This Dance Was Part of the Women’s Suffrage Movement—and Meg Brooker Is Reconstructing It for 2020

October 21, 2020

As the presidential election approaches, it’s a particularly meaningful time to remember that we are celebrating the centennial of the 19th Amendment, when women earned the right to vote after a decades-long battle.

Movement was more than a metaphor for the fight for women’s suffrage—dancers played a real role, most notably Florence Fleming Noyes, who performed her riveting solo Dance of Freedom in 1914 to embody the struggle for women’s rights.

This fall, Middle Tennessee State University director of dance Meg Brooker is reconstructing Dance of Freedom on 11 of her students. A Noyes Rhythm teacher and an Isadora Duncan scholar, Brooker is passionate about bringing historic dance practices into a contemporary context.

Noyes, in a white tunic, reaching her arms upwards
A still from the archival video of Noyes’s “Dance of Freedom.” Photo courtesy Dawson City Museum and Historical Society Collection, Library and Archives Canada

Noyes (1871–1928) may be the most famous dance innovator that you’ve never heard of, and is often confused with the Duncan imitators of the day (both women had roots in American Delsartism, based on the work of François Delsarte).

Noyes founded the Noyes School of Rhythm in 1912 at Carnegie Hall, with branches in major cities throughout the U.S. In 1919, she established the permanent home for her summer program at Shepherd’s Nine in Portland, Connecticut, which is still going today, run by descendants of the original practitioners of Noyes’ technique.

Noyes’ work is divided into two parts: the technique class, where students study sequential movement patterns, core-distal initiation, oppositions and twists, developmental patterns and basic movement mechanics, and the recreational class, where movement is guided by the teacher’s narration of phenomena in the natural world. Brooker describes it as a poetic type of instruction that involves play, improvisation and deep rest.

Four masked dancers reach to the side, as a video of Noyes plays behind them
Brooker’s students dance with a video of Noyes. Photo courtesy Brooker

In addition to reconstructing Noyes’ Dance of Freedom, Brooker’s students will also be making their own phrases to teach one another based on the theme of being bound and struggling to break free. The final product will be a film of her students’ collaboration, juxtaposed with the Noyes historical piece, presented as part of the Middle Tennessee’s virtual fall dance concert on November 21.

Brooker will also be doing a workshop on the reconstruction and recontextualization process at the National Dance Education Organization virtual conference on October 25. “I’m framing the Dance of Freedom reconstruction as a way for educators to engage students in the history of the suffrage movement through dance, and also as a way to examine the racism in the history of the women’s suffrage movement,” says Brooker.

Noyes appeared in suffrage demonstrations in Washington, DC, New York City and Boston, as well as a demonstration held the day before the 1913 inauguration of Woodrow Wilson. “Half of the people did not have a voice in choosing the president,” Brooker says. “It was a very intentional choice to have this public demonstration a day before.”

Noyes, in a dark tunic reaching upward with one hand, is surrounded by a group of women and girls in white tunics
Noyes in Washington, DC in March 1913. Photo courtesy Library of Congress

Brooker started her project by contextualizing the dance with this information, exploring with her students the complexities of race and gender that plagued the women’s movement then and still today.

“We talked about how the white suffragists did not stand up for Black women, and how the white suffrage leaders made a choice to segregate the historic 1913 march in Washington,” she says. Brooker reminded her students that the 19th Amendment states “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex,” which left women of color vulnerable to voter suppression based on their race.

Brooker feels that Dance of Freedom might allude to the fact that there was still much work to be done. “Noyes was highly trained in Delsarte, and she understood the metaphorical relationship between gesture and expression,” Booker says. “She starts wrapped in 10 yards of chiffon, struggling to free herself. There is a moment when she frees her upper body, but her lower body is still bound.” A newspaper article from 1914 describing the dance used the phrase “freedom is only half won.”

Five masked students sit on the ground, reaching upwards. A video of Noyes plays behind them
Courtesy Brooker

“We are using this moment in the dance to interrogate what happened historically with regard to racism and women’s suffrage, creating a space to ask how far we have really come in the last 100 years,” Brooker says.

She had originally planned to do the reconstruction based on an unidentified newspaper clipping found in the Noyes archives. The clipping contained an astonishingly high level of detail, enough for her to piece together the work and fill in the blanks with her fluency of Noyes technique.

Then, something extraordinary happened. She was contacted through her website about a short clip of Noyes dancing in Dawson City: Frozen in Time, a documentary about rare newsreels unearthed during a construction project. Before long, she had acquired the entire newsreel from the Dawson City Museum and Historical Society Collection, Library and Archives Canada, which contained a title slide that read “Woman’s emancipation from her bonds– a suffragist pantomime– is symbolized by Florence Fleming Noyes,” along with her performing Dance of Freedom in its entirety.

A grainy black and white images of Noyes, in a white tunic draped over her head, leaning to the side.
Courtesy Dawson City Museum and Historical Society Collection, Library and Archives Canada

“I had chills,” recalls Brooker. “It’s the only footage we have of Noyes dancing. It’s amazing to me to see the clarity of her gestures, which is that Delsarte influence.”

Now, she is able to use the actual footage of Noyes for both the reconstruction and in the final film, which will include dancers moving in front of the projection of Noyes to amplify the tension between the past and the present.

It would be six more years after Noyes was filmed performing Dance of Freedom until the 19th Amendment was passed, and 51 years until the Voting Rights Act. Brooker and her students realize there’s much more work to be done, even today.

“We are kinesthetically examining the relationship between individual agency and collective social responsibility,” Brooker says. “We want to keep the complexity of that question visible in what we create. We are not planning to offer easy answers.”