Thursday, 8 March 2012

What would Florence Foster Jenkins do?

Florence in a costume she designed herself and called 'The Angel of Inspiration'.
Back on Episode 48 of the Yip Podcast, this blog got a bit of a shout-out, which was awesome. And then Tammy and Mary mentioned my username, 'The Raqasa' (a corruption of the Arabic for 'dancer'), which sounds 'very mysterious'. It is mysterious, because I am not a natural born dancer. And this blog was originally going to be called 'The Accidental Dancer', because I got into raqs by accident, but then I realised a pun about being a Westerner learning an Eastern dance style was irresistable and I loves me some pun.

Anything I am able to do with my body is hard-won and the result of considerable effort and concentration. This is why I do not smile in class and often look as though I am heroically soldiering on despite suffering from an agonising intestinal complaint. Cannot. Emote. Must...Focus.

I do not have an innate sense of rhythm. I am not at all flexible. I lack inherent grace and fluidity of movement. Musicality? Forget it. You can practically see my lips moving while I count the beat. My posture requires constant tweaking. Turn right now or left? And was that with a hip twist or a shoulder shimmy? I can't remember. About the only thing I have going for me is a good sense of balance. Whoop-de-shit.

Teacher, dear, I know I'm not smiling. You wouldn't be smiling either if you were working with this shoddy equipment.

This painful awareness of my numerous limitations was present when I went to my first belly dance class, and it has only grown with time. Even now I am surprised that I am still going to classes all these years after I first walked into Tamara Allerhand’s studio and warmed up to The Macarena (A-hai!). About every six months or so, I think, “Screw this. I’ll never be any good at this. Dammit, I'll never be halfway good at this. I’m going to quit and spend all the money I’ll save on not going to classes, workshops and haflas on revamping my shabby work wardrobe and getting decent hair cuts.”

Then a little voice, as quiet as the Queen's fart, murmurs, "What would Florence Foster Jenkins do?"
The answer is as clear as it is inexplicable: Florence would never have questioned her right to perform for a moment.

If Florence Foster Jenkins (19 July 1868 - 26 November 1944) had been a belly dancer, she would have been out teaching and performing and signing up for competitions after her very first class. Hell, what am I saying? Classes? Florence had no need for stinking classes. Nor did she have need for the terms "self-doubt", "being realistic", "room for improvement" and "accurately judging the response of an audience". Florence's given first name was actually Narcissa, and by god did she live up to it. Or, indeed, down to it. Florence lives on in infamy as The Worst Soprano Who Ever Lived, Or Shall Live, From Now Until The End Of Time Amen.

Florence did not just butcher some of the most beautiful music ever written: she hog-tied it, blindfolded it, drove it around in the back of a white van with tinted windows and then parked in a lonely, out-of-the-way spot and inflicted unspeakable indignities upon it before cutting it up into little pieces and distributing it like confetti along long stretches of a deserted highway. To call Florence 'deeply untalented' and 'pitch averse' (as she has been) is a woeful understatement. Those guys from Milli Vanilli were deeply untalented and pitch averse - Florence was aural napalm.

And yet, the best part of 70 years after her death, you can still buy recordings of Florence Foster Jenkins (David Bowie collects them). Florence was able to create this enduring cult around herself thanks to her epic delusions of grandeur and her access to huge amounts of money that she never had to go out and actually earn. If you want to be technical, sociologists now call fame earned in this manner the "Kardashian Effect".

Born into the upper echelons of New York society, Florence was by all accounts spoiled, monstrously vain, deranged, selfish and stubborn. When her father refused to pay for her to go on a musical tour of Europe, she simply eloped with a man who would fund her ambitions. She divorced him once he'd served his purpose and resorted to working as a teacher and pianist, until her father did her the great favour of dying and leaving her a packet. From then on, there was no stopping her. Her mother's death in 1928 provided a welcome top-up to Florence's performance kitty - understandably, she hired her own venues. Like the Ritz-Carlton ballroom. In an act of jaw-dropping hubris, Florence out-did herself and hired Carnegie Fucking Hall for her farewell show. That would be Carnegie Hall in New York, then. The show sold out weeks in advance, so great was the curiosity whipped up by the carefully worded reviews her previous outings had attracted.

