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Some Notes on the Danse Macabre

However slow the dance, a certain vitality is required of the dancer. Anyone with technique-based training has the musculature of a professional athlete, and must be in robust health in order to perform. An aura of spontaneity surrounds the cultural attitude toward dancing: social dances take place at celebratory functions, and people who call themselves “fun-loving” will say that they like to dance, too. Stepping in time to a rhythm is generally thought to be a life-affirming gesture, and a hop-skip counts as an unequivocal statement of joy.

Procession of the Dance of Death, by Wenceslaus von Pracha c. 1650. Wikimedia Commons.

Following this line of logic, it might sound strange to point out the unspoken but persistent connection between dance and death. I first noticed this after watching the old story ballets as a child. In La Bayadère, Nikiya is bitten by a snake and chooses not to take the antidote; Odette drowns herself on purpose in Swan Lake; Giselle goes mad and dances herself to death; Aurora’s spell as the sleeping beauty ends, but it could have easily lasted forever. The list goes on. The beauty of the dancing made me determined to devote myself to the art form, but I began preparing myself for what seemed to be an unavoidable side effect of my resolution. The morbid fate of all ballerinas naturally led me to believe that I too would die, and soon; 18 seemed to be about the right age. With a hyperactive and very serious imagination, I started picturing what my life would be like as a ghost. I wasn’t particularly afraid of the transition into spectral existence—I even looked forward to the possibility of better, higher jumps—it just seemed to be what happened after dancing for any sizable amount of time.

In both the artistic practice of and cultural discourse surrounding dance, death looms large. Scholar Peggy Phelan tells us in her seminal work Mourning Sex: “it may well be that […] performance respond[s] to a psychic need to rehearse for loss, and especially for death.”1 And critic Herbert Blau writes that the “theater stinks of mortality,” the performer dying in front of our very eyes.2 This figurative language is a shade melodramatic, but it’s true that of all artistic mediums, dance is the most ephemeral. Writing, painting, sculpture, and film all leave themselves behind, whereas with dance we’re lucky to find grainy videos on YouTube. The above quotes apply to the dramatic arts as well as dance, but plays can always be preserved in their literary form. When dancers leave the stage, their performance doesn’t live on in the form of any referent besides that of memory. The absence of a viable record elicits questions of the eventual disappearance—the eminent end.

During the medieval period, dancing served as an allegory for death itself in the danse macabre, or totentanz. By the 15th century, poets John Lefebvre and François Villon were making casual enough reference to the idea that it appears to have been something of a cliché. Numerous paintings and woodcuts depict Death as an unclothed skeleton, breaking into a sadistically cheerful jig as he leads a group of people to the universal grave. Young or old, rich or poor, man or woman; he wasn’t picky when it came to choosing a partner, and one could be certain that he would outlast them all. This “dance of death” interwove all levels of society, linking them together in devastating irony.

 The origins of the idea are unclear, but dance has a long history of serving as death’s messenger. In Ancient Greek theater, it was forbidden to show a death onstage (though this would later change in Roman times, when actors playing the victim were frequently stabbed or burned alive for real).3 It became the chorus’s responsibility, then, to communicate the death to the audience. It was also the chorus that performed short and simple dances during the plays, their repetitive footsteps reinforcing the inevitability of the dark fate they told. We get the word “chorus” from the Greek choreuo, which translates into something like, “I am dancing.”4 Even as the Greek idea of fate came to be replaced by an individualistic principle of free will, dancing continued to represent a loss of the autonomous and rational self. The act represented a heightened state of being, but one that could be counted as a sickness unto death. In the fairy tales of Northern Europe, the dance frequently destroys its dancer, and in the Spanish duende, a type of creative ecstasy reputedly surges up through the soles of the feet.5

Dance was formalized under the proscenium arch during the Romantic age of the early 19th century, the time when the cultural milieu was satiated with the concept of the sublime and the overflowing soul. In the midst of all this seriousness, it was death and love that loomed large on the stage; the French, with their la mort and l’amour, had a hard time telling the two apart. Part of this has to do with the fact that these actions can be related in physical gesture, and make for more interesting dramatic material than, say, taking a bath or folding laundry. Even in the love-death binary, there are more theatrical possibilities with the latter; Colette lamented the fact that there are fewer ways to make love than there are to die onstage.6

As I watch the story ballets more seriously as an adult, I am struck not so much by the frequency of the death narrative but rather by the fact that it is so heavily gendered. Always it is a woman who meets her end. Her death is highly aestheticized; in most cases the ballerina will continue pointing her toes post theatrical mortum, and the final pose highlights the vulnerability of her physique. The way this serves as the focal point of attention for the viewer is deeply unsettling. No matter how respectable or sleepy the audience, everyone seems to inch forward during Giselle’s dance of death, as if waiting to catch the moment when her body goes limp. The fetishizing of the female corpse is not unknown in other art forms; of this tradition Sylvia Plath wrote that, “The woman is perfected. / Her dead / Body wears the smile of accomplishment.”7 When the woman has been dancing, the difference between the animate and inanimate body is illustrated all the more vividly. We see her losing consciousness, the process elevated as if it were something glamorous.

