THE DANCE OF MODERN SOCIETY: BY W. C. WILKINSON.
NEW YORK: OAKLEY, MASON & CO., 21 Murray Street . 1869.
Entered according to Act of Congress in the year 1869, By Oakley, Mason & Co .,
In the Clerk's Office of the District Court of the United States for the Southern District of
E. O. JENKINS, STEREOTYPER AND PRINTER, 20 N. WILLIAM ST., N. Y. PREFATORY NOTE.
It is now nearly two years since the most of the following pages appeared as an article in one
of our American quarterly reviews. The article immediately attracted attention, and was
widely copied and commented on by the periodical press, both religious and secular. As was
to have been expected, the comments were sometimes in a friendly and sometimes in a hostile
sense. Up to the present time, the writer has continued to receive solicitations, from the
most diverse quarrels, to issue his essay again, in some such form as should make it accessible
to the general public. These suggestions, still persisting after the lapse of so many months,
have seemed to be an evidence that the essay was accepted by a considerable number of minds as
a satisfactory expression of opinion on a subject of living social and ethical interest. It
is at least a positive expression, and written not in the dialect of any religious sect, but
in the universal language of morality. THE DANCE OF MODERN SOCIETY.
I Propose an unusual compliment to the Dance-I propose to discuss it. I cheerfully lend it dignity
for the purpose. I pledge myself, besides, to put it permanently beyond the need of borrowing
again. For I shall be able, I believe, to vindicate for it a dignity all its own-the dignity of
being exceedingly evil-a dignity which, however modestly worn, I think that it possesses
in a degree commensurate with the magnitude of its littleness in every other respect.
I purpose, then, to discuss the Dance as practised in modern society. I purpose to discuss it
earnestly, but temperately, with strong conviction certainly, but without unreasonable
prejudice, and in a manner not to violate the decorum of a sincere personal respect toward those
who agree with me in zeal for good morality, but differ from me in opinion upon the present topic.
I do not, it will be seen, affect the candor either of ingenuous inquiry or of judicial neutrality.
Much less do I affect the candor of a merely curious unconcern. I appear as an advocate, and I
do not expect, as I shall not attempt to avoid the vehemence of advocacy. I volunteer my office
on behalf of several imperilled interests, all of them valuable, and one at least vital. It
is the cause at once of Health, of Economy, of the Social Nature, of Intellectual Improvement,
and of Morality, that I defend. I undertake to implead the Dance in their joint behoof as the
common and equal enemy of them all.
I shall summon the accused to answer, not at the bar of passion, however holy and religious,
and not before the tribunal of Scripture, however clear and authoritative, but rather in the
wide and open forum of reason, of conscience, and of common sense. If the Dance can escape conviction
here, she shall be welcome for me to make her pirouette, and go tilting out of court, free to take
her chances of living down, as best she may, the ancient and sacred suspicion against her, which
still survives in that one safe sanctuary left for a badgered and brow-beaten morality ready
to be ashamed of itself-the inviolate bosom of the Christian church.
The conscience and the sentiment of the American community produce a tolerably uniform annual
crop of discourses and of newspaper articles on this favorite social amusement-"social amusement"-it
would be hard to deny it the name by which, with a Mephistophelian sort of pleasantry suspiciously
its own, the dance has succeeded in getting itself currently caned. But beyond a chance sermon
or so, each year, that attains to the temporary apotheosis of print, I am not aware that anything
in the form of a book has yet treated exclusively of a subject which, what with the talk that it
occasions, and the talk that it supersedes, displaces more conversation in so-called society
than perhaps any other topic of human interest in the world.
Here, then, is the phenomenon of a social institution that has grown to a really overshadowing
greatness among us almost unperceived, simply by the policy of maintaining always, with a
persistent laugh, that it was quite too small to merit a serious word. I have a serious word,
notwithstanding, to say, and I am willing to compromise the dignity of authorship, in the judgment
of any who may think that I do so, by saying it in a little book.
The subject of amusement at large, it would not comport with the simplicity of my present purpose
to discuss. But a remark or two in passing will not be irrelevant.
It is an ill augury for a Christian age to be spending much brain and breath upon the question
how to amuse itself. Upon the whole, it is a pagan question; and paganism itself has already
declined from its heroic virtue before it condescends to entertain it. But if Christian teachers
allow themselves to be caught with this wile of the devil, and submit to waste their earnestness
in pitiful casuistry upon points of what? and when? and where? and how much and how? the art of
amusement, whence, one might implore to know, are we to hope for the voice that shall re-animate
an abject and oblivious age? If the salt have lost his savor, where with shall it be salted? And
if the blind lead the blind, both shall fall into the ditch.
The truth is, the most of those who clamor so unappeasably for amusement are precisely that
class of persons who need amusement least. They are the cloyed, the sated, sons and daughters
of pleasure, these who feel the "fullness of satiety"-who sigh, like the Eastern prince, for
a fresh sensation, and languidly offer a prize for a new device of diversion. These jaded voluptuaries
need nothing so little as amusement. What they do need is the bracing tonic regimen of wholesome,
honest, useful work-such as the teeming dispensary of Providence is never at a loss to supply.
They might well mistake the thrill of unaccustomed and unexpected delight which would go through
their lax nerves with a few strokes of vigorous work in some good cause, not in their own, for
that novel. and delicious tingle of pleasure which they had been awaiting and invoking so long.
How crass the folly of trying to satisfy these morbid seekers after amusement by giving them
what they crave!
And yet there is a cry from some quarters, and a cry that upon the whole seems likely to grow, summoning
the Young Men's Christian Associations of the country to enter the field of competition to
purvey amusement for this class of minds. It will prove to be a hazardous career of experiment.
The plan would be to enrich the variety of entertainment that now invites the young to an evening
of rational enjoyment in their hospitable rooms, by adding facilities for games, such as backgammon,
draughts, chess, billiards. It is most earnestly, to be hoped that whenever this experiment
is tried, it may be tried under auspices that shall be at once in the highest degree favorable
for its success, if it ought to succeed, and in the highest degree safe for guarding the consequences
of failure, if it is destined to fail. It is creditable to the good sense which has always prevailed,
to a singular extent, in the counsels of these bodies that they have hitherto decisively resisted
the urgency that has impelled them in the new direction. Meantime it will be manifest wisdom
for organizations consciously less experienced to await the result of some better-appointed
experiment, in so doubtful a case, than their own could possibly be. It is difficult to conceive
of any practical administration of such a plan that could make it successful. The theory of
it I believe is a false theory; but if the theory of it were true, the practical realization of
the theory is beset with innumerable, and, in my opinion, quite insurmountable, difficulties.
Our sentimental times mistake in supposing that evil can be induced to shade off into good by
insensible degrees. You can never make the transition from sinful pleasure to innocent pleasure
anything less than a violent transition. The ease of transition is all the other way. It will
be found fearfully practicable to educate country boys to love the billiard-table, and to
cast the mother's tearful warning against it behind their backs, in the conceit of a more modern
Christian wisdom to be had in the city. It will be found easy to give country boys so much practice
with cue and ball as shall take away their guardian shame of accepting some farther-developed
acquaintance's invitation to turn into a downstairs billiard-room on the street. This drift
of education will prove easy and swift. All the natural forces of a world of evil will assist
it. But when the direction is reversed, it will be a different matter. When it comes to decoying
away a country boy, that has once got the taste of that strange sweetness under his tongue, from
the haunt of pleasure without restraint to the home of pleasure under Christian law-the managers
of the Associations I fear will find that it was the sin that gave zest to the pleasure instead
of the pleasure that gave zest to the sin. If for every boy enticed to virtue by the bait of mere
pleasure, there are not two boys enticed to sin thereby-why, I shall be sincerely rejoiced,
and the originator of the plan will deserve the credit of having reinforced the gospel of Christ
with an elemental power of salvation not revealed by its author. Alas! men readily follow lures
of pleasure on the way to hell, but they revolt, with an obstinacy that is half perverseness
and half honest indignation, against following lures of pleasure to heaven. But this whole
subject is one that demands and will receive ample discussion.
