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An essay by Robert Lynd

The Sin Of Dancing

Title:     The Sin Of Dancing
Author: Robert Lynd [More Titles by Lynd]

It is a pleasure to see a modern clergyman expressing his horror of the dancing of the moment as Canon Newbolt did in St Paul's. One had begun to fear lately that the clergy were trying to run a race of tolerance with the dramatic critics and the nuts. On the whole I prefer clergymen in the denouncing mood. They are there to remind us that the soul does not pour out its riches in rag-time songs, that Peter is not to be bribed with trinkets, and that the gates of Heaven will not--so far as is known--open to the bark of a toy-dog. They are there, in a sentence, as the shaven critics of a saltatory world. The history of civilisation might be interpreted with some reason as a prolonged conflict between the preachers and the dancers. The preacher and the dancer may both be necessary to us, like east and west in a map; but we feel that, like east and west, they should keep their distance from each other in censorious irreconcilement. I know, of course, that the modern anthropologist is inclined to insist upon the kinship between dancing and religion. We are told that the Church was born not, it may be, under a dancing star, but at any rate under a dancing savage. The theory is that man originally expressed his deepest emotions about food, love, and war in dances. In the course of time the leaping groups felt the need of a leader, and gradually the leader of the dance evolved into a hero, or representative of the group soul, and from that he afterwards swelled into a god. This, we are asked to believe, is the lineage of Zeus. The theory strikes me as being too simple to be true. It is like an attempt to spell a long word with a single letter. At the same time, it gains colour from the fact that the heads of the Church have continually shown a tendency to dancing since the days of King David. We have it on good authority that in the Latin Church the Bishops were called Praesules because they led the dances in the church choir on feast days. It is a fact of some significance, indeed, that at more than one period of history it has been the heretics rather than the orthodox who have raged most furiously against dancing. The Albigenses and the Waldenses are both examples of this. Superficially, this may seem to weaken my contention that preaching and dancing can no more become friends than the lion and the unicorn. But, if you reflect for a moment, you will see that it is the heretics rather than the orthodox who are, of all men, the most given to preaching. Bishops preach as a matter of duty; Savonarola and Mr Shaw preach for the religious pleasure of it. So rare a thing is it to find an orthodox clergyman of standing doing anything that deserves the name of preaching--and by preaching I mean protesting in capable words against the subordination of life to luxury--that, whenever he does so, the newspapers put it on their posters among the great events, like a scandal about a Cabinet Minister or an earthquake.

It is not difficult to see why the preachers have usually been so doubtful about the dancers. It is simply that dancing is for the most part a rhythmical pantomime of sex. It is the most haremish of pastimes. One is not surprised to learn that Henry VIII was the most expert of royal dancers. He was an enthusiast for the kissing dances of his day, indeed, even before he had abandoned his youthful straitness for the moral code of a farmyard that had gone off its head. I can imagine how a preacher with his craft at his fingers' ends could deduce Henry's downfall from those first delicate trippings. Even the Encyclopaedia Britannica is driven to admit the presence of the amorous element in dancing. "Actual contact of the partners," it insists, "is quite intelligible as matter of pure dancing; for, apart altogether from the pleasure of the embrace, the harmony of the double rotation adds very much to the enjoyment." But that reference to "the pleasure of the embrace" is fatal to the sentence. How are we simple people as we whirl in the waltz to know whether it is the pleasure of the embrace or the harmony of the double rotation that is making us glow so? The preachers will certainly not give us the benefit of the doubt. They will follow the lead of Byron, who, in his horror at the popularisation of the waltz, declared that Terpsichore was henceforth "the least a vestal virgin of the Nine." Many people will remember the letter which Byron prefaced to The Waltz over the signature of Horace Hornem, supposed to be a country gentleman from the Midlands. Describing his sensations on first seeing his wife waltzing, Mr Hornem says:--

Judge of my surprise ... to see poor Mrs Hornem with her arms half round the loins of a huge hussar-looking gentleman I never set eyes on before; and his, to say truth, rather more than half round her waist, turning round, and round, and round, to a d----d see-saw, up-and-down sort of tune, that reminded me of the "Black joke."

