“On with the Dance!”, by Ambrose Bierce


A Reef in the Gabardine

The early Jew danced ritually and socially. Some of his dances and the customs connected therewith were of his own devising; others he picked up in Egypt, the latter, no doubt, being more firmly fixed in his memory by the necessity of practicing them — albeit behind the back of Moses — while he had them still fresh in his mind; for he would naturally resort to every human and inhuman device to wile away the dragging decades consumed in tracing the labyrinthine sinuosities of his course in the wilderness. When a man has assurance that he will not be permitted to arrive at the point for which he set out, perceiving that every step forward is a step wasted, he will pretty certainly use his feet to a better purpose than walking. Clearly, at a time when all the chosen people were Wandering Jews they would dance all they knew how. We know that they danced in worship of the Golden Calf, and that previously “Miriam the prophetess, sister of Aaron, took a timbrel in her hand; and all the women went out after her with timbrels and with dances.” And ever so many generations before, Laban complained to Jacob that Jacob had stolen away instead of letting him send him off with songs and mirth and music on the tabret and harp, a method of speeding the parting guest which would naturally include dancing, although the same is not of explicit record.

The religious ceremonies of the Jews had not at all times the restraint and delicacy which it is to be wished the Lord had exacted, for we read of King David himself dancing before the Ark in a condition so nearly nude as greatly to scandalize the daughter of Saul. By the way, this incident has been always a stock argument for the extinction and decent interment of the unhappy anti dancer. Conceding the necessity of his extinction, I am yet indisposed to attach much weight to the Davidian precedent, for it does not appear that he was acting under divine command, directly or indirectly imparted, and whenever he followed the hest of his own sweet will David had a notable knack at going wrong. Perhaps the best value of the incident consists in the evidence it supplies that dancing was not forbidden — save possibly by divine injunction — to the higher classes of Jews, for unless we are to suppose the dancing of David to have been the mere clumsy capering of a loutish mood (a theory which our respect for royalty, even when divested of its imposing externals, forbids us to entertain) we are bound to assume previous instruction and practice in the art. We have, moreover, the Roman example of the daughter of Herodias, whose dancing before Herod was so admirably performed that she was suitably rewarded with a testimonial of her step father’s esteem. To these examples many more might be added, showing by cumulative evidence that among the ancient people whose religion was good enough for us to adopt and improve, dancing was a polite and proper accomplishment, although not always decorously executed on seasonable occasion.


Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:05