The dance is popularly reckoned among amusements. But for this I should not need to waste a word
upon the matter of amusement in general. As it is, in finding a quarrel with the dance I shall
be held to be waging war against amusement, unless I explain myself in a paragraph or two. Briefly,
then, I am not an enemy to amusement. I believe in it. I believe in it heartily. I believe in it
so heartily that I would give it a better name-I would call it recreation. But amusement needs
no eulogist. It has happened, by the chance concurrence of two conditions having no necessary
relation to each other, that the cause of popular amusement has of late enlisted among us a singularly
numerous and brilliant literary championship. In the first place, there is a pervasive liberalizing
spirit abroad everywhere in our modern American atmosphere, that tends to relax the tone of
moral sentiment respecting all forms of human self-indulgence and material enjoyment. But
in the second place, it is an incident of our nineteenth century civilization that we live intensely.
Everybody is in a chronic state of hurry. This highly stimulated rate of living takes reprisals
upon our vitality, and we vibrate between extremes of abnormal activity and extremes of abnormal
exhaustion. In the extremes of exhaustion we desperately implore some sudden restorative.
This restorative it is the transitory fashion of our disease just now to imagine that we recognize
in amusement. Our men of letters, as the most sensitive children of civilization, are perhaps
the severest sufferers by the prevalent unnatural velocity of living. It is but a matter of
course that they should most keenly feel the need of an instantaneous remedy for their enormous
overdrafts on a too responsive vitality, and should most credulously hail whatever remedy
presents itself to their demand.
Now I sympathize vividly with all my literary brethren in the sense of bodily prostration which
follows intellectual toil. I know as well as any what it is to have the omnivorous and insatiable
brain suck vigor out of every nerve and muscle, out of every joint and marrow, in the body, and
leave the whole man a-quiver with intense and fine exhaustion. I have known this, and with all
my literary brethren I have longed for relief, and "trusted any cure." It costs perhaps the
most exquisite agony, except the agony of remorse, of which an aspiring mind is capable-to
lie still and experience the conscious impotence of power. Is there no secret of eternal youth
for the eager brain, that, with a grief to which the fabled grief of Alexander was a vulgar emotion,
is compelled to sink helplessly on the hither side of an unconquered world, which it yet feels
to be inalienably its own, although by right of a conquest never to be accomplished? It is not
an ignoble errantry that wanders in quest of such a prize.
But I am profoundly convinced that the bent toward 'amusement,' or 'recreations' or 'muscular
development,' call it what you will, that distinguishes the current decade, is a wrong bent-a
monstrous moral and physical blunder. It is both a whimsical and a pathetic sign of the times
to read the glowing ascriptions to 'muscle' with which periodical literature has lately been
illustrated from the pens of writers whose own muscle had been fairly eaten up by their brains.
It is perfectly manifest that the prevailing literary humor, with respect to amusement, is
a sanguine hope that amusement may prove to be the long-sought medicine, which shall be able
to repair the havoc done to the body by the starved brain in its voracious forages for food.
To be sure, as regards the athletic forms of amusement, literary men are not long in finding
out from experience that muscular activity and cerebral activity are implacable mutual enemies.
There is no better wisdom on this subject than that which Hawthorne derived from his share in
the Brook Farm experiment. The reader will find it set down in the "Blithedale Romance." Hawthorne
found that Arcadia and Attica were very distinct provinces. He says that when muscle worked,
brain would not. This, I take it, is the invariable experience of every literary man. The consequence
is that the athletic sports, which are praised by men of brain, are practised by men of muscle.
Literary men, meanwhile, betake themselves to forms of amusement less arduous to their softened
bodily fibre. They patronize the theatre, the opera, the billiard table, and, now and then,
But they still commit a blunder. Is it recreation, for example, to an editorial writer, to rush
from his mental workshop, with the anvil of his brain red-hot under the swift and ceaseless
blows of thought, to a place of public entertainment, and there rob sleep of the precious hours
before midnight by diverting himself with a spectacle? No doubt such diversion is better for
his over-wrought brain than it would be to continue the tension which the change partially
relaxes. But manifestly rest is his true medicine. If he must interpose some such transition,
by way of opiate to prepare him for sleep, that only shows his need of rest to be the more desperate.
When a man has to resort to soporifics so exhausting that it would task an 2 unbroken vigor of
health simply to sustain them with impunity, that man's condition goes far toward resembling
the condition of a time-piece whose main-spring has given way just after winding. There is
nothing to reserve and regulate his expenditure of vitality. He is continuously and rapidly,
he may be helplessly, running down. We are in urgent need of a new literary period. It should
be one eulogistic of REST.
Of all the absurd resorts, however, for recreation, the dance is the most exquisitely absurd.
I shall hardly escape the charge of Puritanism for saying this-although the very un-Puritanic
Thackeray does not hesitate to set a man down for an ass that confesses himself fond of dancing.
I should myself select another animal as the proper analogue for such a man. It is not pleasant
to be called Puritanic now-a-days. It requires either a strong nerve or a thick skin to incur
the epithet. The days of heroic fame, for the Puritans, seems to have passed, and we are taking
our revenge upon them now for having been praised so long. They were a grave order of great souls,
whose faults, like their virtues, were on an ample pattern. They undoubtedly went too far in
moral severity; but it was a pathway of error in which their following was never likely to be
large, since it led only through toil and loss for themselves, if unhappily it did also lead
to some discomfort, and even suffering, for others. Their figure in history is large enough,
and unique enough, to make them an inviting target for the small archery of the witlings of our
gamesome generation. Even Lord Macaulay having lauded them, in a strain of appreciation which
at least had the generosity, if it had also the extravagance, of youth in it, in his essay on Milton,
afterward recollected himself to puncture them with more than one of his polished stiletto
antitheses, in his History of England. Hardly any of those brilliant surprises of style, which
constitute at once the strength and the weakness of this great master of composition, has enjoyed
a more popular fame than the verbal lasso which he let fly at the Puritans, when he said that they
hated bear-baiting, not because it gave pain to the bears, but because it gave pleasure to the
spectators. How many have smiled, with involuntary applause, at this epigrammatic snare
for the hapless Puritans, and how few have ever troubled themselves to perceive that the game
which it catches is not the Puritans at all, but the epigrammatist himself. For why, pray, should
the Puritans have hated bear-baiting, but because it gave pleasure to the spectators? Was
not that the demoralizing element in the sport? And were not the Puritans then right, if, as
Macaulay says, they hated bear-baiting for the destructive pleasure that it gave to the spectators,
rather than for the destructive pain that it gave to the bears. It is seldom that the fowler is
more neatly taken in the snare that he lays. *
Our modern festive wisdom is far too self-complacent. It is not certain, after all, that the
Puritans were not nearer the truth than we. Grim earnest is nobler than play run mad. It is even
more joyous. It is open to fair doubt whether the Puritans were not a happier race of beings than
their jovial descendants. And, in the long run, excessive gravity is not more cruel than excessive
levity. Puritan Boston in sixteen hundred and sixty-nine is a less depressing spectacle,
to the thoughtful student of history, than is Nouveau Paris in eighteen hundred and sixty-nine.
