“On with the Dance!”, by Ambrose Bierce


In the Bottom of the Crucible

From the rapid and imperfect review of certain characteristic oriental dances in the chapters immediately preceding — or rather from the studies some of whose minor results those chapters embody — I make deduction of a few significant facts, to which facts of contrary significance seem exceptional. In the first place, it is to be noted that in countries where woman is conspicuously degraded the dance is correspondingly depraved. By “the dance,” I mean, of course, those characteristic and typical performances which have permanent place in the social life of the people. Amongst all nations the dance exists in certain loose and unrecognized forms, which are the outgrowth of the moment — creatures of caprice, posing and pranking their brief and inglorious season, to be superseded by some newer favorite, born of some newer accident or fancy. A fair type of these ephemeral dances — the comets of the saltatory system — in so far as they can have a type, is the now familiar Can-Can of the Jardin Mabille — a dance the captivating naughtiness of which has given it wide currency in our generation, the successors to whose aged rakes and broken bawds it will fail to please and would probably make unhappy. Dances of this character, neither national, universal, nor enduring, have little value to the student of anything but anatomy and lingerie. By study of a thousand, the product of as many years, it might be possible to trace the thread upon which such beads are strung — indeed, it is pretty obvious without research; but considered singly they have nothing of profit to the investigator, who will do well to contemplate without reflection or perform without question, as the bent of his mind may be observant or experimental.

Dancing, then, is indelicate where the women are depraved, and to this it must be added that the women are depraved where the men are indolent. We need not trouble ourselves to consider too curiously as to cause and effect. Whether in countries where man is too lazy to be manly, woman practices deferential adjustment of her virtues to the loose exactions of his tolerance, or whether for ladies of indifferent modesty their lords will not make exertion — these are questions for the ethnologer. It concerns our purpose only to note that the male who sits cross-legged on a rug and permits his female to do the dancing for both gets a quality distinctly inferior to that enjoyed by his more energetic brother, willing himself to take a leg at the game. Doubtless the lazy fellow prefers the loose gamboling of nude girls to the decent grace and moderation of a better art, but this, I submit, is an error of taste resulting from imperfect instruction.

And here we are confronted with the ever recurrent question. Is dancing immoral? The reader who has done me the honor attentively to consider the brief descriptions of certain dances, hereinbefore presented will, it is believed, be now prepared to answer that some sorts of dancing indubitably are — a bright and shining example of the type being the exploit wherein women alone perform and men alone admire. But one of the arguments by which it is sought to prove dancing immoral in itself — namely that it provokes evil passions — we are now able to analyze with the necessary discrimination, assigning to it its just weight, and tracing its real bearing on the question. Dances like those described (with, I hope a certain delicacy and reticence) are undoubtedly disturbing to the spectator. They have in that circumstance their raison d’être. As to that, then, there can be no two opinions. But observe the male oriental voluptuary does not himself dance. Why? Partly no doubt, because of his immortal indolence, but mainly, I venture to think, because he wishes to enjoy his reprehensible emotion, and this can not coexist with muscular activity If the reader — through either immunity from improper emotion or unfamiliarity with muscular activity — entertains a doubt of this, his family physician will be happy to remove it. Nothing is more certain than that the dancing girls of oriental countries themselves feel nothing of what they have the skill to simulate, and the ballet dancer of our own stage is icily unconcerned while kicking together the smouldering embers in the heart of the wigged and corseted old beau below her, and playing the duse’s delight with the disobedient imagination of the he Prude posted in the nooks and shadows thoughtfully provided for him. Stendahl frankly informs us, “I have had much experience with the danseuses of the —— Theatre at Valence. I am convinced that they are, for the most part, very chaste. It is because their occupation is too fatiguing.”

The same author, by the way, says elsewhere

I would wish if I were legislator that they should adopt in France as in Germany the custom of soirées dansantes. Four times a month the young girls go with their mothers to a ball beginning at seven o’clock, ending at midnight and requiring for all expense, a violin and some glasses of water. In an adjacent room, the mothers perhaps a little jealous of the happy education of their daughters play at cards, in a third the fathers find the newspapers and talk politics. Between midnight and one o’clock all the family are reunited and have regained the paternal roof. The young girls learn to know the young men, the fatuity, and the indiscretion that follows it, become quickly odious, in a word they learn how to choose a husband. Some young girls have unfortunate love affairs, but the number of deceived husbands and unhappy households (mauvaises ménages) diminishes in immense proportion.

For an iron education in cold virtue there is no school like the position of sitting master to the wall flowers at a church sociable, but it is humbly conjectured that even the austere morality of a bald headed Prude might receive an added iciness if he would but attend one of these simple dancing bouts disguised as a sweet young girl.


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