It’s that moment in a Western where those swing doors part with a cantankerous squeak and the fly-in-the-villains’-ointment stands there, his very presence a confrontation.
The plinky-plonky pianist halts mid-bawdy-cadence and the dancers freeze with one leg at an unbecoming angle.
Everyone looks awkward.
Evil’s over, the new guy says, or words to that effect. This here town’s just gotten itself a shiny new sheriff.
This is cinema, and so the bad guys are permitted a few moments to scan, uneasily, the body language of all who are gathered here. This is a moment which could be handled using normal evil procedures: or it could go horribly wrong and the arch-baddie could end up with some dated egg on his face.
Of course we all know the answer: there is only one thing to do.
This entails issuing an imperative to the pianist to play on, and glares with menaces at the dancing-girls. Dance, women, the arch-villain’s eyes flash: dance for your lives.
He might add: and dance for mine, too.
So the pianist plays like he’s had six strong coffees in a line, and the dancers high-kick like there’s no tomorrow, hoping against hope that the good guy wins the day and they can quit and go run the grocery store.
Sometimes we dance to show life is going on, just as it used to.
Nobody says it like Fred Astaire, under the spell of Irving Berlin: There may be trouble ahead; but while there’s music and moonlight and love and romance, let’s face the music and dance.
Perhaps because dance allows us to lose ourselves a little.
The Ancient Greeks knew that so well. Their Dionysus inspired dance of the wildest kind. Men and women would dress in long robes, leave their homes and dance wildly on the mountainsides in a homage to this god of theatre, of madness, of all that is green and fertile, and of wine. They left all responsibility behind and danced for a mad, bad moment.
Scholar Richard Lattimore translated this section from Euripides: ” Oh, Thebes, nurse of Semele, crown your hair with ivy! Grow green with bryony! Redden with berries!
“O city, with boughs of oak and fir, come dance the dance of god! Fringe your skins of dappled fawn with tufts of twisted wool. Handle with holy care the violent wand of god! And let the dance begin… To the mountain, where the throng of women waits, driven from shuttle and loom, possessed by Dionysus! ”
If Fred Astaire and Euripides agree on something, one can hardly refuse.
Everywhere one looks, the imperative to dance despite life’s troubles jumps out at one. Look at Anthony Powell’s Dance To The Music Of Time: an entrancing journey across half a century, following a set of characters through high and low, beautifully observed and compulsive reading: he has his characters dance through two world wars and onwards, from 1914 to 1971. Trouble invariably lies ahead for these souls, beloved of their readership: but they face the music, and dance.
Today I stood in a replica, not even half a century old, which pieces together a forgotten story. The tale of the first and second Globe theatres-where William Shakespeare staged his plays- is shrouded in time. But those who built and run the first Globe’s newborn sibling have devoted lives to piecing together what can be found out from documents and records.
And it seems dance has been playing a familiar role, there on Shakespeare’s stage.
Breathtaking, it was, to walk into the auditorium. The Globe has all the stature of a theatre but without the roof. Much of it is hewed out of honest hardwood and it is crowned by thatch. Many of its performances are crowned by the stars.
Its interior is a testament to research: a living reconstruction, as faithful as it can be made to its long-gone forebears. A 3D dissertation, it is, with life breathed into it by the actors, the stage crew and the many staff who help to run it.
We toured today and listened to the detail of the research: how one account tells that on a certain Summer’s day, back in the 16th century, it was so hot in the auditorium that one man had to be peeled off another; of the Winchester Geese who were allowed to circulate, touting for bored playgoers, during the performance; of the man who set his britches on fire at a performance but was saved by the quick action of his friend, who threw ale all over him.
But we were talking of dance, weren’t we?
At the end of every performance, the actors danced a jig. This included not only the comedies, but the tragedies: after Lear, and Coriolanus, they danced a jig to send the beery punters home happy.
That must have been some change of gear. It seems it kept away maudlin contemplation so the playgoers could ferry their way cheerfully home across the river, or sing their way in high spirits across London Bridge.
A jig’s the thing, wherein to fix an audience that’s maudlin.
So whatever problems you face, and they may be legion, it may be that, health willing, a few dance steps could be just the thing to battle adversity.
It is as well to remember the sage words of Sir Toby Belch as he lurches drunkenly through Twelfth Night: “My very walk should be a jig.”