Thus much of amusement in general-a subject long since copiously enough, but by no means as
yet exhaustively, discussed. My present business, however, is with the dance, not as an amusement,
but as an existing social institution. For all that I have to say of it, it might as well be serious
as sportive. Indeed I expect to succeed in making it far more serious than sportive. I am to enquire
into the bearing of the dance upon several important human interests.
In the first place it is hardly necessary to say that dancing, in itself, is perfectly innocent.
No one denies this. It is as harmless to dance as it is to walk, or to run. But the present question
is not of dancing in the abstract. Dancing does not exist in the abstract. It exists, like most
things, in a certain way. It is of dancing, as thus practised, in a certain way , that I am going
to speak. I do not restrict my argument or my conclusion to balls or public assemblies. I should
waste my zeal. There is happily, as yet, too unanimous a sentiment among sensible people against
them-unless the case happens to be that of the quadrennial i inauguration ball * or other such
assembly, by which it is the barbarian custom still to soil our social purity and signalize
some public occasion. Then it is no disgrace if a representative Christian name be on the list
of "managers!" And neither do I restrict my argument, or my conclusion, to those rythmic gyrations
popularly called "round dances." A popular magazine never distinguished for martyrdom to
principle, may safely inveigh against these. The argument is merely some degrees stronger,
and the conclusion some degrees clearer, against such excessive developments of the primordial
idea. When I name the dance (for the sake of being perfectly understood, I may say) I mean the
dance as many of the most respectable members of society, including no inconsiderable proportion
of accepted Christians, not unfrequently practice it. I am thus frank, not for the sake of seeming
bold, but for the sake of being clear. My readers need none of them be at any loss as to just what
I mean. I mean the dance as it flourishes in the most proper and reputable circles to-day.
For the sake of perspicuity and convenience I shall pursue the present investigation into
the propriety of the dance, under the following general topics. The division will, I trust,
be found sufficiently common-place and obvious.
I. The bearing of the dance upon the Health;
II. Its relation to Economy;
III. Its Social Tendency;
IV. Its Influence upon Intellectual Improvement;
V. Its Moral or Religious Aspects.
This order of investigation is not merely mechanical and fortuitous. It will prove to build
a cumulative argument, bearing with multiplied power, upon the paramount interest involved,
that of morality or religion. The chief sufferer suffers not only its own injury, but also the
injury of all the rest.
I. What bearing does the dance, as it exists among us, have upon the health? An amusement ought
at least to be harmless in its hygienic effects. If it does not build up, it should certainly
not break down. Now the dance, considered apart from its conventional purposes, simply as
a physical exercise, might conceivably be so conducted that it would constitute a wholly health-giving
pastime. In the open air, at rational hours of the day, for a rational length of time, scarcely
to exceed say an hour, those participating in it being suitably attired to permit the freest
play of the lungs-these and other like conditions fulfilled, and the dance, no doubt, might
make good a claim to be ranked as a healthful diversion. There would still remain other points
of importance to be settled, before its propriety could be unreservedly admitted; but regarded
merely with reference to health, the dance might then pass without challenge.
But suppose all these rational conditions reversed. The gymnasium, in the American use of
the term, is an establishment expressly devoted to purposes of physical culture by means of
physical exercise. What would be thought of a gymnasium that should carpet its floors, and
close its windows, that should then announce its hours of exercise as commencing at ten o'clock
at night to continue until two or three o'clock in the morning, interrupted by a sumptuous midnight
feast, all with an in-door atmosphere, doubly heated and doubly corrupted by fires and by a
dense crowd of jostling guests, redolent of perfumes, met under rigorous demands that their
dress should be such as to repress respiration, and to embarrass everything like naturalness
and ease of movement? What if, besides, the conditions should be so contrived as to compel the
unnaturally heated gymnasts to make their transition to a contrasted atmosphere out-of-doors,
exposed in the most sensitive parts of the body, through insufficient clothing, to the risks
of rheumatism, neuralgia, colds, catarrhs, consumption? What, I ask, would be thought of
a gymnasium that should conduct its exercises on such a plan as this? But is not the parallel
suggested, mainly, and with a margin in favor of particular instances, a tolerably fair one?
I repeat that I am not discussing the dance as it might be, but the dance as it is. Those public-spirited
and philanthropic individuals, who, inspired with zeal for the morals of society, are at present
engaged in the hopeful enterprise of elevating the stage to its true position, as yoke-fellow
to the pulpit in the inculcation of virtue, will scarcely have time after they have finished
that task to perform a like service for the dance, in making it what it should be as the handmaid
of medicine in advancing the standard of the general health. Otherwise, the two projects are
such natural twins they would appropriately be entrusted to the same hands for execution.
We are witnessing, just now, a brilliant revival of the pure drama in our metropolis. A man of
genius, and a man of character, as I suppose, the heir of rare ancestral histrionic fame, is
doing more than one man has ever been able to do before for the rescue of the stage from the drag
of that downward moral and aesthetic gravitation which it has never successfully resisted
hitherto. A temple reared and gifted by his own fortunate and munificent theatrical piety,
scenery and appointments unparalleled for splendor, a generous public sympathy with remarkable
talent and enterprise, the auxiliar hopes of all cultivated lovers of the spectacle-these
compose a set of auspices such as probably will not soon smile on an attempt to save the drama
again. The success already appears to confirm the auspices. The patronage of the new theatre
is said to be made up in part of elements that have been fairly won over to the friendly side from
the ranks of those previously hostile to the stage. It really looks as if there were some Christians
ready at last to use their influence toward the purification of what they have striven in vain
to abolish. For this is the flattering hope with which Christian people have long been allured
to the countenancing of the theatre. They have been told that by resolutely refusing to attend
the theatre, they have, in effect, deprived it of that conservative influence which it was
in their power to exert, and which was necessary to keep it from degenerating to the level of
its more degraded patrons. Those Christian men who think that they are surely wise, if they
are only not extreme, have been tempted to take some such middle ground in respect to the theatre
as this. Now, as Webster told Mr. Hayne, if a thing is to be done, an ingenious man can tell how
it is to be done. Let us see how the stage is to be regenerated by Christian patronage of the stage.
Managers, of course, conduct their operations with a thrifty eye to the avoidance of deficits
at the end of the season. They aim to please their patrons. Christians, therefore, in order
to influence theatrical management, must not merely give moral, they must give material,
support to the theatre. They must go to the plays. They must go often enough, and in numbers enough,
to compose a preponderating proportion of the attendance. Now, the Protestant Christians
of New York number, by recent computation, less than seventy-five thousand souls, in a population
of a million. Supposing a general agreement among them all that a regular attendance at the
theatre was at this juncture the most pressing and most promising method of evangelic effort,
they would not then constitute even one-tenth of the numerical patronage which the management
would study to please. Rather a slender minority to dictate the character of the representations.
But on certain evenings of the week obedience to their Master, in a point where there could be
no mistaking of His will, would draw them away to their own assemblies for conference, and for
prayer that their zeal in purifying the theatre might be successful. On those evenings, what
if Satan should put into the heart of the managers that then, at least, there could be no objection
to letting clown the moral standard to the taste of "the general"-would the gain be great? Or
if, for the sake of making their influence more sensible, Christians should concentrate their
patronage upon some one theatre, and should succeed in rendering that unexceptionable, is
it certain that ten other theatres would not spring up to supply the starving appetite of the
populace outnumbering them tenfold for low representations? The purification of the theatre
is the merest catchword that ever snared a hopeful and credulous public. It means, at most,
but the maintenance of one theatre in a great city, where a high moral and aesthetic standard
of representation is observed. That might be a gain to the intellectual facilities of the community,
but it would not be one infinitesimal degree of progress toward any substantial moral reform.
