HEXENTANZ: Dance, Witchcraft and Feminism in the Suspirias

I took it upon myself a few weeks ago to watch both Suspiria productions on consecutive days and it left me thoroughly disturbed but also yearning to start dance lessons again. This is more than just a blog post; I went all out and researched the history of feminism (the bits I didn’t already know), modern dance as a revolutionary art form, witchcraft and femininity and came back with a fully formed essay on how the dance styles of the two versions reflect the feminist zeitgeists in which they were made. Buckle up kids, this is going to be a long and bumpy ride.

“Yes, this is a witch hunt. I’m a witch and I’m hunting you” reads the Lindy West opinion piece on the New York Times website. 1 The #MeToo movement marks a sharp change of tracks in the history of feminism in Western society. We’re speaking out about our survival as more than victims. We’re reclaiming the word “witch”, the word “slut”, the word “feminist” to mean something empowered, rather than the dirty and shameful connotations patriarchs have given these words in the past. The history of feminism in the West is separated into “waves”, with first-wave feminism focusing on getting the vote, second-wave focusing on reproductive rights, third-wave on intersectionality and fourth-wave on protest and organisation in the digital age, to give an incredibly brief overview. This essay will mainly be focusing on the difference between the second- and fourth-waves, and will focus on the evolution of feminism in a Western context.2 Second-wave feminism, declining in the late 1970s, broadened the legal focus of first-wave feminism to include issues such as sexuality, workplace sexism and reproductive rights. It was also widely criticised towards the end of this period for ignoring the struggles of black women, working-class women and LGBTQ+ women. This led to the end of second-wave in the early 1980s, the beginnings of third-wave in the early 1990s and fourth-wave in around 2012. The changes in feminist debates from the seventies to the present day are of paramount importance – feminism has become far more intersectional, with a wider definition of what it means to be a woman and what it means to be a feminist, with a strong emphasis on bodily autonomy and calling for justice for women in opposition to sexual harassment, body shaming and other discrimination.

SUSPIRIA – a story which deals with femininity and with witchcraft and with dance was made into two very different films either side of the new millennium. Broadly speaking, the story of Suspiria tells the tale of a dance school run by a witches’ coven. The first version, made in 1977, against the backdrop of the decline of second-wave feminism, uses ballet as the basis for its tale of coven-meets-dance-school – a traditional, feminine style of dance which aims to achieve the unachievable: perfection. The second was made in 2018 – in light of fourth-wave feminism, in light of #MeToo, in light of intersectionality and the beginnings of the popularisation of non-binary gender values. It chose to base its tale back in the seventies, but this time with all of the hindsight of the four decades between then and now. It also chose modern dance as its style. Modern dance – when traditional femininity was rejected by an entire art form in favour of movement for movement’s sake and conveying emotions, however ugly they may be. A point in dance history where female choreographers took to the forefront, a field which had been oversaturated by men in the past.3 The bodily autonomy which female dancers found in the style of modern dance can be mirrored in the #MeToo movement, since in both cases, women acknowledged their previous struggles but moved forward to reclaim their bodies even in light of the injustice which had rendered them victims in the past. They did this, in both cases, without fear of transgression from the idealised patriarchal image of feminine beauty and behaviour. This comparison is one upon which I shall draw throughout this essay.

Women have always played a big role in dance since the very origins of civilisation, as can be seen in cave paintings (and Eygptian frescoes, Indian statuettes, ancient Greek and Roman art, Chinese and Japanese records from court proceedings, etc.) of traditional rituals. Therefore, it seems important for a film so interested in dance that we look at how these different styles reflect the times in which the films were written, to link dance, witchcraft, sexuality and feminism throughout history and through these two films. It is Mary Wigman’s infamously grotesque Hexentanz which provides me with the title of this essay.4 Breaking free from the constraints of traditional dance styles, Hexentanz presents us with Mary Wigman embodying the monstrous feminine, something so terrifyingly at odds with what was expected of women by society, but equally something powerful and empowering for herself. The dance is performed by a contorted Wigman sitting on the floor grasping in harsh gestures at the air around her as if she is enacting some hideous curse, “conceptualizing the witch as a […] transgressive female”.5 Dance, witchcraft and feminism are linked inherently. The bodily autonomy required in order to perform a dance which so rejects the patriarchal beauty ideal is something which witches have brought to women of all walks of life over the centuries. Traditionally, the witch was someone to whom women could turn for help with abortions, birth and prevention of miscarriages – early examples of bodily autonomy as a feminist practice. Dance, in Wigman’s eyes, then becomes a rebellion, using this bodily autonomy to transgress against previously held expectations of the female body by wider society in general, and the world of dance specifically. Feminine transgression in the form of the witch is something about which attitudes have changed over time, in tandem with the progression and evolution of feminism. This essay will look at both the dance and feminist contexts of each version of Suspiria and discuss how they help to tell the same story in two very different ways.

