Dancing in 1920s Germany

Did Isadora Duncan set the stage for the cabaret culture you see in Babylon Berlin?

Andrew Rickard
3 min readOct 12, 2023

In A Moral History of the Inflation, Hans Ostwald (1873–1940) describes the the craze for nude dancing, and dancing in general, that swept over Germany in the 1920s. In this excerpt from my translation of the book (favourably reviewed in the Times Literary Supplement a little while ago), he credits Isadora Duncan (1877–1927) with paving the way for a more informal style of dance:

Nude dancers were a common sight during the post-war period, appearing mostly in cabarets and nightclubs as well as in revue performances at the big theatres. Most of the time, however, they were not completely undressed — they wore small, decorative veils. But since they usually only covered their breasts and groin, they looked as if they were nude when compared to the ballet dancers who had preceded them.

They emphasized their nudity for aesthetic reasons. They simply wished pay hommage to the ideal of the beautiful female body; they only wanted to make an impression with the unadorned and unspoiled lines of the female form. Of course, not all of the audience members were there for aesthetic reasons, but they never transgressed the rules of decency and they certainly learned about aesthetic contemplation.

Nude dancing was widespread — in every cabaret, in all of the better dance halls, in every bar that also offered music and entertainment to its customers, one could find nude dancers who performed on their own or in groups. This mass phenomenon could only have come about after the war. A growing lust for life had reared up after the resulting misery, and an overall increase in freedom favoured the trend.

It had its roots in the prewar period. Around 1900, the American Isadora Duncan came to Berlin and first demonstrated her new dances to German artists. They contained none of the elements of what previous centuries considered to be artistic dance. There was no pointe technique, nor anything else reminiscent of usual, traditional ballet — instead there were jumps, strides, glides, and movements that had their origins in ancient Greek vase paintings. Even the ballet dancer’s patterned clothing, with a billowing tutu around the middle, the legs in tights, and the upper body sheathed in a bodice — all these disappeared. Instead there were loose, veil-like garments that allowed all of the body’s supple movements and limbs to be seen. There were no more tights or ballet shoes. There was an impulse towards a newer, more unrestrained beauty and it had won its first victory — to a considerable extent it had succeeded because people were more inclined to prefer what was natural, and were increasingly averse to ossified and empty tradition.

If you are interested in what Germany was like during the Weimar Republic and the Babylon Berlin era, click here to read a preview of the book, watch a video about it, or buy a copy.

At the moment I have a few copies with text on the spine that is a little off centre (the interior is fine). I am selling them for 25% off. Use the discount code IMPERFECT at checkout. You won’t find it cheaper anywhere else!

Isadora Duncan on the cover of Jugend magazine (1902), by Friedrich August von Kaulbach