As a matter of present observation, is not the dramatic revival coincident with a bottomless
degradation of the stage?
The close kinship between the subject of the theatre and the subject of the dance, at just this
point, makes it no digression to have spoken at such length of the theatre. Christian people,
and moral people, and sensible people in general, have been exhorted to smile instead of frowning
on the dance, in the assurance that, if they did so, the willful but good-hearted little jade
would be charmed quite out of her frolic perverseness, and would settle down into as prim and
proper a damsel as any reasonable person could desire. But I suspect that the result of such
a well-intended attempt at moral suasion on the dance would be much the same as that sketched
for the hypothetical experiment on the theatre. There might be moral plays and there might
be moral dances; but it is exceedingly questionable if either moral plays or moral dances would
possess that unique aromatic sapor which is requisite in order wholly to satisfy the appetite
of the original lovers of the legitimate articles. It would certainly be one of the most striking
spectacles of misguided philanthropy and self-sacrifice, that the world has ever produced,
to behold a well-regulated, demure-stepping, devout procession of pastors, elders, deacons,
and brethren, with a sprinkling of young converts, filing into Wallack's of an evening, to
assist at the purification of the comedy. It would only be equalled by a festive assembly of
the like characters striving to smile benign, and yet superior, on the occasion, while, with
King David in mind for model, and Herodias' daughter for warning, they glided in Quixotic benevolence
through the stately quadrille, blandly hoping thereby to reclaim the dance from the vain world
to the pious nurture of the Church.
But it is too serious a matter for irony. There is no other social usage whatever that in my opinion
is, directly and indirectly, chargeable with producing more of the ill-health, which, destroying
the life-long comfort of our wives, our sisters, and our mothers, is steadily diluting and
corrupting, at its source, the blood of our civilization. The general system of late hours,
which has grafted its monstrous absurdity upon our modern social life, is probably traceable
to the dance. Viewed from without, the dance is essentially a spectacle, and a spectacle does
not love daylight. It naturally seeks a less discriminating and a more suggesting illumination.
Or else, from the interior point of view, the dance is a syncope of abandonment to sensuous pleasure;
and sensuous pleasure is a dream which cannot "feel the truth and stir of day" without losing
something of that delicious self-forgetfulness which is necessary to its perfect bliss.
In truth, the dance, raised to a kind of autocracy, has dictated to us in the whole conduct of
our social life. It has prescribed midnight hours, tight-lacing, paper-soled shoes-in short,
a good number of those hurtful usages which distort the development of modern society. For
whatever will serve to heighten the illusion and seductiveness of the dance-whether it be
late hours, with the glare of artificial light which they make necessary, small waists, to
render the female form as insect-like as possible, that it may resemble some imaginary sylph,
rather than that grand old mother Eve, whom God created for a wife to Adam-or whether it be their
dress, floating like a fleecy cloud about the person of the wearer-no matter what it be, provided
only it will set off the dance-Fashion decrees it and-women adopt it. Thus much for the dance
as a matter of health. There will be implications under the concluding division of the subject,
that touching morality, which, reflecting their influence backward upon the first, will
involve men and women together in physical as well as moral injury from the dance to even a more
serious degree. For the dance is not without vital relation to that vice which is now getting
discussed afresh in the newspapers under the euphemism of the "Social Cancer." The spirit
of fairness of course obliges me to admit that the extravagances named as attaching to the dance
are not always carried to equal lengths.
II. I am next to consider the dance as it bears upon the matter of Expenditure. This is certainly
a subordinate view of the subject, but it is one nevertheless sufficiently important to deserve
a moment's attention. No student of history needs to be reminded that there is a close connection
between the sumptuary habits of a people and that people's moral and physical virility. Luxury
is implacable foe to longevity, whether of nation or of individual.
The dance, I have said, is, so far as concerns what passes externally, a spectacle. (The chorus
of invisible sensations and emotions in the bosoms of the participants, is a spectacle too-to
the angels !) It is frequently pleaded for on the ground of its graceful and picturesque effect
to the eye. Everything that can contribute to enhance this scenic effect is sought for with
eager ingenuity. The more splendid the saloon, the more sumptuous the appointments, the more
brilliant the assembly-the greater the social success. Accordingly, no end to the rivalry
of ladies in attempting to eclipse each other in the costly display of furniture, of service,
of dress, and of jewelry. This barbaric competition in lavishness of expenditure, taking
its start from the Tuileries, travels outward and downward, through every quarter of Christendom,
(the unavoidable irony of the word!) and through every grade of society. It tends to impoverish
every noble human need to enrich the insatiable shrine of Fashion.
That what I say is true any gossipping letter of social news (always a feature of leading journals,
especially while society is holding its court at the sea-side, or at watering-places,) giving
an account of some gay party or ball, is witness. Every reader is familiar with the penny-a-liner's
detail and fine writing with which the greedy fashionable public, and perhaps a still more
numerous public not initiated, and green with envy of the fashionable public-very green-is
informed how the elegant Mrs. A-was dressed, and what length of trail she drew-how many thousand
dollars in diamonds flashed like fireflies out of the darkness from the raven tresses of Mrs.
B-'s hair, and so on to the end of the alphabet. What does not thus obtain the prize of newspaper
publicity, nevertheless forms the staple of private correspondence and buzzes about in ladies'
small talk, until attention is absorbed again in still more extravagant preparation for the
next magnificent affair.
'Society' has its 'Court Gazette' in our republican metropolis, in which the student of our
social manners may read every week ad nauseam , the story of life as it is lived in the gay world
at home. He must be prepared not to gasp with rustic amazement if he lights upon a whole column
of extremely personal gossip, studded thick with names printed outright, in honest letters
unashamed, of ladies that have had the good luck to deserve such mention by a ball-dress particularly
suited to their style of beauty, or by a morning toilette, gracefully harmonized with their
figure and gait on the street. Guess, if you can, the vanity that is eating out the heart of a society
where such things have become common. Is it not edifying to read, as quite lately one could do,
in this very newspaper, a solemn prophet-warning to New York about out-Paris-ing Paris?
It may be said that these excesses, which nobody will deny, are not confined to the occasion
of the dance. And it must be admitted that in truth they are not. They are equally incident to
every so-called amusement that consists mainly in making up a spectacle . The opera, and sometimes
the theatre, the theatre now-a-days more and more I believe, are dose of kin to the dance in the
respects enumerated. I hold that in the comparatively sordid interest of economy even, how
much more in the interest of simplicity and virtue in public manners, such forms of amusement
should be sternly discountenanced. When Fashion shall miss her chance of holding her gay and
heartless court in the ball-room and opera-house-then we may hope to see Christian women free
enough from a tyranny whose prying and ubiquitous pettiness might have given to Philip II.
of Spain his favorite idea of kingship-free enough, I say, to go to God's house on the Sabbath,
without having their ejaculatory prayers on the way disturbed by a persistent accompaniment
of misgivings as to whether the bonnets they are compelled to wear, from the preceding season,
are not "perfect frights," because, forsooth, a trifle less exquisitely ridiculous than
those of the style which has just superseded them! I may be wrong, but it seems to me that the dance,
being formed upon the idea of a spectacle, and converting especially every lady participant
in it into an object to be gazed at, and to court admiration, as the joint chef d'oevre of the milliner,
of the jeweller, and of the hairdresser-it might be unfair not to add also of the dancing-master-the
dance being thus essentially for the exhibition of the woman as a thing rather than as a person,
as a miracle of decorated exterior, rather than as the heiress of a priceless heart, and of a
beautiful and beautified mind-the dance being such has largely contributed to the creation
of that meretricious taste in dress which seriously threatens, through its direct and indirect
economic influence, to corrupt and deteriorate the very basis of our American society. True
it is that the comparatively unpretending and innocent dancing parties, which take place
in less utterly frivolous circles of society, stop far short of the monstrous extremes that
I have described. But the tendency is one. All rivers run to the sea. These smaller assemblies
are feeders to the larger. And the law issues from the ball-room to the private parlor, just
as to private theatricals the law descends from the more elaborate scenic display of the theatre.
