Edwardian and Georgian Canadian Poets
1900-1930


 

 

Selected Essays and Reviews

by Bliss Carman

Edited by Terry Whalen


 

The Revival of Dancing*


 

The renewed interest in dancing which has taken possession of us in the past few years, and which shows no sign of diminution, bids fair to become a widespread and permanent revival of that delightful art. There is every reason to hope that this may be so.

Dancing has been treated too long as a Cinderella among the arts, and it is quite time that she should be reinstated in her lawful position among her haughty sisters. In the great Puritan movement in England which resulted in the Reformation, the happy arts fared badly. Our Roundhead ancestors had little patience with the graces and amenities. Indeed, they cannot have had much leisure for such things. Obsessed by the terrors of their gloomy theological imaginings, and driven by the burning love of freedom, they were pretty thoroughly occupied in the strenuous work of placating a ruthless deity and fighting a faithless king. The arts were banished from the homes of good men; the theatres were closed; songs were hushed; ritual was forbidden, and ceremonial discountenanced; feast days were annulled and gaiety penalized; beauty jeopardized and natural happiness divorced from life. The strange infatuation of the time placed dancing under the ban of execration, and turned that merry child into the streets to pick up a sorry living. She was too joyous for those serious citizens, and only asked to be allowed to live and to please. But what sort of life was that for a Christian maid? Out of the doors with the pretty baggage! Her beauty must not be a snare to youth and a seduction to the elect.

And so Dancing, the offspring of the Muses, became an outcast and wandering beggar among men, to be seen only with the children on the street corners of a summer evening or among the reckless and vagabond frequenters of the forbidden playhouse. Only lately has she ventured to come back to her own, and even now there are as many who look at her askance. Let us open our hearts once more to her ravishing loveliness, and thank our good fortune that any thing so beautiful still treads the earth. For it is only by beauty, after all, that the world will be redeemed at last. When all our arduous reforming has been done, after justice had been secured and the dust of fighting has settled, there will still remain the vacancy of the human heart to be filled with something better than innocuous peace. Perhaps only the arts will be found capable of that task.

Of all the fine arts which have done so much to humanize and ennoble the world, none is more fascinating nor more truly beneficent than dancing. It is the embodiment of a primitive impulse, if you will, barbaric and even savage in its origin; it gives vent primarily to animal spirits; and yet it offers a legitimate form of expression for the most sensitive and spiritual emotions. The war-dance of a leaping cannibal, lashing his courage into fury, and the protervic sinuosities of a perverted Salome, releasing her pent-up animalism in gestures of lubricity, express the most primordial types of passion. Such themes when they are employed dramatically are apt to degenerate into horrible exhibitions, and become revolting through a mistaken naturalism and lack of restraint. For whatever nature may be, art must always be restrained and keep its sense of proportion. Otherwise its illusion and power are lost. Too often this truth is not understood, and we are asked to accept physical vehemence in lieu of passionate intensity. On the other hand, how irresistibly our hearts are moved and our fancy transported to regions of joyous ecstasy by the happy dances of childhood and spontaneous delight!

Until a few years ago dancing seemed likely to become one of the lost arts, for the few formal dances which are kept alive for a social use are so stereotyped and conventionalized that they scarcely retain the most essential elements of an art, affording almost no medium for the expression of personal feeling or impulse. To walk through a minuet with elegance and precision is an agreeable and picturesque diversion. It is a courtly and ceremonious office which imposes its order, its rhythm, its felicity, its discipline upon the participants, encouraging manners and insisting upon restraint, as all fine art must. To circle through a waltz is a pleasant enough pastime and a good exercise in poise and grace. But neither dance can quite be said to offer any adequate vent for that exuberance of spirit, or any scope for the happy mimicry of life, which it is the very gist of the fine arts to provide.

In painting, in sculpture, in music, for example, the artist is free to express himself. He can give play to his imagination, and impress his personal note upon his work so that it will speak for him. His medium, whether color, form, or tone, becomes an alphabet which he uses in writing his criticism of life (to use a rather ambitious phrase).

Primitive dancing had similar origin and served a similar purpose. It was an almost automatic expression of natural rapture, providing the stifled feelings with an escape in rhythmic, orderly, beautiful, and therefore satisfying, occupation. It lent wings to the spirit, and slaked the need for an interesting and sufficient activity. This quality of ebulition, a capacity of expressing personal emotion, is perhaps the chief characteristic of dancing, which is being restored to its rightful importance in the present revival of the art. It is certainly the one characteristic which will most inevitably insure a thorough and unreserved interest in dancing as a serious art, and restore it to its lawful place among the delightful avocations over which the muses preside.

