“On with the Dance!”, by Ambrose Bierce

ix

Counsel for the Defense

Nearly all the great writers of antiquity and of the medieval period who have mentioned dancing at all have done so in terms of unmistakable favor; of modern famous authors, they only have condemned it from whose work, or from what is known of their personal character, we may justly infer an equal aversion to pretty much everything in the way of pleasure that a Christian needs not die in order to enjoy English literature — I use the word in its noble sense, to exclude all manner of preaching, whether clerical or lay — is full of the dance; the sound of merry makers footing it featly to the music runs like an undertone through all the variations of its theme and fills all its pauses.

In the “Miller’s Tale,” Chaucer mentions dancing among the accomplishments of the parish clerk, along with blood letting and the drawing of legal documents:

A merry child he was so God me save,

Wel coud he leten blood and clippe and shave,

And make a chartre of land, and a quitance,

In twenty maners could he trip and dance,

After the scole of Oxenforde tho

And with his legges casten to and fro2

Milton, the greatest of the Puritans — intellectual ancestry of the modern degenerate Prudes — had a wholesome love of the dance, and nowhere is his pen so joyous as in its description in the well known passage from “Comus” which, should it occur to my memory while delivering a funeral oration, I am sure I could not forbear to quote, albeit this, our present argument, is but little furthered by its context

Meanwhile welcome joy and feast

Midnight shout and revelry

Tipsy dance and jollity

Braid your locks with rosy twine

Dropping odors dropping wine

Rigor now is gone to bed

And advice with scrupulous head

Strict age and sour severity

With their grave saws in slumber lie

We that are of purer fire

Imitate the starry quire

Who in their nightly watching spheres

Lead in swift round the months and years

The sounds and seas with all their finny drove

And on the tawny sands and shelves

Trip the pert fairies and the dapper elves

If Milton was not himself a good dancer — and as to that point my memory is unstored with instance or authority — it will at least be conceded that he was an admirable reporter, with his heart in the business. Somewhat to lessen the force of the objection that he puts the foregoing lines into a not very respectable mouth, on a not altogether reputable occasion, I append the following passage from the same poem, supposed to be spoken by the good spirit who had brought a lady and her two brothers through many perils, restoring them to their parents:

Noble lord and lady bright

I have brought ye new delight

Here behold so goodly grown

Three fair branches of your own

Heaven hath timely tried their youth

Their faith their patience and their truth

And sent them here through hard assays

With a crown of deathless praise

To triumph in victorious dance

O’er sensual folly and intemperance

The lines on dancing — lines which themselves dance — in “L’Allegro,” are too familiar, I dare not permit myself the enjoyment of quotation.

Lord Herbert of Cherbury, one of the most finished gentlemen of his time, otherwise laments in his autobiography that he had never learned to dance because that accomplishment “doth fashion the body, and gives one a good presence and address in all companies since it disposeth the limbs to a kind of souplesse (as the French call it) and agility insomuch as they seem to have the use of their legs, arms, and bodies more than many others who, standing stiff and stark in their postures, seem as if they were taken in their joints, or had not the perfect use of their members.” Altogether, a very grave objection to dancing in the opinion of those who discountenance it, and I take great credit for candor in presenting his lordship’s indictment.

In the following pertinent passage from Lemontey I do not remember the opinion he quotes from Locke, but his own is sufficiently to the point:

The dance is for young women what the chase is for young men: a protecting school of wisdom — a preservative of the growing passions. The celebrated Locke who made virtue the sole end of education, expressly recommends teaching children to dance as early as they are able to learn. Dancing carries within itself an eminently cooling quality and all over the world the tempests of the heart await to break forth the repose of the limbs.

In “The Traveller,” Goldsmith says:

Alike all ages dames of ancient days

Have led their children through the mirthful maze

And the gay grandsire skilled in gestic lore

Has frisked beneath the burden of three score.

To the Prudes, in all soberness — Is it likely, considering the stubborn conservatism of age, that these dames, well seasoned in the habit, will leave it off directly, or the impenitent old grandsire abate one jot or tittle of his friskiness in the near future? Is it a reasonable hope? Is the outlook from the watch towers of Philistia an encouraging one?

2 On this passage Tyrwhit makes the following judicious comment: The school of Oxford seems to have been in much the same estimation for its dancing as that of Stratford for its French — alluding of course to what is, said in the Prologue of the French spoken by the Prioress:

        And French she spoke full fayre and fetisly

After the scole of Stratford atte bowe

For French of Paris was to hire unknowe

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