Dance as insanity, insanity as dance

27 November 2012

Our new event series,Rhythm is a Dancer, explores the psychology and physiology of dance and its impact on the body and mind.The series begins on Thursday 29 November with Can You Kick It? Sarah Chaney, who will be speaking about dance in 19th-century asylums at the event, gives us a preview.

It may surprise modern readers to learn that dance was a familiar feature of 19th-century asylum life. One of the most famous descriptions of an asylum ball was penned by Charles Dickens, who visited St Luke’s Hospital in Old Street in Christmas 1851, describing his experiences for Household Words. In ‘A Curious Dance Round a Curious Tree’, Dickens used the dance as a focus to highlight his understanding of asylum reform, contrasting the music and pleasantry with wild imaginings of past cruelty.

In particular, the dance symbolised the absence of fetters in the institution. In 1839, Robert Gardiner Hill, superintendent of the Lincoln Asylum, lectured to his fellow alienists (as asylum physicians were known) on a new system of management he had devised – which, he claimed, led to the total abolition of any form of personal restraint. By the time of Dickens’ writing, the vast majority of asylums in England and Wales claimed to adhere to the non-restraint system, which was adopted and policed by the ‘Commissioners in Lunacy’, the central body that oversaw psychiatric hospitals.

As Dickens saw it, “the only chain that made any clatter was Ladies’ Chain, and there was no straiter waistcoat in company than the polka-garment of the old-young woman with the weird gentility”. For other journalists, asylum balls became widely viewed as evidence of the humanitarian philanthropy supposed to characterise the era. Although St Luke’s was an independent charitable hospital, catering predominantly for the middle classes, the introduction of similar events at the huge county pauper asylums across the country led one journalist to proudly proclaim that “few communities of the poor have so much amusement provided for them”.

Of course, this heart-warming tale of the replacement of straitjackets and chains by the free movement of dance probably seems naive to many readers today. Even Dickens worried that his audience would view his description of the unhappy state of many of the patients he encountered at St Luke’s as proof that these changes had been made in vain. He himself thought it was vital to future advances in treatment.

For some asylum patients, the relative freedom of a dance might contrast with the restrictions on their life outside the asylum. In 1891, the young Ada Smith complained to doctors on her admission to Bethlem that her home life was “very quiet and irksome” because “her parents allow her to have very little company”. Bethlem, however, offered Ada the opportunity to socialise and “she greatly enjoys the music and the tennis she gets here”. Conversely, social occasions were also subject to restrictions themselves: not least those associated with propriety. Hospital dances were one of the few places male and female patients met, and their interactions were carefully policed by the authorities, such as when another young Bethlem patient, Alice Meeks, received a letter proposing marriage from a fellow patient, Alfred Freeman, after meeting him at a hospital ball.

Sarah Chaney has just completed her PhD at UCL on late 19th-century psychiatry, hysteria and self-inflicted injury. She also writes for the Bethlem Blog. The Bethlem Royal Hospital Museum is located in the outskirts of London, near Croydon, and is open to the public Monday–Friday and one Saturday a month. For more information on the museum, its art collection and special events, visit the museum website.