the working people. The so-called vulgar person is considered too free in his body movements and to be unlike him, the people of the higher strata of society go to the other extreme. Culture and extreme nicety have come to mean mincing steps and nervous, jerky gestures. The elite of society seem to think it bad form to move anything other than the extremities. Ultra-refined, every movement is restricted—every muscle kept in rigid tension. When you clench your hand, you clench your spine, if you but knew it. And corsets—they not only confine a woman’s figure—they cramp her very soul.” Oregonian [Portland, OR] 27 July 1913: p. 12

Mrs Noyes in a Scarf Dance, Library of Congress images

Mrs Noyes in a Scarf Dance, Library of Congress images

Mrs Noyes was one of America’s leading exponents of the “barefoot dance,” and set up studios and camps to train girls in this semi-clad art. It was said of her that she “out-Isadora’d Isadora Duncan.”


Forty Chiffon-Trimmed Maidens Put on Classic Steps Out of Doors.


Rural Residents Nest in Trees and Peep Through Brush at Unusual Scenes.

New York. Forty of the most fair and most figuresome—if there is such a word—young women that the town ever beheld will invade one of New York’s most fashionable residence sections Friday.

Better looking than a beauty show, more graceful than the best trained ballet you ever saw, and all—or nearly all—society girls!

No, this is not a theatrical announcement. It is merely the news that Mrs. Florence Fleming Noyes, instructor in poise and “lyro-rhythmic expression,” is transferring to No. 220 Madison avenue for the winter a school which in the summer she has been conducting at South Woodstock, Conn., and is bringing her pupils with her.

No. 220 Madison avenue is the old home of Robert Ingersoll, and is directly across the street from the house of J. Pierpont Morgan. The forty beautiful girls will dwell there as well as study there.

And they will wear—though not in the open air, as they did at South Woodstock—filmy costumes of chiffon. There will be neither sufficiency nor weight of fabric to encumber them in their lissom movements.


Just how South Woodstock, which has had the young pupils of Mrs. Noyes all summer, feels about their departure is difficult to ascertain. But it is probably a mixed feeling, with the feminine part of the countryside heaving sighs of relief, and the masculine end closing its eyes and trying to call back the wonderful visions it beheld through the warm, sunlit days. At least that is the occasional feeling of a reporter who saw the dances of the sprites.

At the beginning of July, Mrs. Noyes rented the 220-acre farm of Judge Alfred Matthewson of New Haven, a beautiful place which contains velvety lawns, rippling brooks, secluded woodland glades and all the other things necessary to call to the mind of a young woman what might be termed “thoughts beautiful.” Mrs. Noyes is the dancer who impersonated “Liberty” on the capitols steps at the inauguration of President Wilson. She has appeared at various pageants given by suffragists. Rodin, the sculptor, said she had the most perfect right arm in the world, her friends say.

To the remote Connecticut farm came her pupils from New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, Cleveland and half a dozen other cities. They were to learn grace, poise and “lyro-rhythmic expression.” Some of them brought ten or twelve trunks of clothing with them, but as soon as they arrived they learned that the most imperative order of Mrs. Noyes was that the girls were to wear loose robes of the lightest of chiffon; only that, nothing more. No shoes, no corsets, absolutely nothing but the chiffon.


At first the dancing lessons were given on a smooth stretch of turf not far from the road which leads to Pomfret, where the Woodstock valley farmers go to send their produce to market. But it was not long before Mrs. Noyes found that farmers’ wagons and automobiles were blocking the roadway, and that every dance was beheld by an assemblance of spectators, ranging from millionaires to hired men. So she had her own hired man, Gus Erickson, cut 300 white birch saplings and make a stockade of them, which shut off the view.

But enthusiastic spectators pried and cut apart the birches, and thronged the roadside in greater numbers than ever. And so—alas for the general populace!—Mrs. Noyes changed the scene of the terpsichorean endeavors to a secluded glade away back in the woods, far from any road.

Every morning and afternoon the girls danced and sought to give rhythmic expression to their thoughts. Each was told, upon her arrival, that she must forget her family and name, and assume the character of some mythological person.


Following the afternoon dances, the girls would go to a brook where there was a little waterfall and, still in their chiffons, would lie in the stream and allow the tumbling waters to fall over them.