III. I am, in the third place, to estimate the effect of the dance upon the development of the
The dance is customarily spoken of as a social amusement. If society consists in mere congregation
of human persons, then the dance may perhaps substantiate its claim to be a social amusement.
But if, on the contrary, the social life of mankind consists rather in the contact of soul with
soul, and in commerce of mutual thought, and feeling, and experience, then I maintain that
the dance is not only not properly social, but is irreconcilably opposed to society. I think
that the distinction should be remembered and recognized in our selection of words. It is an
abuse of language to call a herding together of people moving about, no matter with how much
rhythmic kaleidoscopic grace, to music, an exemplification of human social life. If we needs
must have a stock epithet to characterize the thing, better call the dance a gregarious amusement,
and leave the nobler adjective for consecration to a form of human intercourse in which speech
plays some part to distinguish it from the massing together of a jostling crowd of mute or merely
Am I unfair to the dance? No doubt the view of it which I am presenting may be novel to those easily
contented, because unreflecting, minds who willingly resign themselves to be cheated with
the jugglery of words. Because it is the fashion to class the dance among the social entertainments,
most persons passively let it go under that disguise. But strip off the epithet that belies
it, and scan it once in its nakedness, and if it does not appear as grim a sham, for an exercise
of the social nature, as ever imposed upon intelligent men and women-why then I must confess
myself to have misconceived the truth concerning what social enjoyment for the human race
Not long ago, at a dancing party, it was remarked by a lady, herself I believe a participant in
the exercise, to a person of my acquaintance, "I wish there were not so much dancing as there
is; it seems impossible to get acquainted with each other!" That woman at least had got a peep,
probably without knowing it, under the impudent mask which still, to the most, makes the dance
seem a social amusement.
No wonder the dance is patronized, as it is, by diplomatists and politicians. Not all have Talleyrand's
art to realize his definition of the use of language and conceal their thoughts by words. * And
since it is necessary so often, for public and political purposes, that thoughts should be
concealed, how invaluable a device for statesmen is an institution like the dance, which shall
enable them to gratify society by condescending to be social, without running the risk of saying
more than a dozen consecutive words in the course of an evening!
But it is often insisted that the dance is unrivalled for the ease and grace it imparts to the
carriage and manners, thus at least removing the friction with which the want of external polish
hinders the pleasurable interflow of individuals in society. I indulge my private guess of
at least one Christian man, no longer conspicuous even in his own denominational circles,
who, transferred for a time by Providence from the pastor's personal wrestle with the foes
which beleaguer youth to a sphere of less publicity, where large and liberal views of worldly
conformity were easier to entertain, capitulated to this temptation, and suffered his children
to go where the dancing master might soften the natural angularity of their movements into
the flowing curves said to approximate more nearly to the ideal of perfect grace. Alas, alas!
Does not even the poet teach the Christian teacher a deeper lesson than that?
For manners are not idle, but the fruit Of loyal nature, and of noble mind.
If such hirelings as Christian parents are able to secure to teach, in the capacity of dancing-master,
elegant manners to their children, can in the course of a few afternoons or evenings impart
to them a life-long effect of improvement, what might not he hoped for, if the home itself were
made a school of grace and courtesy, in which the heart should be taught to tone the voice, and
light the eye, and mould the mien, and modulate all to the rhythmical mood of undissimulated
love? Who has ever compared the Peter that obtrudes his uncouth figure in glimpses here and
there through the gospels, with the Peter that afterwards betrays so ineffable a grace of high-bred
courtesy in his epistles-who has ever considered the transformation that had passed upon
this man in the school of Christ, making the Galilean the cosmopolite, the fisherman the gentleman,-who
has done this and not perceived that the last accomplishment of the manners is elsewhere to
be sought than at the hands of M. Martinet, the dancing-master?
While something, nevertheless, may in fairness be conceded here to the dance, a very little
observation accompanied with a very little reflection will, I think, suffice to convince
a candid mind that the institution is hardly all, even in this respect, that is claimed for it
by its more enthusiastic, and especially its professional, devotees. It is certainly a service
to the social interests of men, if the dance does help to create that unselfishness between
person and person, which morality enjoins upon us all as politeness, or even to create that
affectation of this, which we are all of us so well content to accept i instead of politeness.
This is the element in which mutual intercourse must be transacted, if it is to be a source either
of pleasure or of profit. I would be the last to deny the debt, if the dance can show that it does
indeed supply such a neutral condition of lubricity to the agreeable mingling of people in
society, without at the same time overbalancing its credit with deductions chargeable on
this very score.
What is the true state of the case? There is, to my mind, something fairly august in the arrogant
self-assertion of the dance. It awes one-it takes away one's breath-one is uncertain for a
moment or two in its presence whether his first principles of courtesy and good breeding may
not, by some hocus-pocus, have got exactly reversed without his being aware of it. This social
amusement flouts you with such utterly pitiless, such Gorgonizing insolence,
Staring right on with calm, eternal eyes,
-if you happen to get into its way! Until you recover your self-possession, you rather believe
that it must mysteriously be in accordance with everlasting principles of politeness that
you should be flouted. You are in the unenviable condition of that morbidly modest man, whom
Robert Hall describes as seeming by his manner to be asking pardon of everybody for taking the
liberty to exist. I have seen a good many people who never rally from this uncomfortable hallucination
in the presence of the dance. The dance plants one foot of its unlimitedly expansible compasses
in a parlor, and thence widening its sweep, room by room, gradually and serenely encircles
the entire area of the house that is open to guests. Happy then the mortals who do not dance, if
they can find a secure retreat in hall or entry. Those who shrink into corners, and those who
desperately cling to the walls, shall not escape a whisk of the tumultuous dress, or a thrust
of the importunate elbow, to disturb the serenity of their meditations on the graceful elegance
of this extremely social amusement. That grave Chinaman, who gazed with the well-schooled
wonder of a Celestial on the spectacle of the dance as exhibited by a company of Europeans, betrayed
his innocent ignorance of the real fascination of the thing, but he certainly discovered its
utter hollowness, regarded merely as a social enjoyment, when he asked, "Pray, why do you not
let your servants do that for you !" Is the fact that the dance lubricates the individual manners,
or that its introduction breaks the ice of first reserve which embarrasses the freedom of an
evening's company;-giving conversation forsooth such an elan that it is dispensed with from
that moment forward-is this two-fold fact, admitted, a fair offset to the gross, the egregious
ill-manners upon which I have commented? It must be added that provident and resourceful hostesses
guard against such abuse of their hospitality by assigning one side of the house to those who
trip it as they go, and the other to those who prefer to preserve postures of stable equilibrium-that
is to say, by virtually making two parties at once.
I remember hearing the celebrated M. Bautain, in one of his lectures at the Sorbonne on some
subject of theology, going aside from his main discussion, lament the decline in France of
the art of conversation. Bon vivant that he appeared in his redundant physique , it was almost
whimsical to hear him attribute the misfortune to the habit of after-dinner smoking-a habit
against which nothing about the lecturer himself seemed to protest along with his words, except
his interdictory quality of Romish ecclesiastic. He thought that the post-prandial cigar,
banishing men from the influence supposed to rain from ladies' eyes at jousts of wit as well
as of arms, and enveloping them in a haze of oblivious torpor-had chafed the genial currents
of that conversational enthusiasm which once made the table-talk of Frenchmen the admiration
of cultivated Europe.
