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The Incredible Story of Joyce & Dancing

We often hear that when such-and-such is cast for a character – think Daniel Radcliffe for Harry Potter – that person will define how we see that literary creation forever. Less frequently, we ponder what word webs form when we think of a particular author, and one would imagine that our image of these scribes is a subjective and personal one.

Take James Joyce, for instance.

For me, I always imagine his spectacles. And a hat. Next, in this subliminal carousel of images and influences, is Nora, walking, passionate letters and the European continent. So, imagine my surprise when dancing – dancing! – entered the mix.

Joyce & Dancing (The Secret Ingredient is Booze)

His heart danced upon her movements like a cork upon a tide. He heard what her eyes said to him from beneath their cowl and knew that in some dim past, whether in life or revery, he had heard their tale before.

James Joyce, Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man.

Despite my ignorance of the matter, there are a wealth of sources that attest to the sheer, unbridled joy the Dubliner took in moving his feet. He was an admirer of the technique and grace that hopped and skipped across the stage, but with his own body, he never took the art form seriously. In a haze of gargle, he struck silly poses and had a laugh.

Incidentally, an excellent resource for more information is this blog post, written by Peter Crisp.

Joyce & Dancing
Credit: Peter Crisp’s From Swerve of Shore to Bend of Bay

Frank Budgen a drinking buddy in the Swiss capital, writes with a flourish, offering a firsthand account of Joyce dancing:

On festive occasions and with a suitable stimulus, beribboned and wearing a straw picture hat (Autolycus turned pedant and keeping school, Malvolio snapping up unconsidered trifles) Joyce would execute a fantastic dance. It was not a terpsichorean effort of the statuesque Isadora Duncan variety, but a thing of whirling arms, high-kicking legs, grotesque capers and coy grimaces that suggested somehow the ritual antics of a comic religion.

Another source in Zurich describes how Joyce would interrupt a weekend walk or someone correctly guessing the title of his new novel and do a kind of ‘spider dance’, and the spectacle was given an edge of comedy by his angular features and tight clothing. His long legs also gave a surreal touch to the improvised dancing. At the British consulate, after one raucous party, Budgen performed a belly dance on a safe as Joyce recreated his spider dance. According to sources, neither knew how they got home after.

By the time he moved to Paris, he was satirizing his daughter’s dance teacher and had swapped an arachnid for a Greek satyr. In fact, it seems that a lot of his dances were inspired by statues and art from different centuries. His friend, the aforementioned Budgen, was a model for a statue in Zurich, and Joyce liked dancing in front of it.

The Last Dance

Joyce danced until the end of his life, and we even have a bittersweet account of how the great writer, seriously ill, still found time for his great joy:

Christmas dinner began sadly enough; Joyce scarcely ate anything, only drank white wine, bending before his glass as if overwhelmed….At the evening’s end he had a sudden explosion of gaiety, and began to dance on the narrow stairs to the tune of an old waltz. He approached Maria Jolas and said, ‘Come on, let’s dance a little.’ There was so little room, and his sight was so bad, that she hesitated. ‘Come on then,’ he said, putting his arm around her, ‘you know very well that it’s the last Christmas.’ After the dance he had to be quieted down to permit the guests to leave

Dancing in the Genes

We love dancing here on this blog, and we have covered in a number of posts. Check out this one, which is about the fascinating links between Ireland and Bollywood!

And a love for dance also ran through Joyce’s family, as explained in the Irish Times article.

Joyce & Dancing
Lucia Joyce

Joyce spoke to his daughter frequently, and also through letters, about dancing. He commented on the shows he had seen and the performers he admired.

Despite the tragic end to her life and, perhaps, being more famous for dating men like Samuel Beckett, she was a phenomenal dancer. Contemporary critics even suggested that James Joyce would be known as Lucia’s father, and that her talent would eventually eclipse even his. This was partially due to the fact the she had embraced a new-form of dance and an interest in Greek dancing. Like her father, she recreated the poses on Greek urns. When she finished second in a dancing competition in Paris, the crowd clamoured for her to be crowned the winner and shouted for The Irish one.

Unfortunately, she would spend most of her life in a mental asylum and, for unknown reasons, her nephew, in 1988, destroyed all of her writings.

Final Thoughts

Joyce’s The Dead is a pretty well-known piece. My first exposure to it was in the penultimate scene of an episode of Fr. Ted. Like all classic works, it has been imagined and re-imagined in surprising ways. A few years ago, it was even turned into a musical in Los Angeles, garnering a Tony Award for best musical of a book and it won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award, as well as the Lucille Lortel Award for best musical.

To quote the press release:

Throughout the play the audience learns just how important music and dance are to the members of the 19th century Irish family. For them, song is used as symbolism of patriotism, a message of love, a call for passion and a way to show thanks and gratitude. The dead are literally woken through their music.

Joyce once described a body as a harp in one of his books, and a litany of his quotes reveal his penchant for using musical metaphors. All of his words roll of the tongue or off the page lyrically, and though it was a surprise at first to learn of this great writer passion for dance, now it makes sense. Joyce lived with an freedom and abandon that writers like Jack Kerouac can only aspire to but never supersede.

And remember…

You can go on our virtual tour of a historic neighbourhood in Madrid. Listen to our podcast for more cultural pieces, and head to our online shop for some literary-inspired fashion.

Thank you for reading!

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