Film History Essentials: Annabelle Serpentine Dance (1895)

What it’s about:

Annabelle Moore performs a dance in a flowing dress, twirling and swinging the fabric to create a hypnotic pattern, and then prancing in a circle with the costume spread like wings behind her.

Why it’s essential:

A Chicago native, Annabelle, like several of the earliest Edison kinetoscope performers, made her name in America at the Chicago World’s Fair. However, at barely 15, she was certainly the youngest of that group. Born Annabelle Whitford, she would later go by Annabelle Moore, but she was often billed only as “Peerless Annabelle.” Like Cher, Madonna, or Beyoncé, she was widely-known by her first name alone. She is likely only 16 in this film, shot in the summer of 1895, but she was already a familiar face at the Black Maria studio, and this is her 5th or 6th appearance before the kinetograph.

All of her films include her name and the name of the dance she is performing for the 15-20 second standard kinetoscope runtime. None of them particularly stands out from the others, except (for obvious reasons) this one. The third of her four filmed “serpentine dances” is in glorious, hand-tinted color. Her dress is all yellows and oranges at the beginning and the end, with flashes of crimson appearing here and there, and changes in the middle to a striking lavender. Each print of this film that went out would have been painstakingly colored by hand, one image at a time, for all 45-50 feet of film. There are some indications that this may not have been the first film to apply this process, but as far as we know, it is the oldest surviving example of a live-action film with color.

At first glance, it may seem as though this is also an early example of a film employing a visual effect that could not be reproduced in a live performance. After all, a dress would not change colors on-stage before the audiences’ eyes, right? The serpentine dance, it turns out, was developed in 1891 by actress, dancer, and choreographer Loie Fuller (see right). Fuller developed her own system of multi-colored stage lighting that not only made the billowing fabric seem to change color, it also reportedly produced effects that suggested the appearance of flames, flowers, and other images from nature.

Annabelle was one of many popular imitators of Fuller’s signature dance, and when Fuller failed to get the legal or artistic recognition for her creation that she deserved, she departed to tour in Europe. She eventually settled in Paris, where she continued to develop the serpentine technique as well as many other celebrated dances. Meanwhile, the serpentine dance remained hugely popular, and was featured in a few dozen film throughout the next decade and beyond.

As for Annabelle herself, I’ve seen it suggested that the popularity of her films was due to her involvement in a headline-grabbing sex scandal late in 1896. In brief, one of P. T. Barnum’s grandsons attempted to hire her to dance nude at his brother’s bachelor party, and her scandalized agent (who was also her stepfather) reported the party to the police. The police raided the restaurant where this debauched event was taking place, which led to a highly-publicized court case that pitted the attendees’ right to privacy against moral policing standards of the day. (Curious about the outcome? Recall that the defendants were rich and well-connected.)

So, did Annabelle enjoy a sudden surge in popularity because everyone wanted to get a look at the girl who turned down this notorious proposition? It’s possible. But as I said above, by this time Annabelle had already done multiple versions of both the butterfly dance and serpentine dance films, which implies that they were already among the most popular of the kinetoscope’s early films. In fact, she no longer appeared in any new films after 1897, though she continued to enjoy an illustrious career on the stage until her marriage in 1910.

Why you should see it:

Annabelle’s dances, at least those that appear on film, seem to rely more on her energy and charisma than any real technique or skill. I’m no expert on dance, certainly, and all of these examples are, of course, quite short. The style that is on display here is perfectly well-suited to the novelty of early motion pictures, and clearly audiences loved her. However, the contrast between this and other recorded serpentine dances of the era is striking, as we will see. Still, there is something to being the first (on film), and the addition of color makes this something truly special.


~ by Jared on February 7, 2023.

3 Responses to “Film History Essentials: Annabelle Serpentine Dance (1895)”

  1. […] York City that was raided by police. The party was reported to police by the step-father of dancer Annabelle Moore, who had been approached with the same proposition. The name was subsequently adopted by a number […]


  2. […] of this film as a “more oblique [way] of displaying female sexuality,” in contrast with serpentine dances, the coochee-coochee, or even kissing. As tame as it appears now, a scene of girls frolicking in […]


  3. […] these years, it is particularly notable for its use of color, reminiscent of the hand-tinting on Annabelle Serpentine Dance. Here, however, both the coloring and the dance are more sophisticated. It is much more evident […]


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