Thursday 17 March 2011

Dancing - essential to a well-ordered society?


 From Orchesographie by Thoinot Arbeau, 1589.


Capriol: I much enjoyed fencing and tennis, and this placed me upon friendly terms with young men. But, without knowledge of dancing, I could not please the damsels, upon whom, it seems to me, the entire reputation of an eligible young man depends.

Arbeau: You are quite right, as naturally the male and female seek one another and nothing does more to stimulate a man to acts of courtesy, honor, and generosity than love.

And if you desire to marry you must realize that a mistress is won by the good temper and grace displayed while dancing, because ladies to do not like to be present at fencing or tennis, lest a splintered sword or a blow from a tennis ball cause them injury....

And there is more to it than this, for dancing is practiced to reveal whether lovers are in good health and sound of limb, after which they are permitted to kiss their mistresses in order that they may touch and savor one another thus to ascertain if they are shapely or emit an unpleasant odor as of bad meat.

Therefore, from this standpoint, quite apart from the many other advantages to be derived from dancing, it becomes an essential to a well-ordered society....


I have been aware of this marvelous quotation since I encountered the 1974 folk-rock album The Compleat Dancing Master compiled by Ashley Hutchings and John Kirkpatrick.

I thought then and I think now that M. Arbeau was correct in asserting that proper dancing in couples among young men and women (for example, in a ceilidh) is indeed the basis of a "well ordered society". 

The fact that it is nowadays so uncommon and of such peripheral importance is evidence only that we don't live in a well-ordered society...



Anonymous said...

"Dancing - essential to a well-ordered society?"

No, only to our formerly relatively well-ordered society. The Western / European tradition of dance is unique. Its breakdown is a part of the destruction of that culture, not of cultures in general.

If young people are marrying for love, you need dances. Our literature is full of them.

That reflects the uniquely Western focus on companionate, monogamous marriage, to the exclusion of polygamy and officially legitimate harems.

If you're arranging the marriages, you don't need to dance. (Or you dance but in other contexts, like the haka.) So dances are less important, and they haven't left the same cultural traces elsewhere.

- Daybreaker

Bruce Charlton said...

@Daybreaker. Well said - correction accepted!

The Crow said...

An interesting view.
Since potential lovers may not generally wrestle each other, dancing seems a good way to expose each others' bodily coordination and capability.
Nature is full of such rituals of movement and rhythm. Even silverfish do it.
Nature is generally well-ordered.
At least until humans intervene and decree indiscriminate equality.