“On with the Dance!”, by Ambrose Bierce

X

They All Dance

Fountains dance down to the river,

    Rivers to the ocean

Summer leaflets dance and quiver

    To the breeze’s motion

Nothing in the world is single  —

    All things by a simple rule

Nods and steps and graces mingle

    As at dancing school

See the shadows on the mountain

    Pirouette with one another

See the leaf upon the fountain

    Dances with its leaflet brother

See the moonlight on the earth

    Flecking forest gleam and glance!

What are all these dancings worth

    If I may not dance?

— After Shelley

Dance? Why not? The dance is natural, it is innocent, wholesome, enjoyable. It has the sanction of religion, philosophy, science. It is approved by the sacred writings of all ages and nations — of Judaism, Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, of Zoroaster and Confucius. Not an altar, from Jupiter to Jesus, around which the votaries have not danced with religious zeal and indubitable profit to mind and body. Fire worshipers of Persia and Peru danced about the visible sign and manifestation to their deity. Dervishes dance in frenzy, and the Shakers jump up and come down hard through excess of the Spirit. All the gods have danced with all the goddesses — round dances, too. The lively divinities created by the Greeks in their own image danced divinely, as became them. Old Thor stormed and thundered down the icy halls of the Scandinavian mythology to the music of runic rhymes, and the souls of slain heroes in Valhalla take to their toes in celebration of their valorous deeds done in the body upon the bodies of their enemies. Angels dance before the Great White Throne to harps attuned by angel hands, and the Master of the Revels — who arranges the music of the spheres — looks approvingly on. Dancing is of divine institution.

The elves and fairies “dance delicate measures” in the light of the moon and stars. The troll dances his gruesome jig on lonely hills the gnome executes his little pigeon wing in the obscure subterrene by the glimmer of a diamond. Nature’s untaught children dance in wood and glade, stimulated of leg by the sunshine with which they are soaken top full — the same quickening emanation that inspires the growing tree and upheaves the hill. And, if I err not, there is sound Scripture for the belief that these self same eminences have capacity to skip for joy. The peasant dances — a trifle clumsily — at harvest feast when the grain is garnered. The stars in heaven dance visibly, the firefly dances in emulation of the stars. The sunshine dances on the waters. The humming bird and the bee dance about the flowers which dance to the breeze. The innocent lamb, type of the White Christ, dances on the green, and the matronly cow perpetrates an occasional stiff enormity when she fancies herself unobserved. All the sportive rollickings of all the animals, from the agile fawn to the unwieldly behemoth are dances taught them by nature.

I am not here making an argument for dancing, I only assert its goodness, confessing its abuse. We do not argue the wholesomeness of sunshine and cold water, we assert it, admitting that sunstroke is mischievous and that copious potations of freezing water will founder a superheated horse, and urge the hot blood to the head of an imprudent man similarly prepared, killing him, as is right. We do not build syllogisms to prove that grains and fruits of the earth are of God’s best bounty to man; we allow that bad whisky may — with difficulty — be distilled from rye to spoil the toper’s nose, and that hydrocyanic acid can be got out of the bloomy peach. It were folly to prove that Science and Invention are our very good friends, yet the sapper who has had the misfortune to be blown to rags by the mine he was preparing for his enemy will not deny that gunpowder has aptitudes of mischief; and from the point of view of a nigger ordered upon the safety-valve of a racing steamboat, the vapor of water is a thing accurst. Shall we condemn music because the lute makes “lascivious pleasing?” Or poetry because some amorous bard tells in warm rhyme the story of the passions, and Swinburne has had the goodness to make vice offensive with his hymns in its praise? Or sculpture because from the guiltless marble may be wrought a drunken Silenus or a lechering satyr? — painting because the untamed fancies of a painter sometimes break tether and run riot on his canvas? Because the orator may provoke the wild passions of the mob, shall there be no more public speaking? — no further acting because the actor may be pleased to saw the air, or the actress display her ultimate inch of leg? Shall we upset the pulpit because poor dear Mr. Tilton had a prettier wife than poor, dear Mr. Beecher? The bench had its Jeffrey, yet it is necessary that we have the deliveries of judgment between ourselves and the litigious. The medical profession has nursed poisoners enough to have baned all the rats of christendom; but the resolute patient must still have his prescription — if he die for it. Shall we disband our armies because in the hand of an ambitious madman a field-marshal’s baton may brain a helpless State? — our navies because in ships pirates have “sailed the seas over?” Let us not commit the vulgarity of condemning the dance because of its possibilities of perversion by the vicious and the profligate. Let us not utter us in hot bosh and baking nonsense, but cleave to reason and the sweet sense of things.

