Modern Dancing by Vernon and Irene Castle Chapter 13
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XIII
THE DANCES OF THE PAST

Dancing is silent poetry.— Simondes.

THIS phrase, coined in the earliest days of terpsichorean art, covers effectively a multitude of descriptive adjectives, which could be applied to this “little sister of the arts.” For in this, as in poetry, there must be rhythm, music, measure. As poetry is the language of the soul and music the language of the heart and senses, so dancing is the language of the body; it is, as in social dancing, the exponent par excellence of the joy of living. It is the natural and contagious outlet for a hilarious and youthful spirit.

Let us greet the dance as an ideal form of healthy pastime, with the reverence and adoration due it, and let us exclaim with Homer that “Dancing is the sweetest and most perfect of human enjoyments.”

“Dancing,” said Lucian, “is as old as love, the oldest of the gods.” The Puritanical mind has always been hot on the trail of dancing, damning it with book, bell, and candle; has seen in it the sure road to eternal damnation, a carnal sin that no purgatory could purify. And yet dancing has always been a part of religious services; it even originated at the altar of worship by the old heathen, and took a prominent part in the gloomy and fanatical fervor with which the early church inspired the first Christian. Also, we read in the Scripture: “Praise the Lord ... Praise him with the timbrel and the dance.”

The Puritanical mind evidently condemns the dance because it caters to the senses, because it naturally forms a part of sheer physical enjoyment. However, the dance in its ideal form, whether on the stage or in a drawing-room, is a thing of grace and beauty, and “Beauty is a refiner's fire, and the beauty that enters in through the doorway of the senses cannot soil, but only cleanses the spirit.”

Changing fashions in the art of women's dress and changing fads in social dancing have always aroused in narrow minds their most violent criticism. Down the ages we can follow this animosity toward any reform of the accepted dances. When figure dances had to give way to square dances; later on, when square dances found their places as favorites usurped by round dances; and now, when the new school of dancing has entirely driven out the old, voices have been raised in protest, and the unjust charge of immorality has been made.

Thoinot Arbeau, who wrote the first history of dancing, was a monk who had to hide his name under the pen name of Tabourot, so great was the animosity toward social dancing in 1588. After witnessing a ball where the Volta, a new dance, was introduced for the first time, he writes:

“The damosel, her skirt fluttering in the air, has displayed her legs, and you shall return her to her seat, when, put what face on it she may, she will find her shaken-up brain full of swimming and whirling, and you will not perhaps be much better. I leave it to you to consider if it be decorous for a young lady thus to straddle and stride, and whether in this Volta honor and health be not hazarded.”

The good Monsieur was accustomed to the figure dances, and considered these the acme and perfection of terpsichorean art. The idea of a lady being lifted a little in the air shocked this humourous old writer to the root of his being. Yet the Volta came to stay, and after a trip to Germany returned to its birth-place, France, under the name of Waltz, to delight generation after generation.

When Margarite de Valois, who married James V. of Scotland, died of consumption a few days after dancing the Volta, some of the pious and bigoted people of Edinburgh said, “Her death was a celestial punishment for having gyrated in that naughty French dance.” When waltzing arrived in its present form it was at first denounced as vehemently as in those old days. Even Byron, who laughed at conventionality and satirized the traditional views of his days, wrote a poem against waltzing.

To the many millions who have spent some of their most unforgettable and delightful hours dancing the dreamy Waltz, under the influence of its seductive music, this animosity toward their now accepted Queen of the Ball-room must appear ridiculous. And yet not a very few of these same passionate waltzers raise their voices in protest to-day and look horrified at the mere mention of the modern Tango.

Even the Lancers did not go unmolested by the poisonous arrows of prudes, and came in for its turn of foolish antagonism. An American writing home in those days, “hoped that the exhibition of dancing practised in depraved Europe would never soil any drawing-room in the land of the free.” However, the Lancers came to be included in the program of the state balls of Buckingham Palace and were sanctioned by Queen Victoria. Fifty years hence the growing generation will find its dances compared in moral tone with our present much-discussed and over-abused Tango, and get the worst of the comparison.

If the Minuet should ever come back, some ultra-pious and excitable person beyond doubt will find in the graceful measures of this lovely dance a sure road to perdition.

