2022, On the Appeal of Authenticity: The Dance of the Seven veils in Early 20th century London

This paper explores two modes of retrieval and reconstruction. In the first part I examine the cultural background to a presentation of a ‘dance of the seven veils’ on the variety stage in 1930s London. On 26 April 1937 the dance was introduced into a sketch at the Windmill Theatre, Soho, called, ‘Lost in the Legion’. Taking the title literally, a dancer, appearing as in a dream to an inebriated legionnaire, removed one after another of coloured scarves from around her body to be finally revealed naked.

One of the most curious aspects of this presentation was the way it was flagged by the management’s publicity as an authentic dance, straight out of Boccaccio’s Decameron (c.1353), and verified by research at the British Museum! The spurious nature of this claim is obvious to dance scholars but begs the question of why it was disseminated and how it could be even considered valid. The claim to authenticity is examined through association with works of ‘high art’, not only the Decameron, but Oscar Wilde’s Salomé (pub. 1892) and the subsequent early 20th century craze for artistic dance performances in the character of Salomé’s Dance of the Seven Veils.

In the second part of the paper I will look at the idea of reconstruction in the physical sense, of literally ‘unwrapping’ the dance at the Windmill from written accounts and photographs in order to answer some questions about the dance itself. I ask if anything can connect this dance in style with the Salomé dance, the striptease or the oriental (belly) dance.


Dr Larraine Nicholas writes on twentieth century theatre dance. Authored texts include: Dancing in Utopia: Dartington Hall and its Dancers (Dance Books, 2007); Walking and Dancing: Three years of Dance in London, 1951 – 53 (Noverre Press, 2013); and she is co-editor with Geraldine Morris of Rethinking Dance History, 2nd Edition (Routledge, 2018). She dances with Consort de Danse Baroque.