Original poster for the 1977 production of Suspiria

Hysteria – in this case meaning the female hysteria which was once a common diagnosis for women whose repression and oppression led to displaced excitement and nervous breakdowns – is prevalent in the 1977 Suspiria. Ballet is hysteria, loosely contained. It is the embodiment of repressed female sexuality and oppressed femininity in general. The exercises are precise and relentless and it reflects the pressure of perfection which is put on women in daily life, to look beautiful, to keep their families happy. Stress fractures in the first rib are common in teenage girls practising the art form and eating disorders are also rampant in ballet schools and companies. Ballet dancers are also in full-time training, often from the age of 6, and are physically stunted in many cases by the intensity of the training itself and the pressure put on them by ballet schools to maintain a small frame. The hysteria caused by this pressure is lurking very close to the polished surface of perfection seen in the finished product of balletic dance, resulting in the aforementioned injuries and illnesses in some cases. It has even been explored in balletic roles such as Giselle, wherein the titular heroine goes mad on stage – and her madness is shown through the choreography – when she discovers the betrayal of her loved one.6 David Kajganich, the screenwriter of the 2018 Suspiria, looks back on Suspiria (1977) and describes it as a “fever dream”, something which Wikipedia describes as “a particularly intense or disturbing dream brought on by a fever”, 7 due to its bright colours, surreal dialogue, bizarre soundtrack and more.8 Ballet, being the hysterical quest for the feminine perfection to which it aspires, is also something of a fever dream. Dance in many styles has elements of hysteria but it is ballet which seems to have the narrowest boundaries of what is acceptable. By this, I mean that, in ballet, the young girls who are in training have little to no bodily autonomy due to the strict discipline which the style demands which leads to their bodies being policed. Hysteria is the result of this repression of bodily autonomy since the need for autonomy is displaced into madness in the form of hysteria. It seems appropriate, then, that this style of dance was chosen for a film which is a “fever dream” since the style of dance reflects the hysteria and delirious madness of the horror. This hysteria is also reflected in the feminist context of the film’s production, as frustrations with second-wave feminism were reaching their peak in the late 1970s (a full discussion of the feminist context is found a little later on in this essay). Ballet is the perfect example of dance to use in order to communicate frustration and repression – of sexuality, of bodily autonomy, of age.

“Ballet is hysteria, loosely contained.”

Suspiria (1977) reflects this sense of perverted childhood. The script was originally intended to feature twelve-year-old girls but was changed because Argento’s father feared that a film this violent featuring twelve-year-olds would be banned. The lines themselves were not actually changed at all, leading to a rather unsettling mixture of childlike innocence coming from the mouths of twenty-year-olds. “It all seems so absurd. So fantastic,” says Pat with the same curiosity yet complete acceptance of a young girl who has just discovered that her dance school is run by a witches coven. Suzy’s (Jessica Harper) wide-eyed and innocent stare is one of the first things we glimpse in the film, and the theme of childlike wonderment is something which is encapsulated time and again in this version of the story, despite the gruesome nature of its content. The colour palette, for which this film is so well-known, also seems to come straight from the paintbox of a child’s imagination. Guadagnino, who remade the film in 2018, made a conscious decision to use a muted palette in order for his version of Suspiria to stand alone as a film in its own right. As it is, the 1977 version is awash with the neon and primary colours of childhood wonder. It lends itself to the dreamlike tone of the piece, and even the blood from the murders is a bright, almost surreal red. Each murder is an over-the-top theatrical piece of cinema right from the very beginning with Pat and Sonia’s double murder, accompanied by lavish sets and pounding music. This theatricality of tone fits the dance form counterpart of ballet perfectly. Ballet is childhood fantasy pushed to the extreme, the daydream image of ballerinas poised on pointed toes is here depicted with a crack in the perfect picture to show us exactly how many blisters she has on her feet. There is still beauty in the set design and the film as a whole, and there is still beauty in ballet. But the cracks are beginning to show, and the hysterical nature of the story seeps out in the intensity of the balletic training – which at one point causes Suzy to collapse in class – and the hysterically bright colours of every frame of the film. What we can see reflected in the dance style and the colours of the film is this notion of a “fever dream” – it’s so bright, surreal and in many ways, just plain confusing, that we cannot help but to leave feeling as though we have just watched a cinematic interpretation of hysteria.9

