One of Lucian’s Dialogues of the Courtesans features a remarkable dance-off between two hetairai (Dial. Meret. 3) – one of the few descriptions of female sympotic performance in all of Greco-Roman literature. Within the frame of the dialogue, Philinna, one of the hetairai, recounts the causes and consequences of that performance for her disapproving mother. On one hand, the fictional world of Lucian’s courtesans seems to be a vaguely classical-Athenian Greek past, and earlier Greek models are undoubtedly central to Lucian’s literary project (Bompaire 1958, Branham 1989). On the other, Lucian’s dialogues were written and consumed in a world of prolific female performance (see, e.g., Webb 2002 and Alonso Fernández 426-454), and his work has immediate relevance for its contemporary, Roman imperial context as well (Jones 1986, Bozia 2015).
In this paper, I will use Lucian’s dialogue as an entry point for the discussion of female choreographic agency in the imperial Roman world. I will begin with an overview of women’s dance practices in archaic and classical Greece, paying special attention to the historical possibility of and prevailing attitudes towards female dancers as choreographers of their own movement (e.g., Alcman’s Partheneia and Peponi 2004 and 2007; Xenophon’s Anabasis 6.1.11-12 and Symposium 7.2-3). I will then briefly sketch out the distinctive opportunities for female choreography and creativity within the performance landscape of the 2nd century CE. Lucian’s dialogue, I suggest, is poised between these two worlds, strategically recalling an idealized Greek past while also contributing to contemporary debates over the role and status of the female dancer.
I will conclude by considering how Lucian’s dialogue presents dance as site of creative and kinesthetic agency for women. Here, I draw from recent theoretical work in dance studies that examines how gesture, movement, and kinesthetic awareness can challenge or undo the work of cultural construction upon the body (Sklar 2008, Noland 2009). I will specifically argue that Lucian is particularly focused on the conflict between Philinna and Thais, the two courtesans, and employs choreography as the primary sphere in which the two women competitively engage in creative and personal expression. While the verbal commentary of Philinna’s mother provides a thoroughgoing thread of normative discourse on female performance hierarchies, Philinna’s own narrative of her experience and expression offers an alternative account of the possibilities latent in purely kinetic, non-verbal performance. My analysis will situate this particular dialogue within the concerns about subjectivity and agency evident elsewhere in the Dialogues of the Courtesans (Gilhuly 2007), as well as within the broader cultural history of female performance in the Greco-Roman world.
Roman Dance Cultures in Context