Party Like It’s 1903: Virginia Woolf on the Ecstasy of Music and Dance
“Dance music … stirs some barbaric instinct — lulled asleep in our sober lives — you forget centuries of civilization in a second, & yield to that strange passion which sends you madly whirling round the room.”
By Maria Popova
“Oh, how wonderful! How like the mind it is!” Helen Keller exclaimed in her moving first experience of dance. “Even poetry, Sweet Patron Muse forgive me the words, is not what music is,” young Edna St. Vincent Millay wrote in a letter to a friend. “Twyla Tharp reconciles me to being a woman … Non-sexist dancing — strong women with their own energy, subjects not objects, playful with men — not afraid of them,” Susan Sontag mused in her diary.
From A Passionate Apprentice: The Early Journals, 1897–1909 (public library) — the same wonderfully rich volume that gave us young Virginia Woolf on imitation and the arts and the glory of the human mind — comes a glimpse of a lesser-known side of the seemingly reserved author: Her love of music and dance.
In an essayistic entry from 1903, titled “A Dance at Queen’s Gate” and reproduced here with her original spelling, 21-year-old Virginia writes:
About two hours ago, when I went to bed, I heard what I took to be signs of merry making in the mews. A violin squeaked, there was a noise of loud voices & laughter. It reminded me how once, as a child, I woke at dead of night: it seemed to me — 8 or 9 I suppose really & I heard strange & horrible music as of a midnight barrel organ, & was so frightened that I had to crawl to the cot next mine for sympathy. But I am too old for that kind of blind terror; my critical mind when awake enough to think at all about it, decided that the fiddle squeaking &c. was token of a ball — not in our street — but in Queens Gate — the tall row of houses that makes a background to the mews. The music grew so loud, so rhythmic — as the night drew on & the London roar lessened, that I threw up my window, leant out into the cool air, & saw the illuminations which told surely from what house the music came.
Now I have been listening for an hour. The music stops — I hear the chatter, the light laughter of womens voices — the deeper notes of festive males. I can almost see the couples wandering out from the ball rooms to the balconies which are starred with small lamps. They look straight across the mews to me. The music has begun again — oh dear — the swing & the lilt of that waltz makes me almost feel as though I could jump from my bed & dance to it too. That is the quality which dance music has — no other: it stirs some barbaric instinct — lulled asleep in our sober lives — you forget centuries of civilization in a second, & yield to that strange passion which sends you madly whirling round the room — oblivious of everything save that you must keep swaying with the music — in & out, round & round — in the eddies & swirls of the violins. It is as though some swift current of water swept you along with it. It is magic music. Here the bars run low, passionate, regretful, but always in the same pulse. We dance as though we knew the vanity of dancing. We dance to drown our sorrows — but dance, dance — If you stop you are lost. This one night we will be mad — dance lightly — raise our hearts as the beat strengthens, grows buoyant — careless, defiant. What matters anything so long as ones step is in time — so long as one’s whole body & mind are dancing too — what shall end it?
After a short contemplation of the fabric of the music, noting “the very height of the rhythm, some strange, solitary sound,” Woolf finds herself exhausted and consumed by the dense darkness of the night sky, then returns to the exhilaration of dance — but this time as a melancholy observer, painting an ominous, zombie-like picture of the dancing throng:
The music again! I begin to think someone has wound up this weary waltz & it will go on at intervals all thro‘ the night. Nobody is dancing in time to it now I am sure — or they dance as pale phantoms because so long as the music sounds they must dance — no help for them. Surely the music that seemed to ebb before, has gathered strength — it sounds louder & louder — it swings faster & faster — no one can stop dancing now. They are sucked in by the music. And how weary they look — pale men — fainting women — crumpled silks & trampled flowers. They are no longer masters of the dance — it has taken possession of them. And all joy & life has left it, & is diabolical, a twisting livid serpent, writhing in cold sweat & agony, & crushing the frail dancers in its contortions. What has brought about the change? It is the dawn.
Complement A Passionate Apprentice with the only surviving recording of Woolf’s voice and her timeless meditations on how to read a book, the language of film, the creative benefits of keeping a diary.
Published January 17, 2014