Fanny Elssler’s Slipper

The performance has caused a seismic shift to your internal landscape, lifting stratum upon stratum of long-buried emotion, and at this moment, your heart which—as recently as the pre-show cocktail hour—rested quietly in a tranquil plain, has been thrust upward and outward, lifting your soul and your corporeal self toward the glittering tracery ceiling, the sky, the heavens! The performance has changed you. You stand.

Or:

The performance has entertained you, very much. It’s been a tough week, the boss was unreasonable, the kids were a pain, and as you bent over to fasten your shoes just before heading out the door, blackness clouded your vision for the second or third time this week and you started thinking stroke? But for the past two hours, you forgot the high insurance deductible and the track meet that will eat up the whole day tomorrow and the bonus you didn’t get, and you enjoyed a good, hearty chuckle. But now, as the curtain descends, you notice that your left foot has gone to sleep—stroke?—so you stand, shaking it until the tingling stops.

Or:

The performance? Meh. The company? Is there a superlative of that adjective? Could your companion be the meh-est, the most meh companion with whom you’ve ever wasted a precious evening of your life? It was hard to focus on the show, what with the whispered running commentary, delivered in a murky cloud of halitosis that prompted you to shift in your seat until you heard the irritated tsk! of the lady behind you. You had considered claiming that you had a headache during intermission and ducking out, until you realized that you never did download that Uber app or learn to use it. Before the first pair of audience palms have made contact, you are already struggling into your coat, tucking the program into your pocket. But you have dropped a glove, so you stand, poking around beneath the seat with your toe. And, feeling the peer pressure, hundreds of other glove-losers stand with you until the house lights are mercifully illuminated.

Fortunately, it’s all the same to the gratified, humbled and teary-eyed diva, who sweeps into a low, low curtsy, hand over heart.

Napoleon Sarony, “Fanny Elssler,” lithograph by Nathaniel Currier c1840. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of Monroe H. Fabian

I cannot remember the last time I sat at the end of a concert or play. Judging by the audience response, every one of the dozens and dozens of performances I’ve witnessed has managed to reach the very summit of perfection. We have all risen to our feet more or less enthusiastically—all but a couple of purists who clap stiffly and lean toward the ear of their neighbor to comment for the umpteenth time about how devalued the standing ovation has become. Their fannies remain glued to the velveteen upholstery on principle.

There’s been a lot of talk about standing lately, and I will admit I have personally been flummoxed. I was born into a religio-cultural tradition that places a lot of significance on posture, in which changes to the norms—kneel after communion? stand? sit?—can prompt controversy and an ugly, creeping proliferation of puritanism. When you add to posture the element of applause, the situation gets even more sticky.

Do we require a referendum on applause, a protocol for posture? Should we all agree on some basic standards? Since in our flawed democracy, we cannot trust these things to individual choice, must we produce a pocket-size guide outlining the proper stance and response for given conditions, along with the penalties for failing to conform? Or are we obliged to follow the sweeping arm of the performer-turned-conductor who demands and directs the response, like Harvey Fierstein at the end of Torch Song Trilogy?

My own fervent wish is that—rather than imposing pressure on each other about the proper way to stand, sit, kneel, or applaud—we encourage more creative responses to inputs. Legend has it that when Austrian ballerina Fanny Ellsler danced before Martin Van Buren in 1840, members of Congress were so thrilled that they insisted upon drinking a toast from her pointe shoe. Now wouldn’t such a spontaneous compliment—offered, of course, only by those whose spirits truly moved them—stroke a fragile ego in a way no compulsory response could ever do?

Always patriotic, Washington newspaper “The Native American” ran a piece detailing at length the manner in which the “foreign” audience in New York had embarrassed themselves with excessive accolades.

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