I was intrigued by a reference to “Mrs Bagot Stack’s Women’s League of Health & Beauty” in Clement Crisp’s exsibilating review in yesterday’s Financial Times of Michael Clark’s th in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern. (Update 2021: Those last few words used to be linked to an online version of the review, but it’s offline now so here are the relevant words):
There arrives the legion of amateur dancers outfitted in hapless black tunics. They intermittently, and forgive the word, unitedly present those callisthenics and small phrases of activity that Clark has ordained for them. (Shades less of the massed dance choirs that attended the Nazi’s Olympic rally than of Mrs Bagot Stack and her Women’s League of Health and Beauty.
As recondite as it sounds, the league, albeit after several changed names until the current Fitness League, is still going. The figures are extraordinary – in 1936, the league had 166,000 members in the UK alone. This is well over ten times the current worldwide membership of the organization I work[ed] for, the Royal Academy of Dance.
As I’m currently writing a PhD proposal, and my topic is broadly speaking the way that dance teachers and dance teacher educationalists use music in dance teaching, I was fascinated by a comment by Prunella Stack in an interview in 2005 on the 75th anniversary of the league:
She cites music’s role in appealing to the “higher senses”. “Aerobics is rather mechanical and is not influenced by music, unlike our system where it is terribly important,” she says. “This artistic element is what really releases people.”
As philosophical statements about music go, that’s pretty straight-down-the-line and clear. I’d love to read that in a brochure for a ballet school, but in so much dance training, music is used as a tool for attaining technique, or to distract from effort. It’s just another technology. The more I read about Prunella Bagot-Stack and The Women’s League of Health and Beauty, the less I think that Michael Clark should be offended by the comparison, not that I should think he cares two hoots what Clement Crisp thinks, though, on reflection.
Rob Baker’s excellent blog post article about the meeting of Prunella Stack and the German Gertrud Scholtz-Klink in 1939 makes uncomfortable reading, given that the meeting occurred just a few weeks after Kristallnacht, but from my limited knowledge, I think any apparent affinities are unfortunate rather than elective. The similarities fade away on examination anyway—the League was a private enterprise, not a government organization. As I add this final paragraph in 2021, I hope that bundling the League, Nazis and an independent choreographer into the same review for laughs will look oh so 2011.
- Telegraph Obituary of Prunella Stack