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Hysteria and Dance

An outdated mental disorder may seem like a strange topic for a dance piece in 2016 but I, like many (albeit, I admit, 19th-century) artists, have found hysteria to be a source of seemingly boundless inspiration. One particularly surprising and exciting discovery has been learning about the ways in which hysteria was tied to movement and even performance. Ancient Egyptians believed the cause of hysteria was a wandering womb and used sweet smelling smoke, blown up the lady-bits, to try to draw the errant organ back into place. Long after this belief was dispelled, involuntary female movement remained a key symptom in the diagnosis of hysteria. The hysterical fit typically began with a pain in the uterine region and constriction of the throat and developed into convulsive movements, heart palpitations, sobbing and laughter. These violent, physical symptoms provided doctors, newly invigorated by a sense of empirical duty to the quickly developing field of psychology, with the chance to pin down a definition of this slippery disease that had been plaguing doctors for more than three thousand years.

Jean-Martin Charcot, the Chair of Pathological Anatomy at the most famous of late-19th-century hysterical homes, the Salpêtrière Hospital in Paris, codified hysterical fits to an almost unbelievable level of specificity. He liked to call the hospital a "museum of living pathology" and documented his exhibits in the photographic manual Iconographie photographique de la Salpêtrière. As Lisa Appignanesi writes in her wonderfully titled Mad, Bad and Sad: A History of Women and the Mind Doctors, "Charcot's hysterics, like the early silent film stars who may well have imitated their expressions, went through the dramatic paces of their condition for the camera" (129). Charcot went even further and held popular public lectures every Tuesday filled with, as Axel Munthe a doctor in Paris described, "a multicolored audience drawn from tout Paris, authors, journalists, leading actors and actresses, fashionable demimondaines." In these lectures he brought up his most performative patients to demonstrate full hysterical fits and explain what he had coined the four stages of hysteria. In this process he taught not only the public (including a young Freud) but also his own patients. They learned how to be their most popular and praised hysterical selves and many even went on to performance careers outside the hospital as part of the popular hypnosis vaudeville shows throughout Paris.

I now seem to be moving far away from dance but I'll leave you with a description of these four stages, which read almost like choreographic prompts. And you can follow my Instagram @ahameline to see some of my own interpretations in action.

STAGE 1 – Epileptic phase or “tonic rigidity” – muscles contract, neck twists, heels turn out, arms swing round wildly several times in a row, then wrists reach toward each other while fists gyrate outwards, grows rigid, lies immobile, plank-like, eyes directed at space unseeing.

STAGE 2 – circus-like acrobatics of “clonic spams” also known as grans movements or le clowisme.

STAGE 3 – Representation of emotional states such as love, hate, fear (attitudes passionelles). She acts out seduction, supplication, erotic pleasure, ecstasy, or mockery often along with hallucinations. She might hear voices, see blood or rats, and act terrified or in pain.

STAGE 4 – Delirium hallicinations take shape of rapist, lover or family. She might feel as if her scarf is choking her, and begin to howl.

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