Shaking the shanks

Music may be the most irritating of arts, but dancing when it is poor is certainly the most disgusting

Champagne does wonders for my dancing prowess.

Sylvia Plath | Letter to her mother, 8 Oct 1951 | Letters Home: Correspondence

In your last, dear Ellen, you ask my opinion respecting the amusement of dancing, and whether I thought it objectionable when indulged in for an hour or two in parties of boys and girls. I should hesitate to express a difference of opinion from Mr. Allbut, or from your excellent sister, but really the matter seems to me to stand thus: It is allowed on all hands that the sin of dancing consists not in the mere action of shaking the shanks (as the Scotch say), but in the consequences that usually attend it—namely, frivolity and waste of time; when it is used only, as in the case you state, for the exercise and amusement of an hour among people (who surely may without any breach of God's commandments be allowed a little light-heartedness), these consequences cannot follow. Ergo (according to my manner of arguing), the amusement is at such times perfectly innocent. Having nothing more to say, I will conclude with the expression of my sincere and earnest attachment for, Ellen, your own dear self.

Charlotte Brontë | Letter to Ellen Nussey, 10 Nov 1834 | The Brontës Life and Letters

Most dance, except Merce’s1, horrifies me! Music may be the most irritating of arts, but dancing when it is poor is certainly the most disgusting.

John Cage | Letter to Klaus Schöning, 27 May 1980 | The Selected Letters of John Cage

P.S. The last time I saw you, you were certainly one of the nicest people I had ever seen. Now I hear that you are learning to dance. That makes you just about perfect.

Kurt Vonnegut | Letter to his daughter, Nanette, 30 Sep 1965 | Kurt Vonnegut: Letters

Most ballets celebrate something or another. The most fascinating part to me is that each ballet creates a total world of its own with a morality and behavior particular only to it. Good choreographers convince the audience of this world and its behavior and its relationships immediately. The audience feels safe and secure that what they are seeing on stage is fact and they can believe in it. Poor choreographers fumble, twist, are embarrassed or struggle bombastically to convince you. Hardly ever do you see a Balanchine ballet or a Graham ballet without knowing that a master hand has been behind this and that one feels absolutely secure and can believe what is happening on stage.

Jerome Robbins | Letter to Bernard Perlin, Feb 1961 | Jerome Robbins, by Himself

Meantime, to make you howl with laughter, I take discotheque dancing lessons, with Mary Hall, grey-haired Mum of Fred Tompkins, from an 18 year old lassie named Pam. It is funnier than you would credit and I must say it has jogging beat, as exercise. You should see your old Mum solemnly learning steps entitled Funky Broadway, Tighten Up, Pearl, Boogaloo, Shingaling, Stomp. I specially admire that basic gesture, the heart of the matter, which most closely resembles a male dog in the act of procreation. Anything anything to make life here a little less dismal.

Martha Gellhorn | Letter to Sandy Gellhorn, 19 Nov 1968 | Selected Letters of Martha Gellhorn

And man, we gave a party with another couple, got hold of some cheap but excellent French-style champagne to start them on before serving the martinis then I put on Basie and Joe Williams and the whole building took off! People who had never danced before were trying to move and I was yelling never mind your feet, just bounce and let the rhythm tell you what to do! And some were doing it too. We went out to eat and they kept dancing in the restaurant to a guitar played by a Neapolitan character who must have gotten rich off of our party, then we came back and danced to Duke until everybody started falling down.

Ralph Ellison | Letter to Albert Murray, 4 Apr 1957 | The Selected Letters of Ralph Ellison

I am sick of bourgeoisie, commercial art. It is sad that I have never been able to give my work to the people for whom it was created. Instead I have been forced to sell my art for five dollars a seat. I want to dance for the masses, for the working people who need my art and have never had the money to come and see me. And I want to dance for them for nothing, knowing that they have not been brought to me by clever publicity, but because they really want to have what I can give them.

Isadora Duncan | Letter to Antaole Lunatcharsky, Spring 1921 | The Real Isadora

Did you ever pass the windows of a room in which there was dancing, and watch the figures when you could not hear the music? Try it sometimes, and if the graceful movements of the dance do not become positively ludicrous, then I am no judge.

William Cowper Prime | Letter, 16 Aug 1847 | The Owl Creek Letters

I went to Two Dances last week but I think Providence inscrutably decreed some other destiny for me. Adrian and I waltzed (to a Polka!), and Adrian says he can't conceive how anyone can be idiotic enough to find amusement in dancing, and I see how they do it but feel all the pretty young Ladies far removed into another sphere—which is so pathetic and I would give all my profound Greek to dance really well, and so would Adrian give anything he had.

Virginia Woolf | Letter to Violet Dickinson, 27 Dec 1902 | Virginia Woolf: The Complete Collection


Dancer and choreographer Merce Cunningham, who was Cage’s partner.