Cynics explain Byron's attitude to dancing as a matter of envy, since he himself was too lame to waltz. At the same time, I fancy that an anthropologist from Mars, if he visited the earth, would take the same view of the drama of the waltz as Byron did. I do not mean to say that the waltz cannot be danced in a sublime innocence. It can, and often is. But the point is that sex is the arch-musician of it, and whether you approve of waltzing or disapprove of it will depend upon whether, like the preachers, you regard sex as Aholah and Aholibah, or, like the poets, as April and the song of the stars. It is worth remembering in this connection that a great preacher like Huxley took much the same view of poetry that Byron took of dancing. Most of it, he said, seemed to him to be little more than sensual caterwauling. Tolstoi, if I am not mistaken, interpreted Romeo and Juliet in the same spirit. This kind of analysis, whether it is just or foolish, always shocks the crowd, which can never admit the existence of the senses without blushing for them. Confirmed in its sentimentalism--and therefore given to "harping on the sensual string"--it swears that it finds the Russian ballet more edifying than church, and would have no objection to seeing the Merry Widow waltz introduced into a mothers' meeting. There is nothing in which we are such hypocrites as our pleasures. That is why some of us like the preachers. Even if they are grossly inhuman in wanting to take our amusements away from us, they at least insist that we shall submit them to a realistic analysis. In this they are excellent servants of the scientific spirit.

What, then, is a reasonable attitude to adopt towards sex in dancing? Obviously we cannot abolish sex, even if we wished to do so. And if we try to chain it up, it will merely become crabbed like a dog. On the other hand, there is all the difference in the world between putting a dog on a chain and encouraging it to go mad and bite half the parish. There is nearly as wide a distance separating the courtly dances of the eighteenth century from the cake-walk, and the apache dance from the Irish reel. Priests, I know, in whom the gift of preaching has turned sour, have been as severe on innocent as on furious dances. But this is merely an exaggeration of the prevailing sense of mankind that sex is a wild animal and most difficult to tame into a fireside pet. It is upon the civilisation of this animal, none the less, though not upon the butchering of it, that the decencies of the world depend. And this is exercise for a hero, for the animal in question has a desperate tendency to revert to type. One noticed how its eye bulged with the memory of African forests when the cake-walk affronted the sun a few years ago. The cake-walk, I admit, seemed a right and rapturous thing enough when it was danced by those in whose veins was the recent blood of Africa. But when young gentlemen began to introduce it as a figure in the lancers in suburban back-parlours one resented it, not merely as an emasculated parody, but as an act of dishonest innocence. But everywhere it has been the tendency of dancing in recent years to become more noisily sexual. I am not thinking of the dancing in undress which for a time captured the music-halls. That is almost the least sexual dancing we have had. The dancing of Isidora Duncan was of as good report as a painting by old Sir Joshua. We may pass over the Russian ballet, too, because of the art which often raised it to beauty, though it is interesting to speculate what St Bernard would have thought of Nijinsky. But, as for rag-time, it is a silly madness, a business for Maenads of both sexes; and all those gesticulations of the human frame known as bunny-hugs, turkey-trots, and the rest of it are condemned by their very names as tolerable only in the menagerie. On the other hand, because the bunny in man and the turkey in woman have revived themselves with such impudence, are we to get out our guns against all dancing? Far from it. One is not going to sacrifice the flowery grace of Genee, or Pavlova with her genius of the butterflies, because of the multitude of fools. All we can do is to insist upon the recognition of the fact that dancing may be good or bad, as eggs are good or bad, and to remind the world that in dancing, as in eggs, freshness is even more beautiful than decadence. Perhaps some of the performances of the Russian ballet would come off limping from such a test. Opinions will differ about that. In any case, one cannot help the logic of one's belief. Each of us, no doubt, contains something of the preacher and something of the dancer; and our enthusiasms depend upon which of the two is dominant in us. Meanwhile, we are likely to go on preaching against our dancing, and dancing against our preaching, till the end of time. That merely proves the completeness of our humanity. It makes for balance, like, as I have said, east and west in a map. That, surely, is a conclusion which ought to satisfy everybody.

[The end]
Robert Lynd's essay: Sin Of Dancing