“On with the Dance!”, by Ambrose Bierce

xii

Our Grandmothers’ Legs

It is depressing to realize how little most of us know of the dancing of our ancestors. I would give value to behold the execution of a coranto and inspect the steps of a cinque-pace, having assurance that the performances assuming these names were veritably identical with their memorable originals. We possess the means of verifying somewhat as to the nature of the minuet; but after what fashion did our revered grandfather do his rigadoon and his gavot? What manner of thing was that pirouet in the deft execution of which he felt an honest exultation? And what were the steps of his contra (or country) and Cossack dances? What tune was that —“The Devil amongst the Fiddlers”— for which he clamored, to inspire his feats of leg?

In our fathers’ time we read:

I wore my blue coat and brass buttons, very high in the neck, short in the waist and sleeves, nankeen trousers and white silk stockings, and a white waistcoat. I performed all the steps accurately and with great agility.

Which, it appears, gained the attention of the company. And it well might, for the year was 1830, and the mode of performing the cotillion of the period was undergoing the metamorphosis of which the perfect development has been familiar to ourselves. In its next stage the male celebrant is represented to us as “hopping about with a face expressive of intense solemnity, dancing as if a quadrille”— mark the newer word —“were not a thing to be laughed at, but a severe trial to the feelings.” There is a smack of ancient history about this, too; it lurks in the word “hopping.” In the perfected development of this dance as known to ourselves, no stress of caricature would describe the movement as a hopping. But our grandfather not only hopped, he did more. He sprang from the floor and quivered. In midair he crossed his feet twice and even three times, before alighting. And our budding grandmother beheld, and experienced flutterings of the bosom at his manly achievements. Some memory of these feats survived in the performances of the male ballet-dancers — a breed now happily extinct. A fine old lady — she lives, aged eighty-two — showed me once the exercise of “setting to your partner,” performed in her youth; and truly it was right marvelous. She literally bounced hither and thither, effecting a twisting in and out of the feet, a patting and a flickering of the toes incredibly intricate. For the celebration of these rites her partner would array himself in morocco pumps with cunningly contrived buckles of silver, silk stockings, salmon-colored silk breeches tied with abundance of riband, exuberant frills, or “chitterlings,” which puffed out at the neck and bosom not unlike the wattles of a he-turkey; and under his arms — as the fowl roasted might have carried its gizzard — our grandfather pressed the flattened simulacrum of a cocked hat. At this interval of time charity requires us to drop over the lady’s own costume a veil that, tried by our canons of propriety, it sadly needed. She was young and thoughtless, the good grandmother; she was conscious of the possession of charms and concealed them not.

To the setting of these costumes, manners and practices, there was imported from Germany a dance called Waltz, which as I conceive, was the first of our “round” dances. It was welcomed by most persons who could dance, and by some superior souls who could not. Among the latter, the late Lord Byron — whose participation in the dance was barred by an unhappy physical disability — addressed the new-comer in characteristic verse. Some of the lines in this ingenious nobleman’s apostrophe are not altogether intelligible, when applied to any dance that we know by the name of waltz. For example:

Pleased round the chalky floor, how well they trip,

One hand* reposing on the royal hip,

The other to the shoulder no less royal

Ascending with affection truly loyal.

* I.e. one of the lady’s hands.

These lines imply an attitude unknown to contemporary waltzers, but the description involves no poetic license. Our dear grandmothers (giddy, giddy girls!) did their waltz that way. Let me quote:

The lady takes the gentleman round the neck with one arm, resting against his shoulder. During the motion, the dancers are continually changing their relative situations: now the gentleman brings his arm about the lady’s neck, and the lady takes him round the waist.

