Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2018.07.26 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2018.07.26

Karin Schlapbach, The Anatomy of Dance Discourse: Literary and Philosophical Approaches to Dance in the later Graeco-Roman World.   Oxford; New York:  Oxford University Press, 2018.  Pp. x, 339.  ISBN 9780198807728.  $90.00.  

Reviewed by Sarah Olsen, Williams College (


Karin Schlapbach’s stimulating and insightful book joins a rapidly growing body of research illuminating diverse aspects of both Greek and Roman dance.1 Schlapbach’s contribution stands out for its attention to the interface between dance and literature, as she explores how dance animates literary and philosophical discourse precisely because the aesthetic, affective, and representational aspects of a dance differ from those of a text. She effectively demonstrates that discussions and descriptions of dance are crucial to our understanding of mimesis, art, and interpretation in the Greek and Latin literature of the Roman empire.

The time period referenced by the title (“Later Graeco-Roman World”) is defined broadly, and extends from the 4th century BCE (Xenophon) to the 5th century CE (Nonnus). Within this time frame, Schlapbach’s central authors and texts tend to cluster around the 2nd century CE, creating a sustained focus on the development of dance discourse in the imperial Roman world. The book is divided into two sections, comprised of three chapters each, with a substantial introduction and a brief but intriguing conclusion. The first half is organized around major themes or problems in ancient dance discourse: the relationship between dance, language, and deixis; the mimetic force of dance in comparison to the paradigms offered by visual art and oratory; the experiential and cognitive impact of dance. The second half brings these discursive models to bear on specific texts and genres, examining Xenophon’s Symposium, Aristoxenus, Athenaeus, imperial epigram (Greek and Latin), the ancient novel (Longus and Apuleius), and Nonnus’ Dionysiaka. While Schlapbach stresses that her selection of texts is not intended to be comprehensive, she succeeds in surveying a wide range of Greco-Roman imperial literature. The book is also characterized by argumentative and analytic coherence. The first three chapters include many close readings of texts (e.g., Plutarch’s Table Talks, or a hymn from the apocryphal Acts of John), while the later chapters elaborate upon the models and frameworks offered at the outset. Schlapbach’s attention to both Greek and Latin texts, within and beyond the traditional canon, ensures that this book has something to offer to almost any scholar of Classical literature.

Schlapbach’s analytical approach is founded upon close reading and aims to situate her primary texts within their literary, philosophical, and cultural contexts. Her work consistently attends to the diachronic development of significant themes and problems while remaining grounded in the formal dynamics of specific texts. Her second chapter, for example, includes a discussion of the shapeshifter Proteus as a figure for the dancer in Lucian’s treatise On the Dance. Schlapbach observes that, in Lucian’s account, dance becomes at once “the matrix of fiction and a guarantee of truth” (p. 87). Through the image of Proteus, Lucian advances the novel and surprising notion that the representational versatility of the dancer surpasses that of the orator. This argument is built on a detailed analysis of references to Proteus in the earlier Greek philosophical and rhetorical tradition (especially Plato), as well as a careful consideration of contemporary attitudes towards both pantomime and oratory. Schlapbach then revisits the figure of Proteus in her final chapter, recalling Lucian’s use of the shapeshifter to articulate the paradoxical ability of dance to generate both deceptive representation and also immediate, authentic experience. She demonstrates that Nonnus’ Dionysiaka takes dance as its own aesthetic paradigm, embracing the Protean possibilities of an art that engages its audience through the interplay between interpretive distance and immersive experience. Schlapbach’s analysis effectively corrects the longstanding assumption that our knowledge of ancient dance is hopelessly limited by our inability to access ancient choreography; she reveals instead the striking and valuable insights to be gained from the study of dance as a literary and rhetorical motif.

Schlapbach’s treatment of epigram (Ch. 4) is emblematic of her approach and her distinctive contributions to our understanding of the ancient discourse surrounding dance and embodied performance. As she explores how Greek and Latin epigrams meditate upon the perceived authenticity of pantomime performance, she illuminates their poets’ sensitivity to the way that dance generates a distinctive tension between signifier and signified. Epigrammatists like Martial, Lucillius, and Palladas foreground the power of dance to generate “palpable and lifelike” (p. 200) representations of myth, even as they underscore the aesthetic and affective risks of mimetic excess—of performances that take the ideal of authenticity too far. Schlapbach’s skill as a subtle and thoughtful reader of texts shines here, as she draws far-ranging significance from the formal features of two- and four-line poems.

As I read this book, I found myself wondering how the ancient discourse illuminated by Schlapbach might relate to modern theoretical questions, especially given that debates over the status of dance as a representational art and its relationship to literary and verbal modes of expression have played a crucial role in the development of the relatively young field of dance studies.2 Schlapbach gestures to various connections between her work and recent research on dance, cognition, and representation, but developing some of those links in a deeper and more sustained fashion could have helped to highlight the relevance of her insights for scholars of contemporary performance. As she notes in the conclusion, her analysis uncovers moments where “ancient dance discourse appears strikingly modern” (p. 288). One intriguing example is her suggestion that Nonnus’ depiction of Moira (Fate) as a dancer whose “‘leap’ straddles life and death” resonates with the modern interest in dance as an art that overwhelms, undermines, and ultimately reconciles binary oppositions (p. 287). This brief comparison points to the possibility of reading ancient authors as keen observers of the phenomenology of dance, as early participants in a still-ongoing inquiry. Schlapbach’s approach does not ask us to abandon the work of investigating ancient dance as an embodied practice. To the contrary, she demonstrates that literary representation and discourse offer meaningful insight into the experience of dance both within and beyond the text. She explicitly asks us to consider a wider range of evidence for the study of ancient performance culture; her work should also provoke us to more fully incorporate ancient voices into modern theoretical debates.

The Anatomy of Dance Discourse constitutes a valuable contribution to several fields: ancient performance culture, imperial Greek and Latin literature, and, as I have suggested, interdisciplinary dance studies. Schlapbach opens the door for further study of the relationship between literary discourse and the representation of dance, especially in other periods and genres, and her approach may also prove productive for the study of ancient musical, athletic, or dramatic performance. This book deserves a wide and attentive readership.


1.   Monographs and collections from the last decade that focus significantly on dance include: L. Curtis, (2017) Imagining the Chorus in Augustan Poetry. Cambridge; L. Gianvittorio, (ed.) (2017) Choreutika: Performing and Theorising Dance in Ancient Greece. Pisa; E. Hall and R. Wyles, (eds.) (2008) New Directions in Ancient Pantomime. Oxford; F. Macintosh, (ed.) (2010) The Ancient Dancer in the Modern World: Responses to Greek and Roman Dance. Oxford; R. Poignault, (ed.) (2013) Présence de la danse dans l'Antiquité, présence de l'Antiquité dans la danse: Actes du colloque tenu à Clermont-Ferrand du 11 au 13 décembre 2008, Caesarodunum. Paris; T. J. Smith, (2010) Komast Dancers in Archaic Greek Art. Oxford; R. Webb, (2008) Demons and Dancers: Performance in Late Antiquity. Cambridge, MA; N. Weiss, (2018) The Music of Tragedy: Performance and Imagination in Euripidean Theater, Berkeley.
2.   See, e.g., S. Foster, (1986) Reading Dancing: Bodies and Subjects in Contemporary American Dance, Ann Arbor, MI; J. Meglin, Joellen and L. M. Brooks, (2015) “Language and Dance: Intersection and Divergence,” Dance Chronicle 38: 127-33; M. Siegel, (1988) “The Truth about Apples and Oranges,” The Drama Review 32: 23-31.

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