Get naked and dance!
Examining how dance and naturism are intertwined
I’ve been taking dance classes for almost three years now. I decided I wanted to learn how to dance in order to form a better relationship with my body, to be less stiff and inexpressive in how I carry myself, and to hopefully become a better art model. It very quickly turned into a passion, and a little over a year later I danced in my first performances, which led to the creation of a new dance group with some friends called Embodied Art Dance. Our focus is on combining performing and visual arts, emphasizing the human form through movement and figure drawing.
I’m still very new to dance; particularly the cultures that have developed around it. I’ve been reading more on the subject and have been pleasantly surprised by how it connects with my passion for nudism as well.
Many already know that nudism, as a modern movement, has roots in Germany in the early 20th century, born from a movement called Freikörperkultur (FKK), and advanced in some part by the writing of Richard Ungewitter and his seminal book, Nacktheit, or Nakedness. This was just one part of a larger movement happening at the time called lebensreform (which translates to “life reform”), formed in response to industrialization: a return to more natural ways of life. A cultural shift was taking place, one that modernized the views and ideas of the human body, creating a lasting impact the world over.
Another part of this movement was an emphasis on health and fitness, with the development of calisthenics and other forms of exercise taking place. It makes sense that organized nudism would form under these conditions, but interestingly, it was during this period that what we’ve come to know as modern dance was formed as well.
Modern dance, for those who don’t know, is a more theatrical form of dance, incorporating other styles and genres. Initially, it was developed as a rejection of the formal elements of classical ballet, creating a more free and expressive form of dance which reflected the cultural and socioeconomic changes that were rapidly happening in the early 20th century.
An early pioneer of this approach to dance was the American Isadora Duncan. Duncan danced barefoot, replacing the typical tutu and corset of ballet with loose tunics and gowns, taking inspiration from ancient Greek artwork. Her movements were more natural and organic, embodying a sense of freedom and closer connection to nature.
Duncan was known to dance nude at private parties as well as in a public performance at the Kroll Opera in Berlin, and caused a scandal when she disrobed onstage during a performance in Boston in 1922.
In her manifesto the Dancer of the Future, Duncan wrote:
“Only the movements of the naked body can be perfectly natural. Man, arrived at the end of civilization, will have to return to nakedness, not to the unconscious nakedness of the savage, but to the conscious and acknowledged nakedness of the mature Man, whose body will be the harmonious expression of his spiritual being.”
Setting aside her dated use of “savage,” conscious nudity is of course the cornerstone of nudism as a practice.
Duncan also writes:
“The noblest in art is the nude. This truth is recognized by all, and followed by painters, sculptors and poets; only the dancer has forgotten it, who should most remember it, as the instrument of her art is the human body itself.”
Duncan’s influence was at its greatest in Europe, where she lived and opened multiple schools. It was her early performances in Germany which led to her being cited by Ungewitter in Nakedness as an inspiration towards changing attitudes about the body. It’s no surprise how frequently Cec Cinder brings her up in his book the Nudist Idea, her name popping up a lot in his own research.
Empire of Ecstasy
The period where the ties between nudism and dance were at their strongest is that of the Weimar Republic in Germany, between the two World Wars. This is covered extensively in Karl Toepfer’s book Empire of Ecstasy: Nudity and Movement in German Body Culture, 1910-1935.
The bulk of Empire of Ecstasy is about modern dance—more specifically German Ausdruckstanz—but early chapters highlight how dance and nudism were part of an emerging idea of what the modern human body was. The book searches for some sort of unified, objective theory, but finds no real consensus on what that would be, as the nude figure can represent so many things.
A huge amount of writing on nudity, dance, fitness, and more from the Weimar period exists, but they display an incredibly diverse array of ideas on these subjects, with no single one taking dominance over the others.
Within dance alone, there were a large number of schools of movement, each struggling to define what modern dance is in the culture. It also seems that, as prevalent as nude imagery of dancers was from this period (particularly photography, the primary means by which dance could be accessed outside of the theater), nude performances themselves were uncommon (with the overwhelming majority of performers being female), which is why the subject of nudism is dropped so quickly in the book in favor of discussing dance from as many angles as possible.
Ways to Strength and Beauty
A great illustration of the connection between nudity, dance, and other athletics in this period can be seen in the 1925 film Ways to Strength and Beauty, directed by Wilhelm Prager.
This documentary, written by physician Nicholas Kaufmann, seeks to educate viewers on how to live a healthier life and achieve a better body, largely through various outdoor exercises. It covers a lot of ground, showcasing athletes at the top of their game including Babe Ruth and olympic competitors.
The film also prominently features a variety of dancers, including those from the schools of Loheland, Rudolph Laban, and Mary Wigman. Many athletes and performers are seen in action nude or semi-nude, and there are historical reenactments, an animated example of how a corset can constrict one’s organs, and more.
The intertitles are all in German, which I couldn’t read well, but it’s clear that while this film isn’t explicitly about nudism, it definitely has a lot of shared ideals for the time. However, its emphasis on classical beauty and fitness was very much in line with the image and ideals of the Nazis, something also expressed in early nudist writings including Ungewitter’s thoughts on racial purity.
Today, nudity in dance is fairly common, including the works of Dandelion Dancetheater’s Undressed Project, Maureen Fleming, and choreographers like Pina Bausch, Sasha Waltz, and Ann Van den Broek. These works do not necessarily express the same ideas that naturism represents, nor the ideals of Isadora Duncan and other barefoot modern dancers.
Nudity in contemporary dance is used primarily to represent larger themes, and it feels like something is lost. That may be partly due to the fact that physical culture has become untethered from art and expression. Dance isn’t seen much as a necessary art form or physical exercise the way it once was. In a way that can be seen as good, as dance has also had a reputation of being only for certain body types for a long time now. That reputation does need changing, and in the bigger picture health and fitness have the same problem that needs addressing. Athletes, dancers, and healthy bodies do not have one unified type of look; a body of any shape or size can be any of these things.
In the first episode of the 2021 TV series Worn Stories on Netflix, based on the book by Emily Spivack, the show focuses on community. It follows an older Korean woman who dances at her local community center, along with members of the Cypress Cove nudist resort in Florida. It’s not so much about clothing (or the lack thereof), but I didn’t really put that together until close to the end of the episode when the nudists are seen participating in a dance class together at the resort.
Dance is for everyone, regardless of age, shape, or size, and it can bring people together in an incredible way. Nudism can as well.
I hope I’ve expressed just how much overlap there is between the two concepts, particularly in how they embody freedom of expression. The more we learn we have in common with one another, the easier it is to build strong, lasting communities. The more we become embodied, forming a closer connection with our bodies, the easier it becomes to express ourselves openly and to encourage others to do the same. 🪐
More Brett Marcus Cook:
Planet Nude is a free newsletter that is possible thanks to a few generous supporters. If you find value in our work, please consider a paid subscription.