There was a row of boxes. Each one was filled with a collection of anonymous lives degraded into sepia: mortified and torn histories. Unknown, unimaginable and unwanted…they were crying – like ghostly children – for attention.
She was leaning out of her box; staring steadfastly ahead, which was all she could do, as her hands were full:
One hand held the American flag; the other held the flag of Syria (it would possess the Ottoman crescent until 1918). Her full skirt, caught in a web of lace, was held aloft by unidentified helpers that stood at each side:
Clenched between her teeth was a chair. And there she stood, flags and skirt waving, the legs of the chair hovering over her head. A curio of the circus, presented as vaguely Oriental, slightly exotic: a memory of vaudevillian whimsy.
Her name was Marie Bayrooty – a ‘Syrian Danseuse’, in the New York Times’ rapt words . And in 1905 she became famous.
On a fabulous night in April, in Madison Square Garden, Marie spun like a dervish, keeping her own time, on a small section of sand and tile. Alternating between heels and toes, like a ballerina in a box, she turned and turned. She ate an orange, sending pieces of whirling citrus detritus into the enthralled audience. During the final minute she cued the band, which struck up “Yankee Doodle Dandy”: she then picked up her spinning speed, before slowing to a stop.
But Marie had not finished. She then grasped a chair with her teeth, and whirled for 5 minutes more. Then “she stopped, made a curtsy, and trotted off to her dressing room”.
Yet Marie was not yet prepared to lay her dizzy career to rest. The next year she broke her own record, spinning for 32 minutes – and completing 2,990 revolutions. Her silken slippers winking from beneath her hastening petticoats, Marie was a blur to the light-headed reporters who watched and counted.
But with the passage of decades, her mad flutterings were silenced. Consigned to her box, she was hidden – and her story forgotten. Perhaps out of desperation, or out of loneliness, she was able to gather the strength to finally complete her 2,991st revolution – the one that lifted her out of her prison and into my waiting hand.