Second-wave feminism began in the 1960s and lasted approximately two decades, which means that this film is placed firmly in its latter half and is, therefore, struggling with its criticisms, namely, its lack of intersectionality. This film portrays a lack of female solidarity in the same way that the remake makes it a primary concern. We see this reflected in the competitive nature of the dance school and the childish bullying which takes place in one of the first scenes, when the girls call each other snakes. It is interesting to note that this name-calling immediately refers to the Garden of Eden, wherein the first act of female transgression was committed. So not only are women divided instead of together, but also are so indoctrinated into patriarchal thought that they are policing each other to ensure that none step out of line. What we can see manifested in the style of ballet, however, is the tight constraints put on women during the period of second-wave feminism to be a certain kind of woman. Third-wave feminism (just beginning as this film was made) allowed women to define feminism for themselves and so the definition became broader. But, in the seventies, and in ballet, women had to fit a certain kind of mould to be accepted. They had to be white, young, thin, attractive – and this is a list which goes for both ballet and feminism in the 1970s. The competitive environment and the lack of solidarity which this film depicts also shows how women are more vulnerable since they compete against and feel wary of each other. Suzy is isolated from her classmates in part due to her illness, but in part due to the lack of trust which is cultivated by the competitive spirit which the ballet school stokes and encourages. It is this which is the downfall of Olga and is almost the downfall of Suzy herself. Female solidarity is something which began to be encouraged once feminism became more inclusive and intersectional – so both ballet and the feminist environment at the time of the first version of Suspiria valued women who were not only white, thin, young and attractive, but also isolated, alone and suspicious of each other. 

I could (and may) write a whole other essay about how much it looks like Dakota Fanning has another vulva in her chest in this poster

By contrast, it seems that the remake is what happens to the story of Suspiria when it grows up and realises the grim reality of the world it is exploring. The colours are muted, the deaths are simultaneously exquisite and grotesque and the style of dance this time is Modern. Popularised in the late 19th and early 20th centuries by choreographers such as Pina Bausch, Mary Wigman and Martha Graham, modern dance is brutalist (often bordering on ugly) in style, in contrast with the unattainable feminine perfection of ballet.10 Modern dance is, therefore, the perfect choice for this updated and “grown-up” version of this story. It comes at a turning point in both feminist and dance history, when women were beginning to take charge of their own bodies and, crucially, leading dance schools and choreographing for their own bodies for the first time on such a wide scale. Mary Wigman was a pioneer of female choreography in the 1920s, but it wasn’t until the popularisation of modern dance in the US that we see female choreographers saturating the field of dance in the same way. The decision to utilise this style of dance over the traditional form of ballet reflects perfectly the evolved feminism we find in our society today. The updated style of dance also comes as something of a shock. The first dance move we see (Dakota Fanning as Susie in her audition) is so at odds to the balletic movements depicted in the original film and serves to compliment every aspect of this grim and shocking remake. Her audition is full of harsh lines which attack the studio set, utilising Susie’s strength and command of the space around her. It is creative, unusual and in perfect tandem with her breath – and blows the teachers away. The dance style in the remake and the character of Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton) was said to be inspired by Pina Bausch, Mary Wigman and Sasha Waltz – all of whom are female choreographers from the modern and post-modern dance period who forgo traditional feminine movements in order to create something emotional and radical.

“Modern dance is a turning point… in dance history, when women were beginning to take charge of their own bodies and, crucially, leading dance schools and choreographing for their own bodies for the first time on such a wide scale.”

To equate this style of dance with witchcraft is not much of a stretch. Witchcraft and dance have been interlinked throughout history, often due to the well-known image of a circle of witches dancing naked with the devil during a Black Mass.11 The fear of women’s dance is, in fact, a fear of female bodily autonomy, which is something infinitely more apparent in the freedom (freedom to move, freedom to be ugly or to be anything other than virginal perfection and beauty) of modern dance. As mentioned previously, the title of this essay comes from a dance choreographed by a pioneer of modern expressionist dance, Mary Wigman. Her dance Hexentanz is conducted entirely from a seated position, with the dancer’s limbs grappling wildly onto other body parts and the floor beneath her. All the comments on the YouTube video I watched seem to agree with one thing – this is terrifying. The fear of women’s power in witchcraft is shown here to be a fear of women presenting themselves as anything other than the male gaze’s ideal of beauty, through the bodily autonomy she has gained by dancing in this particular style. What happens when women reject conventional beauty is that they immediately become terrifying. This is something we can see in both the original Suspiria, in the portrayal of Helena Markos as an old hag completely rejecting conventional beauty, but more importantly in the dance style of the remake. Modern dance is so different from anything which came before it that it is viewed as something scary. It is this rejection of beauty and of ballet which gives the witches their power in this updated 2018 version. By literally using the power and intuition found in dance, the coven is able to cast their spells, including murdering those at risk of exposing them and reincarnating Mother Suspiriorum in the body of Susie. Bodily autonomy manifested in the form of modern dance is what gives them this ability. 

