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  • Sue Devick

The Deeply Human Side of Loie Fuller (1862-1928)

Updated: Feb 12

Loie Fuller's rise to stardom as the most famous dancer in the world took a sharp upward turn in 1892 in Paris, a center for artists and intellectuals at the time. Loie, born in the Illinois frontier village of Fullersburg in 1862, found as a young adult that American audiences lacked enthusiasm for her modern dance style. In France, however, she immediately became a significant force in the Art Nouveau movement. In fact, her innovative lighting, costumes, and stage designs are still appreciated by top performers such as Time Magazine's 2023 Person of the Year, Taylor Swift. Loie's glamorous image as a dancer and choreographer can overshadow her deeply human qualities that are also worthy of attention, however.

Historians and authors usually focus on Loie's adult years, which were spent in France, often in the company of others who were also in the public spotlight. Liz Heinecke's book Radiant relates the story of Loie and her enduring friendship with scientist Marie Curie, whose work with radiation intrigued Loie due to her interest in light and its effect on her costumes. Ms. Heinecke writes that Loie often stated that she was born in America, but was made in France. Loie learned French and established close connections with very diverse people; besides Madam Curie, she established friendships with novelist Alexandre Dumas, actress Sarah Bernhardt, sculptor Auguste Rodin, Queen Marie of Romania, and the French poet Anatole France, who knew her well. Anatole wrote the introduction to Loie's memoir Fifteen Years of a Dancer's Life, in which he discussed Loie's manner of relating to people of all walks of life, observing that while she found goodness and beauty in humble people, she also entered "easily into the lives of artists and scholars." She displayed empathy toward people that she met casually as well as those she knew well, which attracted others to her.

In Loie Fuller, Goddess of Light, authors Richard and Marcia Current describe other traits that also reveal Loie's essence. "Generous, kindhearted, she not only took loving care of her old mama but also looked out for strangers and strays that came her way." They note that she provided a weekly dinner for a blind musician, and that her benevolence was extended to a stray dog she adopted. She also did not endanger horses, refusing to allow them to carry her on cobblestone streets that had become icy. These actions took place in private settings rather than public, indicating that her consideration and generosity were sincere reflections of her identity.

Loie was bright and had exceptional recollection skills, which were displayed at a very young age when she publicly recited a poem that she had only heard once. Loie writes in her memoir, "I have always had a wonderful memory. I have proved it repeatedly by unexpectedly taking parts of which I did not know a word the day before the first performance." Her friend Anatole also observes about her, "As regards understanding? Comprehension? She is marvellously intelligent. I have heard her employ a very comprehensive vocabulary in discussing the various subjects of astronomy, chemistry, and physiology. But it is the unconscious in her that counts. She is an artist."

Loie's ability to learn and to retain information contributed to her ability to communicate with others on a variety of topics, thereby strengthening her relationships.

Loie's spirituality and religious nature were also private aspects of her character that arose in conversations with close friends such as Anatole. He writes, "This brilliant artist is revealed as a woman of just and delicate sensibility, endowed with a marvellous (sic) perception of spiritual values." He learned first hand about Loie's Protestant eduction and states that she was "profoundly religious, with a very acute spirit of inquiry and a perpetual anxiety about human destiny." He describes her as having a good mind and heart as well as having a very deep and noble soul, qualities that were not evident while she was dancing her trademark Serpentine dance.

How did Loie develop aspects of her inner self such as empathy toward others, kindness, and

generosity? Was she born an avid student of life, and what caused her to be spiritually oriented and religious? Were aspects of Loie's character shaped in her childhood in Illinois, long before her debut as a dancer in Paris? A historical review of Loie's younger years reveals that this is likely to be the case; it is also possible that she did not realize the extent of the influence of her birthplace and early childhood, as she thought that she was "made in France."

