Lola Montez and her Notorious Spider Dance
Lola Montez and her Notorious Spider Dance
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The Sovereign Hill Museums Association
In this video, performers and creators of the interpretive theatre at Sovereign Hill Outdoor Museum and academics discuss Lola Montez and her infamous Spider Dance. The dance was performed on the goldfields in 1856 in the Victoria Theatre, attracting both showers of gold nuggets and moral outrage.
Lola Montez was born Maria Eliza Dolores Rosanna Gilbert in Ireland in 1818. Her father was in the military and the family travelled to India, Scotland, London, Paris and Bath. When she was 18 years-old, Montez’s mother tried to marry her to a 60 year-old judge in India. Lola eloped with a young Lieutenant and they married in Ireland, but he soon left her for another woman. Montez then went to Spain where she learnt Spanish dancing, which enabled her to travel the world and gain access to people of power and influence, both politically and culturally.
Most notably, Montez was friends with George Sand (with whom, wearing male attire, she smoked cigars); a lover of Franz List, Alexandre Dumas and Alexandre Dujarier. She discussed matters of the state with Emperor Nicholas I of Russia and around 1845 became the lover of King Ludwig I of Bavaria. Her influence on Ludwig helped the push to overthrow the conservative Jesuit-led bureaucracy, but with Europe in turmoil, Ludwig abdicated and Montez fled.
Having had her Bavarian rights annulled, Montez commenced a performance tour, taking the Spider Dance to the Californian goldfields, and then to the Victorian goldfields, where her performances and radical behaviour caused a sensation. Eventually, she returned to America, where she lived penniless for a number of years before dying alone in her early 40s, in a New York boarding house.
Text based on A Lover and A Fighter; Clare Wright on the trouble with Lola Montez, Overland 2009, p195.
Performer: I promised to open my theatre with an act of world renown.
Tonight, I bring you the wonderful, the talented Contessa Lola Montez.
♪ Soft piano music
Barry Kay: We've developed this piece where Lola offers a chance for a preview to the people of Ballarat of her Spider Dance as a bit of a teaser. It would be like a trailer in a movie house, I suppose.
It's not a re-enactment. I don't think she did that sort of thing. I don't think she needed to.
(Cheering and applause)
Tim Sullivan: I would love to have met Lola.
I would love to have been at that... that night at the Victoria Theatre when she performed the dance for the first time.
(Castanets tap rhythmically)
Of course, there's no film footage, or even photography that we can rely on in interpreting the dance.
So we've had to go by interpretation of newspaper reports about what the performance entailed.
Eloise Gooding: It did have a Spanish feel and she did train in Spanish dancing, even though she wasn't Spanish at all.
She liked to let people think that.
So the skirt was at knee length, which again is quite risqué, and she would raise them up and flick her skirts around, and she would touch her legs sensually and slowly, and the music would get faster and faster.
The idea of her touching her legs was that there were spiders on her, and she had to try and shoo the spider out of her petticoat. So she was flicking, but the music got more feverish, and a big build-up in the climax is when she found it and she stomped on it.
(Clapping and cheering)
Tim: The descriptions of the response of the diggers when they were showering her with gold nuggets - just imagine what that would be like today, if you had a performer on stage being showered in gold nuggets in appreciation.
You can just imagine, that would've absolutely scandalised so many people.
Dr Clare Wright: And the audience is either thrilled and going along with it, or incensed and out of their mind with moral indignation.
Eloise: By our standards, it's nothing, any worse than, you know,
Madonna might do, or any of the other women out there performing. But for the day, it was quite confronting.
Barry: It was only very recent that women were being allowed to perform on stage, and the acting professionals performing arts were, you know, not much more than vagabonds and thieves.
So here's a person who is in a not very respectable profession, but who is also, if you like, blatantly flaunting... sexuality.
Clare: She was dancing for the male audiences. She was unabashed about that.
So she was seen as being dangerous in that kind of way, although there was nothing that we would consider that was particularly lewd about her dancing. But she was definitely provocative.