The Parisian infatuation with the pulsing rhythms and gyrating movements of “Negro” dancing in the 1920s was an indication not of deep love and appreciation for the people of the “other” culture, but rather an overindulged fetish of the wild and exotic.
“The savage is overflowing with this formless and purely instinctive motor energy and so, as the basis of the Negro dance today, we find an elementary and blind release of this rhythmic instinct” (Levinson).
The arrival of La revue nègre to Paris in 1925, and the immediate public response it received, indicated the French fascination and desire of the “primitive” other.
“La revue nègre succeeded in conforming to age-old fantasies about exotic nègre otherness swirling in the French cultural imagination” (Jordan).
Audiences flooded the concert halls to witness performances such as La revue nègre and were delighted, titillated, enraged, or a confused combination of all three.
Love and respect for a person or culture imply a sense of goodwill and wish for the other’s good fortune. The ways in which Parisians embraced the Negro dancing were not derived from a genuine appreciation and admiration for the culture, but instead a reflection of their unabashed desire to watch the spectacle of the “primitive life force, savage, exotic” (Gates and Dalton). The dancing of Josephine Baker is a clear example of the Parisian lust for the wild and untamed. André Levinson described Baker as possessing “a wild splendor and magnificent animality … [she] had the compelling potency of the finest examples of Negro sculpture” (Gates and Dalton). These exhibitions allured the stiff French audiences with their visceral displays of rhythmic movement completely uninhibited by contemporary societal standards.
“In other words, the nègres had seduced the ‘nervous and disordered’ French public by giving them the ‘instinctive’ expression they longed for in their modern lives” (Jordan).
The French public did not view these performers as equal in status and shared appreciation for the art on display, which is further articulated in Levinson’s words of caution regarding the treatment of such performers:
“We should not, however, jump to the conclusion that because of this extraordinary rhythmic gift alone the Negro dancer or musician should be taken seriously as an artist. Rhythm is not, after all, an art in itself … when rhythm becomes completely free and dominates any realm of art the result is inevitably rudimentary and inferior” (Levinson).
The frenzy of fascination with the exotic and raw rhythms of Negro dancers in Paris reflected a craving for entertainment of the most basic human form, i.e. erotic displays catered toward eager audiences. There was no love for the performers or culture itself, but rather a misguided exploitation of a culture solely for the benefit of the audience.