In her memoir, Loie describes the warm hospitality of her hometown of Fullersburg when she was born under frigid weather conditions on January 15, 1862. Her parents, Reuben and Delilah Fuller, were given the private use of the village's tavern at the Castle Inn when Loie was about to enter the world, as their farmhouse could not be adequately heated. The inn had a very warm stove, and Loie was born close to it, but notes that freezing conditions prevailed just beyond the stove's range of heat. The family than stayed in the main room of the inn for a month; Loie notes in her memoir, "We had inflicted considerable hardship upon the villagers, who were deprived of their entertainment for more than four weeks." Lois states that the population of Fullersburg "was composed almost exclusively of cousins and kinsmen," so she was immediately surrounded by the extended Fuller clan and friends of the family who encouraged Delilah and Reuben to bring her to social outings they were invited to attend. (Reuben had eleven siblings, one of whom was the founder of Fullersburg; their full participation in the settlement is documented in The Fullers of Fullersburg and the Fullersburg Chronicles, found in the Sources section of this website.)

It is likely that Loie absorbed the family values and warmth of this community, either through her

personal observation or through her mother, whose recollections were mentioned by Loie in her memoir.

When Reuben and Delilah lived in Fullersburg, it was a progressive and thriving community, and its citizens appreciated education and intellectual growth. An organization entitled the Brush Hill Debate Club existed for educational purposes; the settlement of Brush Hill became Fullersburg, and its journal contains notes of the club's meetings from 1857-59. (This journal is in the possession of Fullersburg Historic Foundation, whose president, Don Fuller, recovered it in 2020; see "Journal," above.) Reuben participated in this group, which formally discussed contemporary social issues such as the comparison of the status of American Indians and African American slaves. Some residents of Fullersburg were closely associated with the Underground Railroad, assisting escaped slaves as they sought freedom before and during the Civil War (1861-65). John Coe, who married Reuben's sister, Harriet Fuller, was active in this secret network. Reuben's brother, Morell, was a musician and soldier in the Union Army, and he fought in several battles before returning to Fullrsburg and starting a family. Loie was born during the war, and it is likely that during this turbulent era, she absorbed sensitivity due to her parents and extended family's empathy and social awareness.

In her memoir, Loie also describes her parents' custom of going to the Chicago Progressive Lyceum on Sundays, where ideas were formally presented and discussed. Loie's parents moved from Fullersburg to Chicago (a distance of about sixteen miles), where she demonstrated her own stage presence at a young age, spontaneously reciting a prayer and a poem that she had only heard once at the Lyceum. Loie's sharp memory and listening skills were remarkable and remained with her as an adult. Anatole France writes about her "marvelous intelligence" and ability to converse on many topics, stating, "I have heard her say the most delicate, the subtlest things about Curie, Madam Curie, Auguste Rodin and other geniuses. She has formulated, without desiring to do so, and perhaps without knowing it, a considerable theory of human knowledge and philosophy of art." She was an avid learner throughout her entire life.

Anatole was particularly impressed by Loie's spiritual and religious nature, which can probably be attributed to her mother, Delilah Fuller, with whom she had an exceptionally close relationship. In her memoir, Loie wrote that when her mother heard that she had recited a prayer for the audience at the Lyceum, she said, "Oh, I know. It is the prayer she says every evening when I put her to bed." Delilah is likely to have been the source of Loie's faith, as she evidently taught her daughter a bedtime prayer and listened to her repeat it every night. Loie's religious training was a significant

factor in the formation of her character, and this began with Delilah teaching her to pray as a young child.

How did Loie's deeply human traits contribute to her success as a dancer? She was very expressive with her eyes, gestures, and choreography. She extended an enormous amount of energy when she performed; she then received affirmation from her admirers, who appear to have responded to her humanity. Her unique inner qualities can be easily connected to her hometown of Fullersburg, which also demonstrated a good heart and a noble soul, as exemplified by its social awareness (as documented in the debate club journal),

and its participation in the Underground Railroad.

The pioneer village where Loie was born provides a significant contrast to Paris, also known as the City of Lights. Loie's humble beginnings here may have impacted her provide a significant contrast to her adult years as a famous star in the City of Lights, Paris. Although we cannot analyze all aspects of this complex remarkable woman, we know that she was surrounded by love when she entered the world as well as when she departed, but on different continents and in different centuries. The somewhat abstract nature of human love is difficult to trace In addition to being at one time the world's most famous dancer, she was also exhibited deeply human qualities, perpetuating her stardom.

Sue Devick, M.A.

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