“On with the Dance!”, by Ambrose Bierce

V

Enter a Troupe of Ancients, Dancing

The nearly oldest authentic human records now decipherable are the cuneiform inscriptions from the archives of Assurbanipal, translated by the late George Smith, of the British Museum, and in them we find abundant reference to the dance, but must content ourselves with a single one.

         The kings of Arabia who against my agreement,
sinned, whom in the midst of battle alive I had captured
in hand, to make that Bitrichiti    Heavy burdens I
caused them to carry and I caused them to take
building its brick work           with dancing and
music            with joy and shouting from the found
ation to its roof I built

A Mesopotamian king, who had the genius to conceive the dazzling idea of communicating with the readers of this distant generation by taking impressions of carpet tacks on cubes of unbaked clay is surely entitled to a certain veneration, and when he associates dancing with such commendable actions as making porters of his royal captives it is not becoming in us meaner mortals to set up a contrary opinion. Indeed nothing can be more certain than that the art of dancing was not regarded by the ancients generally in the light of a frivolous accomplishment, nor its practice a thing wherewith to shoo away a tedious hour. In their minds it evidently had a certain dignity and elevation, so much so that they associated it with their ideas (tolerably correct ones, on the whole) of art, harmony, beauty, truth and religion With them, dancing bore a relation to walking and the ordinary movements of the limbs similar to that which poetry bears to prose, and as our own Emerson — himself something of an ancient — defines poetry as the piety of the intellect, so Homer would doubtless have defined dancing as the devotion of the body if he had had the unspeakable advantage of a training in the Emerson school of epigram. Such a view of it is natural to the unsophisticated pagan mind, and to all minds of clean, wholesome, and simple understanding. It is only the intellect that has been subjected to the strain of overwrought religious enthusiasm of the more sombre sort that can discern a lurking devil in the dance, or anything but an exhilarating and altogether delightful outward manifestation of an inner sense of harmony, joy and well being. Under the stress of morbid feeling, or the overstrain of religious excitement, coarsely organized natures see or create something gross and prurient in things intrinsically sweet and pure, and it happens that when the dance has fallen to their shaping and direction, as in religious rites, then it has received its most objectionable development and perversion. But the grossness of dances devised by the secular mind for purposes of æsthetic pleasure is all in the censorious critic, who deserves the same kind of rebuke administered by Dr. Johnson to Boswell, who asked the Doctor if he considered a certain nude statue immodest. “No, sir, but your question is.”

It would be an unfortunate thing, indeed, if the “prurient prudes” of the meeting houses were permitted to make the laws by which society should be governed. The same unhappy psychological condition which makes the dance an unclean thing in their jaundiced eyes renders it impossible for them to enjoy art or literature when the subject is natural, the treatment free and joyous. The ingenuity that can discover an indelicate provocative in the waltz will have no difficulty in snouting out all manner of uncleanlmess in Shakspeare, Chaucer, Boccacio — nay, even in the New Testament. It would detect an unpleasant suggestiveness in the Medicean Venus, and two in the Dancing Faun. To all such the ordinary functions of life are impure, the natural man and woman things to blush at, all the economies of nature full of shocking improprieties.

In the Primitive Church dancing was a religious rite, no less than it was under the older dispensation among the Jews. On the eve of sacred festivals, the young people were accustomed to assemble, sometimes before the church door, sometimes in the choir or nave of the church, and dance and sing hymns in honor of the saint whose festival it was. Easter Sunday, especially, was so celebrated; and rituals of a comparatively modern date contain the order in which it is appointed that the dances are to be performed, and the words of the hymns to the music of which the youthful devotees flung up their pious heels But I digress.

In Plato’s time the Greeks held that dancing awakened and preserved in the soul — as I do not doubt that it does — the sentiment of harmony and proportion; and in accordance with this idea Simonides, with a happy knack at epigram, defined dances as “poems in dumb show.”

In his Republic Plato classifies the Grecian dances as domestic, designed for relaxation and amusement, military, to promote strength and activity in battle; and religious, to accompany the sacred songs at pious festivals. To the last class belongs the dance which Theseus is said to have instituted on his return from Crete, after having abated the Minotaur nuisance. At the head of a noble band of youth, this public spirited reformer of abuses himself executed his dance. Theseus as a dancing-master does not much fire the imagination, it is true, but the incident has its value and purpose in this dissertation. Theseus called his dance Geranos, or the “Crane,” because its figures resembled those described by that fowl aflight; and Plutarch fancied he discovered in it a meaning which one does not so readily discover in Plutarch’s explanation.

It is certain that, in the time of Anacreon,1 the Greeks loved the dance. That poet, with frequent repetition, felicitates himself that age has not deprived him of his skill in it. In Ode LIII, he declares that in the dance he renews his youth

When I behold the festive train

Of dancing youth, I’m young again

And let me, while the wild and young

Trip the mazy dance along

Fling my heap of years away

And be as wild, as young as they

Moore

And so in Ode LIX, which seems to be a vintage hymn.

When he whose verging years decline

As deep into the vale as mine

When he inhales the vintage cup

His feet new winged from earth spring up

And as he dances the fresh air

Plays whispering through his silvery hair

Id

In Ode XLVII, he boasts that age has not impaired his relish for, nor his power of indulgence in, the feast and dance.