Now it may well be that what might be called the high art of conversation, such, for example,
as created the nurturing atmosphere for a production like the Autocrat of the Breakfast Table
, is not materially injured by the dance: for however much the literary magicians may patronize
the exercise as a matter of aesthetics, or approve it as a matter of morals, they can hardly be
imagined very sedulous devotees of it as a matter of practice: but assuredly, had M. Bautain
spoken from the point of view of average American society, he would have been nearer the truth
in representing conversation, as a diffused and popular accomplishment, to be in danger of
extinction from the usurping dominion of the dance.
IV. I have now, in immediate sequence to the foregoing, to investigate the influence of the
dance on the Intellectual Improvement of Society. 4
Our American life is, from the virtual compulsion of circumstances, so much absorbed in attention
to material interests that as a people we have little time, at the best, to devote to the interior
culture of ourselves. Literature and art, books, pictures, and the other various objects
of elegant taste, these truly rational topics of interest to enlightened minds, have the very
narrowest chance, even with earnest intentions on our part, to produce their elevating and
chastening effect upon our lives. Is it not shame to us that the golden hours, all too few, in
which we might exchange with each other the thoughts inspired by themes like these, to our mutual
profiting, should be recklessly squandered upon a laborious bodily exercise, in which monkeys
might be trained to display greater agility than we, and bears a statelier gravity?
What a confession for our young men and young women to make that they find it impossible to get
an evening's company to go off well without the dance! How much mental vacuity-what aching
and echoing cranial room for knowledge-does such a confession imply!
Oh, young men! Oh, young women! American brothers and sisters, say,-would it not be better
if you should create and sustain courses of lectures for some of your winter evenings-if you
should patronize the circulating libraries, or even the book-stores-if you should subscribe
to some of the literary periodicals (but you will have to wait now until you become a public fit
to support them, before you can find many very good at home)-if you should organize reading-clubs,
and amateur art associations-in short, if you should spend a share at least of the time and of
the money that you can command, in acquiring such resources of mind, that you would not be obliged
to whirl each other off into a dance when you assemble for an evening together, lest forsooth
you should not be able to think of anything to say, to relieve the awkardness of silence? I am
met with, "Better to dance than to talk and slander your neighbors?" True, but so perhaps it
is better to steal than to commit murder. But those who refrain from stealing are not therefore
obliged to commit murder. And those who refrain from dancing are not obliged to dander their
neighbors. There is conversation which neither abuses the absent, nor yet injures the participants
in it. But the art of such conversation is indeed far gone towards being lost to a generation
that will frisk, like Donatello, and fly into the dance, to dodge a fair and friendly encounter
of mind with mind.
I am aware that it may be replied: "What we want is amusement. The mental activity you are recommending
is not recreation." A sound philosophy of recreation would require, that those portions of
our complex organism which are wearied should be permitted to rest, while, on the other hand,
those which have been left comparatively unemployed should at the same time be brought into
play. Now how many of our young people in ordinary society, exert their minds so strenuously,
that their health demands a period of mental repose? By all means let such relax the excessive
strain. But assuredly those who find it out of the question to make an evening's entertainment
pass off respectably without introducing the dance to take the place of conversation, will
not claim to be of the number. No; the people who compose society are rather, if they but knew
it, fairly tired to death with everlasting amusement. It is their business to seek pleasure,
and no merchant pushes his traffic harder. It would be positive recreation to these devotees
of society, if they would set themselves at some work that should bring their languishing minds
into action. And then the clerks, for example, who are on their feet all day, in a confined atmosphere-is
it not too severe a jocularity to call it recreation, for these leg-weary mortals to dance most
of the night, as if their hope of usefulness depended upon their assiduity in it? Is it not dear
that what such young men need for diversion, is something to employ their minds, on matters
aside from business, while their tired muscular system refreshes itself with rest? Due mental
exercise is perhaps as essential to health as is exercise of the body.
But I have said enough on these minor topics of my discussion. The chief topic still remains
to be discussed. I have expressed myself with severity; but my readers will surely suffer me
to be a little out of humor with a usurpation, which tyrannizes to such disastrous purpose,
over so fair a realm of human life.
V. I come finally to the consideration of the dance in its moral aspects. I use the word "moral,"
without designing to distinguish it from "religious." I am of the number of those who believe
that morality, rightly conceived of, is the same thing as religion, rightly conceived of.
If the dance then is consistent with pure morality, it is also consistent with true religion.
If it is a proper amusement for the world, it is equally a proper amusement for the church. If
it is morally suitable for the irreligious young man who hears a sermon, to dance, it is likewise
morally suitable for the minister who preaches the sermon, to dance at his side. The question
remains now to be considered, Is the dance justifiable on moral grounds?
When the dance is accused, as I have accused it, of being injurious to the health, of breeding
extravagance in expenditure, of hindering social enjoyment and profit, and of dissipating
the opportunities of intellectual improvement, the rejoinder is commonly made that at least
it is in itself an innocent, if not a useful way of spending the evening hours. "Besides it is
delightful," say enthusiastic young ladies. "We take no note of time, when we dance, and are
conscious of no fatigue. The music moves us almost without our effort. It is actually easier
to dance, when the fiddle is going, than it is to keep still." Well, if this be so, useless as it
seems in a utilitarian point of view, and fatal to self-culture, still, if it be so indescribably
delightful, and at the same time not positively injurious to good morals , why I, for my part,
say, By all means dance and have a fine time. Pity-pity, to be sure, that you have not wholesome
earnestness enough, in some worthy direction, to make the frivolity distasteful; but if you
have not, then there is probably nothing better for you, than to resemble those natives on the
coast of Africa, of whom it is related that they begged their musical European visitor to cease
fiddling, lest they perforce danced themselves to death. But is the dance morally unobjectionable?
I have, it is true, in part forstalled my reply. For it would be strictly legitimate to enlarge
on the vicious tendencies always engendered by such extravagant expenditure as the dance
encourages, and almost requires, upon the sordid ambition it inspires to outshine one's social
peers, and the low pride begotten by success among those victorious in this barbaric rivalry,
with the consequent chagrin, and heart-burning, and secret jealousy, that follow in the breasts
of the disappointed, upon its deplorable effect in bounding the personal aspiration to exterior
elegance in looks, and dress, and manners-it would be legitimate, I say, in settling the moral
propriety of the usage in question, to dwell on these things, and I might use unstinted freedom
of language respecting them. But serious as they are, they by no means constitute the gravamen
of the indictment which I bring against the dance as enemy to public morality. There are graver
moral considerations still, involved in the subject, to which I desire my readers to give their
thoughtful attention. These considerations, however, are such, that though they move my
feeling to the highest pitch of moral indignation, I nevertheless must pick my expressions
with the utmost care, lest I offend the decorum which the chaste spirit of Christian refinement
has taught us to observe and to demand in speech. There is an infinite slough of pollution, but
scantily crusted over, under your feet now, whichever way you turn.
Incedis per ignes Suppositos cineri doloso.
Alas, that the fatal faux pas , which lets the adventurer down, is so much more frequently taken
in the actual experience of life, than in terms of allusion by speech!
The dance, then, to say it at once, and plainly, is an immoral amusement, immoral I mean in itself.