“The original Suspiria plays with death in a curious way… like the wide eyes of a cat playing with a mouse.”

The remake directly attacks the naivety of the original, and aside from the obvious changes in the colour palette, we can see this in the way in which the two films handle death. The original Suspiria plays with death in a curious way, full of childlike wonder – like the wide, curious eyes of a cat playing with a mouse. The remake forces us to contemplate the horror of death after the cat has devoured its prey. The deaths in the 2018 remake are simultaneously grotesque and exquisite in their absolute horror. To be more specific, the contrast between the two versions of the scene in which Olga dies allows us to examine the change in tone between the two films. In the original, the scene is filmed from afar with Olga running away from something unspecified. It is a chase ending in her falling into barbed wire, then repeatedly trying and failing to get out of it, which is grotesquely playful. The more she struggles the more entangled she becomes, with freedom always tantalisingly just out of reach. In the remake, there is absolutely no escape from the utter torture and humiliation which Olga is put through as a result of Susie’s dance ritual. We see her face broken, her body contorted, twisted and bruised and the camera doesn’t shy away when she loses hold of her bladder, either. It altogether holds a nightmarish quality, acknowledging the awful events of the original Suspiria and telling them again in a transparently gritty way. This again reflects the feminist attitudes of the film’s contexts. Before the third wave of feminism, there was not a true understanding of the horrors faced by all women – the main criticism of second-wave feminism was that it did not take into account the struggles of women of colour, working-class women, or other such apparently disempowered groups. It is only with the advent of fourth-wave feminism that we have even begun to understand the true breadth of the harm caused to women from all walks of life. The reality of the struggles and fights to get equal rights (ongoing as they may be) are now something which we speak about and wear proudly. We can see from the disturbing and horrifying way in which Olga’s body is broken in the 2018 Suspiria that this version, and therefore our current incarnation of feminism, takes into account the importance of bodily autonomy, since it is her lack of control over her body and the humiliation with which it is taken away which makes this scene so disturbing. I think that this new unveiling and solidarity in the field of feminism is reflected in the choice to tell the story in this way, forgoing the whimsical fairytale nature of the 1977 original.

I change my mind on an hourly basis about whether this photo is the funniest or the creepiest thing I’ve ever seen.

Another aspect of the dancing which differs between the two films is the difference between a ballet school in the first and a dance company in the second. The use of a dance company in the remake plays more upon the idea of a coven since a company requires a lot of teamwork and more solidarity between women than in a ballet school. But this solidarity is not the only way in which the updated version of Suspiria utilises the idea of a coven. A witches’ coven straddles looser boundaries of sexuality whilst still maintaining some semblance of platonic sisterly love, something which we can see explored more in the remake than the original. Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton) kissing each of the girls each morning seems ritualistic. The conversation between her and Susie (Dakota Fanning) when Susie talks about dancing feeling like the equivalent of animal fucking seems at odds with the student-teacher relationship but fits perfectly within the perversion of sisterhood and female friendship which takes place within a coven. Furthermore, the shared nightmares of the students reflect traditional tales and fears of witchcraft, when tribal women were said to share dreams in conjunction with their period cycles. Female connection and empathy have had connections to the mystical throughout time. The more recent version of Suspiria chooses to bring this to the forefront of the tale since it is more of a current topic in third- and fourth-wave feminism – the notion that women need to work together instead of against each other and include women from all walks of life in their feminism. The setting of the dance company and the ensemble nature of “Volk”, the piece that they are working towards, allows Suspiria (2018) to explore this properly, suggesting that the aforementioned rebellion of bodily autonomy is achieved by working together rather than competing for the prima ballerina position in a competitive ballet school. This is something I mentioned previously in the discussion of the original Suspiria. It seems that Suzy’s isolation and pressure to compete in the original leads to a somewhat lacklustre (and pretty lucky) defeat of the witches in the original. In the remake, Susie, who is spurred on by the support and comradery from her fellow students, as well as her need to avenge them, is able to enact a complete demise of the witches and take over the dance company with the help of the spirit of Mother Suspiriorum, who enables her to do this in an empowered way.

