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An essay by George William Curtis

The Morality Of Dancing

Title:     The Morality Of Dancing
Author: George William Curtis [More Titles by Curtis]

The gravity of the discussion of the morality of dancing is exceedingly amusing. The dancing of young people is as natural and instinctive as their laughing and singing, and the old Easy Chairs about the wall might as wisely quarrel with the song of the bobolink in the fields as with the dance upon the floor. But the grave censors who condemn it must be heard. There is reason in the way in which they often put their objections. Excitement, late hours, exposure of health, all these are bad. But, on the other hand, exercise, cheerfulness, friendly conversation, all these are good. The zealous censors confound uses and abuses. The Easy Chair has seen a worthy temperance apostle ingulfing cups of coffee in the pauses of an exhortation to abstinence, until it marvelled at the capacity of the apostolic stomach. Could there be no intemperance in coffee-drinking? But was coffee not to be drunk? The Easy Chair has seen such frantic gobbling at a railway eating-room that it could only gaze in wonder at the sottish and, so to speak, drunken eating. But is food not to be eaten? The Easy Chair has seen little children, extravagantly dressed and decorated, dancing in great hotel parlors on hot summer nights at an hour when they should all have been sound asleep in their beds, while their parents should have been soundly chastised for not putting them there. But is the dancing of young persons therefore wrong?

This is probably to the censorial mind nothing but the base compromise and sophistry of "moderate drinking." But nevertheless most of the evils of this kind are perversions of good things. There are a great many young and ignorant parents who become impatient with the incessant activity and restlessness of their children. They condemn them to sit still in a chair and make no noise. Dear madame, it is nature's intention that the child shall be restless, to develop his limbs. You apply to him rules that are fit and easy for us who are old, and whom nature equally admonishes to sit still in chairs. Our little Procrustean beds are merely furniture that tortures. The desire of youth for enjoyment is as worthy as its desire for knowledge, for truth, for excellence. And it is the spirit, not the method, of enjoyments which are not obviously wrong, that is chiefly to be regarded. A good man asks whether he could go from dancing to console a dying bed. But could he go from skating, or reading Pickwick, or from heartily laughing, to console a dying friend? Would it not, even in his own view, depend wholly upon the mood in which he was doing it?

Let him select an act which he would approve. Let him be reading a serious book, or thinking in his study, or going upon a visit of charity when he is summoned, and he would say that he could go with perfect composure and the utmost propriety. But how if he were peevish as he read the serious book, or if he were thinking angrily in his study, or if he were mentally reproaching the duty that drew him from his comfortable room to pay a visit of charity, could he then more properly hasten to console the dying than if he had been cheerfully dancing, his mind full of pleasant thoughts and the delight of the music and the measured movement? It is not the thing that he is doing, but the spirit in which he is doing it, that should be considered.

How different a view of the pleasant recreation of dancing may be taken by an intellectual man, from that of one who thinks the waltz a device of Satan, is shown by a passage of De Quincey, the beginning of which the Easy Chair will quote, and which will find an echo in many a memory: "And in itself, of all the scenes which this world offers, none is to me so profoundly interesting, none (I say deliberately) so affecting, as the spectacle of men and women floating through the mazes of a dance; under these conditions, however, that the music shall be rich and festal, the execution of the dancers perfect, and the dance itself of a character to admit of free, fluent, and continuous action. And whenever the music happens not to be of a light, trivial character, but charged with the spirit of festal pleasure, and the performers in the dance so far skilful as to betray no awkwardness verging on the ludicrous, I believe that many persons feel as I feel in such circumstances, viz., derive from the spectacle the very grandest form of passionate sadness which can belong to any spectacle whatsoever."

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George William Curtis's essay: Morality Of Dancing