“On with the Dance!”, by Ambrose Bierce

vii

Japan Wear and Bombay Ducks

Throughout Asia, dancing is marked by certain characteristics which do not greatly differ, save in degree, among the various peoples who practice it. With few exceptions, it is confined to the superior sex, and these ladies, I am sorry to confess, have not derived as great moral advantage from the monopoly as an advocate of dancing would prefer to record.

Dancing — the rhythmical movement of the limbs and body to music — is, as I have endeavored to point out, instinctive, hardly a people, savage or refined, but has certain forms of it. When, from any cause, the men abstain from its execution it has commonly not the character of grace and agility as its dominant feature, but is distinguished by soft, voluptuous movements, suggestive posturing, and all the wiles by which the performer knows she can best please the other sex, the most forthright and effective means to that commendable end being evocation of man’s baser nature. The Japanese men are anti-dancers from necessity of costume, if nothing else, and the effect is much the same as elsewhere under the same conditions the women dance, the men gloat and the gods grieve.

There are two kinds of dances in Japan, the one not only lewd, but — to speak with accurate adjustment of word to fact — beastly, in the other grace is the dominating element, and decency as cold as a snow storm. Of the former class, the “Chon Nookee” is the most popular. It is, however, less a dance than an exhibition, and its patrons are the wicked, the dissolute and the European. It is commonly given at some entertainment to which respectable women have not the condescension to be invited — such as a dinner party of some wealthy gentleman’s gentlemen friends. The dinner-served on the floor — having been impatiently tucked away, and the candies, cakes, hot saki and other necessary addenda of a Japanese dinner brought in, the “Chon Nookee” is demanded, and with a modest demeanor, worn as becomingly as if it were their every day habit, the performers glide in, seating themselves coyly on the floor, in two rows. Each dancing girl is appareled in such captivating bravery as her purse can buy or her charms exact. The folds of her varicolored gowns crossing her bosom makes combinations of rich, warm hues, which it were folly not to admire and peril to admire too much. The faces of these girls are in many instances exceedingly pretty, but with that natural — and, be it humbly submitted, not very creditable — tendency of the sex to revision and correction of nature’s handiwork, they plaster them with pigments dear to the sign painter and temper the red glory of their lips with a bronze preparation which the flattered brass founder would no doubt deem kissable utterly. The music is made by beating a drum and twanging a kind of guitar, the musician chanting the while to an exceedingly simple air words which, in deference to the possible prejudices of those readers who may be on terms of familarity with the Japanese language, I have deemed it proper to omit — with an apology to the Prudes for the absence of an appendix in which they might be given without offense. (I had it in mind to insert the music here, but am told by credible authority that in Japan music is moral or immoral without reference to the words that may be sung with it. So I omit — with reluctance — the score, as well as the words.)

The chanting having proceeded for a few minutes the girls take up the song and enter spiritedly into the dance. One challenges another and at a certain stage of the lively song with the sharp cry “Hoi!” makes a motion with her hand. Failure on the part of the other instantaneously and exactly to copy this gesture entails the forfeiture of a garment, which is at once frankly removed. Cold and mechanical at the outset, the music grows spirited as the girls grow nude, and the dancers themselves become strangely excited as they warm to the work, taking, the while, generous potations of saki to assist their enthusiasm.

Let it not be supposed that in all this there is anything of passion, it is with these women nothing more that the mere mental exaltation produced by music, exercise and drink. With the spectators (I have heard) it fares somewhat otherwise.

When modesty’s last rag has been discarded, the girls as if suddenly abashed at their own audacity, fly like startled fawns from the room, leaving their patrons to make a settlement with conscience and arrange the terms upon which that monitor will consent to the performance of the rest of the dance. For the dance proper — or improper — is now about to begin. If the first part seemed somewhat tropical, comparison with what follows will acquit it of that demerit. The combinations of the dance are infinitely varied, and so long as willing witnesses remain — which, in simple justice to manly fortitude it should be added, is a good while — so long will the “Chon Nookee” present a new and unexpected phase, but it is thought expedient that no more of them be presented here, and if the reader has done me the honor to have enough of it, we will pass to the consideration of another class of dances.

Of this class those most in favor are the Fan and Umbrella dances, performed, usually, by young girls trained almost from infancy. The Japanese are passionately fond of these beautiful exhibitions of grace, and no manner of festivity is satisfactorily celebrated without them. The musicians, all girls, commonly six or eight in number, play on the guitar, a small ivory wand being used, instead of the fingers, to strike the strings. The dancer, a girl of some thirteen years, is elaborately habited as a page. Confined by the closely folded robe as by fetters, the feet and legs are not much used, the feet, indeed, never leaving the floor. Time is marked by undulations of the body, waving the arms, and deft manipulation of the fan. The supple figure bends and sways like a reed in the wind, advances and recedes, one movement succeeding another by transitions singularly graceful, the arms describing innumerable curves, and the fan so skilfully handled as to seem instinct with a life and liberty of its own. Nothing more pure, more devoid of evil suggestion, can be imagined. It is a sad fact that the poor children trained to the execution of this harmless and pleasing dance are destined, in their riper years, to give their charms and graces to the service of the devil in the ‘Chon Nookee’. The umbrella dance is similar to the one just described, the main difference being the use of a small, gaily colored umbrella in place of the fan.