Dancing never made a good girl bad, nor turned a wholesome young man to evil ways. “Opportunity!” simpers the tedious virgin past the wall-flower of her youth. “Opportunity!” cackles the blasé beau who has outlasted his legs and gone deaconing in a church.

Opportunity, indeed! There is opportunity in church and school-room, in social intercourse. There is opportunity in libraries, art-galleries, picnics, street-cars, Bible-classes and at fairs and matinées. Opportunity — rare, delicious opportunity, not innocently to be ignored — in moonlight rambles by still streams. Opportunity, such as it is, behind the old gentleman’s turned back, and beneath the good mother’s spectacled nose. You shall sooner draw out leviathan with a hook, or bind Arcturus and his sons, than baffle the upthrust of Opportunity’s many heads. Opportunity is a veritable Hydra, Argus and Briareus rolled into one. He has a hundred heads to plan his poachings, a hundred eyes to spy the land, a hundred hands to set his snares and springes. In the country where young girls are habitually unattended in the street; where the function of chaperon is commonly, and, it should be added, intelligently performed by some capable young male; where the young women receive evening calls from young men concerning whose presence in the parlor mamma in the nursery and papa at the “office”— poor, overworked papa! — give themselves precious little trouble — this prate of ball-room opportunity is singularly and engagingly idiotic. The worthy people who hold such language may justly boast themselves superior to reason and impregnable to light. The only effective reply to these creatures would be a cuffing, the well meant objections of another class merit the refutation of distinct characterization. It is the old talk of devotees about sin, of topers concerning water, temperance men of gin, and albeit it is neither wise nor witty, it is becoming in us at whom they rail to deal mercifully with them. In some otherwise estimable souls one of these harmless brain cracks may be a right lovable trait of character.

Issues of a social import as great as a raid against dancing have been raised ere now. Will the coming man smoke? Will the coming man drink wine? These tremendous and imperative problems only recently agitated some of the “thoughtful minds” in our midst. By degrees they lost their preeminence, they were seen to be in process of solution without social cataclysm, they have, in a manner been referred for disposal to the coming man himself, that is to say, they have been dropped, and are to-day as dead as Julius Cæsar. The present hour has, in its turn, produced its own awful problem: Will the coming woman waltz?

As a question of mere fact the answer is patent: She will. Dancing will be good for her; she will like it; so she is going to waltz. But the question may rather be put — to borrow phraseology current among her critics: Had she oughter? — from a moral point of view, now. From a moral point, then, let us seek from analogy some light on the question of what, from its actual, practical bearings, may be dignified by the name Conundrum.

Ought a man not to smoke? — from a moral point of view. The economical view-point, the view-point of convenience, and all the rest of them, are not now in question; the simple question is: Is it immoral to smoke? And again — still from the moral point of view: Is it immoral to drink wine? Is it immoral to play at cards? — to visit theaters? (In Boston you go to some

        harmless “Museum,”

Where folks who like plays may religiously see ’em.)

Finally, then — and always from the same elevated view-point: Is it immoral to waltz?

The suggestions here started will not be further pursued in this place. It is quite pertinent now to note that we do smoke because we like it; and do drink wine because we like it; and do waltz because we like it, and have the added consciousness that it is a duty. I am sorry for a fellow-creature — male — who knows not the comfort of a cigar; sorry and concerned for him who is innocent of the knowledge of good and evil that lurk respectively in Chambertin and cheap “claret.” Nor is my compassion altogether free from a sense of superiority to the object of it — superiority untainted, howbeit, by truculence. I perceive that life has been bestowed upon him for purposes inscrutable to me, though dimly hinting its own justification as a warning or awful example. So, too, of the men and women —“beings erect, and walking upon two [uneducated] legs”— whose unsophisticated toes have never, inspired by the rosy, threaded the labyrinth of the mazy ere courting the kindly offices of the balmy. It is only human to grieve for them, poor things!

But if their throbbing bunions, encased in clumsy high-lows, be obtruded to trip us in our dance, shall we not stamp on them? Yea, verily, while we have a heel to crunch with and a leg to grind it home.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31