The audience came to laugh, but utterly convinced of her own greatness Florence heard only the bitchy titterings of the jealous and talentless. Of course Florence was aware that she attracted pretty negative reviews - she just didn't care. Florence coined my favourite quote, and one I often apply to my own dancing: "People may say I can't sing, but no one can ever say I didn't sing." There's no answer to that. Hence - "The Raqasa". I'm not a great dancer, or a good one, but I am a dancer. I make no claims beyond that.

Some of Florence's listeners heard more than 'a cuckoo in its cups': behind the screeching, gasping and flat out screaming that characterised a typical Foster Jenkins recital, they detected what the French call joie de vivre (a love of life) and the Italians call il sacro fuoco (the sacred fire). Perhaps there were simply no words in the English language to accurately describe what it was like to sit in front of Florence for an hour or more while she belted through her repertoire. Or perhaps it was the only way to say that Florence had something better than talent. She had happiness.

Florence is my dance hero, not because she was a dancer, but because she reminds me that it's not always about being the best. I've seen a few Florence Foster Jekins-esque type dancers in my time, and while they could technically be better dancers and give the occasional clue that they know they're in front of an audience, they always at least look like happy dancers. And sometimes that's all it's about - being happy. Thanks, Flo.

Now, if you can bear it, here's a clip of Florence's most notorious recorded insult to the work of Mozart, her rendition of Der Hölle Rache (The Queen of the Night Aria), as illustrated with LOLCats:

Bear in mind that her accompanist, who rejoiced in the name Cosme McMoon, used to pull faces behind her back while she sang. Unlike Florence, McMoon knew that he was not a great pianist, and (allegedly) topped up his earnings from music by running a brothel-type operation from a Manhattan gym. Body builders there were paid for sexual favours, which makes the fact that he was once photographed with Arnold Schwarzenegger all the more interesting.

Now it's your turn. If you have any unlikely heroes and heroines who inspire your dancing, why not tell us about them in the comments?


  1. She's amazing. I would have loved to spend an evening drinking with her. As a dancer of limited skill I can get behind the idea of being mediocre and confident rather than great and neurotic.

  2. 'Florence did not just butcher some of the most beautiful music ever written: she hog-tied it, blindfolded it, drove it around in the back of a white van with tinted windows and then parked in a lonely, out-of-the-way spot and inflicted unspeakable indignities upon it before cutting it up into little pieces and distributing it like confetti along long stretches of a deserted highway.'

    This made me laugh so hard I frightened the dog. Next time you are assailed with doubts about your skill as a dancer, please bear in mind that you could make a brilliant living as a compère- I would kill to have you introducing me!

    Incidentally, I've just played the clip, and the dog has now left the room. Guess he doesn't admire Florence's indomitable nature.

  3. I have a certain admiration for Grigori Rasputin (an enthusiastic dancer, among other things...). For a peasant from the middle of nowhere, he got a pretty long way on sheer audacity, and a complete lack of regard for public opinion or social mores. Admittedly things didn't end too well for him though...

  4. @Anonymous: An evening drinking with Florence would have been fantastic. I'm guessing she would've made easy company - just sit back and let her talk!

    @Lilith: Thank you so much, and sorry about scaring your dog! I would be honoured to compere for you any time, provided your audience could cope with my "Nu Zillund" accent. I am also available for weddings and bar mitzvahs.

    @Rachael: Grigory Rasputin. That' Rasputin. I once read that, after his death, his daughter Maria kept his penis in a velvet-lined box on her mantelpiece. Given the way his body was treated I doubt this is true, though Maria herself was certainly remarkable. Weirdly, given the context in which we're talking about her, she was a cabaret dancer in Romania and a circus performer in America! She was once mauled by a bear in Indiana. Does she qualify for her own post on this blog?!