One scarcely needs to plead for the freedom of dancing now. We have for the most part accorded liberty enough to the devotees of the art. But it may be questioned whether the art has profited as it should by that freedom as yet. It has been so long a neglected amusement and profession, with no helpful, intelligent criticism, that any progress toward perfection has been a very haphazard matter. It needs the stimulus and encouragement of thoughtful appreciation and understanding.

The truth is that the great majority of professional dancers and managers have no just conception of the subtle power of dancing and the sway which it is capable of exercising over the spectator and over the dancer's own personality, when practiced in all its lovely perfection. But that is not surprising. Few of us realize, except in rare moments, the startling influence which the arts exert over us by their subtle and lovely sorcery.

There is in dancing an elemental magic, an abandon and rapture, which hardly lurk in any other art. Of all the fine arts, poetry, perhaps, is the most sublime, in that it appeals to reason as well as to emotion and taste. But music and dancing are the most instructive and universal. Motion is so primitive a thing, so spontaneous and impulsive, that no human being can be indifferent to it. When it is beautiful, as in fine dancing, it is capable of arousing even a more tremendous ecstasy than music itself. Not many of its practitioners, of the myriads who daily live and move, are aware of the personal power they could wield if only they had the conscious skill.

The average dancer cannot be said to give a very intelligent performance. The girl perhaps has great beauty, she may even have excellent nimbleness and technique, but the chances are that she has no notion of the true potency of the art she practices, and fancies that her own insignificant person is the lure which is to prevail with her audience. To exhibit her charms in the market place is her one ambition-an excusable frame of mind in itself, but sadly inadequate in an artist. She does not know that even without personal beauty, and having the mysterious sorcery of motion at her command, she could work a spell far more irresistible over her entranced beholder. And so, being shapely but ignorant, she may posture and gyrate in vain. The gallery is contemptuous, the boxes are unmoved. In desperation she may cast off the last tawdry shred of reserve and abandon herself to more frantic capering, still without grace or intelligence, to be a wretched, tepid failure nonetheless.

The manager, knowing no more than his performer, thinks the public is jaded and must be excited with the salacious and the horrible, and grows more and more grotesque in his fantastic attempts to create a sensation. It does not occur to him that, after all, the public is nothing more or less than humanity itself, and that humanity will respond to the magic of art as surely as grass will bend in the wind. A popular vaudeville singer like Vesta Tilly, for instance, is popular not because of her choice of themes, nor because she happens to be a charming little lady in private life; she is popular because she is an inimitable and delightful artist. A popular actress, like Miss Marlowe, is not popular because she happens to be a beautiful woman, but because she can act. Genius like hers, or like that of a Bernhardt or a Duse, does not depend on personal beauty for its triumphs. It may be blessed with the gift of personal beauty for its triumphs. It may be blesses with the gift of personal beauty as an additional charm, or it may not. It does not matter much. When beauty is possessed of grace, of charm, of intelligence, of skill, of culture, and of technique in this or that particular art, it has power in its mimic world to sway our fond and foolish human hearts which way it will. But when beauty is dull, or stupid, or vulgar, or mean, or ignorant, or unskilled, it may play and dance to us unheeded. The play's the thing, the dance is the thing. And irresistible fascination of the player or the dancer is not in her shapeliness, but in her grace-not in her beauty, but in her art. Daring and ecstatic abandon of spirit is one thing; flagrant and shameless effrontery is quite another. And the unhappy lady who does not understand this, and offers us a gross amount of suggestion to make up for her plentiful lack of subtlety, artistry, and skill, only succeeds in nauseating her audience.

Without doubt the most skillful and eminent dancer in the traditional method who has appeared lately is Mlle. Genee. Her lightness and grace give her rank with the great historic exponents of the art. In a different field of dancing, more expressive, intellectual, and interpretive, Miss Duncan has done admirable work in reviving the classical spirit and in emancipating her art from the bonds of conventional and restricting dress. Not only is her dancing poetic and beautiful in itself; it indicates a free and delightful region in which the spirit may find itself again and renew its joyousness in life.


"The Revival of Dancing," The Gentleman's Journal, Nov. 1909 [back]