The 20th century was embarrassed by both the emotions and the veiled misogyny of the 19th. Vaslav Nijinsky in Le Sacre du Printemps (1913) and Kurt Jooss in The Green Table (1932) made death ugly with weighted, awkward gestures that prevented transcendent readings of the physical act. Martha Graham sought revenge for all dead heroines by allowing them to speak from the underworld, refusing to let the audience fawn over a dead woman’s body onstage. Over the past half-century, and in large part due to Merce Cunningham, contemporary work has sought to undo both the structural and narrative unity of the form. It’s never clear what the dance “means,” but it’s certainly not about the way people live their lives with semi-coherent identities—and without this construct it’s difficult to dramatize the body’s convulsions as it goes cold. Bill T. Jones’s controversial Still/Here (1994) features video interviews of individuals diagnosed with terminal illnesses. Recently at the Danspace project, Tere O’Connor showed his work BLEED, in which there is no narrative, no formal order; a death is intimated only by a white, coffin-shaped rectangle of light on the floor, in which a dancer occasionally lies as the others go still.

Dance can’t tell us anything about what lies beyond the veil, and in this sense using it as an allegory for death strikes me as fundamentally inaccurate. If there is an allegory to be had, it would have to be about life itself, the other temporal medium without a referent besides that of memory. A lifespan is a unit of attention. In order to make sense of the mess of the world, the gaze would have to be directed outside of the self, and the physical reality common to us all seems like a good place to start. This might be important to remember in an age when journalism has become more about commentary than observation, and nonfiction pieces tend to obscure the subject matter with the abuse of the first person. I use and like social media, but it’s fair to say that it can impoverish life by turning all of it into a performance, a device which propagates self-referential images in a mise en abîme. Meanwhile the increasing availability of the Internet’s archival structures gives us a false sense of permanence. Yet what goes on outside won’t wait for us to lift our heads from whichever digital platform we happen to be playing on.

There are as many kinds of dance as there are dancers, and generalizing about the way to look at it would be a mistake. What I can say is that I’m more generous with my attention when a performance has finished, even after I step out of the theater onto the street. The way people breathe and sweat, the crisscross of shadows, the negative as well as the positive space; all is thrown into relief. Dance teaches us how to register the blur of people in motion, the smoke coming from a flame. Bodies appear erratic and chaotic, but if you look carefully enough there’s a dance happening within that wilderness of rhythms.

At a certain time of night, everyone assumes the supine position that will eventually claim us as its own. In the meantime, we sleep. We each dream private dreams, but while tossing and turning, chests rising and falling in slowed breath. We move in what could be called one great big nocturnal dance—and somewhere out there, a naked skeleton keeps time with the tap-tap of his toes.


  1. New York: Routledge (1997), p. 3.
  2. “Universals of Performance, or Amortizing Play.” By Means of Performance: Intercultural Studies of Theatre and Ritual. Ed. Richard Schechner and Willa Appel. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (1990). p. 250-272.
  3. Taylor, David. The Greek and Roman Stage. London: Bristol Classical Press (1999), p. 2
  4. Kitto, H.D.F. “The Greek Chorus.” Educational Theatre Journal, no. 1, v. 8, (1956), p. 1
  5. García Lorca, Frederico. “Theory and Play of the Duende.” Trans. by A.S. Kline (2007).
  6. Gritzner, Karoline. Eroticism and Death in Theatre and Performance. Hertfordshire: University of Hertfordshire Press (2010), p. 77.
  7. Collected Poems of Sylvia Plath. New York: HarperCollins (1992).
  8. Procession of the Dance of Death, by Wenceslaus von Pracha c. 1650. Wikimedia Commons.
  9. Silas Riener. On screen: Riener (left) and Adrian Danchig-Waring. Photo: Ian Douglas.


Madison Mainwaring

MADISON MAINWARING is completing her PhD in French at Yale. She has contributed to The Believer, The Economist, and Harper’s Magazine, among other publications.


The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2015

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