A Merry Dance

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.

Act normal.

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.”


29 thoughts on “A Merry Dance

  1. The old westerns have one thing in common: When the new sheriff walks through the doors there are 50 men at the bar and 150 sitting at tables playing poker. How did the West get settled if everyone just drank and played cards? Don’t any of these people work? How do they get money?

  2. You have those western bar moments down pat, Kate (are you a closet ‘Dirty Harry’ fan? 🙂 ) – hope you all danced a jig back to your hotel…

  3. I saw the jig after ‘Othello’ – what a mood-lifter.

    I can see where I sat from your photo 🙂 I want to go baaaaaaack.

    Fred Astaire and Euripides – inspired.

  4. Interesting stuff, Kate. I can see why you enjoyed the tour so much.

    Music has such an influence on us. Certain rhythm mean you want to dance with the dancers… toe tapping music. I can see how that would send one home happy…. did they play music for you on the tour?

  5. Thanks for including us in your trip to London! It is a city at the top of the places I want to vist outside the US.

    We went to a outdoor Shakespeare performance last summer at a nearby college campus and while the cast didn’t dance for us afterwards, they engaged the audience in some improv activities, which were great fun. I think Will and co. would have approved.

  6. love this, Kate…and it looks as if I’ve a book to find (Powell). As for dance, such mystery in music, how it moves our brain, body and soul. I’d like to believe that our writing also dances, as yours did for this piece. The first few lines are pure lyrical genius…wonderful ~

    1. Thank you Angela! I wonder what the jig at the end of the play would look like in prose? As for Powell, you’re in for a treat: but it’ll take you a while: there are twelve volumes. Stunning stuff, though.

    1. Cheers Liz 🙂
      The wooden floors posed a problem for the theatrical costumiers at the Globe: they couldn’t understand how the shoes of the day did not slide around on the stage – their actors were sliding all over the place during rehearsals on the oak floor.
      They looked back through records and realised that the old stage would have been made from pine: a much more cloying wood, it seems, on which actor’s shoes are just tacky enough.

  7. May I leave a little message for your readers who have children and dogs?

    A friend, who writes children’s stories, is asking for children to write and post their own dog stories on her website – http://www.sallygould.com.au

    She hasn’t set an age limit, but I think it could be fun thing to do for budding young writers.


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