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Dancing Through Literature

Dancing Through Literature
  • Roxana, The Fortunate Mistress (by )
  • Mansfield Park (by )
  • The Age of Innocence (by )
  • Vanity Fair (by )
  • Anna Karenina (by )
  • Childe Harold's Pilgrimage (by )
  • Madame Bovary (by )
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Coventry University in London (United Kingdom, not Ohio) offers a multidisciplinary symposium on the enduring relationship between dance and literature. That relationship has existed since ancient Egyptian times, such that dance “appears frequently across drama, poetry, and fiction to the many dance and physical theatre works based on literary sources.” 

The topic of dance in literature stems from two obscure holidays in May: National Chicken Dance Day and National Tap Dance Day. While those familiar with the Chicken Dance may now wince at the jaunty, repetitious tune now ringing in their heads, the subject of dance related to literature is nonetheless serious because dance is integral to literature even as literature is integral to culture. Because religion mixes and often defines culture, it, too, must be considered in the context of dance. Although various denominations of major religions may forbid music and/or dance, the guiding religious texts do not. Judaism’s Torah and Christianity’s Bible include dancing as a joyous expression of worshipping God. Islam’s Quran does not forbid either music or dancing. Buddhism is famous for lively masked and costumed dances.

No culture exists without dance. Even where music and dance have been forbidden, people in the privacy of their homes will hum, whistle, and drum a rhythm. They’ll break into spontaneous movement matching the unheard music in their minds. Dance and music often coexist, one inspiring the other, one governing the other. The literature produced by our imaginations and influenced by our cultures cannot help but include dance.

In their June 1920 issue of English Journal, The National Council of Teachers in English published an article by Milton M. Smith titled “Dancing through English Literature.” In the article Smith addresses the prevalence of dance in English literature, beginning with folk dances. He includes references to dance—specifically,  morris dancing—in the literature written by classic greats as William Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, Sir Walter Scott, and American author Washington Irving.

At least in Western Europe’s polite society, chaperoned and organized parties featured dances—minuets, country dances, reels, and, later, the waltz—as social venues whereby young ladies of marriageable age could become acquainted with eligible young (and not so young) gentlemen. These affairs offered entertainment (music, dancing, card games, gossip) where circumspect behavior could be enforced. The concept of the chaperoned party features strongly in works by authors from Jane Austen to Oscar  Wilde. Perusal of historical romances, especially Regency romances, published in the last 50 years continues the theme.
Writing in 2013 for Making Science News, Andrea Bachman addresses the topic in “Dancing Literature, Dancing Knowledge: A Language of Dance and its Knowledge in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and Oscar Wilde’s Salome.” She says of the literature in the 18th and 19th centuries: “The pervasive popularity of dance made depicting dance a virtual requirement for a novel’s economic success.”

Dancing in literature, Bachman writes, embeds a “sophisticated sign system into the texts that reflects a set of values and ideas that needs to be unpacked and decoded.” Dance, like literature, serves as an expression of creativity; however, combining the two need not coincide with a lack of form or substance. Dance in various cultures, such as the Kachina, indigenous Hawaiian, Indian, and Haitian supplement or take the place of the stories told. Ritualized movement often matched to music and sometimes to song embed the story’s narrative into the body as well as the mind.

For luscious descriptions of dance in Western civilization in all its social contexts, overt and hidden, refer to these literary classics available from the World Library:

Mansfield Park by Jane Austen
Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray
Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton.

By Karen M. Smith

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