Of course I am not now traversing the statement with which I set out, that dancing in itself is
perfectly innocent. This I assert again. But I must remind my readers that dancing in itself
is not under discussion. I am dealing with a very different affair indeed-a concrete thing,
a substance with accidents , say rather a substance whose essence consists in its accidents-a
social institution, well-determined in form, and hitherto as persistent as force-or as sin-I
am dealing with THE DANCE. Now dancing does certainly occur in the dance-but so does breathing;
and one comes just as near constituting the dance as the other.
I shall seem paradoxical to many, and I will explain. In a single word, dancing is one thing and
the dance is another. The dance is dancing under certain conditions well understood. The dance,
by reason of these constant conditions, is an amusement immoral in itself. Dancing is an exercise
which may be perfectly harmless. I should have no objection in the world to a dance in which the
only participants were children too young to be conscious of sex, and necessarily incapable
of any pleasure in it, except that of associated and rhythmical motion. Boys and girls might
knit hands and beat the ground together in it to their hearts' content, just as they might romp
together in field or wood. (As a point of hygiene, and of aesthetic even, I should generally
insist that it be the ground they beat, and not a floor, much less a carpeted floor.) I should
have no objection to a dance in which the participants were exclusively males, of whatever
age, or to one in which the participants were exclusively females, of whatever age. I should
have no objection to a dance in which the participation was confined to the brothers and sisters
of one household, and the parents and grandparents, for that matter, if they liked, might join
in it with the utmost propriety. This style of "parlor dancing" I would cheerfully permit if
I were the Solon of society. But I should be Draconian enough to exclude neighbors' children,
intimate friends and cousins of every degree-as long at least as human nature continues such
that these marry and are given in marriage with each other. These might, to be sure, be present
and witness the Terpsichorean performances of the family; but I am afraid that the mere spectacle
of such domestic felicity would be voted a rather tame entertainment. In fact, such is human
depravity, I have my misgivings that the older brothers and sisters of the household wound
almost as lief go back to their Sunday-school as to engage in so entirely innocent a diversion.
Upon condition that the prevailing moral tone of society were such as to keep the dance strictly
within these limits, I would enter into bonds to be the very last to wag a tongue against it. I
seriously suspect, however, that this "peculiar institution" of society, so circumscribed,
would follow a late notable example and refuse to survive its indignation at the insult.
It would be the extreme of narrowness not to admit, as I cheerfully do, that the limits thus laid
down for the perfectly safe circumscription of the dance, might be enlarged a little now and
then without serious risk. I have seen companies assembled much more promiscuous in their
composition than those described above, in which I veritably think, nevertheless, that the
evil likely to arise from a brief indulgence in the dance wound be quite infinitesimal in amount.
But this admission, made in the utmost good faith, really concedes nothing of any practical
value. The trouble is, that beyond these limits a vigilant discrimination of persons proper
to be included would be necessary. This discrimination would be extremely difficult often
in thought, and it would be infinitely delicate in fact. Besides, there is nobody to make the
discrimination. It would involve on many occasions the exercise of a very invidious censorship
over the moral character of your neighbors and acquaintances-a censorship so invidious that
it would never be undertaken. Suppose, for instance, your family, enlivened by the casual
dropping in of the neighbor next door on one side, an unexceptionable man, happened to be chasing
the glowing hours of an evening with flying feet. The "parlor dancing," often so stoutly contended
for, is usually described as springing up spontaneously in some such unceremonious way. So
far I acknowledge the harm is purely theoretical-probably. But while this is in progress,
the neighbor next door on the other side calls too, in no wise conscious of the music and dancing,
but led simply by a spirit in his feet. Everybody knows that next-door neighbors are always
the best of neighbors, but, unhappily, not always the most irreproachable of men. This second
caller is not beyond reproach. But that does not prevent his being fond of the dance, and being,
moreover, a very graceful dancer. What is to be done? Shall the dance stop? But if it does not,
where is your principle of discrimination? It is an impossible discrimination, or so difficult
that if faithfully applied, the dance would soon die a natural death. It would not seem worth
the trouble of keeping it alive. I desire, however, to make it distinctly understood, that
to such hypothetical cases of dancing as have thus been described, the severe language which
will follow, both in the text and in the notes, is not intended to apply.
But at this point some one, beginning reluctantly to feel the truth of my remarks, demurs, "What
new asceticism have we here? The principle you imply would separate the sexes equally, in every
other species of social intercourse. If mutual consciousness of sex is the circumstance which
makes it immoral for men and women to dance with each other, then how is it not also immoral for
them ever to talk with each other, since this troublesome consciousness is likely at any moment
to intervene between them? Is it not rather the rational, and preeminently the Christian,
philosophy of the relation of man and woman that they should recognize and enjoy the exquisite
sense of difference, put from the beginning between them to create the possibility of that
transcendent affection whose
dearest bond is this, Not like to like, but like in difference.
Is not this the common sense of the subject?
I certainly think that it is. And it is precisely because I would guard this most delicate bloom
of all human delight from the gross and common handling which soils its purity, that I use the
language I do. Can we forget that it is the best use which is liable to the worst abuse? Do we not
know that the relation of the sexes, which was to have overflowed the world as a fountain of Paradise,
has been perverted into the prolific cause of more crime and misery than any other single thing
that can be named? And shall I not cry shame upon a usage that, under cover of respectability,
regularly titillates and tantalizes an animal appetite as insatiable as hunger, more cruel
My accusation is that the dance, instead of affording an opportunity for mutually ennobling
companionship between man and woman, inspired with a chaste and sweet interfused remembrance
of their contrasted relationship to each other-that the dance, instead of this, consists
substantially of a system of means contrived with more than human ingenuity to excite the instincts
of sex to action, however subtle and disguised at the moment, in its sequel the most bestial
and degrading. I charge that here, and not elsewhere, in the anatomy of that elusive fascination
which belongs so peculiarly to the dance, the scalpel is laid upon the quivering secret of life.
Passion-passion transformed if you please never so much, subsisting in no matter how many
finely contrasted degrees of sensuality-passion, and nothing else is the true basis of the
popularity of the dance.
I shrink almost uncontrollably from this statement, now that I have made it; and many times
since I first assumed so bold a position I have been tempted to recede from it, overborne by the
arguments, and still more by the sweet personal magnetism of friends of my own sex whose fortunate
individual exemption from infirmity disqualifies them from allowing that my views are other
than Puritanic, or at least morally "dyspeptic." It is not pleasant to be a voice crying in the
wilderness. Still less is it pleasant to be sent to Nineveh on an errand of Jonah. I am so far influenced
as to admit that there must be numerous instances of exception to the general rule. But the general
rule, and not the exceptions, should determine our line of conduct. It is a case so peculiar
that the exceptions cannot safely be admitted even to exercise an influence in determining
our line of conduct. On the other hand, too, I think it right to say that since the first publication
of my views, I have received volunteer testimony from so many quarters, and from quarters representing
such diametric diversity of moral and social character 5 and position, corroborative of them
from experience , that I find it impossible to qualify them now by a single degree. One man in
particular, my acquaintance with whom, commenced in the earliest boyhood, and uninterrupted
since, permits an unreserve of expression between us such as is seldom incident to laterformed
acquaintanceship, has emphatically confessed to me his wonder that a person who never danced
himself should have been able so plainly and fully to tell the truth about dancing. And no man
knows what the whole of the truth about it is better than he. Nor let it be supposed that I commit
so vulgar an error as that of attaching undue weight to the testimony of one likely to have projected
his own moral character upon the innocent companionship of his guilty pleasure. If it were
proper to do so, even in this anonymous way, I could cite an equally striking corroborative
expression, conveyed to me through an unquestionable medium, from one whom I never met, but
who, at every point , save common experience in dancing, is in the most antipodal contrast to
the witness just mentioned. I am forced to conclude that the devotees of the dance differ among
themselves, not so much in the influence received from participation in it as in their intelligent
consciousness of that influence.