Tis true my fading years decline

Yet I can quaff the brimming wine

As deep as any stripling fair

Whose cheeks the flush of morning wear,

And if amidst the wanton crew

I’m called to wind the dance’s clew

Then shalt thou see this vigorous hand

Not faltering on the Bacchant’s wand

For though my fading years decay  —

Though manhood’s prime hath passed away,

Like old Silenus sire divine

With blushes borrowed from the wine

I’ll wanton mid the dancing tram

And live my follies o’er again

Id

Cornelius Nepos, I think, mentions among the admirable qualities of the great Epaminondas that he had an extraordinary talent for music and dancing. Epaminondas accomplishing his jig must be accepted as a pleasing and instructive figure in the history of the dance.

Lucian says that a dancer must have some skill as an actor, and some acquaintance with mythology — the reason being that the dances at the festivals of the gods partook of the character of pantomime, and represented the most picturesque events and passages in the popular religion. Religious knowledge is happily no longer regarded as a necessary qualification for the dance, and, in point of fact no thing is commonly more foreign to the minds of those who excel in it.

It is related of Aristides the Just that he danced at an entertainment given by Dionysius the Tyrant, and Plato, who was also a guest, probably confronted him in the set.

The “dance of the wine press,” described by Longinus, was originally modest and proper, but seems to have become in the process of time — and probably by the stealthy participation of disguised prudes — a kind of can can.

In the high noon of human civilization — in the time of Pericles at Athens — dancing seems to have been regarded as a civilizing and refining amusement in which the gravest dignitaries and most renowned worthies joined with indubitable alacrity, if problematic advantage. Socrates himself — at an advanced age, too — was persuaded by the virtuous Aspasia to cut his caper with the rest of them.

Horace (Ode IX, Book I,) exhorts the youth not to despise the dance:

Nec dulcis amores

Sperne puer, neque tu choreas.

Which may be freely translated thus:

Boy, in Love's game don't miss a trick,

Nor be in the dance a walking stick.

In Ode IV, Book I, he says:

Jam Cytherea choros ducit, inminente Luna

Junctæque Nymphis Gratiæ decentes

Alterno terram quatiunt pede, etc

At moonrise, Venus and her joyous band

Of Nymphs and Graces leg it o’er the land

In Ode XXXVI, Book I (supposed to have been written when Numida returned from the war in Spain, with Augustus, and referring to which an old commentator says “We may judge with how much tenderness Horace loved his friends, when he celebrates their return with sacrifices, songs, and dances”) Horace writes

Cressa ne careat pulchra dies nota

Neu promtæ modus amphoræ

Neu morem in Salium sit requies pedum etc.

Let not the day forego its mark

Nor lack the wine jug’s honest bark

Like Salian priests we’ll toss our toes  —

Choose partners for the dance — here goes!

It has been hastily inferred that, in the time of Cicero, dancing was not held in good repute among the Romans, but I prefer to consider his ungracious dictum (in De Ami citia, I think,) ”Nemo sobrius saltat“— no sober man dances — as merely the spiteful and envious fling of a man who could not himself dance, and am disposed to congratulate the golden youth of the Eternal City on the absence of the solemn consequential and egotistic orator from their festivals and merry makings whence his shining talents would have been so many several justifications for his forcible extrusion. No doubt his eminence procured him many invitations to balls of the period, and some of these he probably felt constrained to accept, but it is highly unlikely that he was often solicited to dance, he probably wiled away the tedious hours of inaction by instructing the fibrous virgins and gouty bucks in the principles of juris prudence. Cicero as a wall flower is an interesting object, and, turning to another branch of our subject, in this picturesque attitude we leave him. Left talking.

1 It may be noted here that the popular conception of this poet as a frivolous sensualist is unsustained by evidence and repudiated by all having knowledge of the matter. Although love and wine were his constant themes, there is good ground for the belief that he wrote of them with greater abandon than he indulged in them — a not uncommon practice of the poet-folk, by the way, and one to which those who sing of deeds of arms are perhaps especially addicted. The great age which Anacreon attained points to a temperate life; and he more than once denounces intoxication with as great zeal as a modern reformer who has eschewed the flagon for the trencher. According to Anacreon, drunkenness is “the vice of barbarians;” though, for the matter of that, it is difficult to say what achievable vice is not. In Ode LXII, he sings:

Fill me, boy, as deep a draught

As e’er was filled, as e’er was quaffed;

But let the water amply flow

To cool the grape’s intemperate glow.

. . . . . . . . 

For though the bowl’s the grave of sadness

Ne’er let it be the birth of madness

No! banish from our board to night

The revelries of rude delight

To Scythians leave these wild excesses

Ours be the joy that soothes and blesses!

And while the temperate bowl we wreathe

In concert let our voices breathe

Beguiling every hour along

With harmony of soul and song

Maximus of Tyre speaking of Polycrates the Tyrant (tyrant, be it remembered, meant only usurper, not oppressor) considered the happiness of that potentate, secure because he had a powerful navy and such a friend as Anacreon — the word navy naturally suggesting cold water, and cold water, Anacreon.

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