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A Brief History of Delsarte

The Delsarte System of Expression - Lost in History by Joe Williams

Francois Delsarte sketch

To those who have heard of Francois Delsarte, and his System of Expression, the name Delsarte generally calls forth images of dramatic poses to simulate human emotions, the likes of which are associated with old-fashioned melodrama, and ridiculous silent film performances. If remembered at all, it is usually as a subject of ridicule at worst and historical curiosity at best. Yet it is the historically acknowledged source of the inspiration of Isadora Duncan, Ruth St. Dennis, and the entire Dennishawn School, which included students Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey and Charles Weidman,and thereby, the entire first and second generations of modern dancers. It was studied by Rudolph von Laban,

and taught by F. Mathias Alexander, before they each developed their own methods. It was the method used to establish the first acting school in America. Delsarteʼs work was praised by some of the greatest minds of the day, from scientists, to religious scholars, musicians, and artists. Even renowned yogis mentioned it with the greatest respect.


What were Delsarte's real teachings, and how can they have been so influential, yet arrive at  complete artistic and social obliteration?

Francois Delsarte (1811-1871) was a student at the Paris Conservatory, who, unsatisfied with the entirely subjective and posed style of acting taught at the Conservatory, (his singing voice, he believed, had been ruined in previous years by the music department), began an intensive study of how humans actually moved, behaved and responded to a multitude of circumstances. He studied in parks, cafes, hospital wards, churches, mortuaries, and even scenes of disasters. He also studied anatomical medicine. Eventually expressive patterns emerged that he could clearly observe. His “Science of Applied Aesthetics” was a thorough examination of voice, breath, movement dynamics, line and form, and virtually all the elements of the body in their roles as expressive agents of the human impulses, mind, spirit, and vital instinct. His lectures were attended by the most famous people of his era. It seemed a window into the deeper mysteries of art had been opened. Contemporary thought might recognize that he had uncovered the world of archetypes, and universal symbolism, but modern psychological theory was not to arrive for many more years.

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In 1871, Steele Mackaye, an American student, and a designated protege of Delsarte,  brought the work to the US, and the popularity of the material exploded not only with artists, but in all levels of the culture. Twenty years later, society salons, cultural clubs, public and private schools, seminaries, era all flooded with "Delsarte." This explosion was eventually to bring about the death of the original system even as its brief blooming opened a portal for the modern era of art and culture.


Unfortunately, Delsarte himself did not write a book. He died with plans underway. Mackaye, to whom he passed on his research and papers, who probably expounded upon it to develop a teaching method and exercises, did not write a book, although he had intended an eight-volume treatise. In 1885, Genevieve Stebbins wrote a thorough book, The Delsarte System of Expression, combining theory and exercises. She was a particularly gifted student of Mackayeʼs and,  among other things, arguably the true holder of the title “First Modern Dancer”, usually ascribed to Isadora Duncan, or Ruth St. Dennis. At last the method was in print! BUT, the immense popularity of the subject had reached a virtual frenzy, and eager to meet that hunger, and also to reap the financial benefits of it, books by less studious/scrupulous D“elsartians” filled the stores. Anyone who had attended a lecture, or class, or read a book could insure their success by attaching the word “Delsarte” to their product, book or program. Special clothes for practicing “Delsarte” were being developed and sold. Designers could come to help you decorate your home, and plan your wardrobe for the best and most harmonious “Delsartian” aesthetic. Nearly every town in the country had a Delsarte club. Money was exchanging hands everywhere. I personally own two pieces of “Delsarte” silver-plate flatware, and a 1904 receipt for a pair of “Delsarte” shoes. A contemporary parallel might be seen in the popularity of yoga in major US cities now. Special yoga clothes, yoga travel kits, yoga tarot cards, designer bags to carry a designer yoga mat, classes whose names might raise the eyebrows of a traditional yogi- Disco Yoga, Salsa Yoga, Yoga Boot Camp, and the ever popular Hot Nude Yoga all abound in New York today.

By 1891, the “Delsarte” practiced across America had already become identified with the poses taught by the lesser teachers. This false fashion of practice was rightly tossed into the trash later when the hunger for more “realistic” acting was awakened again, as it once had been with Delsarte himself. Unfortunately, along with the trash, the real principles of Delsarteʼs system, as passed on to Mackaye and then Stebbins, and out into the very first schools of dance and drama were also discarded. The name of Francois Delsarte, appeared irretrievably connected to work that neither he nor any of his true followers had created.

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Delsarteʼs nine principles of gesture, his law of correspondence between inner experience and physical manifestation, his description of the symbolic nature of straight lines, curves, spirals diagonals, angles, parallel and sequential movements, and their relationship to human awareness are as artistically valid as they were when he first began defining them more than one hundred fifty years ago. His analysis of the body and its agents of expression resonate a profound truth, and are a powerful tool for developing body awareness for any number of ends. Delsarteʼs understanding of humanity could be held as a lofty goal for any artist who aspires to honestly communicate the passions of life. His theories are far too many to explain in this short overview, but hopefully this serves as an introduction and stimulates more curiosity about this valuable science of human nature.

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