Five people holding hands and dancing in a circle. Dance (La Danse) is a 1910 painting by Matisse. The bodies are painted red, they dance on a mound of green, the backdrop behind them (sky?) is blue, and they are naked. The colours are vibrant – two primary colours, one secondary – and the simple, primitive style of the painting makes the figures leap from the canvas with muscular bounce. To my eye, only one is of them elegant – the male figure, far left, with his back to us, arm raised so his body is stretched finger to toe like a bow. But the others I do not see as elegant, yet they are forceful, lively, enjoying themselves – more than that, they are lost in the dance, mesmerised and mesmerising. None of them have both feet on the ground. One appears airborne, she’s being pulled through the air by the movement of the others. Rhythm pulses from the painting; I can hear a drum beating when I look at it. It was a commissioned piece, requested by a Russian businessman and art collector, Sergei Shchukin, who bequeathed it to the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg. In a preliminary study, Matisse painted the dancers pink – the pink version hangs in MoMA, New York, but I want, someday, to see the final red one. I want to see their fieriness dance from the wall. When commissioned, the dancers were to be dressed and Matisse’s choice to depict them in the nude was conversional, a scandal even. Parton and painter did, however, reach an agreement that the dancers could be depicted naked but that no genitalia would be explicitly illustrated. It didn’t satisfy everyone though, as some early viewers accused Matisse of having a mental illness. How could one paint that and not be mad?
We’ve moved on from such censorious judgement though, haven’t we? We’re much more open minded these days. We encourage people to express themselves, we pin inspirational quotes to our work desk, print them on a tee-shirt, have them on a bookmark. Here’s one you see all the time: “Dance like nobody’s watching, love like you’ve never been hurt, sing like no one is listening, and live like it’s heaven on earth.” How nice. Sits alongside the “Be kind” mantra, both of which we try to practice, unless a middle-aged politician wants to hit the disco in the wee small hours of the morning, and suddenly, he is not allowed to dance like nobody is watching, because he is being filmed, posted on social media, shared a gazillion times, and kindness is dead in a ditch as its fair game to mock and deride him because he (alcohol or no alcohol, does it matter?) has discarded his inhibitions and decided not to care what he looks like because he really wants to dance.
I was with my sister at the weekend (and this was before the Gove-groove-gate), when she decided she and I should emulate Kate Bush singing and dancing ‘Wuthering Heights’. It was a workout, both vocally and physically, but one we were up for. Her kids weren’t. They were appalled. Said we were hurting their ears and offending their eyes. I think it was the dancing that frightened them most. “Out on the wily, windy moors we’d roll and fall in green. You had a temper like my jealousy, too hot, too greedy.” We got Kate up on screen, the original video, and followed her every move: kneel, rise, outstretch arms, roll hands, extend fingers, then pull your arms down and drop them from the elbows like a puppet. Big wide eyes, arms stretched ahead, fingers wiggling like seaweed in a rockpool with the tide rushing in, and (here it comes) lasso arm around your head, roll hips, spin like a dervish, then rise up on one leg while high kicking the other (try not to fall), and belt it out: “It’s me, I’m Cathy, I’ve come home, I’m so cold…” We were not just Kate Bush, we were Matisse’s dancers (with clothes on), we were Gove at 2am in an Aberdeen nightclub, we were my two-year-old nephew dancing to Lady Gaga’s ‘Stupid Love’ (his favourite – the line ‘Freak Out, look at me’, becomes ‘Freego, look at me’), we were freego-ing, we were loving it, we were dancing.
One of my all-time favourite poems, Danse Russe, by William Carlos Williams, is about a man dancing naked in his own home while the rest of the household sleep. He’s in suburbia but I think he wants to head to the bright lights of New York. He is trying to be wild within the constraints of his choices. His dance is an act of defiance – maybe he is unhappy about the limitations that life (or his life choice) has put on him, but he is going to channel it into this dance. But is he? Life is full of doubt and full of ifs: What if someone sees me? What if someone laughs? And William Carols Williams is not immune to the insecurity of ifs. I really hope he did dance in that lonely household of his.
Let people dance. Don’t laugh, just let them dance.