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DANCE: A VERY SOCIAL HISTORY by Carol McD. Wallace, et al. (Rizzoli International/The Metropolitan Museum of Art: $25; 128 pp., illustrated)

June 14, 1987|Anne Hollander | Hollander is the author of "Seeing Through Clothes" (Viking). and

A swift overview of social dancing is offered by the four essays that make up this book, a set of quick turns around the floor to four different kinds of music while bright images flicker past the sweeping gaze. The fact that this volume was published to coincide with a costume exhibition called "Dance" currently on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, explains its deliberately entertaining flavor and eye-catching format, as if it were a short documentary film frozen in book form to accompany the casual viewer through the show. It is by no means a catalogue, only an additional collection of the same sort of easy-to-take historical material offered by the exhibit itself--some lively facts pointed up by dazzling visual display, uninterrupted by anything tedious or awkward, complex or deep. A good time is meant to be had by all.

After a long, three-part trumpet fanfare--a foreword, a preface, and an introduction, all by different sponsoring spirits--this short quadrille of a book leads off briskly with an amusingly written account of ballroom antics since the days of Louis XIV by Carol McD. Wallace, co-author of "The Preppy Handbook" and "The Debutante's Guide to Life." It is not exactly history, as Wallace's previous works might indicate, but a bouquet of historical anecdotes presented with journalistic flourish in such a modern tone that all the old revelry is brought to life as if the author had been there.

The note seems the right one to strike for the subject. The essay touches on the vast sums spent on balls both private and public, the extreme kinds of display they often required and the atmosphere of hilarity, hysteria and anxiety that has always surrounded great social occasions where the sexes mingle freely in some kind of ritual circumstance. A big dance has always brought matters of dress and behavior into acute sexual focus no less at the prom than at Versailles; and Wallace peppers her tale with lively views of royal flirtation, sexual social climbing, and the transformation of awkward girls into marriageable beauties, all through the special alchemy of ballroom erotics.

The succeeding essays in this volume fall far short of the first one in charm, but they qualify better as actual history, especially the one by Don McDonagh on the evolution of social dancing itself. Here we may learn of the fundamental virtue attached to the dance by Renaissance rulers seeking to regulate behavior and enforce a courtly standard of social self-awareness in their followers. Court dancing, like fencing much later, was perceived as an important discipline, a way of defining oneself as subject to a formal physical rule that expressed one's capacity for all other kinds of skill and self-control--a civilizing agent. Sexual behavior in particular was tested, tempered and refined in the dance, as men and women approached, touched and parted from each other with strictly regulated phrasing. Sexual encounters in such a framework might thus stand for all the other kinds of critical and risky confrontations in life, all to be met with equal grace and measured aplomb.

Meanwhile peasant dancing developed its own regional patterns for expressing sexual exuberance and ritual excitement; and one of the constants in the history of social dancing is the taming and assimilation of wild lower-class dances for use in polite society. The waltz, for example, had been a country dance from Germany and Austria called the landler, a closed-couple turning dance that shocked and captivated the polite world just the way the tango did much later, and as the daring dances culled from harsh milieus have continued to do ever since. New and crude-seeming dances tend to drive out the decorous measures of the previous generation, becoming quaint and tacky in their turn as society discovers new ways to shock itself on the dance floor. The figured dances of the past nevertheless survive in modern country-dancing and also in the professional ballet, where society can no longer follow and must forever be an envious wallflower.

Jean Druesedow's essay on dress for dancing takes the subject no further back than the late 18th Century, perhaps because her chapter has the most need to match the garments in the exhibition. She concentrates on the great fantasy-confections of the later Romanticism, the sparkling ball dresses of the last two centuries that were created expressly to transform women into diversely brilliant and mobile apparitions, while men all wore the same thing and effaced themselves in austere black and white. Although this dress code for the sexes was invented in the early days of the Romantic movement, it remains in force to this day, still an apparently satisfying reflection of modern romantic ideals. The man in his muted tail coat, a natural poet and dreamer, seems to conjure the lady out of his own longings--and behold, here comes the vision, floating down the stairs!

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