At another point, the lady may “lean gently on his shoulder,” their arms (as it appears) “entwining.” This description is by an eyewitness, whose observation is taken, not at the rather debauched court of the Prince Regent, but at the simple republican assemblies of New York. The observer is the gentle Irving, writing in 1807. Occasional noteworthy experiences they must have had — those modest, blooming grandmothers — for, it is to be borne in mind, tipsiness was rather usual with dancing gentlemen in the fine old days of Port and Madeira; and the blithe, white-armed grandmothers themselves did sip their punch, to a man. However, we may forbear criticism. We, at least, owe nothing but reverent gratitude to a generation from which we derive life, waltzing and the memory of Madeira. Even when read, as it needs should be read, in the light of that prose description of the dance to which it was addressed, Lord Byron’s welcome to the waltz will be recognized as one more illustration of a set of hoary and moss-grown truths.

As parlor-soldiers, graced with fancy-scars,

Rehearse their bravery in imagined wars;

As paupers, gathered in congenial flocks,

Babble of banks, insurances, and stocks;

As each if oft’nest eloquent of what

He hates or covets, but possesses not;

As cowards talk of pluck; misers of waste;

Scoundrels of honor; country clowns of taste;

Ladies of logic; devotees of sin;

Topers of water; temperance men of gin  —

my lord Byron sang of waltzing. Let us forgive and — remembering his poor foot — pity him. Yet the opinions of famous persons possess an interest that is akin, in the minds of many plain folk, to weight. Let us, then, incline an ear to another: “Laura was fond of waltzing, as every brisk and innocent young girl should be,” wrote he than who none has written more nobly in our time — he who “could appreciate good women and describe them; and draw them more truly than any novelist in the language, except Miss Austen.” The same sentiment with reference to dancing appears in many places in his immortal pages. In his younger days as attaché of legation in Germany, Mr. Thackeray became a practiced waltzer. As a censor he thus possesses over Lord Byron whatever advantage may accrue from knowledge of the subject whereof he wrote.

We are happily not called upon to institute a comparison of character between the two distinguished moralists, though the same, drawn masterly, might not be devoid of entertainment and instruction. But two or three other points of distinction should be kept in mind as having sensible relation to the question of competency to bear witness. Byron wrote of the women of a corrupted court; Thackeray of the women of that society indicated by the phrase “Persons whom one meets”— and meets now. Byron wrote of an obsolete dance, described by Irving in terms of decided strength; Thackeray wrote of our own waltz. In turning off his brilliant and witty verses it is unlikely that any care as to their truthfulness disturbed the glassy copiousness of the Byronic utterance; this child of nature did never consider too curiously of justice, moderation and such inventions of the schools. The key-note of all the other wrote is given by his faithful pen when it avers that it never “signed the page that registered a lie.” Byron was a “gentleman of wit and pleasure about town”; Thackeray the father of daughters. However, all this is perhaps little to the purpose. We owe no trifling debt to Lord Byron for his sparkling and spirited lines, and by no good dancer would they be “willingly let die.” Poetry, music, dancing — they are one art. The muses are sisters, yet they do not quarrel. Of a truth, even as was Laura, so every brisk and innocent young girl should be. And it is safe to predict that she will be. If she would enjoy the advantage of belonging to Our Set she must be.

As a rule, the ideas of the folk who cherish a prejudice against dancing are crude rather than unclean — the outcome much more of ignorance than salacity. Of course there are exceptions. In my great work on The Prude all will be attended to with due discrimination in apportionment of censure. At present the spirit of the dance makes merry with my pen, for from yonder “stately pleasure-dome” (decreed by one Kubla Khan, formerly of The Big Bonanza Mining Company) the strains of the Blue Danube float out upon the night. Avaunt, miscreants! lest we chase ye with flying feet and do our little dance upon your unwholesome carcasses. Already the toes of our partners begin to twiddle beneath their petticoats. Come, then, Stoopid — can’t you move? No! — they change it to a galop — and eke the good old Sturm. Firm and steady, now, fair partner mine, whiles we run that gobemouche down and trample him miserably. There: light and softly again — the servants will remove the remains.

And hark! that witching strain once more:

Music tablature

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