tall and slender and supple as a snake

It is night, the date is the 13th of March, the year is 1905. This moment marks the end of Margreet Zelle and the beginning of Mata Hari, the world-famous Oriental dancer who danced barefoot and cast off her veils to the sounds of Javanese music for select audiences. The place: the Musée Guimet of Asian Art in Paris.

Musee Guimet

Newspapers gushed with praise. ‘She’s tall and slender and supple as a snake. Her outstretched arms seem to raise her to the utmost point of her toes. The emotions evoked by the artist are intoxicating.’ Such reviews were not to be sniffed at, certainly not if you’d just made your debut.

She became the talk of the town and her performances in major theatres in Europe enraptured thousands of people. But the question every writer or journalist asks is whether she could actually dance. ‘No idea’, would be the best answer. No footage of Mata Hari dancing exists, only still images. She would in all likelihood have been eliminated for poor technique in the first round of a TV show like So you think you can dance. But she more than compensated for this shortcoming with her appearance, her sensuality and her nudity, even though she often wore a flesh-coloured leotard.

She herself was quite ambiguous about this. She was quite aware that people wanted to see an elegant and artistically inclined striptease, but on the other hand she also wanted the dance world to take her seriously.

‘I cannot dance well at all. The people came to look at me because I was the first one brave enough to appear naked in front of an audience,’ she said to a friend. At the same time she did her utmost to be accepted by Serge Diaghilev, the world-renowned leader of the Ballets Russes dance company in Paris. She practiced hard, but he thought her a mediocre dancer and insulted her by demanding that she strip (something they both knew she was good at but would never do in a piece by him). End of story. She approached him again (and again), especially when her career was waning. His answer was always the same: ‘No’.

In the artist’s world of gossip and jealousy, there were enough people who wanted to see her fail. A leading stage critic, with whom she had fallen out, called her a dancer who had more to do with the international underworld than with holy dancers from Indian temples.

With Inayat Kahn

Misia Sert, a Polish/Russian pianist who played a major role in the Parisian world of art and culture – inspiring greats like Stravinsky and Picasso – recounted how she was invited to a private performance. ‘In a bedroom oozing despondency, four little turbaned Indians squatted on the floor strumming their guitars, plucking desperately on their strings. And she was just an ordinary nightclub dancer. The whole thing was distressing, pathetic and quite distasteful.’ Sert omits to tell us that the orchestra was not some motley crew, but was led by Indian religious leader Inayat Kahn, the founder of the Sufi movement in the West.

Time has done its work. Nowadays, not much attention is paid to her dancing abilities. ‘She had a strong spirit, she was creative, and innovative, and she expressed all that power through her dancing. That’s why I admire her.’ said principal dancer Anna Tsygankova last year, when I wrote an article about the National Ballet’s production Mata Hari, in which she danced the title role.

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For the National Ballet’s artistic leader Ted Brandsen one thing is glaringly clear: ‘She wasn’t a trained dancer, but a big star who constantly renewed herself, and she was really good at it.’

Mata Hari has a special advocate in belly dancer Raniya from Haarlem. I encountered her as Mata Hari on Facebook, after her performance at the presentation of a new book by Paulo Coelho, The Spy. She created a beautiful Mata Hari outfit with a Russian costume designer, and using photographs as a source, has reconstructed two of Mata Hari’s dances, which she performs regularly.

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Raniya: ‘I see her as someone who introduced modern dance to Europe. That she does not appear in dance books has everything to do with the fact that her art has been overshadowed by the spying story. She was a flawed, tainted woman. But she has been copied a lot and has inspired others. What she did was original, it wasn’t a Javanese dance, it was a hybrid of her own invention, which included belly dancing.’

In September 1914 Mata Hari performed several times at the Metropol Theater in Berlin. But the war ruined everything. Her career as a dancer was over.