But admirers of the classic and beautiful sought them out, the girls and Mrs. Noyes discovered, even in these retreats so far from the beaten paths. Behind bushes and up in tree tops were discovered the faces of farm lads and (this is amply vouched for) even gray topped and gray whiskered visages of grown-up agriculturalists.

And to the home of the forty fair ones came reports that many an irate employer wondered why in all tarnation his produce didn’t get to New York in time, and, learning, went down and sought a vision for himself. And there were also tales of amply-informed farmers’ wives going to the old Matthewson place and dragging away their beauty worshipping spouses.

Eventually the guardian of the forty had a high barbed wire fence placed about their dancing turf and about their bathing brook, which more or less effectually kept away the ardent devotees of “lyro-rhythmic expression” as a scenic affair.


The Matthewson farmhouse is a great, rambling structure containing forty rooms. But these young mythological queens scored to sleep beneath a roof. Army tents were procured for them, and they spent their dreaming hours in the open, too. Two of the girls one night fancied they saw some one peeing beneath the cover of their tent, but decided that it must have been a ghost. In some fashion this apparition was named Alfred the Ghost,” and it was one of the jokes of the aesthetic colony to ask each morning if any one had seen “Alfred” during the night.

At the beginning of this month, when the days and night began to grow coolish, Mrs. Noyes closed her school and most of the girls went home. They had some amusing experiences. Their shoes would not fit because going barefoot had changed the shape of their feet. Garments were too loose, because figures had grown more slender. Altogether they were quite different girls.

Their departure was a great event for South Woodstock—as their arrival had been, too. It was, as has been said, and occasion of mingled regret and relief. If you know anybody who lives up South Woodstock way, ask him, and he’ll probably sigh ecstatically, but at the same time sorrowfully.

Idaho Statesman [Boise, ID] 1 October 1915: p. 4

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: While Mrs Daffodil finds the peeping farmers to be most reprehensible, she also looks askance at the barefoot proponents of the terpsichorean art. Several years ago her Ladyship offered the use of the Hall grounds for a May-Day charity fête. The Hon. Cynthia Twerkington volunteered to stage a performance of rhythmic dance, recruiting young persons from around the county to remove their underthings and don diaphanous tunics to frolic on the greensward. When the Mothers’ Union objected, the Hon. Cynthia grudgingly conceded camiknickers. She dubbed her troupe, “The Twerkington Souls.”

The day of the fête dawned hot and overcast, with thunder muttering in the distance. Several dancers’ mothers, citing fears of lightning, withdrew their charges. Despite this, the Souls, considerably reduced in number, began their first dance, which was entitled, “The Awakening.” Precisely what was being awakened was not made plain. The “dance” seemed to consist of creepings,  slitherings, and a variety of feverish embraces modeled after poses plastiques. Mrs Daffodil saw his Lordship turn a brilliant mauve, while the ladies in the audience began to fan themselves vigorously. Mrs Daffodil has limited experience with such things, but one of the under-gardeners, who had seen service in the far east, assured her that he had witnessed similar presentations in Singapore. The Vicar was overheard saying that the dancers were more like chiffon-clad reptiles than anything human and that he would have much to say on the subject in his next Sunday’s sermon.

The performance, perhaps by a merciful providence, came to a premature end when the Hon. Cynthia , who was dodging about a tree, dislodged a low-hanging wasp nest with an aesthetic wave of the hand. The wasps, a species noted for their indifference to the arts, immediately retaliated. She ran, screaming, for the lake, plunged in, and was nearly drowned before the wasps dispersed. She was hauled out by two footmen and hastily wrapped in a tablecloth–the diaphanous draperies proving even more revealing wet than dry. The doctor, who attended the rapidly swelling lady, later remarked that he hadn’t seen anything like it since an outbreak of plague in Poona in ’97.

The Souls were disbanded to the accompaniment of some very strong remarks from the Vicar. The Hon. Cynthia, after a long and tedious course of medical treatment, has taken up bridge, which, if less artistic, offers far less scope for wasps.

Mrs Daffodil’s readers may be gratified to learn that it is still possible to attend a dance camp inspired by Mrs Noyes.

Noyes dancers, 1915

Noyes dancers, 1915

2 thoughts on “Absolutely Nothing but the Chiffon: Rhythmic Dance: 1915

  1. Pingback: Encore: The Ghost of a Doll: 1862 | Mrs Daffodil Digresses

  2. Pingback: Swimming on Dry Land: 1900 | Mrs Daffodil Digresses

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