Helena Markos is defeated… just about

Suspiria’s (2018) choreographer, Damien Jalet, says of the style that “in the seventies, dance becomes more fluid… It becomes more internal, not visual or just frontal”.12 This quote serves to illustrate perfectly the distinction between the contrasting aims of classical ballet and of modern dance styles. If modern dance is “fluid” and “internal” as Jalet says, ballet is then the opposite, since it reflects attitudes towards femininity which modern dance aimed to completely upturn in its innovative use of the female body to convey emotions rather than surface beauty and perfection, as ballet does. If we take this one step further, we can find the essence of this essay in his statement. Art reflects the society in which it was created, and so we can infer that the role of women in a society which creates ballet is a confined one. Ballet is also a style which is all about making the difficult look effortless and pushing bodies to their extremes. The female body, therefore, had little to no autonomy in traditional ballet practice due to the precision of the exercises and the quest for perfection, which is a microcosm of attitudes from which Western society was only just beginning to move away in the late 1970s. The advent of Modern dance enabled the female body to be freer and rejected the precision of ballet in favour of the expression of movement. By choosing this style of dance over the original’s choice of ballet, we can see that the society from which Suspiria (2018) was born is a society which favours the transgression and bodily autonomy which Modern dance can offer. It is also a society in which the symbol of the witch is being reclaimed as a feminist symbol, by women who are taking years of misogynistic genocide and turning it on its head in the light of protests against sexual harassment in Hollywood and politics (predominantly in the USA but also worldwide).

Before we wrap this essay up, I need to add a little more context, which, unfortunately, somewhat undermine a lot of the hopeful and positive arguments that I have been making about the evolution of feminism. It must be noted that both versions of Suspiria have male directors. The second version also uses a male choreographer. It suggests that there is still work to be done, that there are still tales about women which need to be told by women. There is still plenty of patriarchy left which needs to be challenged and overthrown.

The original Suspiria (1977) reflects a more repressed society where gender inequality is accepted as the norm. It is simultaneously struggling to get to grips with how complex and powerful femininity can be, which is why ballet works so well as an unsettling backdrop to this uncomfortable tale of witchcraft. The remake, Suspiria (2018) reflects a society where women have begun to fight back against this inequality, together as a sisterhood, acknowledging the casualties we suffered along the way. Modern dance will always be the moment where women reclaimed their bodies and moved for themselves in the public eye on a large scale for the first time. It is the perfect dance style to use in a film which illustrates the power of transgressive femininity. If you were to find a circle of witches dancing in the middle of the forest, I like to think they would be performing some of Mary Wigman’s choreography.

#MeToo protesters – taken from the West opinion piece
  1. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/17/opinion/columnists/weinstein-harassment-witchunt.html – Lindy West for the New York Times, accessed 01-08-19.
  2. This essay will focus on the evolution of feminism in a Western context, since it is within this context that gender theory has been documented well enough to have distinct “waves” or sections of progress. It is also within a Western context that the two versions of Suspiria were made. It would therefore be unproductive to look at non-Westernised gender values since these were not what influenced the making of these films, however unfortunate it may be to narrow the focus in this way.
  3. This is a particular aspect of ballet which has come under scrutiny in the past, and in the present day. Ballet, a genre known for its delicate and beautiful (and mostly) female dancers, almost always features a male choreographer. The power politics of this are something which ballet has been criticised for, alongside its rigorous and often damaging training schedule, and the fact that the vast majority of choreography can only be performed by young dancers.
  4. Wigman was one of the three main choreographers to inspire the dance style  in Suspiria (2018). Hexentanz is German for Witches’ Dance and was first performed in 1914 and filmed again in 1926. Watch the dance on YouTube here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AtLSSuFlJ5c&list=PLOCv_qjUrGoGbZ2oYr8zQ-l5–9GpmFxW&index=43&t=0s – Mary Wigman, Hexentanz, accessed 01-08-19.
  5. Faxneld, Per, Satanic Feminism: Lucifer as the Liberator of Woman in Nineteenth-Century Culture (United States of America: Oxford University Press, 2017), pp. 242-245.
  6. For a full synopsis – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Giselle, accessed 01-08-19.
  7.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fever_Dream, accessed 07-08-19.
  8. https://www.vulture.com/2018/10/suspiria-screenwriter-put-its-witches-in-charge.html – David Kajganich interview for Vulture (Hunter Harris), accessed 01-08-19.
  9. Kajganich, for Vulture.
  10. It is speculated that modern dance specifically arose as a rejection of balletic technique, but this is not confirmed.
  11. There is next to no evidence that any women accused of witchcraft were ever actually found dancing naked in the woods, however. I like to think that they were just sneaky about it.
  12. Damien Jalet, quoted from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iDEmE3d9BN8, accessed 08-08-19.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *