Vanity Fair, October 1919
Keeping Up With Terpsichore
The Trouble With Taking Dancing Seriously
By P. G. WODEHOUSE
PRETTY soon the Society of Amalgamated Professors of the Dance or whatever they call themselves are due to meet again and take the joy out of my life. These are the people—I may not have got their name right—who come together periodically and decide which is to be the fashionable dance for the next few months or years or whatever it may be. How they exercise their influence, I do not know, but I am given to understand that they are primarily responsible for the changes in public taste. The blighters little know how they have soured my existence: and something seems to tell me that, if they did know, they wouldn’t care. I cannot see why these persons are permitted to go about the place causing trouble.
No other walk of life is afflicted by a gang of thugs who are perpetually altering the rules of the game. When you learn to golf, the professional tells you in a perfectly frank and straightforward way that all you have to remember is to use the interlocking grip, and the open stance—or, if you prefer it, the old-fashioned grip and the square stance—and bring the club up slowly and keep the head steady and roll the fore-arms and bend the left knee and raise the left heel and be careful not to let the heel move outwards and keep your eye on the ball and let the club-head lead and follow through and not sway back and not look up after hitting the ball until you have counted two and a few more things like that: and, when you have so developed yourself as to be able to remember all these things simultaneously you are all right: your troubles are over: and there is nothing more to worry about.
But how would you feel if your mentor, after instilling the above knowledge into you, were to add: “Of course, you understand that this is merely intended to see you through till about this time next year. After that the Supreme Grand Council of Consolidated Divot-Shifters will scrap these methods as old-fashioned and invent an entirely new set.”
The Rubber Ball Glide
WHEN I was about five, I attended my first dancing-school. The old bean is a bit shaky on some of the incidents of those days when I was trailing clouds of glory, as Bartlett neatly puts it in his well-known passage, but I do remember that dancing-school. At great trouble and expense I was taught to throw up a rubber ball in my left hand and catch it with my right, keeping the small of the back rigid and generally behaving in a graceful and attractive manner. It doesn’t sound like a dance, I admit, but I will swear they taught it to me at a dancing-school, so it must have been. Now, the point I am making is this. I learned that dance. I hate to seem to be throwing bouquets at myself, but on the level, I became darned good at it. I don’t suppose I missed the rubber ball once in twenty goes. But what good does it do me now? Long before I got a chance of exhibiting my accomplishment in public the Society of Amalgamated Professors of the Dance decided that the Rubber-Ball Glide, or whatever they called it, was out of date. This sort of thing handicaps a chap. I am perfectly prepared at any moment to step out on the floor of the most fashionable ballroom and heave a rubber ball about, but it simply isn’t being done nowadays. People wouldn’t understand what you were driving at. It would be like ringing in an unexpected saraband or fandango on them. In other words, all the time and trouble that I spent in the mastering of the Rubber-Ball Shimmy is a dead loss.
LATER in life, I learned to waltz. That is putting it a little loosely, perhaps. What I mean to say is, that, after weeks of labor, I eventually contrived to reach a stage as a waltzer where the girl smiles in a sickly sort of way after you have revolved once or twice and suggests sitting the rest of this one out. Still, I was a waltzer in the technical sense of the word. I knew the steps and was prepared to fight it out on those lines, so to speak. What happened? Before I knew where I was, the waltz was a back number, and I was expected to learn a weird thing they called the Hesitation, or back to the bench for Pelham. The only other alternative was the one-step.
I managed to evolve something that was practically a one-step. At least, it fell under no other classification, so, by a process of elimination, one arrived at the conclusion that it must have been a one-step. And then the fox-trot came in. I am learning it, but with a sinking heart, because I know quite well that the Amalgamated Brothers are simply waiting till I have become reasonably proficient at it to start something else.
Dancing, says the Encyclopædia, corresponds to a universal primitive instinct in man, and is practised by the South Sea Islanders, the Forest Indians of Brazil, the Zulus, the negroes of Central Africa, and the native Australians, exactly as it was in the earlier stages of every civilized modern race. It dates back to the early Egyptians, who ascribed the invention of it to the god Thoth. The Phrygian Corybantes danced in honor of Cybele, and every time the festival of Rhea Silvia came around the ancient Roman hoofers were there with their hair in a braid. In other words, there never was a time when some well-meaning man like myself, with ambition at one end of him and two left feet at the other, was not getting it in the neck. In this very article, I am probably plagiarizing the exact words of some early Egyptian. I can see him in my mind’s eye, taking his chisel and chipping out in well-chosen phrases on the rock in the back-garden exactly what he thought of the fellows who told him he would have to learn the Rameses Wriggle just after he had spent a year and a half learning the Thoth Lame Duck.
If one could escape dancing altogether, it would be all right. In the old days, when I was slim and active, dancing came into one’s life in only two ways. Either you received a card of invitation to some formal ball—in which case it was the work of a moment for our hero to reply that he was sorry, but an unfortunate previous engagement prevented him accepting—, or else, after dinner at some week-end visit, somebody began to shove back the furniture and somebody else sat down at the piano and dancing suddenly broke out. In the latter event, it was always possible to sneak out and smoke a pipe in the garden or at the worst to go to bed. But, now that dancing during meals has come in, it is almost impossible to side-step. One is faced with the necessity of dancing somehow, and, when your partner wants to fox-trot while you want to throw a rubber-ball from one hand to the other, perfect harmony is impossible.
THE Puritan ancestors, to quote from the Encyclopædia once more, “saw deadly sin in promiscuous dancing. Father Mariana tells us that the famous saraband worked more mischief than the plague.” Across the ages I exchange a silent handshake with Father Mariana. I know just how he felt. I’ll bet that Father Mariana had worked like a dog at twenty-five pesasas the complete course of twelve lessons guaranteed to teach the fandango, and, just when his instructor had finally told him that he was fit to do it at the next hop, along came the Amalgamated Brothers with their new-fangled saraband, where you hopped twice instead of sliding once, and slid to the left instead of hopping to the right. We cannot blame the reverend Father for his roast. The only wonder is that he did not express himself even more forcibly.
Editor’s notes: The Encyclopædia referred to must be Daniel Frohman’s article on “Dancing” in the Encyclopedia Americana (1903 edition), which is extensively quoted here.
In chapter 4, section ii of Summer Lightning (1929), Hugo Carmody quotes a great deal of this essay, in many places verbatim, to Sue Brown at Mario’s restaurant.