Dancing, however, had its champions among the great intellects of the world, and always will have. Socrates, at the age of sixty, learned dancing from Aspasia. Plato, Pliny, and, later on, Moliere were stanch admirers of this form of exercise. Herbert Spencer says in his [Principles of Psychology:

“The feelings from time to time received along with the perception of graceful movements were mostly agreeable. The persons who exhibited such movements were usually the cultivated, and those whose behavior yielded gratification. The occasions usually have been festive ones—balls, private dances, and the like.”

And Jean J. Rousseau writes:

“From the first formation of society, song and dance, true children of love and leisure, became the amusement or, rather, the occupation of idle assemblies of men and women.”

The old Greeks knew the value of dancing, and the famous Spartan legislator Lycurgus had a special part of his warlike exercises devoted to dancing.

Richelieu, the brilliant statesman, and one of the foremost figures in history, did not deem it beneath his dignity to direct the court dances of his day. Darwin and W. H. Hudson assert that not only man expresses his pleasure by dancing, but that several animals, notably birds, indulge in the pastime. Vauquelia des Yveteau, at eighty years of age, desired to die to the tune of the Saraband, so that his soul might pass away sweetly.

Locke wrote many years ago “that the effect of dancing is not confined to the body only; it imparts to the mind some of its grace.”

Undoubtedly dancing was brought to its greatest perfection in France—that land of brilliancy, vivacity, and polished charm. It is a very significant fact that the technology of dancing is altogether French. The national dances of other countries were taken to France, polished and perfected, and brought back in a new and splendidly changed condition. As France has been the leader par excellence in fashion and the fine arts, so it has been, if not the birthplace, at least the nursery of dancing The history of the social art of Terpsichore is a history of France. Italy in the fifteenth century saw the renaissance of dancing; but it first became an art when Catharine de' Medici brought it to France.

“Drawing-room dances seem to have originated in stage-dancing,” writes Sutherland Edward, in The English Illustrated Magazine, June, 1884, “and to have been derived directly from the modified forms of stage-dancing practised in palace or private houses by companies of amateurs.”

The artistic progress of ball-room dancing has gone hand in hand with the renaissance of stage-dancing. So we see that the first is only a natural consequence of the latter. The sight of the beauty of motion on the stage has suggested to the spectators an introduction of the same thing into daily life. Perhaps not since the days of Louis Fifteenth of France, and later on at the gay court of unhappy Marie Antoinette, has social dancing reached the height it has at our present day. From the time when the Minuet and the Gavotte reigned supreme in the ball-rooms of the élite until our ultra-modern time, with its Tango and Maxixe, indolent grace or stateliness in dancing has been sleeping in peaceful obscurity. The Polka, the Mazurka, the Schottishe, the Pas-de-quatre, the hideous Turkey Trot and Bunny Hug have held their sway during the entire nineteenth century and a part of the twentieth.

From the time of the perspiring, disordered, exhausted, and out-of-breath dancing devotees who gave to the ball-room ensemble the look of a football field after the battle, the day has at last come when repose is an essential quality for the up-to-date dance enthusiast.

For the modern dance, when properly executed, is an exquisite sight, and the swaying, gliding Tango lovers or Hesitation Waltzers develop a grace of motion and an ease of deportment that probably most of them would never develop without these aids.

Of course, the modern dances can be made to appear vulgar when performed by vulgarly inclined dancers. The same criticism applies directly to the stage and the novel. But it would be manifestly unfair to condemn all plays because of the bill offered at the lowly burlesque house, or to condemn all story-telling on account of a few authors who write tainted fiction. It is just as unfair to criticize unfavorably the really beautiful dances of the day as they are burlesqued and exaggerated in the cheap cabaret entertainments.

In reply to the severe comments of some of the elder generation who still cling to its old-fashioned dances, let us resolve to take their uncharitable view of the young generation's dance-madness in good spirit and casually remind them that no present-day Tango fever will half equal the epidemic mania with which our great-grandparents twisted, turned, and whirled when the Polka was first introduced, or the rapidity with which it affected both young and old.

And so, in spite of misguided purists or virulent exponents of false virtue, the dance will continue to be one of the foremost and finest of earthly enjoyments.


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Modern Dancing by Vernon and Irene Castle Chapter 13

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