Dance is an important window onto a culture: its mores, ethics, relations between the sexes, and social customs. The trouble is, dances and the social rules that govern their practice aren’t often written down — they’re most often passed on orally and by demonstration. So literary works of the day tend to be the only surviving written descriptions of the dances and the social occasions at which they’re practiced.
Fortunately, because dance is so often symbolic of the unwritten rules of a society, it makes a good metaphor in the hands of a skilled writer.
That is the thesis of American folk musician, dancer and writer Allison Thompson, who has collected representative samples of literature regarding social dance from works covering 500 years of Western civilization.
While not exactly light reading, this is a fun and interesting book. Thompson displays an impressive depth and breadth of knowledge about both literature and dance. She includes selections that range from Chaucer and Byron to Twain and Fitzgerald.
The book covers seven periods: Middle Ages/Renaissance (1400-1650); Restoration of Pleasure (1651-1759); Age of Reason (1760-1799); Regency (1800-1836); early Victorian (1837-1869); late Victorian or “Gilded Age” (1870-1899) and early 20th Century, which she terms “the end of an era” of social dance.
Each chapter opens with a general description of the era’s major social trends in Europe and the Americas and the way dance evolved during the period. Thompson also gives a synopsis of each literary selection, including a short biographical note about the author and a synopsis of the work, as well as the relevance of the selection to the larger work and an explanation of what social factors are illustrated by the passage.
Thompson has a clear and concise writing style. She includes enough description to adequately illustrate her point, without burdening the work with unnecessary or overly elaborate analyses. The following passage from the preface is a good sample of her style.
Throughout the centuries, young ladies and gentlemen have worried about the same things that any high school student at the prom does today: what if you are stuck with a clumsy or undesirable partner; what if no one asks you to dance at all … The dancing masters can offer practical advice on these knotty questions of etiquette, but it is the poets and novelists who make us feel the bitterness of affection scorned, the embarrassment caused by a companion’s vulgar display or the indescribable pleasure of dancing with the perfect partner.
During the 500 years in question, social dances metamorphosed from the stately court rituals of the ruling classes to the lively country dances of the commoners, to the “round” or couples’ dances of the ballrooms, which carry a whiff of scandal when first introduced but which soon come to seem tame and are replaced by even more shocking dances.
The book’s selections themselves are often humorous or poignant, and always are illustrative of the attitudes of the day toward dancing. The point that comes shining through from many passages, including the following, is that while the dances themselves have changed through the years, their role in society has remained curiously fixed.
“In vain we learn to trace a certain round, And know exactly where to sink and bound; In ev’ry movement there must still be seen A nameless grace, and a becoming mien: In vain a master shall employ his care Where nature once has fixed a clumsy air …” — Soame Jenyns, The Art of Dancing, 1729 “Oh, Jack, there never can be but one man in the world whom a truly modest and delicate woman ought to pair with in a country-dance; and even then, the rest of the couples should be her great-uncles and aunts! — Richard Sheridan’s The Rivals, 1775
When an end being put to the minuets, the benches were removed to make way for the country-dances; and the multitude rising at once, the whole atmosphere was put in commotion. Then, all of a sudden, came rushing upon me an egyptian gale, so impregnated with pestilential vapours, that my nerves were overpowered, and I dropt senseless upon the floor … Imagine to yourself a high exalted essence of mingled odours, arising from putrid gums, imposthumated lungs, sour flatulencies, rank arm-pits, sweating feet, running sores and issues, plaisters , ointments, and embrocations, hungary-water, spirit of lavendar, assa foetida drops, musk, hartshorn, and sal volatile; besides a thousand frowzy streams, which I could not analyse. Such, O Dick! is the fragrant aether we breathe in the polite assemblies of Bath.” — Tobias Smollett’s The Expedition of Humphrey Clinker, 1769
The book includes a number of essays or tracts written about dance. Some, like Catherine Beecher’s below, are concerned with the supposed evils of ballroom dancing. Others, like the Castles’ which follows, extoll the greater virtues of new dances — in this case the tango — over older styles.
A third rule, is, to avoid those amusements, which experience has shown to be so exciting, and connected with so many temptations, as to be pernicious in tendency, both to the individual and to the community … Under the same head, comes dancing, in the estimation of the great majority of the religious world. As this recreation is actually conducted, it does not tend to produce health of body or mind, but directly the contrary… Even if parents, who train their children to dance, can keep them from public balls, (which is seldom the case), dancing in private parlors is subject to nearly all the same miscievous influences. Catherine E. Beecher’s A Treatise on Domestic Economy, 1846
The charming dips and turns, the long, slow steps, and the various artistic measures of our dances of to-day all have a certain dignity. The hoidenish romping of the Two Step, the swift rush of the Polka and the contortions of the Turkey Trot, have died a natural death because something finer has taken their place. — Vernon and Irene Castle’s Modern Dancing, 1914
Dancing Through Time is chock-full of similar passages. It’s must reading for serious students of dance history, and a valuable companion to lovers of literature who may need help decoding the nuances of the often lengthy and significant passages featuring social dancing in many of the major works of Western literature.
(McFarland & Co. 1998)