It is no accident that the dance is what it is. It mingles the sexes in such closeness of personal
approach and contact as, outside of the dance, is nowhere tolerated in respectable society.
It does this under a complexity of circumstances that conspire to heighten the impropriety
of it. It is evening and the hour is late, there is the delicious and unconscious intoxication
of music and motion in the blood, there is the strange, confusing sense of being individually
unobserved among so many, while yet the natural "noble shame," which guards the purity of man
and woman alone together, is absent-such is the occasion, and still, hour after hour, the dance
whirls its giddy kaleidoscope around, bringing hearts so near that they almost beat against
each other, mixing the warm, mutual breaths, darting the fine personal electricity across
between the meeting fingers, flushing the face and lighting the eyes with a quick language,
subject often to gross interpretations on the part of the vile-hearted-why, this fashionable
institution seems to me to have been invented in an unfriendly quarter, usually conceived
of as situated under us, to give our human passions leave to disport themselves, unreproved
by conscience, by reason, or by shame, almost at their will. I will not trust myself to speak
of this further. My indignation waxes hotter than can well be controlled. I even seem to myself
to have contracted some soil from having merely described truthfully what thousands of fellow-Christians,
ignorant of themselves, practice without swallowing a qualm! *
I say that the dance is not fortuitously such. It is such essentially. Its real nature is shown
by what it constantly tends to become, in new figures, introduced stealthily, from time to
time, (under silent protest from many who suffer their modesty to be overborne by the fear of
being charged with prudery) a little more doubtful than the old, and in wanton whirls, like
the waltz and the polka. Always the dance inclines to multiply opportunities of physical proximity
and contact between the sexes, always to make them more prolonged and more daring. In fine,
the dance adds that last ingredient of perfect bliss, whose absence the witty Frenchwoman
bethought herself, in the midst of some innocent enjoyment, to mourn-with a pathos more pathetic
than they dream who see nothing but a whimsical humor in the saying-" Mon Dieu ! how delightful
this is! It would be quite perfect, if there were only a little sin in it."
But if what has already been said and suggested fails to convince any that my analysis of the
pleasure of the dance is true, I have a little problem to propose for their solution: Why is it
that the dance alone, of all the favorite diversions of gay society, requires the association
of the two sexes in it? The problem is not solved by the ready reply, "Why, the pleasure of social
intercourse is always heightened when both sexes participate in it. We enjoy an evening of
cards the better for this piquant commingling!" But you have missed the point of the problem.
The question is not, Why do you enjoy the dance more when men and women execute it together? but,
Why must men and women execute it together in order that they should enjoy it at all ? No doubt
a game of cards may be much more bewitching, while not an iota more hurtful, for the meeting of
the sexes at the table. But then cheaply figured parallelograms of paste-board have charms
for their devotees of either sex, which enable them to dispense with the society of the other.
Men, young and old, often sit the night out in bachelor conviviality around a card-table. Young
ladies, and sometimes their mammas with them, I believe, will interminably shuffle and deal
far on into the hours affectionately called "small" by those who know how to make them seem so
with revel-all quite without the company of gentlemen. But come to the dance-and what a difference!
Where do young ladies keep up their practice of calisthenics after leaving boarding-school?
What bachelor club exists anywhere that devotes an evening to the dance among its members?
Pensive and imaginative young ladies might possibly, here and there, of a lonesome evening,
seek to revive a diluted illusion of past pleasure, by a few strictly maiden measures executed
with soon exhausted enthusiasm, but men with men-hardly!-unless perhaps in broad farce to
point a whimsical contrast. With reference to such a style of dancing at least, the pagan sarcasm
of Cicero is likely long to retain a Christian application- Nemo fere saltat sobrius, nisi
forte insanit .
The characteristic thus established as belonging to the dance, in distinction from every
other form of popular amusement, is full of instructive implication to those who are accustomed
to inquire for the causes of things. Of course I know how indignantly the accusation of impurity
in their enjoyment of the dance will be repelled by the great majority of its votaries. And I
am very ready to admit the indignation as entirely honest; for I have no doubt that the element
of unchastity in it, rarely absent in some more or less refined quality of influence, I most
certainly believe, is yet generally unrecognized by the subject. If only unconsciousness
of evil influence were a trustworthy prophylactic against it! Once again, and for all, I protest
with the utmost sincerity that I am far from confounding the devotees of the dance in an indiscriminate
accusation of conscious impurity. I know too many pure-hearted women among dancers, whom
no fortunate son, or brother, or husband, could possibly charge with one doubtful thought,
for even an instant of the most oblivious excitement, not to be myself indignant in purging
my intention of any such cruel injustice. And in the opposite sex, too, however much more exposed
by nature to temptation, there are some dancers no doubt who come very near to escaping the conscious
contagion of evil by virtue of an instinctive chastity in them, God's gift to a few. But, right
on the heels of so wide a disclaimer, I must re-assert my conviction that unconsciousness does
not defend even the purest minds from something of the insinuating sensual tendency of this
inherently voluptuous amusement.
And then consider, ye Christian fathers, and brothers, and husbands, to what horrible hazards
of contact the opportunities of the dance expose your daughters, and sisters, and wives. For
who, that has gained any experience of the world, is ignorant of the fact that hardly once does
a considerable party assemble; even in the most respectable society, without including some
man whom his associates know to be a libertine at heart, if not in life? To think of pure women
pastured on, with palms of pollution, and with imminent eyes of adultery, by such a bull of Bashan,
the evening long, in the promiscuous corral of the dance! What better facilities could be imagined
for an accomplished voluptuary to compass the capture of his prey! * Faugh! In the ordinary
occasions of society, a lady may let her sacred intuitions have some play to guard her against
the access of impurity in the uniform of a gentleman. But it is the boast of the dance that it is
a democrat and a leveller, permitting no individual caprice to break the circuit of universal
equality. You may shudder to your heart's core at the contact that is coming-but the dance leaves
you no election-you must take it when it comes. Blush, blush henceforth ye Christian women,
when you are invited to submit your persons to the uses of a diversion that may at any time choose
to bring you finger-tip to finger-tip with those whose touch is pollution, or, it may be, encircle
you in their arms! A burning blush of speechless shame were the best reply to the insult of such
an invitation. But I plead against an advocate more eloquent than any individual's words.
Oh, Fashion! Fashion! What power hast thou to browbeat holy nature, so that she dares not speak
to assert her sacred claims against thy imperious sway!
I abruptly dispatch this hateful subject without completing the discussion of it. If my readers
have winced at the exceptional plainness of speech which I have used, I beg them to believe that
it has cost me sincere pangs of resolution to use it. But I have written under duress of conscience
that did not suffer me to shrink. The engineering skill of the devil has defended the dance with
a masterly dilemma that leaves open barely two alternatives of attack about equally ineligible.
You may either exhaust your strength in demonstrating the minor and incidental evils of the
usage, in which case you win an easy, but also a barren victory; or you must freely encounter
the peril of damaging your own fair fame for purity, and deliver your blow full at its inherent
and essential immorality. The author has deliberately chosen the latter alternative. He
can trust the honest heat of indignation that has warmed his words to take away the offence of
their extreme fidelity. As for the risk of being charged with bringing the impurity that he
finds-he contentedly accepts it. It is a charge that two classes of persons certainly will
not prefer. These two classess are, first, these who know him, and secondly, those who know