“On with the Dance!”, by Ambrose Bierce


The Beating of the Blood

Nature takes a childish delight in tireless repetition. The days repeat themselves, the tides ebb and flow, the tree sways forth and back. This world is intent upon recurrences. Not the pendulum of a clock is more persistent of iteration than are all existing things; periodicity is the ultimate law and largest explanation of the universe — to do it over again the one insatiable ambition of all that is. Everything vibrates; through vibration alone do the senses discern it. We are not provided with means of cognizance of what is absolutely at rest; impressions come in waves. Recurrence, recurrence, and again recurrence — that is the sole phenomenon. With what fealty we submit us to the law which compels the rhythm and regularity to our movement — that makes us divide up passing time into brief equal intervals, marking them off by some method of physical notation, so that our senses may apprehend them! In all we do we unconsciously mark time like a clock, the leader of an orchestra with his bâton only more perfectly than the smith with his hammer, or the woman with her needle, because his hand is better assisted by his ear, less embarrassed with impedimenta. The pedestrian impelling his legs and the idler twiddling his thumbs are endeavoring, each in his unconscious way, to beat time to some inaudible music; and the graceless lout, sitting cross-legged in a horse-car, manages the affair with his toe.

The more intently we labor, the more intensely do we become absorbed in labor’s dumb song, until with body and mind engaged in the ecstacy of repetition, we resent an interruption of our work as we do a false note in music, and are mightily enamored of ourselves afterward for the power of application which was simply inability to desist. In this rhythm of toil is to be found the charm of industry. Toil has in itself no spell to conjure with, but its recurrences of molecular action, cerebral and muscular, are as delightful as rhyme.

Such of our pleasures as require movements equally rhythmic with those entailed by labor are almost equally agreeable, with the added advantage of being useless. Dancing, which is not only rhythmic movement, pure and simple, undebased with any element of utility, but is capable of performance under conditions positively baneful, is for these reasons the most engaging of them all; and if it were but one-half as wicked as the prudes have endeavored by method of naughty suggestion to make it would lack of absolute bliss nothing but the other half.

This ever active and unabatable something within us which compels us always to be marking time we may call, for want of a better name, the instinct of rhythm. It is the æsthetic principle of our nature. Translated into words it has given us poetry; into sound, music; into motion, dancing. Perhaps even painting may be referred to it, space being the correlative of time, and color the correlative of tone. We are fond of arranging our minute intervals of time into groups. We find certain of these groups highly agreeable, while others are no end unpleasant. In the former there is a singular regularity to be observed, which led hard-headed old Leibnitz to the theory that our delight in music arises from an inherent affection for mathematics. Yet musicians have hitherto obtained but indifferent recognition for feats of calculation, nor have the singing and playing of renowned mathematicians been unanimously commended by good judges.

Music so intensifies and excites the instinct of rhythm that a strong volition is required to repress its physical expression. The universality of this is well illustrated by the legend, found in some shape in many countries and languages, of the boy with the fiddle who compels king, cook, peasant, clown, and all that kind of people, to follow him through the land; and in the myth of the Pied Piper of Hamelin we discern abundant reason to think the instinct of rhythm an attribute of rats. Soldiers march so much livelier with music than without that it has been found a tolerably good substitute for the hope of plunder. When the foot-falls are audible, as on the deck of a steamer, walking has an added pleasure, and even the pirate, with gentle consideration for the universal instinct, suffers his vanquished foeman to walk the plank.

Dancing is simply marking time with the body, as an accompaniment to music, though the same — without the music — is done with only the head and forefinger in a New England meeting-house at psalm time. (The peculiar dance named in honor of St. Vitus is executed with or without music, at the option of the musician.) But the body is a clumsy piece of machinery, requiring some attention and observation to keep it accurately in time to the fiddling. The smallest diversion of the thought, the briefest relaxing of the mind, is fatal to the performance. ’Tis as easy to fix attention on a sonnet of Shakspeare while working at whist as gloat upon your partner while waltzing. It can not be intelligently, appreciatively, and adequately accomplished —crede expertum.

On the subject of poetry, Emerson says: “Metre begins with pulse-beat, and the length of lines in songs and poems is determined by the inhalation and exhalation of the lungs,” and this really goes near to the root of the matter; albeit we might derive therefrom the unsupported inference that a poet “fat and scant of breath” would write in lines of a foot each, while the more able-bodied bard, with the capacious lungs of a pearl-diver, would deliver himself all across his page, with “the spacious volubility of a drumming decasyllabon.”

While the heart, working with alternate contraction and dilatation, sends the blood intermittently through the brain, and the outer world apprises us of its existence only by successive impulses, it must result that our sense of things will be rhythmic. The brain being alternately stimulated and relaxed we must think — as we feel — in waves, apprehending nothing continuously, and incapable of a consciousness that is not divisible into units of perception of which we make mental record and physical sign. That is why we dance. That is why we can, may, must, will, and shall dance, and the gates of Philistia shall not prevail against us.

La valse légère, la valse légère,

The free, the bright, the debonair,

That stirs the strong, and fires the fair

With joy like wine of vintage rare  —

That lends the swiftly circling pair

A short surcease of killing care,

With music in the dreaming air,

With elegance and grace to spare.

Vive! vive la valse, la valse légère!

George Jessop.


Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:51