On Maria Dancing
How gracefully Maria leads the dance!
She’s life itself. I never saw a foot
So nimble and so elegant; it speaks,
And the sweet whispering poetry it makes
Shames the musician.
—Robert Burns (1759–1796)
Shall we dance? In that moment when I take your hand and lead you onto the dance floor, we cross the threshold from the routine world to the realm of music, art, and song. We enter the realm of rhythm, elegance, glamour, and poetry.
In this poem, Robert Burns looks on in rapture as a woman “leads the dance.” Maria was once no doubt a real woman: now she appears before us as a living vision. She could be Terpsichore, Muse of music and dance, or the heavenly Venus herself.
This moment could be in the 18th century or now. Dances then included the cotillion and the minuet. With a hop, a skip, and a resounding clap of the hands, men and women flirted in highly formal yet teasing rituals of courtship.
Today, from popular TV shows like “Dancing with the Stars,” we are familiar with ballroom dances in all their verve and variety. Take the sensual rumba, the celestial waltz, or the cheeky cha-cha-cha. All set a formidable technical challenge that must be met with Maria’s lightness and ease. From discipline comes grace.
In Burns’s time, a woman was expected to wait until a man invited her to join the dance, so Maria strikes a bold and confident note as she steps out to lead—crossing the threshold from the social to the symbolic. She becomes “life itself.” Is this an exaggeration? People who lead the dance, from Fred Astaire to Lady Gaga are worshipped by millions as demi-gods, charged with a kind of divine charisma.
Burns has never seen a foot “so nimble and so elegant.” It is so expressive that “it speaks.” This may sound faintly comical, but we know how much is conveyed by body language. The foot “speaks” because the essence of life is movement.
Burns honors Maria’s “sweet whispering poetry,” which “shames the musician,” for the deepest truths are the quietist. We, in turn, can honor the “sweet whispering poetry” of Burns’s verse by whispering it to ourselves and committing it to memory. Passing into the ebb and flow of our everyday thoughts, the words help us to see the dazzling artistry of the dancer, whether on the street, in the club, or on the screen.
W.B. Yeats writes of the moment when we cannot know the dancer from the dance. In this poem, with a few deft strokes, Burns captures this fleeting, unforgettable sight—this achievement of absolute harmony. Repeat the words, relive the scene, and feel the rhythm from the crown of your head to the tips of your toes. So shall we dance?
Robert Burns (1759–1796) is regarded as the national poet of Scotland and is perhaps most famous for his poem “Auld Lang Syne,” often sung on New Year’s Eve.
Christopher Nield is a poet living in London.
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