Danse Serpentine (Serpentine Dance)

  • Director: Louis Lumière
  • Year: 1896
  • Runtime: 1m
  • Available on Wikipedia, or with a slightly higher resolution but with interlacing issues at Ubu.com

The first couple of films I watched as part of my History of Cinema journey were, frankly, not that exciting. They are interesting and worthwhile for their technological achievements and historical importance. Unfortunately, as movies, they don’t have a whole lot to offer.

Danse Serpentine (Serpentine Dance) is one of these very early experiments in film and I figured it would be more of the same. I was delighted to find a fascinating short that also pushed the boundaries of what was possible at the time.

Watching a dancer in a long, flowing, layered dress creating bold and dynamic patterns of fabric would be interesting enough on its own, but then Lumière comes in and paints each frame by hand in a kaleidoscopic range of colours.

When performed live, the dancer would be lit by different coloured stage lights (and sometimes fire) creating a mesmerising effect as the colours reflected off the loose, swirling fabrics. Lumière’s attempt to recreate this on black and white film is striking.

It’s important to note that he was not the only filmmaker to be using the Serpentine Dance in this way.

So what we end up with is the same minute-long dance performed by many different people who then record it and display it publicly and all this was happening over one hundred and twenty-five years ago.

Fun Fact!

The dance itself was invented by Loïe Fuller as a form of burlesque dance. She intended it to be deliberately racy as a rebellion against the formal dictates of the ballet.

See more from my study of The History of Cinema.