"Every savage can dance": choreographing courtship. (Conference Papers)

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Date: Annual 2001
Publisher: Jane Austen Society of North America
Document Type: Article
Length: 8,828 words

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"There is nothing like dancing after all.--I consider it as one of the first refinements of polished societies."

"Certainly Sir;--and it has the advantage also of being in vogue amongst the less polished societies of the world.--Every savage can dance."

(Pride and Prejudice 25)

MR. FITZWILLIAM DARCY clearly intends to snub Sir William Lucas with this sarcastic comment on dancing at the Lucas Lodge ball in Pride and Prejudice. (1) He would disagree with his creator, Jane Austen, however, who liked to dance and excelled in the art. Her enjoyment of dancing is manifest in a letter from Steventon to her sister Cassandra about a ball held Christmas Eve, 1798: "There were twenty Dances & I danced them all, & without any fatigue. ... I had not thought myself equal to it, but in cold weather & with few couples I fancy I could just as well dance for a week together as for half an hour" (24.-26 December 1798). Austen's novels are also filled with dancing, as Joan Grigsby observes in her entry on "Dancing, Balls, and Assemblies" in The Jane Austen Companion: "Dancing, whether in assemblies, in private balls, or even for impromptu evening entertainment, sparkles through the pages of Jane Austen's six finished novels like candles on a Christmas tree" (118).

Ironically, Darcy speaks truer than he realizes, however, for dancing is an activity practised not only by "savages" but by the entire animal world, from the birds and the bees to human beings. In the animal kingdom, mating dances are the main means of courtship. Among insects, male midges perform aerial dances to attract females. Among birds, male hummingbirds enact aerial acrobatics, describing arabesques in the air during their courtship flights to attract females, and male paradise birds also lure females through vivid display dances. In The Sex Life of the Animals, biologist Herbert Wendt describes the "dance around the Maypole" performed by bower birds, who entice females to their bower by "whistling, loud calls, and spirited dance steps" (263). Charles Darwin explains his theory of "Natural Selection or the Survival of the Fittest" (93) in his revolutionary 1859 study, The Origin of Species: "The rockthrush of Guiana, birds of paradise, and some others, congregate; and [display] their gorgeous plumage; they likewise perform strange antics before the females, which standing by as spectators, at last choose the most attractive partner" (102).

Havelock Ellis, the cultural commentator best known for his famous, or infamous, Studies in the Psychology of Sex, propounds this theory in his 1914 essay on "The Philosophy of Dancing": "Dancing, said Lucian, is as old as love. Among insects and among birds, for instance, it may be said that dancing is often an essential part of courtship. ... This primitive love-dance of insects and birds reappears among savages [my emphasis] in various parts of the world, notably in Africa, and in a conventionalized and symbolized form it is still danced in civilization to-day [sic]" (541). (2)

Such accounts of primitive mating dances underlying human...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A89381601