Crossing from Japan to China, the Prude will find a condition of things which, for iron severity of morals, is perhaps unparalleled — no dancing whatever, by either profligate or virtuous women. To whatever original cause we may attribute this peculiarity, it seems eternal, for the women of the upper classes have an ineradicable habit of so mutilating their feet that even the polite and comparatively harmless accomplishment of walking is beyond their power, those of the lower orders have not sense enough to dance, and that men should dance alone is a proposition of such free and forthright idiocy as to be but obscurely conceivable to any understanding not having the gift of maniacal inspiration, or the normal advantage of original incapacity. Altogether, we may rightly consider China the heaven appointed habitat of people who dislike the dance.

In Siam, what little is known of dancing is confined to the people of Laos. The women are meek eyed, spiritless creatures, crushed under the heavy domination of the stronger sex. Naturally, their music and dancing are of a plaintive, almost doleful character, not without a certain cloying sweetness, however. The dancing is as graceful as the pudgy little bodies of the women are capable of achieving — a little more pleasing than the capering of a butcher’s block, but not quite so much so as that of a wash tub. Its greatest merit is the steely rigor of its decorum. The dancers, however, like ourselves, are a shade less appallingly proper off the floor than on it.

In no part of the world, probably, is the condition of women more consummately deplorable than in India, and, in consequence, nowhere than in the dances of that country is manifested a more simple unconsciousness or frank disregard of decency. As by nature, and according to the light that is in him, the Hindu is indolent and licentious, so, in accurately matching degree, are the dancing girls innocent of morality, and uninfected with shame. It would be difficult, more keenly to insult a respectable Hindu woman than to accuse her of having danced, while the man who should affect the society of the females justly so charged would incur the lasting detestation of his race. The dancing girls are of two orders of infamy — those who serve in the temples, and are hence called Devo Dasi, slaves of the gods, and the Nautch girls, who dance in a secular sort for hire. Frequently a mother will make a vow to dedicate her unborn babe, if it have the obedience to be a girl, to the service of some particular god, in this way, and by the daughters born to themselves, are the ranks of the Devo Dasi recruited. The sons of these miserable creatures are taught to play upon musical instruments for their mothers and sisters to dance by. As the ordinary Hindu woman is careless about the exposure of her charms, so these dancers take intelligent and mischievous advantage of the social situation by immodestly concealing their own. The Devo Dasi actually go to the length of wearing clothes! Each temple has a band of eight or ten of these girls, who celebrate their saltatory rites morning and evening. Advancing at the head of the religious procession, they move themselves in an easy and graceful manner, with gradual transition to a more sensuous and voluptuous motion, suiting their action to the religious frame of mind of the devout until their well-rounded limbs and lithe figures express a degree of piety consonant with the purpose of the particular occasion. They attend all public ceremonies and festivals, executing their audacious dances impartially for gods and men.

The Nautch girls are purchased in infancy, and as carefully trained in their wordly way as the Devo Dasi for the diviner function, being about equally depraved. All the large cities contain full sets of these girls, with attendant musicians, ready for hire at festivals of any kind, and by leaving orders parties are served at their residences with fidelity and dispatch. Commonly they dance two at a time, but frequently some wealthy gentleman will secure the services of a hundred or more to assist him through the day without resorting to questionable expedients of time-killing. Their dances require strict attention, from the circumstance that their feet — like those of the immortal equestrienne of Banbury Cross — are hung with small bells, which must be made to sound in concert with the notes of the musicians. In attitude and gesture they are almost as bad as their pious sisters of the temples. The endeavor is to express the passions of love, hope, jealousy, despair, etc, and they eke out this mimicry with chanted songs in every way worthy of the movements of which they are the explanatory notes. These are the only women in Hindustan whom it is thought worth while to teach to read and write. If they would but make as noble use of their intellectual as they do of their physical education, they might perhaps produce books as moral as The Dance of Death.

In Persia and Asia Minor, the dances and dancers are nearly alike. In both countries the Georgian and Circassian slaves who have been taught the art of pleasing, are bought by the wealthy for their amusement and that of their wives and concubines. Some of the performances are pure in motive and modest in execution, but most of them are interesting otherwise. The beautiful young Circassian slave, clad in loose robes of diaphanous texture, takes position, castanets in hand, on a square rug, and to the music of a kind of violin goes through the figures of her dance, her whiteness giving her an added indelicacy which the European spectator misses in the capering of her berry brown sisters in sin of other climes.

The dance of the Georgian is more spirited. Her dress is a brief skirt reaching barely to the knees and a low cut chemise. In her night black hair is wreathed a bright red scarf or string of pearls. The music, at first low and slow increases by degrees in rapidity and volume, then falls away almost to silence, again swells and quickens and so alternates, the motions of the dancer’s willowy and obedient figure accurately according now seeming to swim languidly, and anon her little feet having their will of her, and fluttering in midair like a couple of birds. She is an engaging creature, her ways are ways of pleasantness, but whether all her paths are peace depends somewhat, it is reasonable to conjecture, upon the circumspection of her daily walk and conversation when relegated to the custody of her master’s wives.

In some parts of Persia the dancing of boys appareled as women is held in high favor, but exactly what wholesome human sentiment it addresses I am not prepared to say.

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