Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Dancing with Story

While sorting through some old boxes of writing, I found an English term paper I wrote in the ninth grade comparing how the characters interacted in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice to different types of dances, like the waltz (Elizabeth and Darcy), the cha cha (Elizabeth and Mr. Collins), the hustle (Elizabeth and Mr. Wickham), etc.

I remember how many times I rewrote the paper until I felt I'd made the comparisons and meanings crystal clear. You had to with that teacher. But despite my efforts, I got a B minus for not having correctly set margins, for (again) misspelling occasionally four times, and for presenting an original idea. Yep. Under the grade, my English teacher wrote "Dance theory has no references or footnotes" (that's because it was my theory. Oh, the shame.)

You can imagine how gratifying it's been for me to see how film makers use dance scenes in the recent movie versions of P&P to illustrate things other than dancing.

The dance theory evidently influenced me as a writer as well. About thirty years later a song I was listening to in the car from the River Dance soundtrack, Reel Around the Sun, started up my story machine. The sound of the dancers' tap shoes made me think of swords, and I reimagined the river dancers as lines of warriors fencing with each other. That inspired what would eventually become my novel Blade Dancer.

Dances are great metaphors to use in stories for things unrelated to dancing. For years Hollywood has shamelessly used the tango in scenes to illustrate sexual tension, clashes of will, outright seduction, etc. (in fact they used it twice in True Lies.) Movies like The Turning Point, Footloose, Flash Dance, Dirty Dancing, You Got Served use dance not only as the storyline but as metaphors to illustrate the characters' emotions, issues and personal choices.

I don't have dances in every story I write, but they do show up fairly regularly. Alex and Phillipe have an interesting dance scene in If Angels Burn that was a metaphor for a pivotal point in their friendship. Dancing helped me (finally) get Jayr and Byrne to quit tiptoeing around each other in Evermore. Most recently, I wrote a dance scene in the beginning of Stay the Night, using dance both as action and metaphor, to help throw together two stubborn characters. Visualizing these two dance helped me nail the flow and pacing I wanted in the scene, too.

This is not to say you always have to have your protag grab the nearest gal and swing her around the floor in every story, but if it's an appropriate time and place, you might give it a go and see how it works for you.

Now, today's assignment for the writers out there: look at a scene in your WIP and imagine the interaction between the two central characters as a dance. How are they dancing, slow or fast, together or apart? Is it hip hop or ballet, the macarena or the foxtrot (or, what dance would be a good metaphor for the action in your scene? How about the emotion?) If you'd like to share your answers, post them in comments.


  1. Well, this is not about writing, but this past Christmas, I joined my church's chior. In one piece it reminded me of bells swinging to and fro and I wrote that down in the music to remember to ring to and fro at that point. Later on the director stated that this song could be a good invigorating waltz. So I added waltzing bells. We did have a problem that wasn't noticed until after the performance, but just about every one in the chior was moving slightly side to side with the music! It was the only song that anyone "danced" to!

  2. You are making great observations about dancing and all I am thinking is "what a dumb teacher". I had a teacher who deducted half a grade because I didn't have a typewriter and had to write my paper in black ink. However, my junior year of high school I had an English teacher that would have swooned to have a student like you write that paper.

  3. Snicker, snicker. Since I've just posted a story where the villain is atop a cliff and the protag halfway up, I'd have to say...

    Ballet followed by break dancing!

  4. Heh. Mine are dancing like The Jets in West Side Story.

  5. The Hokey-Pokey.
    No. Really.
    First they jump in, then out, then back in again...

  6. Anonymous6:20 AM

    What an awesome idea!

    I'm even a dancer - that's how I met my boyfriend.

    In the WIP, I'll work on the dance to contrast my MC's relationship with two women, the one he thinks he wants to marry and the one he does. The first, he'll lead and control the dance and be thoroughly bored. The second, he'll have to dance "with" her, and have a much more intersting time.

    Thanks, this'll be fun.

  7. Anonymous9:09 AM

    Slow. Very Slow. But not touching. Kind of circling around each other, not sure if they want to take another step. Well, SHE isn't sure. He has to get closer.

  8. I have two couples in the conception stage of my writing. As raine said, one couple does the Hokey-Pokey. And the other couple is more like a fan dance for an exotic dancer; she dances, he watches, and they see each other, but are still at a distance.

  9. This is a great idea.
    At first, I thought my main characters would never be caught dead dancing... and then, I realized, the whole book is them in a tango. Close, violent, needy, the ability for new partners to cut in... yep. Good metaphor.

  10. The book I'm writing (almost finished!) right now begins with my h/h finding common ground on the dance floor, then the metaphor is used later. But they also both love baseball, and that is woven into the narrative. I try hard to use a very gentle touch with those recurring motifs, as one step over the line can make it all crash and burn.

    One of my favorite things to both read and write is the elegance of the circle - how something used in one context in the early part of the book can circle around to the end of the book, but have a different context altogether. That always gives me a little thrill.

  11. You are in very good company with likening stories to a dance. I remembered something I read by Ursula Le Guin and looked it up -

    "And there's the story like dancing, where the next movement keeps growing out of the last movement, but not in a straightforward way, its direction isn't merely onwards but involves circles and feints and repetitions and all kinds of strange gestures..."

    I loved how she described that! It stuck in my head for a long time.

  12. Heh, my protagonist falls in love while dancing!

  13. If I'm thinking of the correct dance, my H/H are doing the rumba--sometimes up close and personal, other times distant and dirty.

  14. Wow, no wonder you have such negative memories of high school English class. Talk about a self-righteous smothering of creativity and an original argument.

    I've actually been thinking recently about dance and storytelling. I don't watch much reality TV but "So You Think You Can Dance" is one of my favourite shows simply because of the fact that it showcases the talent of so many different and talented dancers paired with choreographers who are given pretty free reign over their creativity. I love when they diverge from the traditional partnered pairing of man and woman and do group dances or same gender dances.

    Some of the dances tell a really interesting story with real character personas and I think it would be really cool to see this kind of physical interaction paired with a story more often. It began in theatre but why not in books, TV or movies more often? You could have interesting dance numbers (my favourite is contemporary dance) helping to illustrate the relationship or current feelings between two or more characters. I would love it. :D

  15. Anonymous6:20 PM

    Great post!

    Now, I have a protagonist who's a ballet dancer....;)

    I used to dance, too, and I've been contemplating going back to it (because my dance years were made of epic fail and I'd like another shot at it). It's an awesome way to look at a story and throws out lots of possibilities.

    I think if I were to pin down what dance my characters are doing, it would have to be the peso doble. I get chills when I see that dance performed on Dancing with the Stars, and it sums up the two main characters and their relationship perfectly.

    Thank you for the inspiration!

    Erin K.

  16. Anonymous1:49 AM

    My new WIP is an historical novel set in New Testament time (Jesus +60 years), so while the background music rings in my ears dancing is not clear to me.

    Interpretive folk-dance, maybe?


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.