Each month I focus my article on one of my Holy Women Icons with a folk feminist twist. Virginia Woolf , the Shulamite, Mary Daly, Baby Suggs, Pachamama and Gaia, and Frida Kahlo have reputations that match their lived realities relatively closely, so my paintings have attempted to reflect these realities. The subject of this month’s article, however, has been misrepresented and misunderstood throughout the ages. Her “name” is Salome and we read of her dancing story in the Gospels of Matthew and Mark.
If you carefully read Mark 6:17-29 or Matthew 14:3-11, you’re probably wondering why this article features an icon of someone named Salome. There was no mention of anyone named Salome in the text. Rather, in the Markan text both the dancing daughter and her mother are named Herodias. In Matthew’s text, the daughter is nameless. It wasn’t until later when Josephus, a Jewish historian, named her Salome and stated that she was responsible for the beheading of the John the Baptist.
Since Josephus made up her name, interpreters have gone crazy with blame, ruining the poor little girl’s reputation. The more prominent John became in history, the more infamous Salome became. This is reflected in art, as well. In 1462 we have Gozzoli’s rendering of Salome, which shows the dance of an innocent child doing gymnastics and twirling the way many little children do when given the spotlight. Perhaps Gozzoli translated Greek in addition to producing famous paintings, because it’s clear that the word used to described “Salome” is thugater, which means “little daughter.” Based solely on what the text says, and even these early artistic renderings, it’s obvious that this scripture is about a little girl dancing for play and fun and then being taken advantage of by a conniving mother and uncle.
We wonder, then, why Salome gets such a bad rap. I’ve heard many avid church goers point to Salome when describing why they don’t want dance in worship. Additionally, I recall a male seminarian claiming that Salome might as well have had a pole to swing from because she was so much like a stripper. You see, with the development of the femme fatale in 19th and 20th century art, film, and literature, Salome’s story was quickly exaggerated. Gustave Moreau painted over 100 images of Salome in the 1870s, all illustrating a seductive woman in gauzy fabric. Then Oscar Wilde wrote his infamous play, Salome, and it is clear that he never bothered to even read the accounts from the Gospels because his play includes an adult Salome flirting with John the Baptist, stripping down to a dance of seven veils, and then kissing the severed head on a bloody platter in 1894. So much for the text describing Salome as a “little daughter.”
Then performing artists went wild (pun intended) with the story. Richard Strauss composed an opera, Loie Fuller and Maude Allan choreographed dances that are little more than a strip tease as they embody the “dance of seven veils.” Amidst it all, a little girl’s reputation is destroyed and dance is demonized as nothing more than an agent of seduction and slander. In these ways, popular culture impacts our understanding of Salome’s dance even more than the bible does!
If we chalk the plays, the opera, the paintings, and the choreography up to extreme poetic licensing, then perhaps we can return to the heart of the text. And we’ll see the story of a little girl who was asked to dance by a family member at a party. I have many such memories from my own childhood as I cried “Watch me! Watch me!” to parents, aunts, uncles, and grandparents while I leapt and twirled, filled with the child-like innocence that we adults often forget when it comes to worship. I am convinced that Salome’s dance was no different.
Salome’s dance is most often vilified as a twisted erotic dance of desire. But, as we have seen, this interpretation does not cling to the heart of these scriptures. Rather, our readings of the text have been colored by culture, art, and the bias of patriarchal commentators over the centuries. One can only wonder if the stories would be received differently if the genders were reversed. What if little boy Herod danced before Queen Salome? Would artists, commentators, and culture have interpreted their tale differently?
All of my Holy Women Icons are my way of seeking redemption: for the viewer or for the woman depicted. In the case of Salome, her reputation has been so maligned over the centuries that the little girl’s playful dance steps are forgotten. Salome’s character must be redeemed. So, I knew that Salome must be depicted as a playful young child in the most innocent of settings. As little girls throughout history have danced for family members and friends, so too does Salome dance, her heart crying out for understanding:
For centuries misunderstood, a little girl playfully danced without a veil in sight,
May we look beyond her misguided reputation and see her childish innocence
So, the next time you see a woman depicted as a dangerous femme fatale, or hear an ill-advised seminarian refer to a child’s dance as that of a seductress, I urge you to harken back to the text. Translate it yourself. Redeem history. And listen to the misunderstood stories of dancing girls all over the world.
Rev. Dr. Angela Yarber is Pastor for Preaching and Worship at Wake Forest Baptist Church at Wake Forest University. She has a PhD in Art and Religion from the Graduate Theological Union at UC Berkeley and is author of Embodying the Feminine in the Dances of the World’s Religions, along with numerous articles about the intersections among the arts, religion, and gender/sexuality. Next year, she has two new books coming out: The Gendered Pulpit: Sex, Body, and Desire in Preaching and Worship and Dance in Scripture: How Biblical Dancers can Revolutionize Worship Today. She has been a clergy woman and professional dancer and artist since 1999 and she teaches a course as an adjunct professor at Wake Forest University School of Divinity. For more on her research, ministry, dance, or to purchase one of her icons, visit: www.angelayarber.com